BOOK REVIEW: Eric Leif Davin, Crucible of Freedom: Workers' Democracy in the Industrial Heartland, 1914–1960 (2010)

Eric Leif Davin has noticed something important about the American working class during the 1930s—that its support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, and the New Deal involved a generational transformation with consequences for decades to come. With data drawn from the steel and mining towns of Pennsylvania, Davin shows the huge surge in votes that gave the electoral system a new tilt. Immigrants and the children of immigrants were the majorities in all the largest cities during that decade, comprising one-third of the nation's population. These were the people that the Democratic Party drew into its fold. The new voters were southern and eastern European by background and overwhelmingly Roman Catholic by persuasion, and this too shaped the nature of the electorate in unique ways.

Davin is especially astute in how he links voter participation to legislative changes that altered the balance of power between employers and employees. It was the change in voting patterns, he points out, and not the largesse of the Democratic Party leadership that was the precipitating factor. With the rush of these same voters into the newly-formed unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the mid-1930s, electoral participation and unionisation became intrinsically linked (just as their decoupling is a more recent phenomenon). The Democratic Party morphed into America's de facto labor party.

In a few brief but important passages in Crucible of Freedom, Davin describes the measures enacted by the newly-configured Democratic establishment. Local administrations inaugurated a long list of needed and overdue reforms, reinforced on the statewide level wherever the Democrats were similarly elected. They outrightly abolished the legal basis for corporations to maintain separate police forces, barred local police from serving as strikebreakers, appointed former union officials to leadership positions within the local and state police forces, and approved unemployment benefits for strikers. These measures complemented and reinforced other legislation that restructured the taxation system, expanded the legal definition of civil rights, banned company stores, and enacted anti-sweatshop legislation. Together they had a profound effect on the success or failure of the workplace organizing drives that otherwise faced merciless opposition from employers in terms of dismissals, blacklists, evictions from company housing, intimidation by thugs and strikebreakers, and arbitrary arrests. Electoral success led directly to a renewed boost in unionization campaigns.

Davin attributes great significance to these developments, but his focus on voter participation rates and voting patterns gets lost in an awkward advocacy of a “workers' democracy” that he claims dominated the mid-twentieth century United States. On the one hand, he describes the New Deal as a period in which “extreme class consciousness, class solidarity, and class conflict dominated the domestic scene and American politics.”[1] In other words, he places the working class's new-found politicization at the center of the profound social and economic struggles then swirling throughout American society. This focus alone makes Crucible of Freedom a noteworthy achievement.

But there is the repeated recourse to a working class triumphalism that leads Davin to distort the historical record in some places and ignore it in others. Davin claims, for instance, that the greatest achievement for workers was “their creation of a society promising a democratisation of labor-capital relations, a more equal chance to prosper, economic security, political rights for workers, and respect for ethnic Americans.” But should we take Davin's claim seriously? Was the “promise” of better treatment all that workers wanted? Was this “a truly radical departure from the past and a genuine reform,” as he expresses it?[2] Davin claims that “the workers, in fact, won their struggle of the 1930s. And what they brought forth in the Fifties was exactly the kind of society for which they so militantly fought.”[3]

What irks Davin greatly is the failure of left-wing commentators to appreciate fully the political and economic achievements of the working class. For Davin, “left intellectuals, enamored as they were, and are, with marxist ideology, misunderstood, and continue to misunderstand, the nature of this working class ideology of revolt.”[4] That the working class focused its radicalism on the electoral system has long perplexed left commentators. The question most posed by the left critics is why the working class never moved beyond this vision. The ongoing deterioration of living conditions during the Great Depression, the near-absolute disappearance of employment possibilities, the widespread evictions from farmland and tenements, the mass migration from the countryside into the urban slums, the collapse of the privately-financed welfare system, and the sense of dislocation and bewilderment that defined reality led the population to embrace the state as the savior of the economy at a time when parts of the bourgeoisie saw the stabilisation of economic competition and a guaranteed minimum existence for the working population as key to the regeneration of a capitalist normalcy.

In critical places throughout Crucible of Freedom, Davin might have strengthened his argument about working class achievement. Roosevelt, for instance, had only lukewarmly encouraged the unions at first and does not deserve credit for their development. Unionisation represented a fallback position for the Democrats after the National Recovery Act was declared illegal by the ever-conservative judiciary. Both the NRA and unions aimed at similar economic effects, even if the means to bring this about were different. The NRA created uniform business conditions in each industrial and commercial sector through the use of formal price- and output-fixing agreements. Such measures eliminated the downward spiral that accompanied the price-cutting and cut-throat competition that otherwise typified the depressionary circumstances and blocked a recovery. Widespread unionisation accomplished the same goals by creating identical wage rates and working conditions throughout an entire economic sphere. Unions could do what the judiciary would not allow the government to do. Such were the vicissitudes of the capitalist world.

