(photo credit 13.1)
Although the Court battle was the catalyst responsible for the rapid precipitation of a conservative coalition, other events in 1937 also served to reinvigorate the right. The most significant of these developments, and perhaps the most important change of the decade, was the emergence of industrial unionism.
The craft unionists who dominated the AFL had been slow in making any attempt to organize the growing millions of mass production workers in such basic industries as steel, automobiles, and rubber. Yet the widespread unrest in 1934 demonstrated the eagerness of many unskilled workers to organize and improve their conditions. American workers in 1934 and 1935 were taking matters into their own hands and creating a movement from the bottom up. Eventually, though, any movement needs leadership.
There was no particularly good reason for predicting that John L. Lewis would provide that leadership. As president of the United Mine Workers since 1919, Lewis had demonstrated his ability to lead and to fight, but he had also shown little tolerance for rank-and-file discontents and had taken a conservative stance on most economic issues. He was a noted anti-Communist during the twenties. A staunch Republican, Lewis had supported Hoover in 1932. One fact emerged from Lewis’s confusing past: he was emphatically his own man. That was fortunate, for he admired no one as much as himself.
Lewis ruled the UMW as an absolute monarch. Once he had chosen a course of action, he would let nothing deter him. This did not mean, however, that he would never change course. When he chose a new objective, he pursued it as single-mindedly as he had the rapidly discarded former goal.
As the Depression dragged on, Lewis, like other labor bosses, found himself far to the right of his membership. Workers were demanding organization and new economic policies; Lewis remained a Republican—but not for long. President Roosevelt was not the only one who heard the angry voices of workers in the streets; Lewis’s ears were not as prominent as his eyebrows, but they were even more useful, since they were often close to the ground. Characteristically, the UMW boss made a dramatic reversal and tried to catch up with his followers. Adept opportunism was one of the by-products of Lewis’s supreme egotism. Rising working-class discontent demanded a “radical” labor leader; Lewis stepped forward. His dogmatic nature quickly infused sincerity into his newfound class feelings. “I don’t give a hang what happened yesterday,” he once declared. “I live for today and tomorrow.” Lewis forgot the past completely and made himself champion of the American working class between 1935 and 1940.
The unskilled workers were ready for effective organization. Beyond the opportunity provided by the Wagner Act’s provisions for representation elections and against anti-union practices, the reluctance of the man in the White House to use federal troops against workers further aided unionization of the mass production industries. The only sensible way to organize them was on an industrial basis. However, such leaders of the AFL as William Green, John Frey, and Matthew Woll remained, at best, too timid to fight strongly for the organization of the unskilled. At worst, the AFL officials were elitists who did not want to contaminate their “aristocracy of labor” with the dregs of the mass production industries. This latter position was strongly argued by AFL Vice President John Frey: “To mingle highly skilled and lower skilled into one organization is as impractical as endeavoring to mix oil and water, for the oil will presently seek the higher level.” By the mid-thirties, the water had risen so high that it was threatening to drown Frey and his AFL colleagues.
The struggle for industrial unionism was not new. Its origins in the United States date back at least to the Knights of Labor in the early 1880s and continue through Eugene Debs’s American Railway Union, the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Communist labor organizations of the twenties and early thirties. Within the AFL itself, the conflict between craft and industrial organizers had existed from the beginning in the 1880s.
The workers were ready in the mid-1930s for industrial unionism. They were “pounding on the doors” of the CIO before the organization was even begun. The frightened bosses could speak all they wanted about “agitators,” “Communists,” and “radical leaders” stirring up the workers. The simple fact was that it was the workers themselves who drove union leaders to action.
