Payroll Prosperity: Will American Labor Go Conservative?

Associate Professor of History at Harvard, OSCAR HANDLIN seeks to answer a question which is fundamental in any blueprint of our economy. Will American labor, some of whose leaders once flirted dangerously with Communism, follow the line toward Socialism? Or will they prove to be a property-minded conservative force in the years ahead? Mr. Handlin is the author of Boston’s Immigrants and This Is America, studies of the new blood streams in this country; and his latest book, The Uprooted, won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1951.


BRIDGEPORT, Connecticut, lives by manufacturing; the bulk of its labor force is employed in factories that produce sewing machines, typewriters, and a variety of other goods. Highly unionized, it supported a Socialist municipal administration for years and in presidential elections consistently voted Democratic. Yet in 1952 the Republicans came within a few votes of carrying this labor stronghold.

It was the same in one industrial center after another — in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, in Chicago, and in Detroit. The great cities were still Democratic but by a margin so reduced that the states fell away into the Republican column. Labor was not voting as expected. The character of the victory shows too many similarities to that of Senator Taft in 1950 to be written off simply on the magic of Ike’s name. There is substantial evidence that these shifts in voting were but one manifestation of a deep change in labor’s political attitudes. What once seemed a permanent commitment to liberalism may, in retrospect, have been a temporary alliance of expediency only. And we may today be witnessing the beginning of a significant attachment to conservatism on the part of the American working people.

To comprehend the nature of that transformation, it is necessary to understand first the conditions under which labor was drawn to liberalism twenty years ago, and then the extent to which those conditions have disappeared.

It was the Now Deal that made liberalism meaningful to labor. Until then the mass of American workers had been apathetic to the issues of national politics; and even the minority of organized union members had followed the Gompers policy of neutrality.

The Yew Deal attracted the overwhelming support of the industrial workers because it offered them, for the first time, the means of protecting themselves against a desperate economic situation. The New Deal measures promised security to men driven to despair by inability to fend for themselves in a system that pitted an isolated individual against the highly mechanized techniques of modern mass production.

We are prone now to forget that the workingman’s central problem in the 1930s, as earlier, was to get and to hold on to a job. Unemployment was endemic. In the flush decade of the 1920s the number of job seekers averaged about 2 million in a total labor force that ran to between 45 and 49 million. In periods of depression, unemployment overwhelmed the whole economy. In 1932 the number of the jobless approached 12 million; almost one of every four American families then had no earnings at all. Even in 1940, when the effects of wartime recovery were already being felt, a city such as Bridgeport, which had a total labor force of some 60,000, found that more than 8000 lacked work.

Copyright 1953, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

The Bridgeport factory hand who supported the New Deal did so in the consciousness that he might be left without an income through some turn of the economy over which he had no control. He was also aware that when he worked, his earning power was abysmally low. Through the good times of “normalcy” the average annual wages of such elite groups as street railway employees, who worked the year round, added up to about $1500. The mass of laborers earned far less. As late as 1940, in Boston, a city of relatively high wage rates, 31 per cent of the experienced labor force boasted an income of less than $600 a year, 76 per cent an income of less than $1600. Whatever allowances must be made for the relatively low cost of living at the time, these returns were still exceedingly low.

The laborers turned to government; there was no one else to turn to. Industry treated unemployment and depressions as inevitable. The few unions were weak and unconcerned with the lot of any but their own members. Only the state, through unemployment insurance, relief, and social security, seemed capable of meeting the critical need of men otherwise without resources. How critical were the needs and how resourceless the men may be judged by the number of violations of the Wage and Hour Law which had in 1938 established a minimum rate of 25 cents an hour.

In addition, a goodly part of the working population felt itself underprivileged and helpless in a broader sense. In the ranks of unskilled labor, the “minorities” were particularly numerous Negroes, Jews, Catholics, recent immigrants, and the children of recent immigrants. Opportunity in education, in housing, and in choice of occupations was not as open to such people as to other Americans. The minorities found hope in the New Deal idea that it was the function of the government to intervene and rectify such inequalities wherever they existed.

Labor’s faith in liberalism after 1930 thus sprang from the quest for security and stability in American society. The quest still continues, but in a form so altered that the old faith has lost its power. The laborer’s position in the economy is not now what it was twenty years ago; his earning power has risen, and he stands in a new relationship to his job. In consequence, his general social and political attitudes have shifted.


UNEMPLOYMENT as a consequential factor has disappeared. There are still seasonal rises and falls, and there have been occasional short-run declines in the number of available places. But for twelve years the labor force has kept growing and has not left any significant pools of unemployed. The 60 million jobs once regarded as visionary have long since become a reality; the worker now no longer fears idleness as a threat to his well-being.

