Title: The Racketeer's Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy, 1900-1940
Name: Andrew Wender Cohen
Department of History
Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY 13244-1020
Year: 1996
Type: Dissertation Fellowship

My research illuminates the contested and contingent origins of the modern corporate economy by examining the violent resistance of urban craftsmen to its development. Questioning the tropes of the "organizational synthesis," I argue that many historians have overstated the industrial and corporate character of the city's enterprise. In important local trades such as trucking, construction, and shop keeping, businesses were small, workers were skilled, and machines were few. Commerce was visible to the naked eye, and social mobility remained a continuing possibility. After 1900, new forms of rationalized corporate enterprise threatened these trades by replacing shops with chain stores, coal trucks with gas pipes, and on-site construction with in-factory production. In response, workers and proprietors built labor unions and business associations to maintain a distinctive economic and moral order. Their organizations governed commerce through their own "laws," enforced by violence, which favored small, local, and labor intensive forms of production and impeded large national firms seeking to enter Chicago's markets. The owners of steel mills, packinghouses, and railroads, dreaming of a rationalized private corporate economic order, turned to the legal system to criminalize these rules and punish their administrators. This tension turned Chicago's streets, markets, and courts into battlegrounds where tradesmen and industrial magnates fought to shape the city's economy.

My work shows how modern American labor law emerged from the local struggle to define a legitimate form of industrial relations during the first four decades of the twentieth century. The practice of collective bargaining itself, the foundation of New Deal labor law, first became widespread in construction in the late nineteenth century. Shortly after, observers on the political left and right began to criticize these agreements. Advocating wildly different economic ideals, men like department store tycoon Marshall Field, legal reformer Louis Brandeis, and labor radical William Z. Foster all questioned the efficiency, the responsibility, and the honesty of these organized tradespeople. Influenced by these criticisms, the judges used conspiracy laws to harass urban craftsmen. During the Great Depression, however, collective action in trades like construction, teaming, and dry cleaning deeply impressed politically influential scholars like Raymond Moley, who saw these crafts as models of economic governance, price stability, and fair competition. Drafting the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, Moley conceived of a legal regimen under which the State legitimized collective action and enforced agreements setting prices and wages. The validity of this regime depended on a reconfiguration of criminal law, embodied by new anti-racketeering acts that prohibited the exploitation of organizations rather than collective bargaining itself. Thus, the forms of industrial order established in the U.S. between 1890 and 1940 resulted not from a Progressive "search" for a "order," as Robert Wiebe has inferred, or from corporate manipulation, as Colin Gordon has argued, but from the struggle between reformers, elites, small businesses, and craft unions to shape the economic future of cities like Chicago.