It has been a common criticism of President Obama that he raised hopes for fundamental change only to compromise too readily with conservative forces. Since he took office amid the financial crisis that began in 2008, banks and corporations have received massive bailouts while programs for homeowners and the unemployed have seemed to fall short. Underlying these criticisms is perhaps an implicit comparison to the New Deal of the 1930s, in which Franklin Roosevelt adopted programs of mass employment in response to the Great Depression. As historian Gary Gerstle has observed, however, Roosevelt’s initial programs were not so favorably disposed toward working people, and his most far-reaching reforms came only in response to significant grassroots pressure, including a series of militant strikes in 1934.1 Other historians have pointed out that Obama did not initially face the kind of grassroots pressure that affected Roosevelt—or that the pressure which had emerged had come from the right, in the form of the Tea Party.2 More recently, Gerstle has drawn an analogy between Occupy Wall Street and the protests of the 1930s.3 I would like to support that case by examining more closely the strikes that began in 1933 and 1934.
Militancy can take time to grow. As in 1933, we are now in the fourth year of an economic downturn. Roosevelt, who like Obama was elected to change course from a Republican predecessor, had enacted an initial set of reforms, but unemployment remained high.4 The First New Deal, as this phase of Roosevelt’s policies is usually described, included several programs to boost employment, such as the Civil Works Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps, but many of these jobs were temporary.5 In keeping with its origins in early 20th-century progressivism, the thrust of the First New Deal was in large part regulatory.6 The centerpiece was the National Recovery Administration, which set codes by industry to try to stabilize wages and prices. But NRA was both voluntary and byzantine, and proved largely ineffective.7
Roosevelt started coming under fire from radio personalities who were impatient with the progress of the New Deal. Louisiana Senator Huey Long called for confiscation of large fortunes and a guaranteed minimum income, while the Detroit priest Father Charles Coughlin called for revaluation of gold, remonetization of silver, and replacement of the private Federal Reserve System with a national bank.8 Though these proposals in some sense consisted of a critique of the wealthy, they envisioned a society of widely dispersed property ownership and power, not an activist national state.9 In this sense I liken them to the Tea Party rather than to Occupy Wall Street.
But there was also an upsurge in strikes, of which the Occupy movement is more reminiscent. The increased strike activity is somewhat surprising because unemployment in the 20th century has usually discouraged strikes as workers feared losing their jobs.10 But for several reasons worker militancy rose in 1933. Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which established NRA, stated that workers had the right to form labor unions of their own choosing. The United Mine Workers took advantage of this provision to mount a massive organizing drive, and as workers in other industries attempted to organize and obtain recognition, strike activity rose to a higher level than in any year since 1921.11 Important to this upsurge was the leadership of unionists such as John L. Lewis of the miners and Sidney Hillman of the clothing workers, who sought to organize all workers within their industries, including unskilled workers and immigrants.12
1934 was one of the greatest strike years in American history. Nearly one and a half million workers engaged in over 1,800 strikes. Workers were frustrated with the failings of NRA and suffering under a Depression that was now entering its fifth year.13 In Minneapolis, thousands of teamsters under Trotskyist leadership fought a bloody street battle against 500 members of the businessmen’s Citizens Alliance.14 Striking longshoremen shut down ports across the West Coast, and in San Francisco unions staged a general strike in response to a brutal attack by the city’s police.15 In the textile industry, 350,000 workers engaged in an enormous strike “from Maine to Alabama.”16
Labor unrest, ongoing unemployment, and criticism from populists were some of the factors spurring the Roosevelt administration to enact the reforms of the Second New Deal, which emphasized measures to address the lack of purchasing power among the masses of workers.17 Among these reforms was the Wagner Act, which made it compulsory for employers to negotiate with labor unions chosen by their employees.18 The Works Progress Administration sought to make the jobs of the Civil Works Administration into steady employment, and enact them on a much larger scale, with a budget of nearly $5 billion.19 And the Social Security Act provided old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, and aid to poor women with dependent children.20
The key contention here is that these programs did not come about because Roosevelt was simply more liberal than Obama. Roosevelt adopted the Second New Deal in response to grassroots pressure, in part as an effort to find a solution to the disorder and labor unrest that he was faced with. Perhaps Occupy Wall Street signifies the initial stirrings of such a grassroots insurgency for the Obama administration, and will help spur a new round of efforts to alleviate unemployment and rectify the imbalance of wealth and power in our own time.
1. Quoted in Elaine Tyler May, “Reflections on the Great Depression,” OAH Newsletter 37, no. 4 (November 2009): 6, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost.
2. On the comparison to Roosevelt, see Thomas J. Sugrue’s review essay (on H.W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Adam Cohen, Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America), The Nation, April 27, 2009, 28. On the Tea Party, see Michael Kazin, “Whatever Happened to the American Left,” New York Times, September 24, 2011.
3. Jim Patterson, “Historian: Occupy Wall Street Movement Right on Time in New Gilded Age,” Vanderbilt News, October 11, 2011, news.vanderbilt.edu/2011/10/occupy-gerstle/. Gerstle compares the Occupy movement to the strikes of 1933-34 in Justin Elliott, “Occupy Wall Street: A Historical Perspective,” Salon.com, October 8, 2011. Michael Kazin has also made some comparisons to the general strikes of the 1930s, “Anarchism Now: Occupy Wall Street Revives an Ideology,” The New Republic (www.tnr.com), November 7, 2011.
4. Robert A. Margo, “Employment and Unemployment in the 1930s,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 7, no. 2 (spring 1933): 43, table 1.
5. Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, 2nd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 710. Roy Rosenzweig et al., Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History, Vol. 2: 1877 to the Present, 3rd ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008), 420. On CWA, see William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-40 (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 121-22.
6. For the transition from progressivism, see Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 10-11. Brinkley argues that Roosevelt did not make the transition to expansionary fiscal policy until the second recession of 1937-38, however (99). For the connections between World War I progressivism and Roosevelt’s initial policies toward workers, see Melvyn Dubofsky, The State and Labor in Modern America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 108-109.
7. Brinkley, Unfinished Nation, 707-708. Brinkley, End of Reform, 18, 38-39. For difficulties with enforcing NRA, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Coming of the New Deal, vol. 2 of The Age of Roosevelt (1988; repr., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), 120-21.
8. Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 72-73, 111-114. Brinkley, Unfinished Nation, 712-14.
9. Brinkley, Voices of Protest, 281-82.
10. Bruce E. Kaufman, “The Determinants of Strikes in the United States, 1900-1977,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 35, no. 4 (July 1982): 479, 487,
11. Dubofsky, State and Labor in Modern America, 112-16.
12. Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), 40-41, 66-67. Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 43.
13. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 217-18.
14. William Millikan, A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001), xxvii-xxxi. Rosenzweig, Who Built America, 431.
15. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 263, 274-78, 284, 290-93. Rosenzweig, Who Built America, 431-32.
16. Gary Gerstle, Working-class Americanism: The Politics of Labor in a Textile City, 1914-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 127 (updated number in Lichtenstein, State of the Union, 33).
17. Rosenzweig, Who Built America, 445-46. Rosenzweig and his co-authors stress the role of labor.
18. Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 303-304, stresses the role of workers in bringing about the Wagner Act.
19. Harry Hopkins, who would direct WPA, stressed coming up with a solution to ongoing unemployment as a motive for CWA, which led to WPA. T.H. Watkins, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952 (New York: Henry Holt, 1990), 391-97.
20. Brinkley, Voices of Protest, stresses the influence of Long and Coughlin, and also the physician Charles Townshend, who advocated old-age pensions, 222-24, 247.