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This Day in Labor History: May 26, 1924

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On May 26, 1924, the doors of the United States closed to most immigrants as President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924. The law set the yearly quota for a nation’s population to immigrate to the U.S. at 2% of its U.S. population in the 1890 census. Beginning in 1927, immigration would then decline even further, to 150,000 total. This law put an end to the immigrant flows to the U.S. that had provided the labor force for the nation’s stupendous industrial growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also demonstrates the great discomfort many Americans had with the diversity that became a byproduct of the need for such an expanding labor force.

Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe seemed to threaten American values for reasons outside their funny religions, peasant clothing, and garlic-eating ways. Most people came to the U.S. for the precise reason they do today: to make money for their families back home. Like Mexicans and Guatemalans today, many hoped to make money and then return and maybe buy some land and build a little house in their home village. And many did that–for groups like the Italians and Greeks there was significant out-migration.

But some of these immigrants, even if they just wanted to work, also believed in the need for a better world. That was especially true among the immigrant group least likely to return to Europe–Jews. They, and to a lesser extent other groups such as the Italians, Greeks, and Finns, had been introduced to socialist ideas in Europe and brought them to the United States. The Jewish women leading the Uprising of the 20,000 against apparel company exploitation in 1909 and after the Triangle Fire in 1911 were the cheap labor the department stores and clothing designers wanted but they had radical tendencies of standing up for their rights that was definitely not what the capitalists wanted. The corporations intentionally brought in different and competing ethnic groups to undermine workplace solidarity (not to mention basic communication). This could be successful but as companies found out at Lawrence, Paterson, and Ludlow, diverse workforces could unite for decent wages and living conditions. And individual acts like Russian Jewish immigrant Alexander Berkman trying (and failing in spectacular fashion) to assassinate plutocrat Henry Clay Frick after Homestead or the native-born but son of immigrants Leon Czoglosz killing President William McKinley was a sign of the very real violence that some would commit in the cause of punishing capitalists.

While unions like the Industrial Workers of the World embraced these new workers, mainstream organized labor considered them competition for jobs already poorly paid and thus disdained them, a choice that was as much cultural and racial as it was about principles of labor. The American Federation of Labor strongly supported all anti-immigration legislation despite being headed by an English immigrant by the name of Samuel Gompers. But of course Gompers and others came out of an older Protestant immigration that had caused little tension in American history, outside of some anti-German sentiment around the time of the American Revolution. Gompers would have no patience for these southern and eastern Europeans and especially those with ideas about labor movements more radical than he.

Despite the strikes many of these new immigrants engaged in, for most corporate leaders, the need for cheap labor won out over concerns about radicals. The plutocrats buying the Republican Party managed to keep the door open long after nativists wanted it shut. But the events of World War I changed the equation. The unfair equation of the IWW with pro-Kaiser sentiment (absurd on the face of it and the IWW in the U.S. only opposed the war in theory, allowing their members to take whatever position they felt right) meant that immigrants were more suspect than ever and that everything about them needed watching. This is also how the 18th Amendment also finally gathered the necessary support to pass since even beer drinking was now German. The Espionage and Sedition Acts, the Bisbee Deportation, the Centralia Massacre, the Palmer Raids and Red Scare, and the deporting of 566 radicals including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman all helped influence a more comprehensive solution to the fears middle class Protestants had of what this nation was becoming, which was just ending immigration almost entirely.

This trend had been coming for some time and the 1924 act, properly known as the Johnson-Reed Act, was only the final straw. The Immigration Act of 1917, passed over Woodrow Wilson’s veto, barred “undesirables” from entering the U.S., a category which included criminals, the insane, and alcoholics, and imposed a literacy test which led to 1400 immigrants being denied entry in 1920 and 1921.

Perhaps the most notable feature about the Immigration Act was setting the racial quotas to 1890 level. The quotas of immigrants from each country would be based upon their numbers in the United States according to the 1890 census. It meant that Germans, Irish, and English could still come over in relatively undiminished numbers. It meant basically no Asians, which eliminated the rather sizable immigrant stream of “Syrians” (what we would call today Lebanese Christians).

There was one core exception to the Immigration Act, which was Mexicans crossing into the U.S. to provide cheap farm labor in the Southwest. This would begin a long history of American labor law making exceptions for farmworkers, eventually creating long-term inequality in the sector that continues today.

Was the end of immigration the boon for organized labor that its proponents claimed it would be? Not really. The same conservative movement that ended immigration also crushed organized labor. The powerful union movement flexing its muscles in 1919 was at a low point a mere decade later. And that was before the Great Depression created 25 percent unemployment and another 25 percent underemployment.