Other aspects of the New Deal, however, speak to the peripheral nature of the working class within the New Deal constellation and contradict Davin's assertions to the contrary. Public works projects provided employment and a regular income, but most were make-work programs that offered little in the form of skills actually useful in the private sector. Jobs in road building and land clearance led nowhere and this at a time when employers already required huge inputs of machines, raw materials, and productive facilities per worker. The New Deal eliminated much of the extreme poverty that characterised the early 1930s, but its programs provided incomes that were pegged at a survival minimum. The special and often short-lived projects in the creative arts employed very few people despite the attention these programs received. They were hardly an outlet for the broad masses of the unemployed. Even programs like social security and disability insurance, while better than nothing, only guaranteed a minimal existence. Many of the measures implemented by the New Deal were not intended to benefit workers at all, but rather the middle and upper classes. Transportation facilities like airports and roadways were not for workers, who during the 1930s still depended on railroads and tramways for their mobility. Power plants, dams, and other major installations had economic development as a prime motive, not the direct and immediate relief of the destitute. The street-by-street infrastructure projects like electrical wiring and water pipes that benefitted consumers followed much later.

Davin never quite comes to terms with the actual character of the CIO unions as working class organizations. The CIO unions were from the start ambivalent about working class initiative and self-determination. For all the militance of the sit-down strikes in 1936–37, including the street battles with police, thugs, and National Guardsmen, the elaborate food supply networks for the striking workers, the supplementary picketing by the unemployed, the strike committees and massive demonstrations, there was also an air of passivity that functioned against the strikers. Once inside a workplace, no attempt was made to bring production under worker control, nor it seems was this idea ever broached. From the iconic photos of that era, it looks as if workers sat around and played cards, appearing at the factory windows every so often in order to wave the American flag and show just how patriotic they remained. At every juncture, authority was wrested from the democratically-elected strike committees and vested instead in appointed union officials. If the CIO was identified with working class militance, it was also synonymous with the pacification of that same working class. The CIO openly proclaimed its intent to replace the collusion between large corporations and local governments by interjecting itself into this equation. The right to organize and bargain collectively was the key to its success, and this is precisely what New Deal legislation guaranteed.

Meanwhile Davin points to the new surge in union membership and strikewave at the end of the 1930s that defied the directives issued by the CIO leadership as examples of the ongoing combativeness of the working class and its ability to influence economic and political policy. Be that as it may, these same years were also characterised by ongoing purges within the union movement of its most active and independent members—leftists, left-leaning locals, and left-wing unions alike. Workers also witnessed the replacement of elected union officials by appointed ones, automatic collection of dues and payment of shop steward salaries by the employers, no-strike pledges, and the transformation of the union movement into “business” unions that confined their attention to wage rates and working conditions and amassed huge treasuries whose preservation became a goal in and of themselves. To deal with the two million strikers in defense-related industries, the Democratic Party began to use the military as a strike-breaking tool, with CIO officials coordinating their own activities with soldiers and politicians alike. Nor does Davin mention that many strikes were fought not for higher wages and less-brutalising working conditions but for the sole purpose of union recognition (just as the recent demonstrations in Michigan and elsewhere, in which the unions proclaimed their readiness to help cut wages and benefits, were an attempt to save the union bureaucracies).

The working class could not control its own organizations, neither during the sit-down strikes nor during the 1945–46 strike wave—the largest the country had ever experienced. Likewise, it could not dominate the political environment into which it had emerged as a significant factor. Already in the late 1930s the Democratic Party placed palpable limits on the ability of the unions to dictate candidates and electoral platforms. Davin spends considerable time plotting the fortunes of David Lawrence as mayor of Pittsburgh and governor of Pennsylvania, who Davin holds responsible for the loss of union influence. But behind Lawrence stood an entire political establishment. The unions were a third member of the coalition that comprised the Democratic Party, alongside the race-oriented “Dixiecrats” of the southern states and the corrupt urban-based political machines throughout the industrialised states of the northeast, midwest, and west. The influx of new voters from the working class enclaves intensified still further the urban/non-urban divide that already characterised the political see-saw between the two major political parties. In the steel and mining districts on which Davin concentrates, the Republican Party's vote remained constant between 1930 and 1936, whereas the Democratic vote tripled. The strikewave and sitdowns provoked a rightward shift among the swing voters within the middle classes. Minimizing the visibility and importance of union influence within the Democratic Party became a necessity in the face of this electoral drift nationally, lest parts of the Democratic coalition float away.

