Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality.
Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture.
The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability.
Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.
On January 5, 2014—the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty—the New York Times asked a panel of opinion leaders a simple question: “Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?” While the answers varied, all the invited debaters accepted the martial premise of the question—that a war on poverty had been fought and that eliminating poverty was, without a doubt, a “fight,” or a “battle.”
Yet the debate over the manner—martial or not—by which the federal government and public policy has dealt with the issue of poverty in the United States is still very much an open-ended one.
The evolution and development of the postwar American welfare state is a story not only of a number of “wars,” or individual political initiatives, against poverty, but also about the growth of institutions within and outside government that seek to address, alleviate, and eliminate poverty and its concomitant social ills. It is a complex and at times messy story, interwoven with the wider historical trajectory of this period: civil rights, the rise and fall of a “Cold War consensus,” the emergence of a counterculture, the Vietnam War, the credibility gap, the rise of conservatism, the end of “welfare,” and the emergence of compassionate conservatism. Mirroring the broader organization of the American political system, with a relatively weak center of power and delegated authority and decision-making in fifty states, the welfare model has developed and grown over decades. Policies viewed in one era as unmitigated failures have instead over time evolved and become part of the fabric of the welfare state.
Ana Elizabeth Rosas
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
On August 4, 1942, the Mexican and U.S. governments launched the bi-national guest worker program, most commonly known as the Bracero Program. An estimated five million Mexican men between the ages of 19 and 45 separated from their families for three-to-nine-month contract cycles at a time, in anticipation of earning the prevailing U.S. wage this program had promised them. They labored in U.S. agriculture, railroad construction, and forestry, with hardly any employment protections or rights in place to support themselves and the families they had left behind in Mexico. The inhumane configuration and implementation of this program prevented most of these men and their families from meeting such goals. Instead, the labor exploitation and alienation that characterized this guest worker program and their program participation paved the way for, at best, fragile family relationships. This program lasted twenty-two years and grew in its expanse, despite its negative consequences, Mexican men and their families could not afford to settle for being unemployed in Mexico, nor could they pass up U.S. employment opportunities of any sort. The Mexican and U.S. governments’ persistently negligent management of the Bracero Program, coupled with their conveniently selective acknowledgement of the severity of the plight of Mexican women and men, consistently cornered Mexican men and their families to shoulder the full extent of the Bracero Program’s exploitative conditions and terms.
In September 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) held its first convention in Fresno, California, initiating a multiracial movement that would result in the creation of United Farm Workers (UFW) and the first contracts for farm workers in the state of California. Led by Cesar Chavez, the union contributed a number of innovations to the art of social protest, including the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States. Chavez welcomed contributions from numerous ethnic and racial groups, men and women, young and old. For a time, the UFW was the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community—people from different backgrounds coming together to create a socially just world. During the 1970s, Chavez struggled to maintain the momentum created by the boycott as the state of California became more involved in adjudicating labor disputes under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). Although Chavez and the UFW ultimately failed to establish a permanent, national union, their successes and strategies continue to influence movements for farm worker justice today.
Landon R. Y. Storrs
The second Red Scare refers to the fear of communism that permeated American politics, culture, and society from the late 1940s through the 1950s, during the opening phases of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This episode of political repression lasted longer and was more pervasive than the Red Scare that followed the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I. Popularly known as “McCarthyism” after Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), who made himself famous in 1950 by claiming that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department, the second Red Scare predated and outlasted McCarthy, and its machinery far exceeded the reach of a single maverick politician. Nonetheless, “McCarthyism” became the label for the tactic of undermining political opponents by making unsubstantiated attacks on their loyalty to the United States.
The initial infrastructure for waging war on domestic communism was built during the first Red Scare, with the creation of an antiradicalism division within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the emergence of a network of private “patriotic” organizations. With capitalism’s crisis during the Great Depression, the Communist Party grew in numbers and influence, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program expanded the federal government’s role in providing economic security. The anticommunist network expanded as well, most notably with the 1938 formation of the Special House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, which in 1945 became the permanent House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Other key congressional investigation committees were the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Members of these committees and their staff cooperated with the FBI to identify and pursue alleged subversives. The federal employee loyalty program, formalized in 1947 by President Harry Truman in response to right-wing allegations that his administration harbored Communist spies, soon was imitated by local and state governments as well as private employers. As the Soviets’ development of nuclear capability, a series of espionage cases, and the Korean War enhanced the credibility of anticommunists, the Red Scare metastasized from the arena of government employment into labor unions, higher education, the professions, the media, and party politics at all levels. The second Red Scare did not involve pogroms or gulags, but the fear of unemployment was a powerful tool for stifling criticism of the status quo, whether in economic policy or social relations. Ostensibly seeking to protect democracy by eliminating communism from American life, anticommunist crusaders ironically undermined democracy by suppressing the expression of dissent. Debates over the second Red Scare remain lively because they resonate with ongoing struggles to reconcile Americans’ desires for security and liberty.