In 1927, Albert Johnson said of the act he sponsored that it protected America from “a stream of alien blood, with all its inherent misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed.” Or in other words, people who would challenge capitalism.

The nation would finally revise its racist immigration policy with the Immigration Act of 1965.

This is the 107th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Wonderful post. Thanks for this one and all the others in the series.

    • DrDick

      Indeed.

  • marcel

    From Wikipedia: Samuel Gompers was born on January 27, 1850, in London, into a Jewish family which originally hailed from Amsterdam.[5] When he was six, Samuel was sent to the Jewish Free School where he received a basic education. His elementary school career was brief, however, as a mere three months after his 10th birthday, Gompers was removed from school and sent to work as an apprentice cigarmaker to help earn money for his impoverished family. Gompers was able to continue his studies in night school, however, during which time he learned Hebrew and studied the Talmud, a process which he long later recalled was akin to studying law. While familiar with the ancient Hebrew language, Gompers did not speak it and held a lifelong disdain for Yiddish.

    ***

    Nothing about Scotland that I can see. Other online sources (several in google books: google “Gompers sephardic”) state that the family was Sephardic, which is what one would expect of Amsterdam Jews before the middle 19th century. This would explain the disdain for Yiddish and also, perhaps, the absence of sympathy for more radical types of unionism, which were, I believe more associated with Ashkenazy Jews. No idea whether his sentiments had anything to do with a Protestant union tradition, though to the extent that he and his family had assimilated to the surrounding culture in Holland and Britain, that may have been a more comfortable fit for him.

    • Sam Gompers was Jewish? I did not know that.

      • marcel

        Since I first began learning labor history, more than 40 years ago, that was one of the first things I learned: Gompers was Jewish, and Debs was mildly anti-semitic (and despite the latter, my libertarian left-wing 2nd International grandparents were staunch supporters of him as adults, including the opposition to US partcipation in WW1.*)

        *My impression that this last was actually fairly common among Jewish immigrants with roots in the Russian Pale; the Kaiser was clearly preferable to the Tsar.

        • Well given that the Tsarist government engaged in ethnic cleansing against both people of German and Jewish heritage in the Russian Empire during World War One this is not surprising. Eric Lohr’s Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign Against Enemy Aliens during World War Oneis a nice short and well written book on the subject.

  • LeeEsq

    Marcel, many Central and Western European Jews had a disdain for Yiddish regardless of their socio-economics, politics, and religion. Gompers wasn’t exactly unique in this. Hatred for Yiddish was especially intense among the German speaking Jews of Central Europe who viewed Yiddish as a form of degenerate German and derisively called it a jargon. To most central European Jews, the Ost-Juden represented everything bad they remembered about the ghetto and the previous restrictions they labored under.

    • Bruce Vail

      Isn’t Yiddish a German dialect? That’s what we (white protestant kids mostly) were told in high school in my neck of the woods.

      • Vance Maverick

        Yes. And speakers of the dominant language commonly scorn dialects. The case of Yiddish, though, is even more fraught than that of Plattdeutsch.

      • LeeEsq

        Thats a linguistically debatable point. It started out as a dialect or a creole but many treat it as an independent language in its own right rather than as a variety of German.

        • Western Yiddish is considered an offshoot of Old High German, according to the Wiki.

    • marcel

      LeeEsq:

      Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that until at least the 2nd half of the 19th century, most Western European Jews were Sephardim. I doubt that Yiddish was pertinent to them one way or another until they came to the US, where from 1880 on they would have increasingly come into contact with Ashkenazim. So I suspect that they did not generally have strong feelings one way or another for Yiddish over and above their feelings about Ashkenazy Jews.

      About German Jews (and perhaps Central European Jews as well), let me add to the point that you make. Some of the disdain toward Yiddish and the Ashkenazim was undoubtedly due to the things you mention. I suspect that some was also due to what we would now call classism (I have been told of some of this among different branches of my Ashkenazy ancestors); and some to a strong desire to make clear the distinction between “Us good Jews, striving to assimilate and be good Germans (if you will excuse that phrase)”, and the poor, uncultured Ost-Juden.

      • LeeEsq

        Your wrong. The majority of Western European Jews were Ashkenazi. The Sephardim were a minority existing in pockets in various countries.

