The second three units will look at the people who have done the work of building this country and how they have molded and been molded by the economic system in which they work.
Unit 4, which begins the second part of the curriculum, is about immigration, the movement of people who came to the United States from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in 1800 through the period of development of mass production after the Civil War. This unit, will attempt to look at three aspects of immigration.
The first is the people who came—their national origins, their reasons for leaving and expectations in coming, and the skills and cultural traditions they brought with them. We would compare the Northern Europeans, who constituted the vast majority of early nineteenth century immigrants, with the Southern and Eastern Europeans who came during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
By looking mainly at three representative groups which settled in New England and locally, we can contrast the artisanal and political skills which were, respectively, part of the English and Irish heritage with the agricultural and industrially unskilled peasant traditions of most of the Italian immigrants.
A second aspect of immigration concerns the backgrounds of these groups and their entry into the changing course of industrialization in the U.S. Northern Europeans filled the need for skilled craftsmen in the early period when there was still much hand work involved in production. As industrial work became more automated and specialized, and more tightly organized and controlled by management rather than by those doing the work, there developed a demand for cheap, unskilled, plentiful labor.
The third aspect of immigration is the initial experience of newcomers—how these groups were seen and treated by those who lived here and how they used ethnic solidarity for survival in an alien setting. We will also look at the assimilation process, the economic and social conditions which caused immigrants to move away from strong ties with their ethnic heritage. In this part of the unit we will touch on conditions of arrival, native prejudice, neighborhoods, social organizations, religion, and mass education as factors in the social experience of immigrant workers.
Because most of our students are Black we will consciously attempt to relate the experience of immigrant ethnic groups to that of Blacks, both as slave and wage labor in the South and as migrants in the North.
1) A study of a historical time line of entry of ethnic groups, a map study of New Haven, and a short bus tour of ethnic neighborhoods and major work places of immigrants when they came here, 2) a movie about the story of an immigrant boy in the early nineteen hundreds, 3) a slide show and discussion of the history of Jews and Italians in New Haven, and 4) a guest speaker, perhaps a Puerto Rican, who can talk about the personal and modern-day experience of being an immigrant. We also expect to use several short passages to illustrate the social conditions affecting immigrants and to stimulate a discussion comparing and contrasting their situation with that of Blacks.
The focus of Unit 5 is upon racial discrimination and its influence on our working history. We will look at Blacks in the labor force, first as slaves and later as wage earners. The majority of our students are Black and poor. They often want to know why Blacks are so poor while Whites seem to have much more—even the poor ones. We want to show students how racial differences have been used by owners to separate workers so that they compete with each other for jobs rather than join together and force the owners to change their policies and raise wages. We will concentrate on this aspect of racism in America because it relates to our unit and is seldom explored.
Slavery was at its core an economic institution. Slaves were brought here to supplement an inadequate and unruly labor force. Due to their skin color they stood out from other workers and could therefore be more easily managed. The slave system allowed plantation owners to exercise a large degree of control over the work force and the cost of production labor. By the Civil War however, there were many questions about whether slavery was still a profitable system for the owners because of the high cost of maintaining slaves and their refusal or inability to work with machines. By contrast the wage system in the north allowed the owners to put into competition the different groups of workers and thus to maintain low wages. War resolved the issue of slavery, and it also resolved another major issue for the Northern industrialists. When the Southern states were forced to remain in the union, the South was forced to trade with Northern manufacturers. The English manufacturers were no longer major competitors within the country.
After the emancipation of the slaves, some Blacks moved into different jobs. A few moved into cities, but the majority, uneducated and unfamiliar with urban life, stayed to work the land in the South. There were attempts during Reconstruction to make political and educational changes which would allow Blacks to move into White society as equal competitors. However by the 1890’s many of the gains that Black people had realized were taken away from them. The new Jim Crow laws restricted their movement and legalized social and political segregation. The land they had been given after the War was expropriated and given back to the previous owners, and wherever possible, Whites were hired to replace those Blacks who had gained industrial employment.