Action of a sort came in October 1935. John L. Lewis was determined to force the issue of industrial unionism at the annual AFL convention in Atlantic City. Lewis proposed that the AFL commit itself to the “industrial organization of mass production workers.” The federation’s majority of conservative craft union bosses voted Lewis’s idea down, but he got 38 percent of the votes, a surprisingly good showing under the circumstances. And Lewis knew how to turn defeat into victory. At the last session of the convention, a delegate from the Rubber Workers was speaking in favor of industrial jurisdiction for his union. “Big Bill” Hutcheson, president of the Carpenters’ Union, interrupted to say that the issue of industrial unionism had already been settled. Lewis called Hutcheson’s action “small potatoes.” Moments later, as Lewis walked past the Carpenters’ table, Hutcheson called him a bastard. Lewis replied with a quick right jab that knocked Hutcheson down and left him bleeding. The punch in the jaw made national headlines. It brought the issue of industrial unionism to the public’s attention. As CIO publicist Len De Caux later observed, the people “did follow sporting events.” A member of Hutcheson’s own union expressed the effect of the event on many workers. “Congratulations,” he wired Lewis, “sock him again.”
The next day Lewis met with a group of unionists interested in industrial organization. A few weeks later, still within the federation, a Committee for Industrial Organization was launched. The CIO was not a homogeneous group. Old-line union leaders were somewhat uneasy about the young and rebellious who flocked into the CIO. But such rebellious workers soon pushed the organization on to its early, stunning victories. “Much of Lewis’ sense of urgency in 1935,” labor historian David Brody has noted, “sprang from his awareness of the pressure mounting in the industrial ranks.”
The CIO remained within the AFL for a year. During that time Lewis tried to prevent a split of the labor movement. He did this not because he was prepared to submit to the old guard leadership, but because he expected to lead a huge expansion in union membership among the unorganized. This would, he believed, put him at the head of the movement and it was obviously better to lead a united labor organization than to direct half a movement after a split. But old guard intransigence prevented Lewis from succeeding within the AFL, and the CIO unions were suspended by the parent organization in September 1936. The grounds for the suspension of the unions were that the CIO constituted a “dual organization” threatening the unity of the federation and that the CIO unions were “fomenting insurrection” within the AFL, violating their “contracts” with the federation, and engaging in “rebellion” by acting in ways contrary to the decision of the Atlantic City convention. The CIO, now rechristened the Congress of Industrial Organizations, became a separate coalition of industrial unions.
The first great CIO strike—against the giant rubber manufacturers in Akron, Ohio, in 1936—showed how rebellious rank-and-file laborers were at this time. It is significant that this initial CIO strike was launched by “native” Americans of Appalachian background, not by immigrants. This was no conspiracy fomented by “foreign radicals.” At the end of 1935, Goodyear announced plans to go back from a six- to an eight-hour day, with the same daily pay. The workers rebelled. The sit-down—refusing to work but staying in the factory to prevent scabs from taking over—was used spontaneously by workers in three different Akron companies (Firestone, Goodyear, and Goodrich) in January and February 1936. The sit-downs were successful against two companies, but not at Goodyear. Goodyear celebrated its resistance by laying off seventy workers in mid-February. The workers there sat down again, ready this time for a fight to the finish. One of them put the feelings of his fellows concisely: “I favor shutting her down!” And shut her down they did, although the leaders of the United Rubber Workers had opposed the sit-down in favor of a conventional picket line. The workers, nevertheless, were united. Fourteen thousand went on strike; only 300 remained at work.
Although the strike was a sign of how much the men in the factories had the jump on their “leaders,” the CIO stepped in quickly and gave the workers much help. Other unions also sent organizers and money to aid the Rubber Workers. The CIO gave the word “union” a new meaning. As one CIO leader has recalled, in the AFL days union “had only meant pot bellied grafters with diamond stickpins—little cliques of gravy train snobs with a corner on cushy jobs—high initiation fees, long apprenticeships, rituals, all sorts of tricks to avoid sharing the goodies.” This image was broken—for a time—when the CIO came on the scene. For the most part, CIO unions did not discriminate against blacks, women, or ethnic minorities. The new organization bridged the gap between native and immigrant workers. The common experience of depression came to outweigh ethnic hostilities. (Not for everyone, of course. Opponents of the new organization later used a tune from Walt Disney’s Snow White  to sing:
Hiho, hiho, hiho!
Don’t join the CIO
And pay your dues to a
bunch of Jews
The Goodyear strike lasted a little over a month, until late March 1936. When the company gave in on a number of demands, the CIO leaders urged the Akron workers to accept. The local Rubber Workers were reluctant, but they followed the advice of the national leaders. Continuing local discontent was clear from a number of unauthorized sit-downs after the men had returned to their jobs. Such “wildcat” upheavals were not to bring final victory over Goodyear until 1941.