  • LeeEsq

    The association between immigrants and radical politics is long one in American history. A lot of the anti-German immigrant tracts from the mid-19th century doubled as anti-radical tract. Most leftist political ideologies from anarchism to socialism where seen as completely alien to the American way of doing things. I think that one of the reasons why socialism never real took on in the United States is that support for it as an ideology was basically limited to immigrants and maybe their first generation born children. It never really took off among the White Protestant population that formed the plurality of the electorate and society.

  • It feels very odd to read this and have the only “Asians” be Syrian Christians. This wasn’t called the “Asian Exclusion Act” for nothing.

    • I’ve had multiple posts in this series on the exclusion of Asian labor. It was time for one on eastern Europeans.

      • Maybe, but this immigration act was the culmination of those anti-Asian movements, repudiating the Gentleman’s Agreement. It’s the context in which the 1965 Immigration Act is so important to Asian migrants. It was part of how the Japanese empire justified Chinese expansion, and painted the US as racist (leading to a token relaxation of restrictions on Asian immigration in [I Think] ’44, under which a lot of War Brides came in).

        Mexican labor, in particular, became more important as the flow of Asian immigration ceased in the West.

        • In 1948, my grandmother and great-aunt needed a special bill passed to be granted American citizenship because of their Chinese heritage, despite both also being British subjects. I’m assuming the same would be true for any other war brides from Japan or elsewhere 1944 onward.

  • DrDick

    I would point out that many German immigrants were also socialists, including most or all of the 48ers (which includes many of my ancestors). The latter fled Germany after the failures of the 1848 revolutions there. Germans played an important role in establishing the labor movement in this country, as well. I am at least a fourth generation union man, going back to the late 19th century.

    • That’s a good point and worth a future post in this series.

    • Bruce Vail

      Mike Elk at In These Times had a piece a few months ago that included some material about a German Communist 48er who went on to become an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War.

      I’ll bet that made some interesting political arguments around the campfire.

      • Judkins Major

        August Willich! Wiley Sword has some great material on that guy in “Mountains Touched With Fire,” his history of the Chattanooga battles. “Ach, boys, you kills me vit joy!”

  • LeeEsq

    Have there been any studies on why so many Anglo-Americans rejected any non-capitalist ideologies like socialism outright. The great victory for conservative forces in the United States was that so many millions of Americans that would be natural supporters for socialist politics elsewhere rejected it wholesale in the United States. Its an interesting phenomena.

    • I’m not sure of any studies on this per se. Doesn’t mean they don’t exist. But in my research on logging, you can really feel the point in how people talk about the IWW.

      • LeeEsq

        To be fair I think a lot of 19th century and early 20th century leftists operated on level of total cluelessness when dealing with Anglo-Americans. They generally seemed to not comprehend how patriotic many Americans were or how genuinely proud Americans were of their politic system. The leftists also couldn’t quite comprehend that most Americans went to church out of genuine conviction rather than something else. America lacked a lot of the monarchal and openly classicist baggage that even a European republic like France would possess so rhetoric that would speak to the working classes of Europe or European origin would be lost on Anglo-Americans.

        Leftists didn’t have great success in Switzerland and thats probably because Switzerland of all European countries came with the least monarchal and feudal baggage. They probably did better politically in Latin America because Latin America inherited a lot of monarchal baggage from Spain and Portugal. Brazil was an actual monarchy for decades.

        • DrDick

          I do not think this is actually true in the 19th and early 20th century. The IWW was founded by Eugene Debbs, and Mother Jones and Joe Hill were prominent members. Many of the early white settlers in Oklahoma were agrarian socialist and almost all WASPs, reflected in the very progressive (for the period) state constitution. I think the rejection of socialism anglos in this country is more a consequence Stalin and the New Deal.

          • Bruce Vail

            Ummm…Joe Hill was a Swedish immigrant and Gene Debs was the child of French immigrants. Debs also seems to have had a rather European upbringing, as the father was reported to have read French poetry to the young child in lieu of more more traditional American bedtime stories.

          • Agrarian socialists and populists (especially outside the Northern Plains) may have had leftist views on economics, but their politics were also rooted in opposition to the eastern banks, the railroads, and the cities… which, by the late 19th century, were associated with hoards of non-WASP (or German) immigrants.

  • Bruce Vail

    Anyone looking for something nice to say about Lyndon Johnson should consult the recent broadcast of MSNBC (Rachel Maddow Show, I think) that showed some soundbites from the signing ceremony in 1965 when the 1924 Act was repealed. I’d never seen this before (the ceremony was held on Ellis Island) and old LBJ was quite eloquent in condemning the injustice of the ’24 law.

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