6. Labor & Capital
"Labor and Capital"—the phrase was as common in postwar headlines as "Wets and Drys," "Science and Religion," "City and Country," and other social-political divides of the American Twenties. Industrial workers and their unions were LABOR. Industrialists and financiers were CAPITAL (capital meaning, very simply, money used to make more money through business, investments, or loans). Their escalating battle after World War One mirrored their longtime conflicts over wages, working conditions, and union recognition, aggravated by wartime inflation, a severe postwar recession, immigration pressures, the yearning for "normalcy," and the widespread fear of Communist infiltration after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Here we examine the labor-capital divide through commentary and political cartoons of the period. Hang in there during the economics lessons; remember that discussions of wages, prices, high cost of living, etc., reflect a struggle for security, reason, and the "American sense of fair play"—as separately defined by Labor and Capital.
Collected commentary. Presented in chronological order, these selections from news periodicals, labor and business publications, novels, memoir, song, etc., reflect the broad range of opinion about labor unions, strikes, the worker-employer relationship, and the appropriate labor-capital balance within American democracy and the free marketplace. What issues, anxieties, and recommendations appear throughout the commentary? Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (11 pp.)
Political cartoons. This collection presents thirteen political cartoons from labor, African American, and general circulation newspapers, spanning the years from 1919, the first year of massive nationwide strikes and the Red Scare, to 1926, as labor unrest continued to erupt in violence. Be sure to note the objects or persons labeled "capital" and "labor" in the cartoons. What general viewpoint was prevalent in the big-city general circulation newspapers? What additional perspective appeared in the labor and African American newspapers? Study the cartoons with the five other cartoon collections in this Theme DIVISIONS and complete the cartoon analysis chart. (Cartoons, 15 pp.; Chart: 2 pp.)
See also Labor Union, Labor Strike, and "Reds" & "Americans."
- Study the contemporary commentary to identify main arguments. How and why did:
- - Alfred Keet describe the postwar recession as "labor's opportunity"?
- - the Independent offer a view of striking workers as "the most enthusiastic and vehement supporters" of capital?
- - AFL president Samuel Gompers explain why the labor struggle was "frequently most bitter in character"?
- - Henry Ford insist that union leaders really want labor "conditions to remain as they are"?
- - Charles Merz conclude that Pennsylvania officials displayed "'un-American' tactics" during the 1919 steel strike?
- - Walter White explain that black workers felt caught between "the devil and the deep blue sea" when considering union membership?
- - Senator Poindexter insist that labor unions which claimed to disavow Communism were in actuality pursuing its goals?
- - Secretary of Agriculture Wallace assert that American farmers wanted labor and capital to "cease their petty bickerings"?
- - novelist Sinclair Lewis have his character Mr. Elder use phrases like "poppycock," "hoop-tedoodles," and "buttinskis" when condemning labor unions?
- - novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald have his character Amory Blaine call a businessman "you people" and lose his grasp of the question at hand?
- - the IWW argue that workers should view employers as "enemies"?
- - Ella Mae Wiggins compose the song line "The boss man hates the workers, the workers hates the boss"?
- - the Columbus Enquirer-Sun state in early 1919 that it "cannot conceive of a reason" why labor and capital would continue their hostility?
- - the Columbus Enquirer-Sun state in late 1920 that a "gigantic struggle between capital and labor" was certain to occur in 1921?
- Below is an alphabetical list of ten speakers and cartoonists included in this section. As an exercise in determining viewpoint, re-order the list from extreme anti-union to extreme pro-union position. Upon what criterion will you decide where to list the moderate commentators in the middle range of opinion? Add other commentators from these resources and from the Labor sections in the Theme PROSPERITY.
- - Amory Blaine, character in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920 novel This Side of Paradise
- - Jay N. "Ding" Darling, political cartoonist for the Des Moines Register
- - Henry Ford, automobile manufacturer
- - Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor
- - Carol Kennicott, character in Sinclair Lewis's 1920 novel Main Street
- - Edwin Marcus, political cartoonist for the New York Times
- - Charles Merz, editor of the New Republic
- - Miles Poindexter, U.S. Senator from Washington
- - William Quayle, bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church
- - General Leonard Wood, commander of U.S. troops in Gary, Indiana, during the 1919-20 steel strike
- Judging from the evidence in these resources, what was the perspective of the groups below on the labor-capital divide? What specific factors influenced the position of each group?
- - farmers
- - African American workers
- - industrial workers who were not union members
- - the southern press
- Identify specific concessions or compromises recommended by moderate observers to de-escalate the capital-labor conflict. Begin with the recommendations of army general Leonard Wood and of Forum editor Alfred Keet. What did their recommendations have in common? How realistic were the recommendations, in your opinion? Why?
- Contrast the editorial response in labor and business periodicals to labor violence in the 1920s, especially
- - the labor press response to violent action ordered by plant owners or the state government
- - the business press response to violence instigated by strikers and their supporters
- Explore humor as a device for political commentary by composing several brief quips similar to those in "Life Lines" that satirize or illuminate a factor in the labor-capital divide.
- Below are pairs of items that represent Labor and Capital in the political cartoons. Select two pairs that you found effective in communicating the cartoonists' messages. Explain your selections. You might also explain why another pairing was less effective for you.