Ramón A. Gutiérrez
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Mexican immigration to the United States is a topic of particular interest at this moment for a number of political reasons. First, and probably foremost, Mexicans are currently the single largest group of foreign-born residents in the country. In 2013, the United States counted 41.3 million individuals of foreign birth; 28 percent, or 11.6 million, were Mexican. If census data are aggregated more broadly, adding together the foreign-born and persons of Mexican ancestry who are citizens, the number totals 31.8 million in 2010, or roughly 10 percent of the country’s total population of 308.7 million. What has nativists and those eager to restrict immigration particularly concerned is that the Mexican origin population has been growing rapidly, by 54 percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, or from 11.2 million to 31.8 million persons. This pace of growth has slowed, but not enough to calm racial and xenophobic fears of the citizenry fearful of foreigners and terrorists.
Mexican immigration to the United States officially began in 1846 and has continued into the present without any significant period of interruption, also making it quite distinct. The immigration histories of national groups that originated in Asia, Africa, and Europe are much more varied in trajectory and timing. They usually began with massive movements, driven by famine, political strife or burgeoning economic opportunities in the United States, and then slowed, tapered off, or ended abruptly, as was the case with Chinese immigration from 1850 to 2015. This fact helps explain why Mexico has been the single largest source of immigrants in the United States for the longest period of time.
The geographic proximity between the two countries, compounded by profound economic disparities, has continuously attracted Mexican immigrants, facilitated by a border that is rather porous and that has been poorly patrolled for much of the 20th century. The United States and Mexico are divided by a border that begins at the Pacific Ocean, at the twin cities of San Diego, California and Tijuana, Baja California. The border moves eastward until it reaches the Rio Grande at El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Júarez, Chihuahua. From there the border follows the river’s flow in a southeastern direction, until its mouth empties into the Gulf of Mexico where Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Tamaulipas sit. This expanse of over 1,945 miles is poorly marked. In many places, only old concrete markers, sagging, dry-rotted fence posts with rusted barbed wire, and a river that has continually changed its course, mark the separation between these two sovereign national spaces.
Since 1924, when the U.S. Border Patrol was created mainly to prohibit the unauthorized entry of Chinese immigrants, not Mexicans, American attempts to effectively regulate entries and exits has been concentrated only along known, highly trafficked routes that lead north. The inability of the United States to patrol the entire length of its border with Mexico has meant that any Mexican eager to work or live in the United States has rarely found the border an insurmountable obstacle, and if they have encountered it temporarily so, they have simply hired expensive professional smugglers (known as coyotes) to maximize safe passage into the United States without border inspection or official authorization. In 2014, there were approximately 11.3 million such unauthorized immigrants in the United States; 49 percent, or 5.6 million of them were Mexican.
Over the long course of history Mexican immigration is best characterized as the movement of unskilled workers toiling in agriculture, railroad construction, and mineral extraction; for the last two decades, they have worked in construction and service industries as well. This labor migration has evolved through five distinct phases, each marked by its own logic, demands, and governance.
Housing in America has long stood as a symbol of the nation’s political values and a measure of its economic health. In the 18th century, a farmhouse represented Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of independent property owners; in the mid-20th century, the suburban house was seen as an emblem of an expanding middle class. Alongside those well-known symbols were a host of other housing forms—tenements, slave quarters, row houses, French apartments, loft condos, and public housing towers—that revealed much about American social order and the material conditions of life for many people.
Since the 19th century, housing markets have been fundamental forces driving the nation’s economy and a major focus of government policies. Home construction has provided jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. Land speculation, housing development, and the home mortgage industry have generated billions of dollars in investment capital, while ups and downs in housing markets have been considered signals of major changes in the economy. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the federal government has buttressed the home construction industry and offered economic incentives for home buyers, giving the United States the highest home ownership rate in the world. The housing market crash of 2008 slashed property values and sparked a rapid increase in home foreclosures, especially in places like Southern California and the suburbs of the Northeast, where housing prices had ballooned over the previous two decades. The real estate crisis led to government efforts to prop up the mortgage banking industry and to assist struggling homeowners. The crisis led, as well, to a drop in rates of home ownership, an increase in rental housing, and a growth in homelessness.
Home ownership remains a goal for many Americans and an ideal long associated with the American dream. The owner-occupied home—whether single-family or multifamily dwelling—is typically the largest investment made by an American family. Through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, housing designs varied from region to region. In the mid-20th century, mass production techniques and national building codes tended to standardize design, especially in new suburban housing. In the 18th century, the family home was a site of waged and unwaged work; it was the center of a farm, plantation, or craftsman’s workshop. Two and a half centuries later, a house was a consumer good: its size, location, and decor marked the family’s status and wealth.