The CIO had easily passed its first test in Akron. Too much of the credit (or blame, in the eyes of some) for the labor upheaval has been placed with John L. Lewis and his associates. The key figures in the CIO at this time, in addition to Lewis, who had been named the organization’s chairman, were Charles P. Howard of the Typographical Union (the first CIO secretary), Philip Murray of the Miners, Sidney Hillman of the Clothing Workers, David Dubinsky of the Ladies’ Garment Workers, and Max Zaritsky of the Hatters. Their leadership greatly helped the organization of the basic industries. Another vital factor was the friendly attitude of the federal government. But the real thrust came from the bottom, where discontent of volcanic proportions existed.1
Just how volcanic such forces were soon became evident in the auto industry. Automobile production brought the assembly line to its epitome. The line set the laborers’ pace, making them mere factors in the productive process, with no individuality and little humanity. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) perfectly represented what had happened to workers in modern industry. Chaplin as a factory laborer has become part of the mechanical process. He continues to turn nonexistent bolts after the assembly line has shut down. A Chevrolet worker in Flint, Michigan, made the same point: “Where you used to be a man, … now you are less than their cheapest tool.” The speed of the lines was periodically increased. “We didn’t even have time to go to the toilet,” one laborer complained. “You have to run to the toilet and run back.” The wife of an auto worker told how the speedup affected home lives: “Yes, they’re not men any more, if you know what I mean.” The only difference one worker could see between his General Motors plant and a prison was that the workers were allowed to go home at night.
Complete alienation was common among such workers, and with it sometimes came radicalism. By 1936 the automobile laborers could take their frustration no longer. They demanded action, regardless of their leaders’ advice. In April of that year, the United Auto Workers’ convention elected several leftists to the union’s General Executive Board. The convention also refused to bar Communists from union office, called for the establishment of a farmer-labor party, and came close to refusing to endorse President Roosevelt for a second term. The November election of the very liberal Frank Murphy as governor of Michigan gave the auto workers in that state the encouragement they needed to strike.
Up to that point the auto union had responded little to the new opportunities for organization that had opened up. As in the rubber industry, the real drive came from the workers themselves. Worker pressure forced the CIO to turn away from the steel to the auto industry in its national organizing campaign. As early as November 1936, a spontaneous strike against General Motors broke out in Atlanta. It spread in the ensuing weeks to Kansas City, then Cleveland, and finally GM’s main plants at Flint.
The CIO and the national leaders of the UAW yielded reluctantly to rank-and-file pressure, but they were obliged to do so for the sake of their own prestige. As it was, a sit-down strike began in Flint on December 30, 1936, in advance of the date set by the national leaders. The rubber workers’ sit-down tactic of the preceding spring had become increasingly popular. It had much to recommend it. It was safer and more comfortable than outside picketing, it kept plants shut down, and it made it difficult for employers to break a strike without doing the same to their own equipment. Beyond that, as Sidney Fine, the leading historian of the sit-down, has pointed out: “The sit-down strike satisfied the urge for recognition of the depersonalized and alienated automobile worker. Looking at the idle machine beside which he sat, he could believe, for the first time perhaps, that he was its master rather than its slave.”
Fine’s observation helps explain why sit-downs were more popular with laborers than with their leaders. The latter also were often inhibited by their respect for private property and fear of adverse official and public reactions. The man on the job had less concern for such ideological, legal, or tactical niceties. Indeed, a 1938–39 study of the views of residents of Akron toward corporate property found that rank-and-file workers had little respect for it. In the Akron survey some 1700 persons were interviewed. Each was told eight stories involving the “rights” of corporate property (and conversely the rights of workers). After each story the respondent was asked his opinion of the incident related. In each case a score of zero indicated complete opposition to corporate property and a score of four complete approval. Thus a combined score of less than eight (an average of less than one on each story) signified very little sympathy with the concept of corporate property. Sixty-eight percent of the CIO Rubber Workers fell into this category while only one percent were found in the classification of strong support of corporate property rights. The business leaders of Akron held drastically different views on the subject. Not a single businessman fell into the classification of strong opposition to corporate property; 94 percent received ratings in the range of extremely high support for the rights of property.
