The conventional wisdom states that recessions are terrible times to organize. During the Great Recession, union membership continued to decline, while public approval of unions reached a low. But, in a recent piece on APM’s Marketplace, Prof. Ruth Milkman explained that there’s an exception to this rule:
But in this recession, we’ve lost three times as many jobs in just the last few months.
“This is on so much grander a scale,” said Milkman. “And that’s more like the ’30s. That’s the only time in the 20th century when the crisis was this deep.”
It was the severity of the Great Depression that helped give rise to the biggest surge in organizing this country has ever seen.
“There are some very important lessons to be learned from what was definitely an uphill battle in the 1930s,” said Lizabeth Cohen, a historian at Harvard University and author of “Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939.”
The union movement was all but dead at the beginning of the Great Depression, said Cohen. Membership was, like today, at historic lows. But the economic pain of the Depression was so deep that it unified Americans in anger, especially the masses of unemployed.
And it was in that moment of anger, hunger and need that the organized labor movement coalesced to become a force of change that transformed the economy. Listen to the full segment here.