Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, 1991

Particularly useful in that it encompasses both the roaring twenties and the depressed thirties, Making a New Deal also manages to look at ethnicity, consumption and labor politics in one analysis. The story begins with the 1919 crash of the labor movement, which splintered into the usual ethnic and racial pieces. Cohen argues that “welfare capitalism,” which sought to suppress unionization, actually facilitated it in the longer run. Managers broke up groups of workers from the same culture, in hopes of limiting the likelihood of their organizing, while encouraging employees to identify with the company and see it as “family.” As such, corporations sponsored picnics, baseball teams and other activities. When these beneficial services were withdrawn at the start of the Depression, employees still had the sense of cross-ethnic camaraderie and sameness that they had learned at the workplace during the twenties. This experience formed the basis for the enormous gains these workers in the mass production industries made in the 1930s through the CIO. The cutting-off of immigration in 1925 may also have played a role, allowing a more solid working-class to congeal without the continual infusion of heterogeneous migrants into urban communities. (In his book The Cultural Front, Michael Denning also observes that, as some second and third generation immigrants began to work in mass media like radio and film, they fostered a common left-leaning popular culture.) A similar shift occurred in the consumer market. Ethnic communities found it easy to accommodate the 1920s wave of consumerism, spending their money at neighborhood stores and putting it in banks owned by members of their own groups. The advent of phonographs, for example, simply meant that minorities could listen to music from the Old World. However, when the economy tanked, many of these small businesses collapsed, and consumers had to turn to major corporate chains. The lower costs there provided another incentive, one pursued by African Americans who also appreciated that chain stores were much more likely to practice colorblind policies than small local establishments.

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