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A history of the American worker, 1933-1941: a caring society - the New Deal, the worker, and the Great Depression.

During the summer of 1932, when I was young and looking for work, I had lunch one day with J. B. S. Hardman, editor of Advance, the journal of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. At one point, I said something to the effect that the volume of unemployment was so great that a social explosion was inevitable. Hardman, a wise man, realized that I was thinking in terms of barricades and banners in the streets. He replied, "Don't forget that at least three-fourths of the workers still have jobs."

We did avoid the barricades during the traumatic 1930's. The American economy, even during the Great Depression, had an underlying vitality. But the price of its survival was profound institutional and social change, including a large expansion in trade union organization, changes in the structure and outlook of the union movement, large and diverse Federal relief programs, the creation of a body of protective labor and social legislation, and a long-lasting political realignment.

A Caring Society is the final volume of Professor Irving Bernstein's trilogy on the history of the American worker during the years 1920 to 1941. The Lean Years covered the period 1920 to 1933 and dealt with labor conditions and industrial relations law; the decline in trade union organization during the sharp but short-lived depression following World War I and its failure, for both internal and external reasons, to grow during the subsequent years of prosperity; and the devastating effects of the Great Depression beginning toward the end of 1929. Turbulent Years covered the tremendous upsurge of labor militancy during the partial recovery in economic activity between 1933 and 1941; the emergence through legislation of a national policy on collective bargaining; the extension of trade union organization to many strategic sectors of the economy; and the split in the labor movement that was to last for two decades. A Caring Society also deals with the 1933 to 1941 period. Its focus is on the temporary measures devised for unemployment relief; the passage of national social security and labor standards legislation; and the increased awareness of the worker in literature and the arts.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, the unemployment rate had reached about 25 percent. Relief for the poor and jobless far exceeded the capacity of private agencies and State and local governments. The problem was attacked by the new Federal administration in a series of measures providing for direct relief payments, increased employment on public works, and, specifically for young people, employment in an imaginative project for the conservation of natural resources and on work programs to enable students from relatively low income families to further their education. these measures contributed to the partial recovery in economic activity after 1933, and served to ease the human tragedy associated with the Great Depression. But even by 1940, when our defense program got under way, unemployment exceeded 14 percent of the labor force.

Added to the New Deal emergency legislation for unemployment relief were other measures that laid the foundation, as Bernstein notes, of the American version of the welfare state. These principally were the Social Security Act (1935), which provided for a measure of protection against old-age dependency and involuntary unemployment through social insurance, and for several categorical public assistance programs, and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), which established minimum wage, maximum hour, and child labor standards for workers in industries engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce.

The third major piece of New Deal legislation affecting the status of workers, the National Labor Relations Act (1935), was considered by Bernstein in the second volume of his trilogy. That act guaranteed workers the right to join unions of their own choosing and placed a duty upon employers to bargain collectively. it was designed to minimize conflict over the issue of union recognition and also to correct the perceived inequality of power betwen workers and employers in the labor market.

There was inevitably a substantial measure of improvisation in the development and enactment of the body of social legislation that marks the New Deal period. There were conflicts of policy and personalities within the Administration, congressional and constituency interests that required conciliation, and constitutional hurdles to overcome. Although there is little that is really new in his account of this complicated process, Bernstein paints a clear and evocative picture of the development and implementation of Federal social legislation during this extraordinary period in our history.

The failure of the economy to recover fully from the Great Depression until the defense and war period, and particularly for the sharp slump that occurred in 1937 and 1938, was due, in Bernstein's view, to the failure of the Administration to fully accept Keynesian ideas on fiscal and monetary policy in relation to output and employment. John Maynard Keynes did communicate with President Roosevelt, and there was a personal meeting between them in 1934. But it was not until 1936 when The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money was published that Keynes' views were fully elaborated and began to penetrate academic and Federal Administration circles. Moreover, there are other keys to the midterm slump, including the rapid rise in labor costs during 1937.

Approximately one-fourth of A caring Society is devoted to the effect of the depression as reflected in literature, art, photography, and song. There was graphic portrayal in numerous novels, plays of workers and working conditions, the impact of joblessness, and union organizing struggles. Bernstein presents brief synopses of many of these works, some of which have enduring literary merit. Except for a brief reference to Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left, he does not deal with the idealogical currents in the literary life of the period. On another level, the folk ballad, which had deep indigenous roots among workers in some ethnic groups and in some industries, also flourished during the 1930's. In painting, a strong tendency toward social realism developed, and documentary photography, although not new, expanded during the Great Depression and provided an indelible record of its social consequences.

A Caring Society properly focuses attention on the vast human tragedy of the mass unemployment of the depression years, and on the Federal legislative response beginning in 1933. It deals only marginally with the experience of the employed sector of the labor force during this period. But it was the dimensions of the unemployment problem that resulted in the rapid creation of the basic institutions of a welfare state. Had the emergency not occurred, these institutions, in an increasingly complex and urbanized society, undoubtedly would have emerged, but more slowly and perhaps in a somewhat different form.

Professor Bernstein should feel a great sense of accomplishment in the completion of this trilogy on the history of the American worker over two decades as dissimilar as the 1920's and 1930's. All of those interested in industrial relations and labor economics should feel indebted to him.
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Author:Douty, H.M.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1985
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