Erik Gellman and Margaret Rung
From the late 1920s through the 1930s, countries on every inhabited continent suffered through a dramatic and wrenching economic contraction termed the Great Depression, an economic collapse that has come to represent the nadir of modern economic history. With national unemployment reaching well into double digits for over a decade, productivity levels falling by half, prices severely depressed, and millions of Americans without adequate food, shelter or clothing, the United States experienced some of the Great Depression’s severest consequences. The crisis left deep physical, psychological, political, social, and cultural impressions on the national landscape. It encouraged political reform and reaction, renewed labor activism, spurred migration, unleashed grass-roots movements, inspired cultural experimentation, and challenged family structures and gender roles.
Joshua L. Rosenbloom
The United States economy underwent major transformations between American independence and the Civil War through rapid population growth, the development of manufacturing, the onset of modern economic growth, increasing urbanization, the rapid spread of settlement into the trans-Appalachian west, and the rise of European immigration. These decades were also characterized by an increasing sectional conflict between free and slave states that culminated in 1861 in Southern secession from the Union and a bloody and destructive Civil War. Labor markets were central to each of these developments, directing the reallocation of labor between sectors and regions, channeling a growing population into productive employment, and shaping the growing North–South division within the country. Put differently, labor markets influenced the pace and character of economic development in the antebellum United States. On the one hand, the responsiveness of labor markets to economic shocks helped promote economic growth; on the other, imperfections in labor market responses to these shocks significantly affected the character and development of the national economy.
Working women and their issues played a central role in the women’s movement in the decades following World War II. Feminists lobbied, litigated, and engaged in direct action for workplace fairness. Working women, especially those in unions, joined feminist organizations and established their own organizations as well. There were fault lines within the women’s movement over the issues, strategies, and level of commitment to the causes of working women. In the first two decades after 1945, the unionists and liberal reformers who constituted the so-called Women’s Bureau Coalition (named after the U.S. Women’s Bureau) opposed the mostly affluent and conservative members of the National Woman’s Party for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporting instead protective laws and policies that treated women differently from men in the workplace. With the arrival of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, “labor feminists” clashed with the middle-class professional women at the helm of newly formed feminist organizations. As support for gender equality transformed employment practices, some labor feminists sought to retain (or extend to men) selected protective measures introduced in the early 20th century to shield women workers from the worst aspects of wage labor. In the face of harsh economic conditions in the 1970s, labor feminists again opposed other feminists for their efforts to modify the union practice of “last hired, first fired” as a way of retaining affirmative-action hiring gains.
In recent decades feminists have focused on equity measures such as comparable worth and pregnancy leave as means of addressing the unique challenges women face. In addition they have expanded their concern to lesbian and transgender workers, and, increasingly, to the needs of immigrant workers who make up an increasingly percentage of the working population.
America’s tremendous diversities of faith, region, and ethnicity complicate efforts to generalize relationships between religious groups and the labor movement. Americans’ historic and widely shared commitment to Christianity masks deep divisions: between white Christians and black Christians, between Catholics and Protestants, between northern Protestants and southern Protestants, and between “modernist” Protestants (who view the Bible in metaphorical terms as a source of ethical guidance and emphasize social justice) and “fundamentalist” Protestants (who view the Bible literally and eschew social activism in favor of individual evangelizing). Work, class, and the role of the labor movement add extra dimensions to these complexities, which are multiplied when considering non-Christian traditions such as Judaism or the other world religious communities that have grown in the United States since the immigration reforms of 1965.
Nevertheless, scholars accept a general narrative that delineates key periods, themes, and players over the course of the twentieth century. From the turn of the 19th century until the 1930s, the relationship between religion and labor was shaped by the centrality of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the labor movement, the development of a “social gospel” among northern mainline Protestants, and the massive immigration from southern and eastern Europe that brought millions of Catholic and Jewish workers into the United States before it largely ended in the 1920s. These developments were sometimes in tension. The AFL favored craft unionism and placed a premium on organizing skilled male workers; it therefore left out many of the unskilled new arrivals (as well as African Americans and most women). Consequently, the shape of “religion and labor” formed primarily around the dynamic between the AFL and Protestant social reformers, without much regard to the large masses of unorganized Catholic, Jewish, and African American workers.
These dynamics shifted in the Great Depression. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), begun as a committee within the AFL in 1934, sought the organization of entire industries—skilled and unskilled alike, and ethnic Catholics and Jews became unionized in large numbers. Even traditional racial barriers in the labor movement began crumbling in some industries. And, the labor movement expanded its geographical ambition, pushing aggressively into the South. In turn, the religious voices associated with the labor movement broadened and deepened. Labor’s new alliances with Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and southern evangelicals helped to push the ranks of organized workers to historic highs in the 1950s.
This coalition has faced divisive, even disastrous headwinds since the 1960s. The strength of anticommunism, especially within religious groups, caused some religious workers to retreat from the reformist ambitions of the labor movement and sparked a conservative religious movement deeply opposed to labor and liberalism. Race became an ever-hotter flashpoint. Although religiously affiliated civil rights reformers often forged alliances with unions, the backlash and resistance to civil rights among portions of the white working class undermined the efficacy of labor unions as sources of social cohesion. Perhaps most profoundly, the economy as a whole transformed from an urban-industrial to a post-urban service model. Organized labor has floundered in the wake of these changes, and the concomitant resurgence of a traditionalist, individualistic, and therapeutic religious culture has offered the remains of the labor movement little to partner with.
