Home Depression The Lessons of the Great Depression

The Lessons of the Great Depression


Fearing reprises of the unionization drives that had followed World War I, some employers mounted paternalistic welfare programs in the 1920s, touting benefits such as paid sick leave and vacations, pensions, stock ownership, group life insurance, and employee representation plans. But companies rarely backed those promises with the level of financial investment required to deliver those benefits to more than a fraction of their workforce. Workers relied instead on inadequate safety nets provided by their ethnic, racial, and religious communities, which quickly failed under the strain of the Great Depression.

By the time Roosevelt won a second presidential term, in 1936, the world had transformed. Many of those in need were taking full advantage of federal relief and jobs programs sponsored by the array of New Deal agencies, including the FERA, CWA, PWA, WPA, NYA, and CCC. By addressing the needs of Americans, Roosevelt earned their support. Faced with the enormity of the Great Depression, working-class Americans were voting in record numbers—and they voted for the Democratic president. Black voters were even replacing the motto “Stick to Republicans because Lincoln freed you” with “Let Jesus lead you and Roosevelt feed you.”

Working people also drove a massive effort to unionize industrial laborers across many sectors, coordinated by the newly founded Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), whose success was facilitated by the Wagner Act. By 1940, in the manufacturing stronghold of Chicago, one in three industrial workers belonged to a union, whereas 10 years earlier hardly any had. The story was much the same in Detroit and Flint in Michigan, Cleveland and Akron in Ohio, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. Workers who only a few years before had felt little connection to Washington, D.C., and excluded from national unions now identified with the federal government and nationwide political and labor movements.

Through their participation in the Democratic Party and unions, workers helped to ideologically reorient both of these new centers of political gravity. Although from local precincts to the Democratic Party headquarters and from shop floors to the CIO’s inner circle, leaders mattered, those with power had to contend with a rank and file that knew its own mind.

This was particularly evident in the labor movement. Left-wing activists were crucial organizers of Communist Unemployed Councils, socialist Workers’ Committees on Unemployment, hunger marches, demonstrations outside relief offices, and emerging unions. But in the end, despite all the hardships of the Great Depression, few workers bought into the anti-capitalist message.

The Communist organizer Steve Nelson recalled how he and his comrades had begun by “agitating against capitalism and talking about the need for socialism.” Quickly, however, they figured out that working-class people were more concerned with their daily struggles. “We learned to shift … to what might be called a grievance approach to the organizing,” he said. “We began to raise demands for … immediate federal assistance to the unemployed, and a moratorium on mortgages, and finally we began to talk about the need for national employment insurance.” In fact, partly inspired by the empty promises of their employer’s welfare-capitalist schemes of the 1920s, working-class Americans came to embrace what I have elsewhere labeled “moral capitalism.” While workers benefited from the organizing experience of radical leaders, they more often opted for liberal goals than for radicalism, preferring a more just capitalist order over any alternative.

The wife of a day laborer in a kitchen near Webbers Falls, Oklahoma. Inside an agricultural day laborer’s home in Muskogee County, Oklahoma. Russell Lee, 1939 / Library of Congress (2)

The New Deal’s success had one final, and crucial, ingredient: the cultivation of empathy.


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