Irving Bernstein; Leading Labor Historian, UCLA Professor Was 84


Irving Bernstein, a professor emeritus of political science at UCLA who was one of the nation’s leading labor historians, has died. He was 84.

Bernstein, a Sherman Oaks resident who wrote an acclaimed three-volume study of the American labor movement between the two world wars, died of leukemia Sept. 25 at a nursing home in Reseda.

Bernstein joined the UCLA faculty in 1948 as a research professor in the Institute of Industrial Relations. In 1961, he joined UCLA’s political science department, where he remained until his retirement in 1987.

“His contributions to UCLA and to labor history were enormous,” said Michael Lofchie, chairman of the university’s political science department. “He was the great documentarist of the difficulties that labor organizations faced either in getting themselves organized or maintaining their organizational viability during the Depression years.”


Bernstein earned critical attention in 1960 with the publication of “The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933,” which focuses on the decline of the labor movement after it had blossomed during World War I. He followed that in 1970 with “The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941,” which describes the growth of unionism and collective bargaining; and “A Caring Society” (1985), which examines the development of policies such as Social Security in the New Deal.

The New Deal, Bernstein argued in that book, preserved American democracy and capitalism while helping the American worker emerge as an important social, political and economic force.

“He was an historian, but a very accessible historian. These books were meant not just for academics but a more general audience,” said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a UCLA professor of management and policy studies.

Among Bernstein’s more academically oriented works are “The New Deal Collective Bargaining Policy” (1950) and “Arbitration Wages” (1954). After retiring from UCLA, he wrote “Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier,” an assessment of Kennedy’s domestic programs; and “Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson,” a comprehensive analysis of the successes and failures of the Johnson administration.


A three-time winner of UCLA’s Political Science Honor Society’s Professor of the Year award, Bernstein was a popular teacher with an engaging manner and a wide range of interests, from music and sports to literature and comparative cultures.

Political scientist Leonard Freedman said his close friend and longtime office mate offered “wise counsel and thoughtful judgments” and had “a rare ability in conversation and in print to express complicated ideas with lucidity and grace.”

Bernstein, who was an officer of the National Academy of Arbitrators, continued to arbitrate labor disputes throughout the United States after retiring from UCLA.

The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Bernstein was born in Rochester, N.Y., where his father worked as a tailor. He fell in love with history in high school, and coming of age in the 1930s, became fascinated by the plight of the American worker.

“I could see the Depression all around me,” he once recalled. “I became enormously interested in the development of the labor movement, and I was tremendously impressed by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.”

Financial support from his older brother and work as a janitor, pool lifeguard and washer of pots and pans in a sorority paid for his education. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester in 1937, a master’s degree from Harvard University in 1940 and a doctorate from Harvard in 1948, under the direction of Arthur Schlesinger Sr.

During World War II, Bernstein learned Swedish and served as a Swedish language specialist for the Office of Strategic Services. He also worked in the Bureau of Labor Statistics and in the regional office of the War Labor Board in San Francisco. During the Korean War, he was the Director of Wage Stabilization for the West Coast Regional Office of the Wage Stabilization Board.

Bernstein is survived by his wife of 60 years, Fredrika; children Deborah Weir, Jonathan and Judith; and a grandson, Alexander Shirwo.


A memorial will be held at 1 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Faculty Center at UCLA.