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The Politics of U.S. Labor: From the Great Depression to the New Deal


189 pages
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-85345-570-7

The alliance of the industrial labor movement with the Democratic Party under Franklin D. Roosevelt has, perhaps more than any other factor, shaped the course of class relations in the United States over the ensuing forty years. Much has been written on the interests that were thereby served, and those that were co-opted. In this detailed examination of the strategies pursued by both radical labor and the capitalist class in the struggle for industrial unionism, David Milton argues that while radical social change and independent political action were traded off by the industrial working class for economic rights, this was neither automatic nor inevitable. Rather, the outcome was the result of a fierce struggle in which capital fought labor and both fought for control over government labor policy. And, as he demonstrates, crucial to the outcome was the specific nature of the political coalitions contending for supremacy.

In analyzing the politics of this struggle, Milton presents a fine description of the major strikes, beginning in 1933-1934, that led to the formation of the CIO and the great industrial unions. He looks closely at the role of the radical political groups, including the Communist Party, the Trotskyists, and the Socialist Party, and provides an enlightening discussion of their vulnerability during the red-baiting era. He also examines the battle between the AFL and the CIO for control of the labor movement, the alliance of the AFL with business interests, and the role of the Catholic Church. Finally, he shows how the extraordinary adeptness of President Roosevelt in allying with labor while at the same time exploiting divisions within the movement was essential to the successful channeling of social revolt into economic demands.

David Milton’s book really tells us what happened to American labor during a crucial period. Milton better than anyone in recent years describes a failure of nerve. Yet his book is an antidote to despair—a revelatory, important book.

—Studs Terkel, author, Working

David Milton has written a very useful study of the origins of the social bargain of the 1930s which is becoming unstuck today. It reveals clearly how working-class militancy opened the way for major social reforms, only to be confined by the end of the 1930s to legalized ‘economism.’ Today’s crisis, which challenges labor to break out of that economism, makes this book about its origins and development both timely and important.

—David Montgomery, labor historian and author, Workers’ Control in America

David Milton is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Oregon. He was a merchant seaman during the Second World War, then worked for more than fifteen years as a union activist in the steel, meat packing, electrical, and construction industries. He is co-editor of the reader People’s China (with Franz Schurmann and Nancy Milton), co-author of The Wind Will Not Subside: Years in Revolutionary China 1964-1969 (with Nancy Milton), and author of Lincoln’s Spymaster: Thomas Haines Dudley and the Liverpool Network.

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Publication Date: January 1982

Number of Pages: 189

Paperback ISBN: 9780853455707