The supervisor of the Akron investigation concluded that workers had been moved toward disapproval of corporate property by events of the Depression. The laboring class appeared in the study to be humanitarian and nonviolent, but it would “approve violence if there were wrongdoers that it thinks could be met in no other way.” The attitudes of Akron working people toward “the rights of the wealthy, the ‘big interests,’ the banks,” were sharply distinguished from those toward small property holders. “Classes,” the Akron researcher concluded, were “becoming prime factors, at least in certain areas of opinion.”
Businessmen were horrified by labor’s new militancy, particularly by the sit-down tactic. They saw it as an assault on private property, and perhaps the most frightening development yet in the thirties. As they did often in the decade, conservatives were overreacting, but there was a genuine basis for their fear. The sit-down strike lent itself to the development of a new sense of cooperation among the workers. A left-wing psychologist, whose observations may have been partly wishful thinking, noted an interesting phenomenon among the Flint strikers: increasingly they were saying “we” instead of “I.” When the strikers sang such favorite songs as “Solidarity Forever,” many of them meant what they said.
The sit-down was no picnic. The strikers were separated from their families for long periods of time. They lived in constant fear of attacks by police or vigilantes. Yet the sense of kinship, the feeling of struggling for a great cause, and the adventure of it all made the experience a happy one for many strikers. One wrote, “I am having a great time, something new, something different, lots of grub and music.”
Few of the sit-downers had any revolutionary intentions. But their actions had revolutionary implications. The workers’ growing sense of community brought those implications home to many. Strikers began to act as if the plants belonged to them. One striker expressed a feeling that must have been disturbing the sleep of many capitalists across the country. “We learned we can take the plant,” he said. “We already knew how to run them. If General Motors isn’t careful we’ll put two and two together.” Socialists and Communists were plentiful in the ranks of the strikers, should any of the brothers need help in arithmetic. But most of the Marxists, like the other workers, were, for the moment, more interested in creating a strong union than in pushing their ideologies.
The occupation of two GM plants in Flint continued without physical challenge for almost two weeks. Then, on January 11, 1937, a clash between police and strikers took place outside one of the factories. As in other such battles, the workers fought with rocks, bottles, and door hinges, while the police began with tear gas and soon resorted to pistols and riot guns. Despite the technological advantages enjoyed by the forces of law and order, the workers won this “Battle of Running Bulls.” Casualties included fourteen workers, two spectators, and nine policemen. No one was killed.
Governor Murphy sent the National Guard into Flint after the Battle of Running Bulls. But Murphy’s motives were like those of Minnesota’s Olson. He wanted to protect the strikers, not evict them. Some of the Guardsmen showed their feelings as the strike ended when one truckload of the militia began singing “Solidarity Forever.” Agreement with management on union recognition and wages still proved to be difficult, and the strike dragged on through the rest of January. Continued stalemate might have resulted in the defeat of the UAW. So the unionists made a daring forcible seizure of another key Chevrolet plant in Flint on February 1. Ten days later, after Governor Murphy refrained from enforcing an injunction GM obtained to evict the strikers, a negotiated settlement was reached. John L. Lewis himself conducted the negotiations for the union.
The UAW did not win everything it wanted in the agreement, but it was clearly a victory for the workers. The strikers’ determination and unity had brought General Motors to its knees. GM was able to produce only 151 automobiles in the entire country during the period February 1–10. After the settlement was made the strikers gathered with families and friends for a well-deserved victory celebration. One CIO organizer in the strike said of the celebrants, “These people sang and joked and laughed and cried, deliriously joyful.… Victory … meant a freedom they had never known before.”
The results of the GM strike were monumental. It was the acid test of the CIO. A steel organizer said during the auto strike that the steel workers “hesitate to stick out their necks. Wait till you win the auto strike. ‘Then we’ll join.’ ” And join they did, in steel and autos and other industries. The membership of the UAW itself skyrocketed in the eight months after the GM strike from 88,000 to 400,000. In March 1937 there were 170 sit-down strikes involving 167,210 workers across the nation.
