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Beyond the 'Proletarian turn': Black workers, the rise of organized labour and the fragile foundations of civil rights protest in the urban North during the New Deal

Ayers, Oliver (2013) Beyond the 'Proletarian turn': Black workers, the rise of organized labour and the fragile foundations of civil rights protest in the urban North during the New Deal. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94182) (KAR id:94182)

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This dissertation offers a fresh interpretation of the impact of the rise of organized labour on black working communities during the New Deal. Labour historians have detailed the racial practices of the numerous unions who grew in size and strength during the 1930s, while studies of black civil rights have probed the experiences of black leadership groups who advocated support for black participation in industrial unionism. A new overarching paradigm of civil rights struggle has emerged which praises the emergence of a powerful left-oriented, union-based rights movement. This dissertation argues that this interpretation is flawed for failing to place the constituency who supposedly benefitted from the rise of labour in a central role: black workers.

This dissertation builds its analysis of the rise of unionism upon the experiences of black workers. It is in this context that assessments of the achievements of leadership groups should be conducted. A comparative methodology focusing on Detroit and New York City is employed. Chapters 1 and 2 recreate the local experiences of black workers in the foundational period of biracial unionization between 1933 and 1941. Two key themes emerge. First, the distribution of black workers in specific local settings offered the potential for concentrated groups of workers to use organized labour as a vehicle to advance black rights. In addition, existing constraints on black employment were often reinforced by unions’ increased power. Similarly, the interconnected control of employment by unions, government and management groups opened up new avenues of protest, but could also make identifying and tackling the sources of workers' discrimination more difficult. Both of these issues highlight the contradictory impact of unionization on black workers' lives while also demonstrating the demand for coordinated activism placed upon protest leaders.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 assess the extent to which opponents of organized labour, local supporters of organized labour and national civil rights groups were able to take up the agenda called for by workers. The recurrent failure to establish effective and coordinated protest coalitions lay not necessarily in the ideological or political failings of protest leaders. The unique demands for multifaceted and coordinated activism ultimately proved beyond the capacity of protest leaders. As a result, appraisals of the rise of labour need to be removed from value-laden conceptions that celebrate the ‘opportunities found’ for working rights protest. Instead, by emphasizing the fragile foundations of labour-based protest, it is suggested that the renewed focus on workers’ lives allows for an altogether new way of examining the influence of the New Deal on the black freedom struggle.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Jones, Karen C.
Thesis advisor: Pettigrew, William A.
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94182
Additional information: This thesis has been digitised by EThOS, the British Library digitisation service, for purposes of preservation and dissemination. It was uploaded to KAR on 25 April 2022 in order to hold its content and record within University of Kent systems. It is available Open Access using a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial, No Derivatives ( licence so that the thesis and its author, can benefit from opportunities for increased readership and citation. This was done in line with University of Kent policies ( If you feel that your rights are compromised by open access to this thesis, or if you would like more information about its availability, please contact us at and we will seriously consider your claim under the terms of our Take-Down Policy (
Subjects: F History United States, Canada, Latin America
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of History
SWORD Depositor: SWORD Copy
Depositing User: SWORD Copy
Date Deposited: 20 Sep 2022 15:22 UTC
Last Modified: 20 Sep 2022 15:22 UTC
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