Historiography of Great Depression Labor Legislation

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Mark Vigna
Everybody Wanted to Get in on the Act: What Historians Have Said About Political, Labor, Religious, and Social Leaders and the Agency of the Common Citizen in the Great Depression

War, starvation, charges of corruption, mass migration, and desperation are often the subject of intense contemporary and historical scrutiny whenever and wherever they occur. The Great Depression of the 1930s, in America, contained all these elements and therefore left an indelible imprint on the minds of those who lived and struggled through it, and, in turn, on the minds of a significant number of historians who have studied its ramifications ever since. Political historians have analyzed the government’s role in the devastating events which led to the Great Depression, the myriad legislation known as the New Deal designed to relieve it, and especially the role played by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a few of his closest advisors in framing a response to the unprecedented social upheaval caused by the economic downturn. Economic historians have studied the business conditions that prevailed at the onset of the depression, the influential work of English economist John Maynard Keynes, and the merits of the recovery. Labor historians have studied the role unions played in the Great Depression, how New Deal legislation gave rise to union organizing, the lengths and limits of union militancy, and the degree to which unions and union leaders were empowered as a result of this legislation. With the possible exception of a few Marxist scholars who have debated the role of class consciousness in the Great Depression, however, historians have generally pushed to the sidelines of the historiographical debate the role played by the common person who felt the effects of the Great Depression at the ground level, and thus, most acutely. The objective of this study was to examine how historiography reflected the effect the activities those displaced by the Great Depression had on lawmakers, and how their activities were understood by policy makers and filtered through the political process into legislation affecting the poor. The guiding assumption for this study was that the growth of industrialism outpaced intellectualisms ability to keep up with it thus allowing the interests of huge industrialists to wrest control of government policy to the detriment of workers. The Great Depression allowed an opportunity for intellectuals and lawmakers sympathetic to the unemployed to catch up. Did historians depict the Great Depression in this manner? Although technically a political science professor, Irving Bernstein wrote definitively on labor during the Great Depression, and is best known for his trilogy analyzing America’s efforts to deal with it1. In a 1976 article, “Public Policy and the American Worker, 1933-45,” Bernstein analyzed the effects of 1930s labor legislation. It was Bernstein’s thesis that after passage of the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) in 1935 it became easier than ever before for labor to organize into unions of their choosing, and that labor strikes were the impetus for this legislation. Bernstein cited the New Deal’s first attempt to help labor through section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Although 7(a) sparked new labor organizing, its governing body, the National Labor Board (NLB) had no power of forced compliance and had to rely on political persuasion to enforce its decisions. Many employers ignored the NLB and the auto industry went so far as to persuade Roosevelt to push through a separate Automobile Labor Board which recognized company unions and virtually destroyed the NLB by 1934. According to Bernstein, the failure of the NLB and efforts by big business to deny organizing rights to large numbers of workers sparked a series of violent strikes in 1934 that convinced lawmakers, especially Robert Wagner of New York, to push for legislation granting a governing body for labor which...
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