Wendy L. Wall
The New Deal generally refers to a set of domestic policies implemented by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Propelled by that economic cataclysm, Roosevelt and his New Dealers pushed through legislation that regulated the banking and securities industries, provided relief for the unemployed, aided farmers, electrified rural areas, promoted conservation, built national infrastructure, regulated wages and hours, and bolstered the power of unions. The Tennessee Valley Authority prevented floods and brought electricity and economic progress to seven states in one of the most impoverished parts of the nation. The Works Progress Administration offered jobs to millions of unemployed Americans and launched an unprecedented federal venture into the arena of culture. By providing social insurance to the elderly and unemployed, the Social Security Act laid the foundation for the U.S. welfare state.
The benefits of the New Deal were not equitably distributed. Many New Deal programs—farm subsidies, work relief projects, social insurance, and labor protection programs—discriminated against racial minorities and women, while profiting white men disproportionately. Nevertheless, women achieved symbolic breakthroughs, and African Americans benefited more from Roosevelt’s policies than they had from any past administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. The New Deal did not end the Depression—only World War II did that—but it did spur economic recovery. It also helped to make American capitalism less volatile by extending federal regulation into new areas of the economy.
Although the New Deal most often refers to policies and programs put in place between 1933 and 1938, some scholars have used the term more expansively to encompass later domestic legislation or U.S. actions abroad that seemed animated by the same values and impulses—above all, a desire to make individuals more secure and a belief in institutional solutions to long-standing problems. In order to pass his legislative agenda, Roosevelt drew many Catholic and Jewish immigrants, industrial workers, and African Americans into the Democratic Party. Together with white Southerners, these groups formed what became known as the “New Deal coalition.” This unlikely political alliance endured long after Roosevelt’s death, supporting the Democratic Party and a “liberal” agenda for nearly half a century. When the coalition finally cracked in 1980, historians looked back on this extended epoch as reflecting a “New Deal order.”
Maureen A. Flanagan
The decades from the 1890s into the 1920s produced reform movements in the United States that resulted in significant changes to the country’s social, political, cultural, and economic institutions. The impulse for reform emanated from a pervasive sense that the country’s democratic promise was failing. Political corruption seemed endemic at all levels of government. An unregulated capitalist industrial economy exploited workers and threatened to create a serious class divide, especially as the legal system protected the rights of business over labor. Mass urbanization was shifting the country from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one characterized by poverty, disease, crime, and cultural clash. Rapid technological advancements brought new, and often frightening, changes into daily life that left many people feeling that they had little control over their lives. Movements for socialism, woman suffrage, and rights for African Americans, immigrants, and workers belied the rhetoric of the United States as a just and equal democratic society for all its members.
Responding to the challenges presented by these problems, and fearful that without substantial change the country might experience class upheaval, groups of Americans proposed undertaking significant reforms. Underlying all proposed reforms was a desire to bring more justice and equality into a society that seemed increasingly to lack these ideals. Yet there was no agreement among these groups about the exact threat that confronted the nation, the means to resolve problems, or how to implement reforms. Despite this lack of agreement, all so-called Progressive reformers were modernizers. They sought to make the country’s democratic promise a reality by confronting its flaws and seeking solutions. All Progressivisms were seeking a via media, a middle way between relying on older ideas of 19th-century liberal capitalism and the more radical proposals to reform society through either social democracy or socialism. Despite differences among Progressives, the types of Progressivisms put forth, and the successes and failures of Progressivism, this reform era raised into national discourse debates over the nature and meaning of democracy, how and for whom a democratic society should work, and what it meant to be a forward-looking society. It also led to the implementation of an activist state.
Public authorities are agencies created by governments to engage directly in the economy for public purposes. They differ from standard agencies in that they operate outside the administrative framework of democratically accountable government. Since they generate their own operating income by charging users for goods and services and borrow for capital expenses based on projections of future revenues, they can avoid the input from voters and the regulations that control public agencies funded by tax revenues.
Institutions built on the public authority model exist at all levels of government and in every state. A few of these enterprises, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, are well known. Thousands more toil in relative obscurity, operating toll roads and bridges, airports, transit systems, cargo ports, entertainment venues, sewer and water systems, and even parking garages. Despite their ubiquity, these agencies are not well understood. Many release little information about their internal operations. It is not even possible to say conclusively how many exist, since experts disagree about how to define them, and states do not systematically track them.
One thing we do know about public authorities is that, over the course of the 20th century, these institutions have become a major component of American governance. Immediately following the Second World War, they played a minor role in public finance. But by the early 21st century, borrowing by authorities constituted well over half of all public borrowing at the sub-federal level. This change means that increasingly the leaders of these entities, rather than elected officials, make key decisions about where and how to build public infrastructure and steer economic development in the United States