The most remarkable event to take place in the wake of the GM strike was the surrender—without a strike—of U.S. Steel to the CIO. The great bastion of the open shop signed an agreement with the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC) on March 2, 1937. There were many reasons for the about-face in U.S. Steel’s labor policy, but certainly one of the most important was the UAW victory over GM.
It appeared in March 1937 that the CIO’s back-to-back agreements with the giants of the nation’s two greatest industries would open the way for a clean union sweep of the basic industries. The CIO, having been ejected from the AFL, was on its own. The future seemed bright. Such leading corporations as General Electric, Firestone, and RCA were soon brought under CIO contracts. But more trouble lay ahead. A number of companies, led by Ford, Goodyear, and Republic Steel, steadfastly refused to recognize unions. Nor was bloodshed over. When the smaller steel companies failed to follow U.S. Steel’s lead, the SWOC struck “Little Steel” in the spring of 1937. Sixteen strikers met violent deaths during that bitter struggle.
The worst incident in the Little Steel strike took place on Memorial Day at Republic’s South Chicago mill. SWOC was attempting to conduct a legal picket line in front of the Republic mill. The police, who were being fed at company expense, prevented peaceful picketing at the mill gates. On Memorial Day the union held a meeting protesting the police restrictions. When the meeting broke up someone suggested that they proceed to the main gate at Republic and set up a mass picket line. As the crowd marched toward the mill to put this motion into effect, a small army of police met them. The two groups walked to within a few feet of each other and talked over the situation. After a few minutes of discussion, a demonstrator back in the crowd threw a tree branch toward the police. Before the missile reached them the police fired three shots in the air. The marchers immediately responded by hurling rocks and sticks at the officers. The latter then fired about 200 rounds of ammunition into the workers at very close range. Those demonstrators who remained mobile after this barrage fled across a field. The police pursued, continuing to shoot, and beat those who fell. When the massacre ended, ten workers lay dead from gunshot wounds. None of the ten was shot in the front. Thirty other demonstrators were wounded by gunshots; twenty-eight more were hospitalized for other injuries. Only three policemen required hospital treatment.
The Memorial Day massacre and other killings of steelworkers showed that the labor euphoria of early 1937 had not been entirely justified. The 1937–38 recession further dampened the organization drive. Not until the imminence of war in 1941 forced it upon them did Ford—with its talented corps of goons—Goodyear, and several of the steel companies agree to recognize unions.
There were other problems. Middle-class Americans, generally sympathetic to unionization in the mid-thirties, were upset by the sit-down tactic, which they saw as an attack on private property. Despite his overall pro-labor stance, in the midst of the Little Steel strike Roosevelt himself proclaimed “a plague on both your houses” (the CIO and the companies). “It ill behooves one who has supped at labor’s table,” Lewis responded, “to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries when they become locked in deadly embrace.” Then in 1939 the Supreme Court outlawed the sit-down strike, taking from the CIO its most effective weapon.
Still, the success of the CIO was remarkable. Here John L. Lewis emerges once more as the critical figure. For millions of unorganized, unskilled workers he was Moses. The labor upheaval of the thirties would not have followed the course it did without Lewis. It was a genuine uprising among the workers themselves, but without Lewis’s leadership it might have failed completely. Or it might have gone much further. For Lewis’s role was that of a manager of discontent. As sociologist C. Wright Mills once said, “Even as the labor leader rebels, he holds back rebellion. He organizes discontent and then he sits on it, exploiting it in order to maintain a continuous organization.… He makes regular what might otherwise be disruptive.”2
Such a mission was filled not only by Lewis personally, but also by the CIO as an organization. Many workers had lost their faith in the system. This was not often expressed in words, but the actions of the workers who took to the streets spoke loudly. Rank-and-file workers had gradually moved considerably to the left of their leaders. Some of those leaders—Lewis, Hillman, and Dubinsky among them—followed their members in the mid-thirties and launched the CIO. The leaders of the new organization began talking about industrial democracy, exactly what the American workers wanted to hear. Those CIO unionists who looked forward to the day when workers would transform society received respectful hearings from the rank and file; some looked on those leftists as prophets.
