Roosevelt's 'New Deal' was
assault on workers' rights
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Labor's Giant Step by Art Preis, one of Pathfinder's Books of the Month for November. It deals with the false claim that the Democratic Party administration of President Franklin Roosevelt gave American labor "the right to organize." This claim is based on enactment in June 1933 of the National Industrial Recovery Act. The piece below is taken from the chapter "War on labor under the NRA." Copyright © 1964 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY ART PREIS
Roosevelt himself, in a radio appeal for the NRA, on July 24, 1933, had stated: "The workers of this country have rights under this law which cannot be taken from them, and nobody will be permitted to whittle them away but, on the other hand, no aggression is necessary now to attain these rights … The principle that applies to the employer applies to the workers as well and I ask you workers to cooperate in the same spirit."
By "aggression," of course, Roosevelt meant strikes. But the workers were not for cooperation with the employers and government in maintaining wages of $12 to $15 a week, "merit clauses" and recognition of company unions. The workers resorted to the only weapon which had ever enforced their rights and improved their conditions—strike action. In the six months following enactment of NRA, the workers were forced to commit a host of "aggressions" in an attempt to get the most elementary rights; first of all, union recognition. The number of strikes totaled 1,695 in 1933 compared to 841 in 1932 and the number of strikers almost quadrupled in the same period, from 324,000 to 1,168,000.
Some 35,000 members of Hillman's Amalgamated Clothing Workers were forced to strike in New York City against the code minimums proposed. The 60,000 dressmakers of David Dubinsky's International Ladies Garment Workers Union followed suit. A dozen or more strikes flared in auto. Fifty thousand silk workers in Paterson and elsewhere went out against NRA-proposed minimums of $12 to $13 a week. More than 70,000 miners stayed out of the pits in August and September.
If the workers had "rights under this law which cannot be taken from them," as Roosevelt claimed, the coal miners couldn't find what these rights were. The murderous opposition of the employers to unions is typified in the following account of one event in the strike of coal miners in steel company captive mines of Western Pennsylvania. The August 5, 1933 Militant reported:
"The miners' wives from the outset joined directly in the battle taking the blows with their husbands and giving blows as the powerful picket line extended over a far-flung territory. One miner is reported killed in typical Pennsylvania steel trust fashion: shot down in cold blood by company plug-uglies while carrying the American flag at the head of a picket line. Several other miners are expected to die from wounds received and many are suffering from lighter injuries."
The treacherous role of both Roosevelt and his labor lieutenants was also shown in this mine strike. Roosevelt ordered an investigation of "communism" in the strike. He also ordered the mine union leaders to end the strike. Philip Murray, then a United Mine Workers (UMW) vice-president, told the New York Times of his interview with the President.
"The President then said to me, 'Philip, I want you to get these men back to work.' I replied, 'If there is anything in God's world that I can do for you, I will be glad to try.'" Concerning Roosevelt's command Murray further told the Times: "Any union or union officials who refuse to obey their command will not live long."
Murray accepted an agreement promising "union conditions" but not union recognition in the U.S. Steel mines. It took seven years and another big strike to get a union contract in the captive mines.
What followed the signing of the NRA was not the recognition of labor's rights but the most ferocious assault on American labor in its history. Labor was forced into what was a virtual civil war fought on three thousand miles of picket lines for five years. Hundreds of workers were killed, thousands wounded, tens of thousands arrested or otherwise victimized from 1933 to 1938.
Summarizing six months of "New Deal" atrocities against labor, from July 1, 1933 to January 1, 1934, the American Civil Liberties Union charged that "too many employers confuse Roosevelt's New Deal with Coolidge's New Capitalism.
"The methods of that era are used flagrantly to smash labor's efforts to organize despite the NRA. At no time has there been such widespread violations of workers' rights by injunctions, troops, private police, deputy sheriffs, labor spies and vigilantes.
"More than 15 strikers have been killed, 200 injured and hundreds arrested since July 1. More than 40 injunctions of sweeping character have been issued … Troops have been called out in half a dozen strike districts. Criminal syndicalist charges are being used against active strike leaders. The National Labor Board and its regional boards (setup under NRA) have lacked the will or the power to overcome the defiance of employers. Labor's rights to meet, organize and strike have been widely violated by employers who fear neither General Johnson nor Attorney General Cummings. Only where labor has been well organized and has struck with determination have its rights been respected." (New York Times, February 11, 1934.)
In 1934 there were to be 52 strikers murdered and the toll was to mount until the climactic Memorial Day massacre in the 1937 Little Steel strike.