Scholars and popular commentators have long depicted the first decades following World War II as a prosperous time when US workers, through a “social contract” with management, achieved economic progress and union security in exchange for industrial peace. This article reconsiders that perspective by exploring how, during the 1950s and early 1960s, employers' investment (and disinvestment) strategies undercut labor's leverage across much of the United States. Through capital flight, mechanization, and other cost-cutting measures, corporate leaders in a range of sectors — including textiles, auto, steel, mining, and meatpacking — produced severe economic hardship in many industrial communities and rendered workers increasingly vulnerable to business demands. When labor's advocates pursued federal aid to mitigate the crisis, business-minded adversaries — bolstered by the ethos of individualism so prevalent in this period — stood in their way. The article also examines how, among other factors, gendered and racial perceptions of working-class identity have helped perpetuate the dominant image of the 1950s as an affluent era in which a labor-management accord prevailed.

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