Distress, Dissent and Alienation: Hamilton Workers in the Great Depression

By Archibald, W. Peter | Urban History Review, October 1992 | Go to article overview

Distress, Dissent and Alienation: Hamilton Workers in the Great Depression


Archibald, W. Peter, Urban History Review


Abstract

Contrary to most accounts of Canadian workers' responses to the Great Depression of the 1930s, this article portrays the majority of Hamilton workers as neither severely distressed nor especially prone to dissent. Much of the relative absence of dissent can be attributed to workers' powerlessness in very poor market conditions. but workers' quiescence should not be seen simply as a temporary, class-conscious strategy. Rather, many, perhaps most, workers either regarded dissent as illegitimate to begin with, or/and lowered their aspirations for secure and self-controlled work in the prevailing labour market and other conditions. In other words, they became psychically "alienated". These findings have important implications for most theorizing on these issues, which implicitly employs a "frustration-aggression" model; for popular conceptions of workers as highly class-conscious and epically heroic; and for organizing workers during most economic crises.

Resume

Contrairement a la plupart des comptes rendus portant sur les reactions des travailleurs canadiens a la Crise des annees 1930, le portrait que nous trace celui-ci de la majorite des travailleurs de Hamilton nous les montre ni profondement affliges, ni particulierement enclins a la dissidence meme si, bien sur, il y avait effectivement de l'affliction et de la dissidence. On peut en grande partie attribuer l'absence relative de dissidence a l'impuissance ressentie par les traveilleurs face aux tres mauvaises conditions du marche, mais on ne doit pas considerer leur passivite comme une simple strategie de classe temporaire. Au contraire, pour beaucoup de travailleurs, et peut-etre meme pour la plupart, la dissidence etait illegitime au depart et(ou), tenant compte des conditions du marche de l'emploi et d'autres facteurs, ils mettaient en veilleuse leurs aspirations a un travail assure et sur lequel ils pourraient exercer un certain controle. Autrement dit, ils etaient devenus psychiquement <>. Ces conclusions viennent fortement ebranler la plupart des theories elaborees sur ces questions, theories fondees implicitement sur un modele <>; elles ebranlent egalement les idees generalement admises selon lesquelles les travailleurs avaient une conscience de classe tres forte et etaient de veritables heros et elles nous donnent des indications sur la syndicalisation des travailleurs pendant la plupart des crises economiques.

**********

Like popular perceptions, most current academic analysis of the Great Depression of the 1930s has been based upon the following assumptions. First, these were times of great deprivation and distress for North American workers; that is, they were "hungry", "lean", "hard" and "dirty". (1) Second, there was much labour militancy and political protest, or dissent; hence the epithets "bitter", "turbulent times" and "decades of discord". (2) Third, distress was one of the most important, if not the most important, sources of dissent. Thus strikes, industrial unionism and new, left-wing political parties were more or less a direct result of workers' peculiarly high distress in the 30s. (3) For some analysts, dissent was mainly a rational strategy to ameliorate distress; for others, it was instead, or also, a "volcanic eruption", the building up of deprivation and frustration to the point where aggression "spilled over" into overt activity. (4) Fourth, the primary effect of employers' and governments' repression of strikes and extra-parliamentary political protest was to delegitimate the ruling class and drive workers and other members of the "public" to the left. (5)

True, many analysts have qualified these claims in various ways. Deprivation is sometimes said to have been more relative than absolute. For example, the problem was more that workers had to give up "luxuries" rather than starve. Sometimes these luxuries were job security and freedom and dignity, rather than material goods. …

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