Abstract: The National Recovery Act and Local Struggles for the New Deal Economy

Thomas Dorrance


This presentation uses the NRA as a case study to explore the relationship between public power and private control in Chicago and Los Angeles during the New Deal. Shifting the focus away from a contest between national and municipal authority, I emphasize competitions at the local level for control over federal programs. The tension animating local politics during the early New Deal was not debates over federal expansion but was instead the struggle among local elites seeking to maintain private practices and hierarchies in each city's political economy—not so much against government interference but against other groups also attempting to use government agencies to gain greater access within privately ordered economic systems. In Chicago, AFL unions and members of the business community enjoyed a cooperative relationship based on an informal system of contracts and agreements. This arrangement allowed an exclusive cohort control over New Deal programs. In Los Angeles, fierce commitment to the open shop coupled with a resurgent labor movement during the decade created a more raucous and open competition for local control of federal programs. As a result, reformers worked to insulate NRA agencies from the city's warring economic factions.