Battle for the American Perception of Organized Labor: Bolshevism, The Great Steel Strike, and Protestant Establishment in the Years Following World War 1

Gordon, Daniel, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Warren, Heather, University of Virginia

While the history of American labor in the early 20th century is often defined by analysis of the perceived “successes” and “failures” of the many movements, strikes, and political organizations which arose throughout the United States, this binary lens does not sufficiently capture how the story of American labor extends beyond a series of individual contests between labor organizers and company bosses. Organized labor became involved in vastly different aspects of American society outside of direct organizing, and often, this paper argues, the success of labor operations was more dependent upon public perception of organized labor activity rather than organizing strength or membership numbers. This claim can be most clearly demonstrated through analysis of the role that religion and religious organizations played in shaping public perception of labor organizing throughout the years following World War I. I will argue that religion and religious organizations during this time were uniquely positioned to assist labor due to their ability to reject accusations of Bolshevik radicalism, an ideology perceived by the American public to be inherently atheistic, and provide legitimacy to workers’ claims. In this thesis, I will provide a historical account of the Great Steel Strike of 1919-1920 that takes into special consideration the role that these Protestant churches and organizations, specifically the Interchurch World Movement of North America, played both in shaping public perception of the strike and in the long-term achievement of the strike’s goals by providing legitimacy and authority to the event that the workers themselves were unable to claim.

MA (Master of Arts)
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