And a Time for Hope: Americans in the Great Depression

By James R. McGovern | Go to book overview

11

American Workers

After a decade of severe national Depression, one might expect that American workers, with unemployment hovering close to 20%, would be in the forefront of those disgruntled, but evidence contradicts this assumption; workers generally remained enthusiastic about the promise of American life. Less than one-fourth of non-agrarian workers joined unions and most of those who did were neither leftist radical nor militantly unionist—except sporadically. This noteworthy affirmation of the prevailing system by American workers in the 1930s tells us much about the sanguine character of American society.

When Franklin Roosevelt became president, American workers were facing discouraging prospects from a combination of antilabor hostility in the 1920s when union membership was virtually halved, as well as the personal effects of the Great Depression. 1 Perhaps 30% of the labor force was unemployed in March 1933, up sharply from 9% in 1930. Wages then were at rock bottom, and many full-time workers were forced into marginal work at menial wages while millions of transients, unable to find any jobs, were on the road. 2

There were many good reasons for workers to join unions at that time. The threat of unemployment for those with jobs in a shaky economy was one. 3 Technological displacement of labor, with management increasingly relying on machinery to expedite work, also prompted workers to consider unions as protection for their jobs. 4 Again, they were often bothered by speedups on the job and unfair practices of employers and shop foremen. 5 Besides, the social and cultural worlds of workers were changing rapidly in the 1920s and the 1930s in ways potentially favorable to union membership; some workers with ethnic backgrounds, especially in big cities like Chicago,

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