The Labor Movement’s Resurgence during the Great Depression

(Written in September 2017)

The Labor movement’s explosive growth in the 1930s was a direct result of the National Industrial Recovery Act’s Section 7a putting protections in place for organized labor, but this growth would not have occurred at the same magnitude if the working class had not been largely homogenous at the time. Workers were able to organize in large numbers during the Great Depression because many of the divisions inside of the working class had disintegrated by this point. The high unemployment rate led workers to value their jobs more than ever; they sought to improve their quality of life through demanding better treatment from employers and they slowly won this fight, one battle at a time.

The government’s endorsement and protection of unions was the catalyst for the explosion of the then-stagnant Labor movement. FDR’s New Deal aimed to stimulate the economy through promoting industrial growth and creating safety nets for citizens that were ravaged financially by the Great Depression. One part of this plan was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933, which enacted a system of business self-regulation coordinated by the National Recovery Administration (NRA); the NRA “used government power to regulate the market, raise prices, and increase wages” (Rosenzweig p. 425). Section 7a of the NIRA proved incredibly important to the Labor movement as it granted employees “the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing … free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers” (Rosenzweig p. 427). Though this section is fairly vague and opened itself up to numerous interpretations, it legally guaranteed workers some form of representation; this is a far cry from the previously horrid treatment of unionized workers by both the government and employers. Prior to the NIRA, the labor movement had ground to a halt as workers were discouraged from organizing due to the extremely high unemployment rate. Section 7a had vast implications beyond the mere words it contained; it transformed people’s perception of unions from “un-American” rabble-rousers to patriots (Rosenzweig p. 429). Labor organizers recognized the psychological effect that the NIRA could have on workers and put a great amount of effort into recruitment even before the act was actually passed. The United Mining Workers (UMW) threw all of its resources into recruiting new members and succeeded; “the day after Roosevelt signed the NIRA, 80 percent of Ohio miners had signed union cards” (Rosenzweig p. 430). The UMW succeeded in recruiting so many workers before the Act was even signed because the existence of Section 7a itself was enough to mobilize workers; the real-world application of it was also important, but NIRA’s initial power lied more in its psychological effect. The revitalization of the working-class could be seen especially in the San Francisco longshoremen strike in May 1934. Over the course of two months, the longshoremen not only gained the national support of dockworkers, sailors, and waterfront truckers, but even led a general strike throughout the entire Bay Area; the employers soon acquiesced and “gave the longshoremen most of what they wanted” (Rosenzweig p. 431-432). There was, however, another factor that dissolved the divisions amidst the working class.

The homogenization of the working class played a key role in the success of the Labor movement in the 1930s. In the early twentieth century, “American workers probably were more heterogenous […] than at any other time in the nation’s history” (Barrett p. 37). Women entered the workforce in great numbers, as did new immigrants from Europe and black people who largely migrated from the south. This essentially divided much of the American working class into two categories. Existing immigrants had already gone through many years of acclimatization to the American lifestyle and were strongly rooted to their homes and jobs. The new wave of immigrants, however, was defined by a lack of adjustment to American society and a sense of non-permanence that threatened their acceptance by the first group in the workplace (Barrett p. 38). The new black workers shared some of the same qualities as the new immigrants but were further shunned due to the prevalence of racism in this era. The workers from the initial wave often held an elitist attitude as they saw themselves as more important members of society. This attitude was further reinforced by the division of jobs, with recent immigrants and black workers settling “into the common labor ranks, while the shrinking group of older immigrants clung to the more skilled jobs” (Barrett p. 41). Segregated not only socially but also in the workplace, organizing as a collective was nearly impossible for the workers of this time. Employers used racial tension to their advantage, as could be seen in the meat-packing industry. There, black workers were placated with community programs while also being discouraged from involving themselves with unions. The unions were then largely dominated by white workers, so the bosses in this industry went as far as organizing groups of militant anti-union black workers to lead attacks on unions (Barrett p. 48). By the 1930s, these issues had all but disappeared. The working class became predominantly American-born since immigration “had been slowed for nearly two decades” and the existing immigrants grew accustomed to the American lifestyle and raised families here (Rosenzweig p. 431). The rise of the assembly line and mass production “reduced the tensions that had long existed between skilled craftsmen and less skilled workers” as there arose a need for semiskilled machine operators (Rosenzweig p. 431). This overall homogenization and fusion of jobs provided a much more convenient and safe environment for workers to organize. Interestingly, the dire financial crisis that ensued with the Great Depression fostered an ideal scenario for the Labor movement.

Though the high unemployment rates during the Depression initially discouraged workers from organizing for fear of losing their precious jobs, the NIRA’s Section 7a motivated the workers fight for better treatment as they realized that their only choice for the future was to improve the conditions of their job. The extreme difficulty that anyone would face in finding a job “made workers more reluctant than they had been in the past to simply quit their jobs when they were dissatisfied with conditions. Instead, they saw the solution […] in improving the [job] they had” (Rosenzweig p. 431). The reduction of employee turnover led to a more highly motivated Labor movement than had ever been seen before; the same employees could strike for long periods of time with few of them giving up. These workers decided to improve their jobs through joining unions in unprecedented numbers and organizing strikes with more success than had ever been seen before in the labor movement. The combined determination and unification of the working class proved to bolster the most powerful and widespread action yet taken against American companies.

Though the government granting protections to union activity in the NIRA’s Section 7a was the spark that caused the tremendous upswing experienced by the Labor movement, this growth was only possible because of the unification of the working class. The cultural and professional divisions that had been built up in the workforce in the previous decades had dissolved, creating an environment suitable for the unification of workers. The heightened value placed on jobs during the employment crisis of the Great Depression led workers to rally for better workplace conditions rather than changing jobs. These factors allowed the labor movement’s struggle to blossom into a full-fledged war on the plutocracy behind all of America’s biggest industries.

Works Cited

Barrett, J. R. (2001). Unity and fragmentation: class, race, and ethnicity on Chicago’s South Side 1900-1922.

Rosenzweig, Roy et al. (2008). Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History, Volume Two: 1877 to the Present. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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