The CIO channeled into constructive action the discontent that was so widespread among working Americans in the thirties. The achievement of the organization should not be underestimated; the benefits mass production laborers have enjoyed in recent decades because of the CIO upheaval are numerous. The accomplishments of the CIO probably proved of more lasting benefit to the American worker than did any single New Deal program. The industrial unions provided mass production workers with a power that could represent them against the previously unchecked might of giant corporations. Employees could no longer be fired without cause; their benefits gradually increased to the point where they provided some security for their families; and the wages of production workers rose to a level where many of them could claim middle-class status in the post-World War II decades.
For all the horror the CIO induced among business leaders, in the end they, too, benefited from it. The organization directed the workers’ essentially egalitarian discontent into streams that became in time acceptable, if unpalatable, to American capitalism. The economic royalists found that they could survive as economic parliamentarians. When the decade’s class struggle subsided, new (and some old) union leaders rose on the backs of their members and made the CIO an industrial version of the AFL. The union administrators were generally happy to work with reformed captains of industry. Capitalism’s problems led to worker unrest, worker unrest produced the CIO, the CIO helped resuscitate capitalism, and a revived capitalism devitalized the CIO. Working-class discontent ebbs and flows with prosperity and depression. With the return of prosperity, unions gradually resumed their parochial concerns. Ultimately, the CIO wed the AFL and begat George Meany.
As conservatives brooded over Court-packing and sit-down strikes, a more persistent issue continued to trouble them. By 1937 it seemed to many Americans—by no means all of them conservatives—that recovery had been achieved. True, unemployment was still distressingly high (in the double digits), but maybe we (or, rather, the unemployed) would just have to learn to live with that. Harry Hopkins estimated that year that 4 to 5 million Americans would remain jobless after recovery had been achieved. Production was now above 1929 levels, stock prices and profits were up, and many agreed with South Carolina Senator James Byrnes when he said in May, “the emergency has passed.” If this was so, then surely there was no excuse for continuing the alarming deficits in the federal budget. And what of the relief programs that were creating a class of lazy, dependent Americans? The time had come at least to cut back on relief.
With recovery seemingly so far along (in his recent campaign Roosevelt himself had stressed economic gains heavily), congressional conservatives attempted in the spring of 1937 to pare down Roosevelt’s request for an additional $1.5 billion for the WPA. Although the House attached a restrictive amendment to the bill, the final version gave the President everything he sought. The conservatives had shown more strength than before, but not enough.
In one sense it did not matter. Roosevelt had already cut WPA rolls following his reelection. Nonsensical talk of runaway inflation increased in 1937. (The following year Joseph P. Kennedy told Henry Stimson that he “lay awake nights” because he feared that “Roosevelt’s inflation” would undermine his fortune and leave his children with nothing. The patriarch of the Kennedy clan was one of the few in the Depression who could find nothing to fear but fear itself.) The President’s fiscal conservatism took firm hold of him. By August the number of people on WPA projects had been cut in half, leaving about 1.5 million people so employed. PWA operations virtually ceased. At about the same time, the Federal Reserve System tightened credit. All this occurred while unemployment still hovered around the 9 million mark, representing about 14 percent of the civilian work force.
If these policies were not sufficient to bring disaster, 1937 also saw the start of the mischievous effects of the social security tax. Some $2 billion was taken out of the pockets of consumers during the year in order to begin the pension fund. None of it was yet to be returned to the economy. The result of all these misguided economic policies was the “recession” of 1937–38. “Recession,” in this case at least, was a euphemism for “new depression.” It was a term that would last through the Eisenhower years, despite an attempt by Leon Keyserling, a member of President Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers, to substitute “downward correction.” In the sixties, presidents seeking to avoid the stigma of presiding over recessions spoke of “economic downturns.” The contribution of Gerald Ford’s economic adviser, Alan Greenspan, was: “This is not a recession, it is a sideways waffle.” By the Carter administration, the public would be treated to “pauses in recovery.” The ultimate seemed to have been reached when President Carter’s chief inflation fighter, Alfred Kahn, was reprimanded for using the dreaded Hoover word “depression.” Kahn pledged to substitute “banana” thereafter. Ronald Reagan went Kahn one better in mid-1983 when he termed 9.5 percent unemployment “recovery.” A depression by any other name smells as foul.