At the same time, his earning power has changed, for the better. No matter what has happened to the purchasing power of its dollars, a phenomenal rise has carried the effective total wages of labor to a higher level than ever before.

Hourly rates everywhere have risen. Instances chosen at random show those of transit employees doubling to reach $1.68 in New England in 1951, and those of all building trade workers climbing to $2.29. The meat packing industry, which once supplied Upton Sinclair with the material for The Jungle, has by now been transformed; in 1950 its average hourly rate was $1.57.

But these figures do not tell the whole story. Not only hourly rates but, more important, total earnings have mounted. Since 1940, for example, packing house workers have found employment for an average of well over forty hours a week. The wages they take home are greater than in earlier years because they profit from a fuller work week and from extra pay for overtime, as well as from the higher hourly rate. With seasonal fluctuations largely eliminated, and with employers calling for his services through the year, the industrial laborer finds his total annual income soaring to levels beyond his fondest hopes only a few years ago.

What is more, a persistent shortage of labor has made room for numerous new employees. Women, when they wish, find hirers eager to accommodate them on a fullor a part-time basis. Well over 20 per cent of all American women of working age take such jobs, a measure of the extent to which the practice is accepted as respectable. Young people find work as soon as they like; even those who are still in school pick up vacation or part-time employment with ease, and with good pay. Such marginal hands have expanded the labor force and family incomes. The 48,159 households of Flint, Michigan, for instance, produced 70,174 employed persons in 1950; the 219,000 households of Boston, 319,000. Data for the working class sections of the cities generally show that the ratio of employment is highest there. The resulting rise in family income offers a striking contrast to the situation ten years earlier.

The disappearance of unemployment, and the rise in earning powers are unprecedented. Earlier periods of comparable prosperity, such as that during the silk shirt years of the First World War, were of short durat ion and affected only limited numbers of fortunate workers. The present prosperity has extended through more than a decade and has affected everyone. And in that decade the laborer’s whole relationship to his work was being altered.

Less than ever before does the laborer identify himself with his job. think of himself, as an individual, primarily in terms of his position at a particular type of work in a particular plant. The riveter, the laster, the crane operator sheds the marks of his employment when he leaves the shop. The nature of his work will only slightly influence his life outside.

In part, the separation of work from life is due to long-term developments. The craftsmanship that once was the link of the laborer to his task is now disappearing. The decline in the spirit of workmanship has long since set in under the impact of mechanization that lowered the social value of skills. The Studebaker ad still makes an emotional appeal to the pride of the mechanic in his craft. But the man on the assembly line finds little in his own experience that would lead him to stick to a job out of the satisfaction of doing it.

Full employment and high wages have pushed that trend to its ultimate conclusion. The mere process of holding a job is not so critical as it once was. Since the worker feels secure in the knowledge that many jobs are available and that movement is possible from one to another, the specific place he occupies at any given time is not very important in his life. Once hesitant to take the risk of shifting from one factory to another, he is not hesitant now to move from one section of the country to another, confident he will anywhere find a demand for his services.

The general rise in all earning power has also divorced the worker from the specific job by minimizing the importance of wage differentials based upon special skills. In many highly unionized industries, for instance, unskilled or semiskilled laborers are better paid than skilled craftsmen in not so thoroughly unionized plants. Often in the past ten years, cabinetmakers, bookbinders, and watchmakers have moved on to higher wages as laborers in defense plants. The mastery of a trade no longer holds the man to his job. The job, no matter what its character, is regarded as a source of income only, and the best pay attracts the worker.

Laborers are less likely to identify themselves with their work, also, because their work absorbs a smaller share of their energy and attention.

The number of hours actually spent at the machine has fallen steadily. In the hungry 1930s that decline was stimulated by the desire to spread the available work to as many hands as possible. But the feather-bedding practices then introduced in some industries have persisted. The majority of New York longshoremen, for whom the work week is thirteen hours, are certainly not typical of labor in general. But in railroads, steel, and coal mining the work week has shrunk without a corresponding lowering of wages. Even among such a group as motor truck drivers and helpers the work schedule has shown a decline of some 8 per cent since 1939; and the forty-hour, five-day week has become so widely accepted that there is talk of thirty hours as the next objective.

The decline in hours, like the diminution in the value of skills, is evidence of the extent to which the worker shuts his work off into a separate category of his existence. His earning power and the demand for his labor make it possible for him to express the judgment that the tasks he performs are not, in the performance, the sources of fundamental satisfaction to him. In so far as he can, he curtails the time devoted to them because the life from which he hopes to derive pleasure and satisfaction only begins after he punches out on the clock.


How the laborer spends his free time does not depend upon the nature of his labor. Outside the factory gates, in the open market place of goods and services, the dollars of all men are equally valuable, no matter what their source. The truly important questions relate to the means of spending available income.

