- New Immigrants and the Radicalization of American Labor, 1914–1924 by Thomas Mackaman
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017
220 pp., $35.00 (paper)
Thomas Mackaman’s book is an ambitious work on an important era of American labor history. It examines how rank-and-file “new immigrants” from eastern and southern Europe pushed workers’ struggles in increasingly radical directions during one of the country’s greatest periods of labor unrest. Mackaman provides a useful complement and corrective to earlier works like David Montgomery’s The Fall of the House of Labor (1989) and Gwendolyn Mink’s Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development (1990) by crafting a bottom-up, noninstitutional labor history centered on the struggles of immigrants themselves. However, his book also suffers from several shortcomings that prevent it from standing on its own as a new synthesis.
Mackaman begins by reviewing the unhappy conditions that confronted most European immigrants in the Progressive Era: lack of economic mobility, squalid housing, dangerous workplaces in which “workers were literally used up” (36), and what the author describes as the “social distance” that native-born workers and previous generations of immigrants placed between themselves and this new wave of foreign-born laborers. The AFL, meanwhile, either barred these workers from membership or, as in the case of the United Mine Workers, embraced them but largely confined them to segregated “racial” locals and excluded them from leadership positions. Therefore, although labor radicalism among these immigrant groups had transnational roots, “the typical rank-and-file new immigrant radical was ‘made in the U.S.A.’ ” (61).
The book’s most original and provocative argument, however, is its interpretation of the impact of the First World War. The outbreak of the conflict and America’s push for war production, Mackaman argues, were the pivotal events that radicalized new immigrant workers. The outbreak of hostilities in 1914 cut off transatlantic immigration as well as (temporarily, at least) avenues for return migration, resulting in “a maturation of new immigrant communities” (77) that now viewed their stays in the United States as long term. Once the United States joined the Allied war effort, these same immigrants came into conflict with both employers and union officials over wartime working conditions and “no strike” pledges. The result, according to the author, was the spread of a “new immigrant consciousness” that drew “new immigrant workers from a wide range of backgrounds into an increasingly cohesive section of the working class” (58). This newly radicalized new immigrant working class lay at the center of the post-war strike wave.
The three case studies at the center of Mackaman’s study consist of Minnesota iron miners, Chicago steel workers, and Illinois coal miners. The book details rank-and-file upsurges among these groups and provides particularly good coverage of the often overlooked 1919 coal strike. The defeats of these struggles marked “a watershed in U.S. [End Page 126] history” (141), with big business emerging triumphant and labor in retreat. Moreover, according to the author, “the revolutionary defeats suffered in Europe during the early 1920s sapped immigrant radicalism of its vitality and helped prepare the way for the growth of insular nationalism among new immigrant communities in the 1920s” (144).
Regrettably, Mackaman’s study of immigrant workers is not based on sources written by immigrants themselves but instead relies on English-language documents produced by outside observers. The book’s only foreign-language sources are two articles from an Italian-language newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and two secondary works in Italian (one of them about contemporaneous events in Italy). Two additional non-English newspapers are listed in the bibliography but never cited. Instead, most of the book’s evidence is culled from local (English-language) newspapers, government records, and union archives. At best, this gives the reader secondhand impressions of immigrants’ motives and ideas; at worst, it results in misleading or even sloppy conclusions. For example, when discussing the anarcho-syndicalist Union of Russian Workers of the United States and Canada (URW), Mackaman claims that “[e]ven the Russian Anarchists of...