In August 1937 the stock market collapsed again, with the Dow Jones average dropping from 190 to 115 over the next two months. Production, sales, and employment also plummeted. By March 1938 the unemployment lists had added 4 million new (and rejoining) members, raising the unemployment level again toward 20 percent. The President did not know what to do. Charges and countercharges were flung back and forth. Conservatives and businessmen insisted Roosevelt’s “radical” policies had undermined business confidence. The President and some of his advisers blamed the new collapse, which by some measures was even sharper than that of 1929, on a “strike of capital.” Opportunities for investment abounded, this explanation contended, but businessmen were refusing to invest because they wanted to undermine Roosevelt’s support.
In truth, although both the lack of business confidence and business desires to discredit the New Deal may have played parts in the new recession, most of the blame belonged on the White House doorstep. Roosevelt’s sharp cutback in spending clearly precipitated the collapse. Probably realizing this, even if he did not admit it to himself, the President was badly shaken. He suddenly found himself in a situation similar to that which had faced Hoover at the beginning of the decade. FDR had understandably—if foolishly—taken full credit for the recovery of 1935–37. In 1935 he had proclaimed, “Yes, we are on our way back—not just by pure chance.… We are coming back more soundly than ever before because we are planning it that way.” Like the Republicans before him, Roosevelt, having claimed credit for the good, now had to accept responsibility for the bad. He even began to sound like his predecessor. FDR insisted privately in October 1937 that he knew conditions were good. “Fundamentally sound,” he might have said. “Everything will work out all right if we just sit tight and keep quiet,” FDR told his Cabinet. Hoover probably gained no satisfaction from this, but he would have been justified if he had.
As economic conditions worsened, the President continued to vacillate. Businessmen and fiscal conservatives urged further retrenchment; New Dealers demanded a return to heavy spending. Always favoring a balanced budget, FDR tried for a time to restore business confidence by promising new budget slashing. At the same time, however, he tried to return to his class-based rhetoric of 1936. In January 1938 he promised to continue the fight “to curb the power and privileges of small minorities.” These evil people, Roosevelt hastened to add, were “a mere handful of the total of businessmen and bankers and industrialists.” Still unclear on whether to spend or cut back, Roosevelt decided to follow another course. Egged on by such Brandeisian advisers as Assistant Attorney General Robert Jackson, Leon Henderson, who served as Harry Hopkins’s economic assistant, and the expert legal draftsmen Benjamin V. Cohen and Thomas Corcoran, the President attacked that small minority who had, he thought, subverted the economy. Trust-busting was likely to be popular and it might obviate the need for choosing between the spenders and the conservatives.
But conditions would not allow Roosevelt an easy way out. At the end of March 1938, the stock market took a new and precipitous drop. Unemployment continued to soar. The President could wait no longer. Hopkins persuaded him that spending was the only solution, and in mid-April Roosevelt asked Congress for a new $3 billion spending program to expand WPA, restart PWA, and assist other agencies. Faced with economic chaos in an election year, Congress quickly voted for a $3.75 billion appropriation. Within a few months economic indicators were again on the rise, seemingly confirming the analysis of the deficit-spending advocates. These people were already being referred to as Keynesians, but John Maynard Keynes actually had little to do with New Deal policy. The leading advocates of deficit spending close to Roosevelt were Marriner Eccles of the Federal Reserve and Harry Hopkins. Neither was directly influenced by Keynes. Eccles later said he had never heard of Keynes when he first began advancing “Keynesian” views and that he had never read more than small portions of Keynes’s work at any time in the thirties.
Roosevelt had already verbally committed himself to an assault on monopoly. In late April he sent Congress a series of recommendations to curb monopolies. Congress responded by approving a full-scale investigation of the concentration of power in the American economy. The public seemed pleased. Letters reaching the White House after the President’s message indicated that many Americans who had again become disillusioned with the New Deal were cheered by the attack on monopoly. “The hope that had almost ceased to glow,” wrote a Tennessee man, “now burns anew.”
