- Legacies of the Lean Years
The economic collapse of 2008 left a trail of global destruction that is only widening as European economies slash and burn their way toward fiscal austerity. As destructive as the recession has been for working-class Americans, the crisis has also been—in a macabre sort of fashion—a boon for the history of the lean years. Now, journalists and cable-TV pundits invoke Keynesianism, infrastructure renewal, banking regulation, and the Roosevelt recession of 1937 with the kind of tripping familiarity that rivals global warming and anti-terrorism. Yet as historians of that debacle have learned, there is a vast gulf between scholarly insight and what passes for historically informed policy. It should come as little surprise that powerbrokers can be whimsical, selective, and self-serving in their use of the past, bending it to suit political expediency or to placate the comforting distortions of historical memory. The books under consideration confirm the central importance of the 1930s in forming, for better and worse, the contours of modern America. Each complicates simplistic visions of an era defined by presidential pump-priming and benevolent state intervention. Each asks questions that policy makers would find inconvenient.
In Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950, Rosemary Feurer introduces readers to a world of unionism in which grassroots democracy and social justice meant as much as the next wage increase. [End Page 395] In fact, Reuther suggests that for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) who followed the lead of the radical William Sentner, social justice was the corollary of a union contract. Feurer effectively establishes the economic context for the analysis: St. Louis, nexus of a regional labour market defined by low wages and a diverse selection of single-plant manufacturers producing everything from chemicals to electronics. Feurer cleverly uses the notion of a "militant minority" to analyze not only labour, but business. Local business leaders forged a united front to preserve their low-wage, competitive environment and advance their vision of southern industrial pre-eminence. This vision was premised on a ruthless defence of the open shop principle, which saw the appropriately named CIA (Citizens' Industrial Alliance) collaborating with the St. Louis branch of the Metal Trades Association to resist craft unionists who dared sign a union card. The author effectively makes the case that company organization was at least as efficient, and considerably more ruthless, than the Metal Trades Council or the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Electrical workers may have fostered an oppositional culture in turn of the century St. Louis, but by the 1920s they chafed under the companies' programs to accelerate production and thwart unionization. By the time of the crash, GE, Westinghouse, and Wagner had effectively dissolved the radical blocs that had made the electrical industry a hotbed of labour activism.
As historians Sidney Lens and Irving Bernstein explained more than thirty years ago, the Depression both compounded worker discontent and reawakened the prospects for industrial unionism. examines how Section 7(a) of the Roosevelt administration's National Industrial Recovery Act, which provided protection for collective bargaining, stimulated efforts to organize workers at the point of production. Yet Feurer does not make New Deal national planning the primary force in the rebirth of labour. Nor does the author subscribe to the conventional wisdom that the labour revolt of the era is primarily a story about the national CIO. Instead, she follows the trajectory of historian Staughton Lynd in positing that the challenge to the "political economy of control" came from rank-and-file workers inspired by the NIRA but galvanized by the experience of transforming Employee Representation Plans into something more than a charade of shopfloor democracy.
It was the Unemployed Council movement, however, that electrified the union rebellion in St. Louis. Organized by the Communist...