Industrial jobs in large number were first made available to Black people during the First World War when White workers were drafted into the army. More jobs were opened again after World War Two. Problems arose when the returning GIs wanted their jobs back, but by that time Blacks had moved north into the industrial areas. Thus Blacks and Whites competed for the same jobs. This competition allowed owners to maintain low wages by threatening to hire other workers if those who were employed complained. The industrial union movement grew in this environment and will be discussed in the next section.
It is important for students to realize that Black people have always participated in the American economy in a variety of ways—as farmers, laborers, professionals and owners. Owners have hired them until White workers were willing to work for lower wages. Then the White workers were hired. As the White workers made demands on the owners, especially during strikes, they were replaced by cheaper labor—Black workers desperate to gain employment. This is easily seen in New Haven through a discussion of the Olin strike of 1979-80.
Racial issues have proven to be particularly sensitive for all of our students. The questions raised by this unit bring up explosive issues such as race and poverty, and race and work. We want to deal with these issues openly in the classroom through emphasis on open and respectful discussions.
After discussing the many ways in which Black people have worked in America, we will concentrate on relating the particular function of race within the wage system. There are sections of
which deal with plantation work and the slave system. Racial discrimination as reflected in industrial work will be included as part of a presentation and study of the Olin strike by a worker from the plant there. In
The Afro-American in United States History
, Chapter 13, there is a clear and simple presentation of the competition between immigrants and free Blacks.
The sixth unit of this course will be about the labor movement, which we have chosen as the most ongoing and significant attempt of working people to influence or control their conditions of work, better their economic status, and at times, press for major social and political change. The unit will focus primarily on helping students to understand the purpose and functioning of a union as an expression of collective power. The history of unions will be used to give the concepts an emotional life and to ground them in reality.
We will explain the beginnings of unionism in early U.S. history as both organized and spontaneous expressions of worker discontent. We will relate the history of unionism to our previous studies of immigration by pointing to craft unionism as an outgrowth of the early influx of Northern European immigrants who brought with them a political and working class heritage which eventually resulted in the formation of the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) in 1886. By contrast, the growth of industrial unionism, resulting in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1938, lagged far behind. The reason for this lay at least partially in the fact that that large American industry developed gradually, using at first more skilled craftsmen and only later large numbers of unskilled workers. However the resistance of the early established labor unions to organizing workers in large-scale industry can also be seen as a reluctance to accept workers and jobs which were quickly making skilled labor obsolete, threatening its very existence. Thus, mass production and the need that was created for low-paying, unskilled jobs benefited the owning class not only because it made profits rise, but because it divided labor.
In addition, the feudal, agricultural background of later immigrants made them initially more deferential toward managerial authority, even when the economic conditions were too disastrous to be borne quietly. At the time of the Great Depression these workers were more accepting of a form of unionism which granted management’s ultimate authority but asked for rules and limits to the ways that it could be exercised.
In the class we will use the Lawrence Strike of 1912 as an example of blatent class antagonism, worker/community solidarity, and the type of unionism which had, at least in the minds of its leaders (the industrial Workers of the World), the goal of overturning the social and economic order. We will then look at attempts at unionization within the modern textile industry as an example of unionism which accepts the overall social and economic order and works within it for important, but more limited improvement of wages and working conditions.
In all the activities of this unit we are particularly concerned that students become familiar not only with the functioning, but also with the specific vocabulary of unionism.
In addition to working on this vocabulary, other activities will include: 1) a slide show and commentary taken from the pictures and text of William Cahn’s book,
, which describes the Lawrence strike, 2) a discussion of the current organizing drive by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in their attempt to unionize J.P. Stevens plants throughout the South, and a showing of the film
, which describes that drive, 3) a visit from a union organizer to describe his or her job, 4) an autobiographical account, probably the one by Jesse Reese, a Black steelworker, from the book
Rank and File
by Alice and Staughton Lynd, and 5) a video slide tape presentation about the Machinist Union at Prat & Whitney.
Government, People, and Work Legislation
In the last unit we will look at legislation relating to working people during the years of the Depression and the New Deal. We have chosen to study government at this particular moment in our history for two reasons: first because the legislation passed at that time will have an impact on our students as working people or people out of work, and second, because we feel the New Deal era provides an unusually clear example of the role of government in our economic system.
