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Organizing the Unemployed: Community and Union Activists in the Industrial Heartland.

By James J. Lorence (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1996. xx plus 407pp.).

Labor studies of the Great Depression often concentrate on the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and organized labor. By the early 1930s, however, estimates of unemployed workers ranged from one-quarter to one-third or more of the work force; in 1933, Michigan had nearly a half-million workers without jobs and "a jobless rate of 46 percent." (p. 4) National studies also tend to obscure regional differences. James Lorence's study of Michigan's unemployed organizing from 1929 to 1941 demonstrates that regional differences even within a single state produce very different kinds of organizational structures and results. He also shows that in the early years of organizing the jobless developed a social movement that challenged government and the limited relief programs. Eventually, as more formal organizing efforts took over, the unemployed increasingly fell under the bureaucratic structures of the United Auto Workers which reduced their militance.

Although he focuses on Detroit and southeastern Michigan, Lorence covers organizing activities in the northern and western portions of lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. These diverse regions, varied economies and ethnic makeup produced different organizational structures and responses to the Depression. The CIO and United Auto Workers (UAW) dominated organizing in Detroit and the southeast. In contrast, because of a more mixed economy, less concentration of heavy industry and small-to-medium sized cities, western and northern lower Michigan experienced less active and less successful unemployed organizing. In western Michigan the Dutch Reformed Church's conservatism and hostility to unions also discouraged militant activities. The Upper Peninsula's weak extractive economy, Finnish radicalism and limited union presence gave the communist organizations a dominant position. Nevertheless, in Michigan "Communists, Socialists, Trotskyites, Lovestoneites and mainstream labor unionists" each competed "to mold the jobless into an effective economic, social and political force." (p. 10)

Lorence found these efforts took place in three phases. The first, from 1929 to 1935, witnessed militant action around community organizing and mass action demonstrations. Organized unemployed workers sat in at welfare offices, blocked evictions, and brought pressure to get relief; rank-and-file members helped govern their organizations influencing both policy and strategy. Until 1933, the Communist Party's Unemployed Council "was the most effective group ... on behalf of the jobless;" often it was the only group working for them. (p. 46) The Councils organized across race, ethnic and gender lines and fought for unemployment insurance, opposed by the American Federation of Labor until late 1932, and insisted on racial equality in relief administration. From 1933, Socialist organizing and New Deal Programs presented the Councils with increasing competition.

The second phase began in 1935 with growing governmental responses; the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Wagner Act, and the Socialist Party's Workers' Alliance (WA) began to reach jobless workers. The WPA, "rooted in the concept of the right to gainful employment," helped shift jobless organizing to collective bargaining on WPA projects. (p. 11) Increasingly, the organized jobless found themselves within both union and government bureaucracies. Finally in 1936, the Unemployment Councils joined the Workers' Alliance as part of Popular Front ideology and because of growing difficulties organizing.

The final phase began in 1937 with the emergence of the UAW and industrial unions. The CIO and UAW recruited jobless organizers whose skills and experiences translated effectively into organizing employed industrial workers; both unions also sought backing from the Workers' Alliance to support their strikes and prevent scabs from undercutting them. Despite close relations with the WA, the UAW's new WPA Welfare Department began to take over negotiations; by 1938, it became WPA workers' primary union bringing them under the union's bureaucracy. Lorence noted that the Welfare Department became "a vehicle for union-building and the reinforcement of class solidarity" among WPA workers in southeastern Michigan although their potential for radical action was increasingly "smothered by the resultant bureaucratization." (p. 291)

At the same time Communist organizers experienced increasing attack. Congressional Republicans attacked Communist influence in jobless and employed workers' organizations while the UAW leadership from President Homer Martin to Walter Reuther worked to weaken and ultimately dominate radical left elements. Despite Reuther's commitment to organizing as a social movement and his view of the union as a worker's extended family, Lorence argues that the UAW structured "unemployed protest in politically acceptable forms" that demonstrates "the roots of bureaucratized industrial unionism may be found in the 1930s." (p. 293)

Lorence's research is quite impressive both for its breadth and depth. He used extensively the Wayne State University's Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs and the Workers' Alliance of America Papers (Wisconsin State Historical Society), but these only scrape the surface of the very wide range of archival sources consulted. Lorence also draws on various Congressional investigations including the Committee on UnAmerican Activities and U.S. Military Intelligence Reports. He makes especially good use of oral histories.

This is an important study that adds significantly to the limited literature on jobless organizing; it also has important implications for current efforts. Its close focus on a major industrial state is especially valuable. The comparative framework proves organizationally unwieldly but valuable conceptually. The study's extensive detail is at once its greatest strength and weakness.

The close focus on organizations and organizing limits the coverage of the unemployed workers' experiences and emerging culture. Lorence effectively traces governmental and union bureaucracies' growing influence and how it reduced militance and socialized the jobless, but he does not show how workers reacted to or thought about these changes. The study provides the view from within organizations for the jobless not from the position of the unemployed themselves. Despite close discussions of organizing politics, the discussion of anti-Communist activities both within and without remains limited. Nevertheless, these are minor complaints for an otherwise fine study.

James Borchert Cleveland State University
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Author:Borchert, James
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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