Employers began organizing with one another to reduce the power of organized labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Irritated by strikes, boycotts, and unions’ desire to achieve exclusive bargaining rights, employers demanded the right to establish open shops, workplaces that promoted individualism over collectivism. Rather than recognize closed or union shops, employers demanded the right to hire and fire whomever they wanted, irrespective of union status. They established an open-shop movement, which was led by local, national, and trade-based employers. Some formed more inclusive “citizens’ associations,” which included clergymen, lawyers, judges, academics, and employers. Throughout the 20th century’s first three decades, this movement succeeded in busting unions, breaking strikes, and blacklisting labor activists. It united large numbers of employers and was mostly successful. The movement faced its biggest challenges in the 1930s, when a liberal political climate legitimized unions and collective bargaining. But employers never stopped organizing and fighting, and they continued to undermine the labor movement in the following decades by invoking the phrase “right-to-work,” insisting that individual laborers must enjoy freedom from so-called union bosses and compulsory unionism. Numerous states, responding to pressure from organized employers, begin passing “right-to-work” laws, which made union organizing more difficult because workers were not obligated to join unions or pay their “fair share” of dues to them. The multi-decade employer-led anti-union movement succeeded in fighting organized labor at the point of production, in politics, and in public relations.
Since the turn of the 20th century, teachers have tried to find a balance between bettering their own career prospects as workers and educating their students as public servants. To reach a workable combination, teachers have utilized methods drawn from union movements, the militant and labor-conscious approach favored by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), as well as to professional organizations, the tradition from which the National Education Association (NEA) arose. Because teachers lacked the federally guaranteed labor rights that private-sector workers enjoyed after Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, teachers’ fortunes—in terms of collective bargaining rights, control over classroom conditions, pay, and benefits—often remained tied to the broader public-sector labor movement and to state rather than federal law.
Opponents of teacher unionization consistently charged that as public servants paid by tax revenues, teachers and other public employees should not be allowed to form unions. Further, because women constituted the vast majority of teachers and union organizing often represented a “manly” domain, the opposition’s approach worked quite well, successfully preventing teachers from gaining widespread union recognition. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to an improved economic climate and invigoration from the women’s movement, civil rights struggles, and the New Left, both AFT and NEA teacher unionism surged forward, infused with a powerful militancy devoted to strikes and other political action, and appeared poised to capture federal collective bargaining rights. Their newfound assertiveness proved ill-timed, however.
After the economic problems of the mid-1970s, opponents of teacher unions once again seized the opportunity to portray teacher unions and other public-sector unions as greedy and privileged interest groups functioning at the public’s expense. President Ronald Reagan accentuated this point when he fired all of the more than 10,000 striking air traffic controllers during the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. Facing such opposition, teacher unions—and public-sector unions in general—shifted their efforts away from strikes and toward endorsing political candidates and lobbying governments to pass favorable legislation.
Given these constraints, public-sector unions enjoyed a large degree of success in the 1990s through the early 2000s, even as private-sector union membership plunged to less than 10 percent of the workforce. After the Great Recession of 2008, however, austerity politics targeted teachers and other public-sector workers and renewed political confrontations surrounding the legitimacy of teacher unions.
James R. Barrett
The largest and most important revolutionary socialist organization in US history, the Communist Party USA was always a minority influence. It reached considerable size and influence, however, during the Great Depression and World War II years when it followed the more open line associated with the term “Popular Front.” In these years communists were much more flexible in their strategies and relations with other groups, though the party remained a hierarchical vanguard organization. It grew from a largely isolated sect dominated by unskilled and unemployed immigrant men in the 1920s to a socially diverse movement of nearly 100,000 based heavily on American born men and women from the working and professional classes by the late 1930s and during World War II, exerting considerable influence in the labor movement and American cultural life. In these years, the Communist Party helped to build the industrial union movement, advanced the cause of African American civil rights, and laid the foundation for the postwar feminist movement. But the party was always prone to abrupt changes in line and vulnerable to attack as a sinister outside force because of its close adherence to Soviet policies and goals. Several factors contributed to its catastrophic decline in the 1950s: the increasingly antagonistic Cold War struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States; an unprecedented attack from employers and government at various levels—criminal cases and imprisonment, deportation, and blacklisting; and within the party itself, a turn back toward a more dogmatic version of Marxism-Leninism and a heightened atmosphere of factional conflict and purges.
The relationship between organized labor and the civil rights movement proceeded along two tracks. At work, the two groups were adversaries, as civil rights groups criticized employment discrimination by the unions. But in politics, they allied. Unions and civil rights organizations partnered to support liberal legislation and to oppose conservative southern Democrats, who were as militant in opposing unions as they were fervent in supporting white supremacy.
