Date of Degree

2-2021

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor

Libby Garland

Subject Categories

American Politics | Labor History | United States History

Keywords

Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), American Federation of Labor (AFL), longshoremen, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32B, International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU)

Abstract

Two strikes in New York at the beginning of the massive 1945-46 strike wave—one by elevator operators in commercial buildings and another by dock workers throughout the Port of New York—can help us better understand a moment when workers exhibited a profound sense of themselves as a class, while their rivals in the shop, the corporate boardroom, and the halls of power fought vigorously to dispel the notion that workers divided by geography, industry, race, nationality, and gender were right to see their fates as intertwined. Historians’ focus on the economic issues at stake in the major strikes of the postwar wave has obscured fundamental, if intangible, forces driving the relentless succession of strikes, including the strikes chronicled here. When we look beyond the economic origins of individual strikes at the ways in which groups of workers interacted with each other during this strike wave, something important emerges: a powerful demonstration of class solidarity and agency that the purely economic analyses have missed or underestimated. Through an unprecedented use of the sympathy strike and unwavering respect for the picket line, workers leveraged their structural power to aid one another’s struggles and, in turn, inspired other groups of workers to challenge employers, with or without union leaders’ approval. By bringing this class dynamic into focus, and acknowledging that rank-and-file enthusiasm was often the propelling force during the strikes of the era, we can better appreciate the possibilities for labor’s future in that moment. Furthermore, many scholars have underemphasized the implications of this labor upsurge for postwar labor reform. Employers and their allies recognized the expressions of class solidarity and assertiveness during the wave as a grave threat to their prerogatives, and accordingly secured highly repressive legislation in the Taft-Hartley Act, which targeted every vehicle of solidarity they could think of: sympathy strikes, secondary boycotts, union security, mass picketing, unionization of foremen, and others.

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