Was America Ever Great? Challenging the Nostalgia Trap in Politics, Popular Culture, and Historiography

Solicited by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 12:45 PM - 2:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Labor and Working-Class; Politics


The contentious 2016 election will be remembered for several reasons, including then-candidate Donald Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). He routinely made this boastful promise, and many of his boisterous supporters, consisting of a hodgepodge of largely angry, middle and working-class white men and women, sported red MAGA caps at his rallies. His Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, responded to this message with significantly less inspiring words: “America is already Great.” While the two disagreed about when America was “great,” they largely agreed that the nation’s greatness had much to do with the level of prosperity enjoyed by ordinary Americans. Trump romanticized a time when manufacturing jobs were plentiful, and wages were high; Clinton focused on what she perceived as the triumphs of the Obama administration. Trump and Clinton were not the only ones to discuss the matter. The nation’s greatness, identified by large numbers of politicians, journalists, and historians from across the political spectrum, could be found in earlier times, when the US established itself as the world’s dominant economic powerhouse and when working-class jobs paid middle-class wages. Many liberal-minded historians have embraced a “rise and fall” of the New Deal order narrative, one that celebrates the Progressive, New Deal, World War II and Civil Rights eras while bemoaning the rise of the conservative movement embodied most visibly by Ronald Reagan. In these narratives, economic growth and increased consumerism press forward as signs of progress, yet the regimes of power controlling, repressing, and dividing the people get a pass as the invisible hand of triumphant capitalism hides its darker side.
This three-person panel seeks to historicize and problematize different periods when America was supposedly great. Chad Pearson will examine the Progressive Era, noting how this period should be remembered for giving birth to the modern anti-union movement, one that enjoyed support from some of the period’s most influential liberal reformers. Thomas Castillo will explore World War II, highlighting a counter history to FDR’s four freedoms. In Castillo’s view, this was a time when employers used the war to undermine labor rights. For ordinary people, this was a “shock doctrine moment” rather than a “good war.” Finally, Dan Clark will challenge the myth of prosperous post-war autoworkers. Rather than enjoying long periods of uninterrupted prosperity, large numbers of 1950s era autoworkers struggled with a boom-and-bust economy, which made their employment situations precarious. Commenting will be Donna Haverty-Stacke, a scholar of labor, culture and the left.  

Papers Presented

Theodore Roosevelt, the Rise of the Open-Shop Movement, and the Myth of the “Square Deal”

Scholars in our post–New Left historiographical period claim that the twentieth century’s first two decades should best be defined as a “Progressive Era.” In this period, many reformers sought to address the excesses of the previous era, the “Gilded Age,” by promoting numerous community and workplace-based reforms. Rejecting the old “corporate liberal” interpretations, such historians have maintained that we must take seriously reforms passed from above, including efforts by president Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s Square Deal, the name he coined and popularized after establishing a committee to help settle the 1902 anthracite coal strike in Pennsylvania, marked a turning point, since, most scholars insist, he approached the so-called labor question as an honest broker. This paper challenges this perspective by pointing out that Roosevelt’s labor policies helped inspire the antiunion open-shop movement, an employer-led campaign that consisted of individuals from both in and outside of industrial relations settings. Members of the Citizens’ Industrial Association of America (an assortment of union opponents, including vigilantes from the nineteenth century), were thrilled by the Square Deal because it explicitly promoted the open-shop principle, a managerial system that was supposedly welcoming to both union and nonunion members. They named their monthly magazine the Square Deal and often cited Roosevelt during their antiunion onslaughts. Roosevelt’s admirers did not see the president as antilabor; instead, they believed he was fair-minded and committed to protecting both unions and the so-called “free workers” (scabs). The ruling-class remained emboldened and powerful while the union movement suffered.