In order to create a context for examining New Deal legislation we will begin this unit by looking at the first years of the Depression and at some of the social, political, and labor unrest that shaped those times. In 1929 at the time of the stock market crash the seeming prosperity of the American economy crumbled. Banks and businesses closed, workers were laid off, and industrial production dropped dramatically. As the economic crisis worsened, its social ramifications became equally extreme. In cities poor people stood in long soup lines and families were evicted from apartments for non-payment of rent; in rural area farmers lost their land because crops did not sell and they could not pay mortgages. In Washington D.C. in 1932 the Bonus Army, World War I veterans and their families from all over the country, gathered and camped near the Capital to demand that the government pay off immediately on the bonuses due them in the future. The army and cavalry, under the leadership of General Douglas McArthur and Major Dwight Eisenhower, were called in to burn their shanties and drive them away.
The action of the war veterans was only one example of growing desperation and anger among ordinary people. Even as President Roosevelt mobilized the government to take drastic steps to alleviate the general misery, people in all walks of life banded together to express their anger and to channel the power that anger could generate.
In industry, with one-fourth to one-third of all workers out of jobs, major strikes by long-shoremen, miners, and teamsters led to general strikes in cities such as Seattle, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. In hundreds of cases workers began to sit-down and occupy their work places during strikes, and some, such as the coal miners in Pennsylvania in 1934, actually managed production themselves and began to sell or trade their products directly. Meanwhile people in city neighborhoods organized to stop evictions, and Unemployed Councils sprang up to help people help themselves. Large numbers of citizens, through their actions, began to question whether our system of government could work.
It is probable that for most people, at this time of serious crisis, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies must have seemed to presage the coming of a new age. In addition to providing immediate relief for the economy and individuals by creating government jobs, F.D.R.’s administration supported the passage of social legislation which has become an intrinsic part of our expectations of minimal security in life today. The country saw the beginnings of organized Welfare; there was the Social Security Act of 1935 which provided old-age and unemployment compensation, and the Wagner Labor Relations Act, which legitimized collective bargaining and made the government a monitor of labor relations.
In the class we will look at the Depression and at the New Deal legislation that was to deeply affect the lives of working people. In addition we will ask students to take note of several important facts: first, that the government’s decision to take responsibility for its citizens’ minimal security from want and starvation marked a radical departure from the past practice; second, that these laws still excluded large groups of people (domestics, farm workers, government employees, teachers); third, that minimal security meant no more than that—survival in a system which perpetuated the great inequalities of wealth that already existed in the society; fourth, that the New Deal policies while alleviating human suffering, also stabilized the economy and forstalled a growing threat of rebellion, immediately, making people feel less desperate and in the long run, by limiting the revolutionary potential of the labor movement through legitimizing and controlling it within our system of laws.
Although the class will have no opportunity to study the legislation in depth, we will attempt to give students a basic understanding of each law’s intent, how it worked at its time of conception, and how it is currently applied in Connecticut.
The activities of this unit will be: 1) a discussion and a film about the Depression, 2) a speaker, possibly Thomas I. Emerson, who worked in the Roosevelt Administration and wrote much of the Wagner Act. He can talk about the spirit of these times in government, 3) several short readings from the book
America’s Working Women
: one, in which a woman reacts to having been excluded from the Social Security Act and another, in which a woman explains what it means to her to be on welfare today; and 4) a second speaker, a state legislator or a lawyer who can talk about the current Connecticut applications of the laws we have studied.
As we describe the content and goals of this course it often appears impossibly broad and general. It is important to keep in mind that we do not propose to have students in the class read and assimilate large amounts of information about each of the topics we study. Rather, students will be introduced to a topic through discussion and vocabulary study; then they will be given several experiences to make the subject come alive. In discussions we will give students a way to look at each experience; we will elicit their reactions, and we will attempt to make connections both within and between each unit.
We feel successful if our students finish the course with some understanding that history combines our past and present, that it is alive with people like ourselves, and that it can give us a perspective for looking at our personal experience. More specifically, we want students to see the development of work in our society and to understand their real position in the working world they will enter. We believe that with this understanding they can begin to take more control of their lives. We also hope to show them that one of the most powerful avenues for change in the U.S. has been people working together. We feel that this course is one starting point for that understanding.