If, as Davin says, “the class war in America reached its peak in 1948, with the electoral class cleavage reaching the highest levels ever recorded,” the working class's role within the political environment had by then changed dramatically.[5] Rather than influencing policy, working class voters became a “taken-for-granted” group within the Democratic Party. What emerges slowly in Crucible of Freedom is an image of a working class that has fierce and closely-held allegiances but which also has a profound inability to move beyond its pre-existing attachments to the Democratic Party, unions, and the Catholic Church. Union members continued to vote Democratic for the next several decades, tempted neither by the left-leaning Henry Wallace nor the race-hater Strom Thurmond. Nor would the attempts at intimidation during the anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and early 1950s change voting patterns, as if the working class was oblivious to the mangling to which the political and managerial elites subjected themselves.

Politics became its own jobs engine, with the CIO finally discovering what the German Social Democrats had figured out nearly a half-century before. Because of their importance to the Democratic Party, the unions were well-positioned to enter the reshuffled system of political patronage. Some of the union officials who catapulted into positions in the various government bureaucracies are highlighted in the many, often redundant, interviews conducted by Davin for this book. They were beneficiaries of the so-called “spoils system” that remains a feature of the political world. During the New Deal, jobs could be found within the various social welfare programs like the Works Progress Administration, the workmen's compensation bureaucracy, the fleet of labor department inspectors, and in municipal employment agencies like the fire and police departments, the judiciary, boards of education, and town halls in general. The trade union elite is the perspective from which Davin interprets these decades, letting slip at one point that the working class was a “motley crew of the oppressed, which comprised not only ethnics of all types, but women as well as men, blacks as well as whites.”[6]

An ethnic community, Davin explains, “provided almost everything a person required, from cradle to grave, making most travel outside the neighborhood unnecessary.”[7] Such communities depended on long-term job stability for its members, precisely what Davin attributes to the New Deal reorganization of society. A prime example was the Homestead factory complex, where during the 1950s, 4,000 of the 10,000 employees were father-son combinations. “To express class solidarity with your fellow workers,”he clarifies, “did not mean embracing strangers. It meant expressing solidarity with your father, your uncles, your brothers, and your fellow Poles or paesani.”[8] In other words, workers functioned as ethnics at home and at work but as citizens at the polling places, a bifurcated sense of the world that typifies the working class as inward-looking, self-protective, and fixated on the institutions that promised to maintain the status quo. To be treated fairly, Davin tells us, is all that workers ever wanted. Why they never asked for more, goes unaddressed.

Race and gender inequality are the Achilles heels of Davin's analysis, dynamics he neither satisfactorily probes nor explains. What kind of class solidarity only included white men? Were the households of white union members less vehement in their indoctrination of children, less prone to consider epithets, negative comments, and aggressive physical posturing as normal behavior? Did they invite the black playmates of their children into their homes? Spend time chit-chatting with the parents of these playmates? Refuse to participate in the informal networks of realtors, bankers, and home owners that enforced strict codes of residential segregation? Object to the taunts and physical violence to which Negro and Puerto Rican males were subject when they strayed into white neighborhoods? And what about the near-universal harassment of working women? Were CIO members less prone to it? Were CIO households more loosely structured and less restrictive for female members?

If working class households tended to be more progressive because of their voting patterns and union membership, as Davin suggests, how was this manifested? There is good reason to think that a sizable portion of the working class prided itself on its “enlightened” views. But here as elsewhere, Davin has left a huge gap, despite the many interviews he conducted for this book. That African-Americans joined the unions and also voted Democratic, Davin argues, is a testament to the latent progressiveness within these institutions. Nonetheless, the New Deal era of the 1930s–1960s was also a time when the white working class forged its identity in opposition to its black and Latino workmates. That women lived in a still-other bifurcated world also needs exploration. The women that Davin mentions who supported the CIO were also excluded from virtually all levels of governance, even of their own unions. How does all this fit together—class solidarity, racial enmity, and gender discrimination—into a coherent understanding of working class intentionality and behavior, an absence not just in Davin's book but in most other historically-oriented accounts of the working class as well?

Crucible of Freedom ends on a false note: “out of the crucible of the industrial heartland, these nameless workers democratised large sectors of the economy. These despised 'foreigners' brought political democracy to large portions of the country.”[9] The New Deal, pace Davin, laid the basis for the progressive movements that unfolded decades later. That may be so, but the legacy of the New Deal coalition was part of the reason that new social upheavals like the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements were needed. Davin has produced a history of the working class all-too-eager to tell us that everything would have been alright, if only the world had stopped changing. That it hadn't already changed enough is a theme he blames leftists for having the temerity to even suggest.

  1. [1] Davin, p. 1.
  2. [2] Ibid., p. 404.
  3. [3] Ibid., p. 5.
  4. [4] Ibid., p. 11.
  5. [5] Ibid., p. 340.
  6. [6] Ibid., p. 127.
  7. [7] Ibid., p.46.
  8. [8] Ibid., p. 47.
  9. [9] Ibid., p. 406.

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