The most striking development of the mid-1930s was the mobilization of millions of workers in mass-production industries that had successfully resisted unionization. “Labor’s great upheaval,” as this era of unprecedented militancy was called, came as a great surprise. Unlike in the past, however, the federal government now seemed to be on the side of labor, a commitment embodied in the National Industrial Recovery Act and in the Wagner Act (discussed later) of 1935, which granted workers the legal right to form unions. With the severe reduction of European immigration, ethnic differences among workers had diminished in importance. American-born children of the new immigrants now dominated the industrial labor force, and organizers no longer had to distribute materials in numerous languages as the IWW had done. And a cadre of militant labor leaders, many of them socialists and communists with long experience in organization, had survived the repression of the 1920s. They provided leadership to the labor upsurge.

American factories at the outset of the New Deal were miniature dictatorships in which unions were rare, workers could be beaten by supervisors and fired at will, and management determined the length of the workday and speed of the assembly line. In industrial communities scattered across the country, local government firmly supported the companies. “Jesus Christ couldn’t speak in Duquesne for the union,” declared the mayor of that Pennsylvania steel town. Workers’ demands during the 1930s went beyond better wages. They included an end to employers’ arbitrary power in the workplace, and basic civil liberties for workers, including the right to picket, distribute literature, and meet to discuss their grievances. All these goals required union recognition.

Roosevelt’s election as president did much to rekindle hope among those who called themselves, in the words of a worker writing to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, “slaves of the depression.” His inauguration unleashed a flood of poignant letters to the federal government describing what a Louisiana sugar laborer called the “terrible and inhuman condition” of many workers. Labor organizers spread the message that the “political liberty for which our forefathers fought” had been “made meaningless by economic inequality” and “industrial despotism.” ‘We are free Americans,” declared the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. “We shall exercise our inalienable rights to organize into a great industrial union.”

Pennsylvania Steelworkers outside the Local Headquarters of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, a 1938 photograph by Arnold Rothstein.

Signs carried by striking cotton mill workers in Lumberton, North Carolina, in 1937 illustrate how the labor movement revived the nineteenth-century language of “wage slavery” to demand union recognition.

Labor’s great upheaval exploded in 1934, a year that witnessed no fewer than 2,000 strikes. Many produced violent confrontations between workers and the local police. In Toledo, Ohio, 10,000 striking auto workers surrounded the Electric Auto-Lite factory, where managers had brought strikebreakers to take their jobs, leading to a seven-hour fight with police and the National Guard. In Minneapolis, where an organization of businessmen known as the Citizens Alliance controlled the city government, a four-month strike by truck drivers led to pitched battles in the streets and the governor declaring martial law. San Francisco experienced the country’s first general strike since 1919. It began with a walkout of dockworkers led by the fiery communist Harry Bridges. Workers demanded recognition of the International Longshoremen’s Association and an end to the hated “shape up” system in which they had to gather en masse each day to wait for work assignments. The year 1934 also witnessed a strike of 400,000 textile workers in states from New England to the Deep South, demanding recognition of the United Textile Workers. Many of these walkouts, including those in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, won at least some of the workers’ demands. But the textile strike failed.

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