- - a worker and a businessman arguing on a dock (Life, May 8, 1919)
- - a worker and a businessman cutting down a tree (Brooklyn Eagle, ca. May/June 1921)
- - a worker and a businessman greeting a visitor to a hospital room (The New York Times, ca. July/August 1922)
- - a worker and a businessman pouring illegal liquor out of pitchers (The Afro-American, May 8, 1926)
- - a husband and wife arguing about who invited the two guests at the door (Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1921)
- - a husband and wife arguing about who closed the door on the cat's tail (Des Moines Register, May 3, 1922)
- - a husband and wife nursing wounds from a fight (Des Moines Register, June 7, 1919)
- - a large wife defending her beaten husband (Des Moines Register, June 14, 1919)
- - two bricks hurled at a man (Brooklyn Eagle, ca. Oct./Nov. 1919)
- - two hungry dogs fighting over a bone (The Messenger, February 1922)
- - two vultures sitting on a headless scarecrow (The New York Times, Sept. 3, 1922)
- Create a political cartoon that represents one of these pairs of opposing opinions about the labor-capital divide. Use as few words as possible.
- - two industrialists: Henry Ford and the son of John D. Rockefeller
- - two periodicals: Manufacturers Record and Labor Defender
- - two novel characters: Amory Blaine and Mr. Elder
- - Samuel Gompers and Bishop Quayle, as expressed in their letters of 1920
- - Samuel Gompers and Sen. Poindexter on the extent of Communist influence in labor unions
- - AFL and IWW on the relationship of workers and employers
- Complete this chart of phrases often used in the rhetorical battles of Labor and Capital. How did each side define the phrases? How did each use them as persuasive rhetoric in the public debate? How did each side object to the other side's use of the phrase? Strive to represent the range of opinion within each side (e.g., the AFL and the IWW). Identify more examples in the resources in Labor Union and Labor Strike.
|Common phrase in
|as used by
|as used by
|"a living wage"
|"high cost of living"
|"open shop" and
|"the people" or
"the American people"
|"the boss" or
|"class struggle" or
|"radical agitators" or
- Write a dialogue with two characters, LABOR and CAPITAL, that presents a dramatic overview of the labor-capital divide in postwar America. Consider adding a third character who functions as a commentator (Uncle Sam, a Greek chorus), a neutral arbitrator (Lady Justice, the Statue of Liberty), a source of insightful humor (court jester, standup comic), a stimulus to reflection (a fairy godmother, a father-confessor) or a voice from the 21st century (U.S. president, you). Include one of these statements in the introduction or conclusion of your dialogue, or select another statement from the resources.
- - "A gulf has grown up between capital and labor which is ever widening."
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., The Forum, Feb. 1919
- - "If they applied the Golden Rule, I am sure there would be very few strikes."
Gen. Leonard Wood, Outlook, Feb. 25, 1920
- - "The labor union movement came into being as a movement of hunger."
Samuel Gompers, letter to Bishop William Quayle, May 22, 1920
- - "We are at one in wishing a living wage . . ."
Bishop William Quayle, letter to Samuel Gompers, March 17, 1920
- - "There must be cutting from both sides."
Political cartoon, Brooklyn Eagle, ca. May/June 1921
- - "If any man don't like my shop [workplace], he can get up and git. Same way, if I don't like him, he gits. And that's all there is to it."
Mr. Elder, town banker in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, in Sinclair Lewis, Main Street, 1920
- - "The boss man wants our labor, and money to pack away,
The workers wants a union and the eight-hour day."
Ella Mae Wiggins, "The Big Fat Boss and the Workers," union song, ca. 1929
- Complete the cartoon analysis chart for this Theme DIVISIONS to study the cartoonists' viewpoints and the visual devices they used to convey them.
- What factors precipitated and fueled the social divisions of the 1920s?
- How did each division reflect postwar adjustments and the "modern age"?
- What issues overlapped the multiple social divisions of the period?
- How had each issue evolved by 1930 as the nation entered the Great Depression?
Cartoon analysis chart
U.S. labor history overviews, timelines, primary sources (also search by state and "labor history")
Labor and Capital
in online exhibition Life of the People (Library of Congress)
Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York)
- - "Put on a happy face," 1923 billboard advertisement for Endicott-Johnson shoes
- - "Welfare capital and its conceits," comic strip Out Our Way, in Labor Age, 1929
- - "Come, brothers, you have grown so big you cannot afford to quarrel," cover, Harper's Weekly, June 1, 1901
1871 cartoon, "'Put Yourself in His Place' (Labor and Capital)
," Harper's Weekly
(Georgia State University)
Analyzing political cartoons: guides from
– Harry Grant Dart, "And in the Meantime the Lady Drowns," political cartoon, Life, May 8, 1919 (detail). Search in process for copyright holder (estates of Henry T. Rockwell or Henry Grant Dart). Digital image from original publication.
– Nelson Harding, "And We Also Have Class Unconsciousness," political cartoon, Brooklyn Eagle, ca. Oct./Nov. 1919, reprinted in the Chicago Tribune, Nov. 4, 1919. Permission request to the Brooklyn Eagle in process. Digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– Nelson Harding, "There Must Be Cutting from Both Sides," political cartoon, Brooklyn Eagle, ca. May/June 1921. Permission request to the Brooklyn Eagle in process. Digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– Jay N. "Ding" Darling, "Wonder How Much Longer He Can Stand It," political cartoon, Des Moines Register, May 3, 1922. Reproduced by permission of the Jay N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society. Digital image courtesy of the University of Iowa Libraries.
– Edwin Marcus, "It's Always after the Fake Medicines Fail That the Doctor Is Called In," political cartoon, The New York Times, ca. July/August 1922, reprinted in the Literary Digest, August 26, 1922. Reproduced by permission of the Marcus family. Digital image courtesy of Google Books.
– H. Canty, "A Real American Federation of Labor," The Pittsburgh Courier, Sept. 1, 1923. Reproduced by permission of the Pittsburgh Courier. Digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
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