In these matters, however, the laborers are without experience. Raised in families in which a tight reckoning of every penny was once necessary to survival, they are alike new to leisure and unaccustomed to regular patterns of substantial expenditures.

Until recently they had not even had the opportunity to learn. In the old days, the mill and mining towns were the focal points of industrialization. In Braddock, Pennsylvania, or Gary, Indiana, the laborers had occupied a world of their own. Even in the industrial metropolis, the workers had been isolated, rarely venturing from the East Side to Fifth Avenue, from the North bind to the Back Bay, from Hamtramck to Cadillac Square. If some of them were cut off by the fact that they were immigrants or Negroes, that only widened the distance between them and those who enjoyed larger incomes. The working class districts had their own shops, offering for sale goods that would never cross the counters of the more reputable establishments. In any case restricted incomes confined expenditure in these districts to food and housing, and little more.

But the old days have disappeared, and with them almost all the old dividing lines. The laborer’s new-won prosperity has made the patronage of his family desirable. The stores welcome their purchasing power, arrange evening hours for their convenience, and offer facilities for time payments. The worker’s wife shops where she wishes, and if she will not come to State Street from Gary or even from 63rd Street, then Sears and Goldblatt Brothers will move branches out to her.

Nor will she long be at a loss as to what is desirable. In the movies and the magazines she finds vivid portrayals of the good things of American life. Indeed she can in the comfort of her own home be one of those first six hundred who respond to the pitchman’s offer on television and get a crystal beverage set free with the purchase of the waterless cooker.

The mass industries producing soap and hats and radios for mass consumption constantly assure the laborer he can be like everyone else. The image they expose for his emulation is that of the scrubbed and healthy, the well-fed and well-clothed, the ever mobile American. The image originates in the middle-class past of our culture. The worker sets himself to imitation partly because that model embodies ideals he has long accepted and partly because his new income seems at last to put them within reach. And that imitation inevitably imparts a middle-class cast to his life.

The drive to realize the ideal standards of the slick or flickering pictures is particularly strong among those who have heretofore felt themselves outsiders in American life. For the children of immigrants, possession of these material objects is the sign of Americanization. For Negroes it is a token of the approach to accepted “white” practices. For the mountaineer who moves from the Tennessee hills to Detroit, or the Okie now employed in an Oakland factory, these are the symbols of escape from ihe oppressive limitations of an earlier life. The desirability of the new car, or radio, or sofa is by that much increased.

In the acquisition of these goods, the prosperous workers do not feel the inhibitions that still restrain the older middle class of shopkeepers, professional people, and managers. The laborers have not the same concern as the latter groups with setting aside funds for education. For many union members, the combination of social security and the fringe benefits of their contracts eliminates the necessity of saving for retirement, or insurance, or illness, or vacations. Often what these people earn is totally available for spending.


As a family’s income rises, the nature of its expenditures changes. So Jong as its earnings were less than $3000 a year, the funds went almost in their entirety for food and housing. Now more dollars are available for better shelter and subsistence; in the last ten years the per capita consumption of bread and potatoes has slumped markedly while that of fruit and meat has noticeably risen. And as its earnings move across the $3000 line, the family devotes an over-larger proportion of them to clothing, to entertainment, and to automobiles.

Such objects are not merely useful; they are the recognizable evidence of respectability. The number of potential car buyers continues to rise; but the advertisements of the least expensive vehicles stress not their low price but their resemblance to Cadillacs and Lincolns. The virtue of the Ford is not that it is cheap, but that it is “worth more,” as the lady in mink says as she steps out of it in the picture. The little house with its trim garden is no product of the laborer’s own experience but a borrowed dream from middle-class models. Entertainment too is likely to take middle-class forms. “I really hate to work on Saturday,” writes a Pennsylvania steelworker, “because I want to go to South Bend to see the Notre Dame and University of Pittsburgh football game.”

All this conforms to an old American ideal: the maximum diffusion of the goods of life among the whole population. Indeed desires often outrun the available cash. Significantly, the volume of consumer purchases has consistently been higher than the total available consumer income. The deficit has been met partly by the use of savings accumulated during the war. More important, increasingly liberal credit terms have made up the difference. The Federal Reserve Board has estimated that consumer credits in October, 1952, had soared to an all-time high of $22.3 billion from some $8 billion only ten years ago. Purchases on time are expensive and hazardous but often seem the only means of acquiring so many needed objects. Evidently the steadily rising incomes do not cover all the new essentials.

For there are some goods that are almost entirely unobtainable — desirable housing, for instance. Shortages and high building costs have made the price of new homes prohibitive except for veterans who have access to government credit. Yet a desirable residence is the most important good of all; it determines the environment in which the family will be raised and the social status it will hold, as well as the degree of material comfort that will surround it.