At work, unions dithered in their efforts to root out employment discrimination. Their initial enthusiasm for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed employment discrimination, waned the more the new law violated foundational union practices by infringing on the principle of seniority, emphasizing the rights of the individual over the group, and inserting the courts into the workplace. The two souls of postwar liberalism— labor solidarity represented by unions and racial justice represented by the civil rights movement—were in conflict at work.
Although the unions and civil rights activists were adversaries over employment discrimination, they united in trying to register southern blacks to vote. Black enfranchisement would end the South’s exceptionalism and the veto it exercised over liberal legislation in Congress. But the two souls of liberalism that were at odds over the meaning of fairness at work would also diverge at the ballot box. As white workers began to defect from the Democratic Party, the political coalition of black and white workers that union leaders had hoped to build was undermined from below. The divergence between the two souls of liberalism in the 1960s—economic justice represented by unions and racial justice represented by civil rights—helps explain the resurgence of conservatism that followed.
Janine Giordano Drake
The term “Social Gospel” was coined by ministers and other well-meaning American Protestants with the intention of encouraging the urban and rural poor to understand that Christ cared about them and saw their struggles. The second half of the 19th century saw a rise of both domestic and international missionary fervor. Church and civic leaders feared a future in which freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, and other skeptics dominated spiritual life and well-educated ministers were marginal to American culture. They grew concerned with the rising number of independent and Pentecostal churches without extensive theological training or denominational authority. American Protestants especially feared that immigrant religious and cultural traditions, including Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, were not quintessentially American. Most of all, they worried that those belief systems could not promote what they saw as the traditional American values and mores central to the nation.
However, at least on the surface, the Social Gospel did not dwell on extinguishing ideas or traditions. Rather, as was typical of the Progressive Era, it forwarded a wide-ranging set of visions that emphasized scientific and professional expertise, guided by Christian ethics, to solve social and political problems. It fostered an energetic culture of conferences, magazines, and paperback books dedicated to reforming the nation. Books and articles unpacked social surveys that sorted through possible solutions to urban and rural poverty and reported on productive relationships between churches and municipal governments. Pastoral conferences often focused on planning revivals in urban auditoriums, churches, stadiums, or the open air, where participants not only were confronted with old-fashioned gospel messages but with lectures on what Christians could do to improve their communities.
The Social Gospel’s theological turn stressed the need for both individual redemption from sinful behavior, and the redemption of whole societies from damaged community relationships. Revivalists not only entreated listeners to reject personal habits like drinking, smoking, chewing tobacco, gambling, theater-going, and extramarital sex. They also encouraged listeners to replace the gathering space of the saloon with churches, schools, and public parks. Leaders usually saw themselves redeeming the “social sin” that produced impoverished neighborhoods, low-wage jobs, preventable diseases, and chronic unemployment and offering alternatives that kept businesses intact. In the Social Creed of the Churches (1908), ministers across the denominations proposed industrial reforms limiting work hours and improving working conditions, as well as government regulations setting a living wage and providing protection for the injured, sick, and elderly. Sometimes, Social Gospel leaders defended collective bargaining and built alliances with labor leaders. At other times, they proposed palliative solutions that would instill Christian “brotherhood” on the shop floor and render unions unnecessary. This wavering on principles produced complicated and sometimes tense relationships among union leaders, workers, and Social Gospel leaders.
Elements of the Social Gospel movement have carried even into the 21st century, leading some historians to challenge the idea that the movement died with the close of the Great War. The American Civil Liberties Union and Fellowship of Reconciliation, for example, did not lose any time in keeping alive the Social Gospel’s commitments to protecting the poor and defenseless. However, the rise of “premillennial dispensationalist” theology and the general disillusionment produced by the war’s massive casualties marked a major turning point, if not an endpoint, to the Social Gospel’s influence as a well-funded, Protestant evangelical force. The brutality of the war undermined American optimism—much of it fueled by Social Gospel thinking—about creating a more just, prosperous, and peaceful world. Meanwhile, attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer’s campaign against alleged anarchists and Bolsheviks immediately after the war—America’s first “Red Scare”—targeted a large number of labor and religious organizations with the accusation that socialist ideas were undemocratic and un-American. By the 1920s, many Social Gospel leaders had distanced themselves from the organized working classes. They either accepted new arrangements for harmonizing the interests of labor and capital or took their left-leaning political ideals underground.
Between the 1790s and the 1990s, the Irish American population grew from some 500,000 to nearly 40 million. Part of this growth was due to immigration, especially in the years of the Great Irish Famine, though significant emigration from Ireland both preceded and followed the famine decade of 1846–1855. For much of this 200-year period, Irish-born men and women and their descendants were heavily concentrated in working-class occupations and urban communities. Especially in the years around the opening of the 20th century, Irish Catholic immigrants and their descendants put a distinctive stamp on both the American labor movement and urban working-class culture and politics as a whole. Their outsized influence diminished somewhat over the course of the 20th century, but the American Irish continued to occupy key leadership positions in the U.S. labor movement, the Democratic Party, and the American Catholic Church, even as the working-class members or constituents of these institutions became increasingly ethnically diverse. The experience of Irish American working people thus constitutes an important dimension of a larger story—that of the American working class as a whole.