Presented By
Chad Pearson, Collin College

The Freedom of Work or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Became Commodities

This paper examines the history underlying the resurgence of the rhetoric of “right to work” during World War II, focusing on the campaign of Florida’s attorney general Tom Watson to pass Florida’s 1944 “right-to-work” state constitutional amendment. The passage of this amendment revealed a concerted effort to weaken workers’ collective notions of civic mindedness and culture and replace them with individualistic ideals of self-preservation. Watson wanted the right to treat workers as commodities. This effectively sidestepped labor law’s tendency to consider, according to a 1940 memo of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), “that a worker’s service cannot be separate from himself as a personality.” This state effort to upend New Deal labor gains has yet to be fully told. The phrase “freedom of work,” taken from 1941 NAM memo, articulated an open shop philosophy and a form of astroturf populism: it took advantage of dissent among organized labor, an emerging patriotic moment, and a flourishing of New Deal freedom rhetoric to spin a Trumpian-like effort to argue managerial prerogative via the Trojan horse of right to work. Watson’s intervention in the spring of 1941 insisted that the state protect an “employers’ right to employ” by claiming that “the right to work is a property right” to further divide union solidarity. This paper reveals how the NAM and Watson resisted the notion of worker security and democracy by piggybacking the idea of the “right to work” to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vision in their effort to undermine labor relations under the Wagner Act.

Presented By
Thomas A. Castillo, Coastal Carolina University

Detroit Autoworkers and the Elusive Postwar Boom

Although labor historians have often been harshly critical of the economic gains made by autoworkers in the early post-World War II era through the 1950s, a consensus has emerged that generous contracts negotiated by Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers indeed propelled these workers into the middle class. Scholars have demonstrated that the reality was far more complicated for African American men and white women, but that fact has not prevented the consensus from gaining strength. This was a period when American autoworkers enjoyed steady employment, rising wages, and improved benefits in what was, by today’s standards at least, a great time to be a member of the unionized working class. This paper, based on my recent book, Disruption in Detroit: Autoworkers and the Elusive Postwar Boom, argues that this consensus is deeply flawed, that these years were marked by job instability and economic insecurity for autoworkers. Many factors, including materials and parts shortages, strikes, recessions, hot weather, cold weather, the Korean War, plant explosions, overproduction, and the inability of autoworkers to purchase what they produced, contributed to this instability. Automation and decentralization led to long-term job losses from the region, but the descent was not linear, and chronic layoffs forced workers to struggle to make ends meet. Many supposed autoworkers managed to be actual autoworkers only half the time during the 1950s. Because few people in the 1950s thought that auto work was stable, this paper will also consider how scholarly and popular memory came to differ so starkly from lived experience.

Presented By
Daniel Clark, Oakland University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Donna T. Haverty-Stacke, Hunter College and The Graduate Center, CUNY
Donna Haverty-Stacke is the author of America’s Forgotten Holiday: May Day and Nationalism, 1867 – 1960 (NYU Press, 2009) and co-editor with Daniel Walkowitz of Rethinking U.S. Labor History: Essays on the Working-Class Experience, 1756 - 2009 (The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010).  Her article, “‘Punishment of Mere Political Advocacy’: The FBI, Teamsters Local 544 and the Origins of the 1941 Smith Act Case” (from The Journal of American History, June 2013), highlights some of the central themes in her most recent book project, notably why many Americans were willing to compromise free speech for national security during wartime and the implications of that choice for dissent and democracy in mid-late twentieth century American society.  Trotskyists on Trial: Free Speech and Political Persecution Since the Age of FDR was published by NYU Press in December 2015.

Presenter: Thomas A. Castillo, Coastal Carolina University
Thomas Castillo is an Assistant Professor in History at Coastal Carolina University who is currently completing a book “Against the Tide: Class Conflict in Magic City Miami, 1914-1945.” This study centers Miami’s social history on class marginalization and worker disempowerment, evaluating closely the city’s labor and unemployment movements in the interwar period. He is also currently working on a history of the right to work. He has published in several journals, including Labor History, Labor: Working Class History of the Americas, Journal of American History, and the Florida Historical Quarterly.

Presenter: Daniel Clark, Oakland University
Daniel Clark is an Associate Professor of History at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. He is the author of Like Night and Day: Unionization in a Southern Mill Town (University of North Carolina Press, 1997) and Disruption in Detroit: Autoworkers and the Elusive Postwar Boom (University of Illinois Press, 2018).

Presenter: Chad Pearson, Collin College
Chad Pearson teaches history at Collin College, a community college in Plano, Texas. He is the author of Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) and is co-editor with Rosemary Feurer of Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017). He is currently writing a book about different types of employer violence, which he wants to call Capital’s Terrorists: Anti-Labor Violence in the Long Nineteenth Century.