Why such deprivations should exist is not readily explained. The blame does not seem to rest upon inadequate wages, for these have been rising steadily. A survey early in 1951 showed a high degree of consumer optimism about future income; four out of ten expected their incomes to rise significantly in the next twelve months.

The trouble quite clearly lurks in the rising cost of living. In the same survey, seven of every ten consumers expected that prices would continue to rise, and regarded that rise as the source of their difficulties. The predicament of the laborer is not a singular aspect of his job, but rather of forces to which other Americans are also subject.

The high cost of living furthermore is not understandable in terms of the ideas with which the battles of the 1930s were fought. The enemy cannot simply be identified in the boss who, after all, has raised wages, and who often is restrained from raising them further only by government action. What then is the source of the difficulty?

Is it, not, the laborer asks, in good part those foreign entanglements into which America has been driven by the necessity of resisting Communism? As the war progresses in Korea, the burdens of it are felt not only in the absence of sons and husbands who are at the front, but also in the difficulty of using the wages of prosperity for the new house or the new car. The new insecurity — as consumers seeking the appropriate means of enjoying their incomes — extends to many aspects of the laborers’ lives.


UNDER these circumstances, the New Deal solidarity among the “minorities” has weakened. Competing groups are tempted to seek their own salvation, if necessary, at the expense of excluding the less fortunate by whose side they once fought in a common struggle. The black Legion outbreaks in Detroit and the Cicero incident near Chicago exploded out of the intensity of emotion stirred up by the inability of substantial groups to achieve a setting for their lives to which they thought their income entitled them.

A similar instability marks many other relationships — the family, the behavior of children, and the transience of many personal ties in a period of continuous movement. None are related to inadequate income or to the job. Rather, like the high cost of living itself, that instability proceeds from a disquieting insecurity as to every fixed value.

As productive wage earners, the laborers are no longer oppressed by unemployment and low incomes. Rut precisely because the old insecurities are less pressing, these people are more concerned with questions that emerge from the common anxieties of a troubled world. For the laborers, those anxieties are perhaps more intense because of their newness to them.

Their discontent is not now, however, a radical but a conservative force. The desperation of the 1930s led men on to the risks of experimentation and the trial of fresh ideas. Today prosperity has given the workingmen a stake in the goods of their society. They wish mostly to conserve that stake, and long for stability in which to enjoy it.

Hence they seek the support of tradition. The revival of religious interests in the past decade is impressive evidence of that search. Both the Catholic Church and the fundamentalist sects which attract the largest numbers among the American laborers hold out the promise of such a stabilizing tradition. These bodies themselves are conservative in their general orientation and tend further to fix the workers’ altitudes in that direction.

Against the confusing uncertainties of the times, against the dangers from within and without, the laborers are eager also for leadership. Leadership of one sort still comes to them from the unions. But the unions operate in what is now only a halfimportant aspect of the workingmen’s lives, in that which relates to their jobs. There is still a consciousness that these organizations operate in the interests of their members, protect wage rates and working conditions. There is also a sense of loyalty born of the recollection that it was through the unions that the great gains of the last twenty years were made.

But the techniques of labor agitation are not adequate to cope with what, now seem the more important problems, with the high cost of living or with the broader insecurities of their personal lives. In the face of the new difficulties there is grumbling. The long steel strike of 1952 seemed to many steelworkers a futile struggle, unnecessarily disruptive, not really rewarded by its outcome. As time goes by, these laborers become more conscious of the burdens of discipline and dues while they lake for granted the advantages of union membership, as they do the progress since 1932.

In any case, they show no disposition to accept the guidance of union leadership in matters unrelated to the job. They turn elsewhere in the search for a leadership that promises order and stability in the whole of their lives.

As the difficult conditions that once attached American laborers to New Deal liberalism have receded, that attachment has faded. Having gained a stake in prosperity, they seek now relief from the high cost of living, from Communism, and from unreasonable foreign expenditures. Under such circumstances, many among them begin to see the hope of solutions in a new conservatism.

It is clear that the conservatism to which they look is a new, not the old, conservatism. These people envision no return to rugged individualism; they foresee no end to the state intervention from which they profited in the very recent past. Rather, they assume they will retain the security they have already attained, and they expect to expand it into areas where it does not yet exist.

There is a challenge here, and also a danger. The challenge lies in the opportunity afforded conservatives long out of power for a constructive encounter with the dominant problems of American life. As to the danger, the experience of Europe offers us a warning. For it was an analogous quest for order and security that misled German proletarians down the path to totalitarianism.

We have grounds for the expectation, however, that the analogy will be a false one. Just as the New Deal did not lead to Socialism, so the new conservatism, in the American context, need not lead to Fascism. The difference, as their payroll prosperity indicates, lies in the facts that these workingmen are not downtrodden proletarians, they do have an increasing stake in middle-class society, and they are prepared still to cherish American democratic ideals.