There was little reason for such hope. Roosevelt remained unsure of his economic policy. Calling for a “study” of a problem is a way to avoid action on it. As Raymond Moley pointed out, the President’s request for an investigation was “the final expression of Roosevelt’s personal indecision about what policy his administration ought to follow in its relations with business.” It put off (permanently, as it turned out) “the adoption of a guiding economic philosophy.”
The Temporary National Economic Committee, created in response to Roosevelt’s message, investigated the economy for the next three years, but offered no concrete recommendations. Under its chairman, Senator Joseph O’Mahoney of Wyoming, it served precisely the purpose Moley indicated. The next few years did witness a greatly expanded antitrust campaign, but this was due more to the zeal of Thurman Arnold, the new assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department, than to any commitment by Roosevelt. Arnold’s barrage of antimonopoly action produced few results (other than getting Arnold kicked upstairs), however, since corporations were soon able to have suits dismissed on the grounds that they interfered with military production.3
It might have been expected that the new collapse in the economy in 1937–38 would lead to greater discontent and demand for change. On the surface, at least, such was not the case. One reason is readily apparent. Much Depression-bred discontent was now channeled into the development of CIO unions in the mass production industries. The success of the UAW and SWOC with General Motors and U.S. Steel had been aided by the relative prosperity of early 1937. With the new collapse, manufacturers faced with growing inventories were no longer frightened by strike threats. The “recession” put the CIO on the defensive after mid-1937.
The second reason that the renewed economic disaster failed to move the country further to the left is that Roosevelt had successfully identified himself with the left. To the extent that his decisions were responsible for the new collapse, Roosevelt was actually playing a conservative role in early 1937. Yet he continued to talk as the champion of the common man. When the bottom fell out of the economy, it was quite natural for many people to blame Roosevelt and the New Deal, the more so when for several months the President seemed to have no solution to offer.
The recession gave conservatives in the Senate and the House new hope, but they never became a stable voting bloc. They disagreed on many issues and were often kept apart by partisanship. They generally wanted to restore America to what they imagined it had been like before 1933. The conservatives were also united in opposing deficit spending, except where it helped special interests in their states or districts. Thus they were unable (and in many cases unwilling) to stop Roosevelt’s spending proposal of April 1938. Similarly, expenditures for farm subsidies, no matter how large, were rarely given a second look by the conservatives, most of whom represented rural areas.
There were, however, farm programs and, then, there were farm programs. Most rural representatives in Congress were far more concerned with the interests of large landowners than with those of small farmers, tenants, sharecroppers, or farm workers. The latter groups generally had to look to the executive branch for whatever assistance they might hope to get from the government. In the early stages of the Second New Deal, just after agreeing to the firing of most of the pro-tenant members of the AAA staff, Roosevelt had used part of the money from the Emergency Relief Appropriation to create the Resettlement Administration. Placed under the leadership of ardent New Deal planner Rexford Tugwell, the RA unenthusiastically continued the subsistence homestead colonies that had begun at Eleanor Roosevelt’s urging but had been left an unwanted stepchild in Harold Ickes’s Interior Department. The new agency also oversaw the construction of “greenbelt” towns near three major cities, Washington, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. Communal farms were established in such localities as New Madrid, Missouri; Casa Grande, Arizona; and Lake Dick, Arkansas. The major goal of the Resettlement program, as its name indicated, was to relocate poor farmers to better land and provide expert advice and equipment. It was a noble idea, but a lack of funds prevented the RA from giving a new start to even one percent of the 500,000 families it intended to help.
In 1937, Congress passed the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act, which replaced the RA with a new organization, the Farm Security Administration. The FSA proved to be another noble experiment. It provided loans for tenants to become family farmers, helped poor farmers improve their land, and sought to better the conditions facing migrant farm workers. By 1941 the agency had spent $1 billion in such efforts. The FSA, like the RA before it, made sincere efforts to prevent racial discrimination in its operations. All of this ensured that the agency would face increasing criticism from planters and their representatives in Congress. Like its predecessor, the FSA never had nearly enough money to have an appreciable effect on the massive problems of the rural poor.
When Tugwell was placed in charge of the RA, he realized that many of its programs were tempting targets for conservative critics. To try to blunt some of the inevitable complaints, he established an Information Division to put out positive propaganda about the Resettlement Administration’s programs. One result was the bringing together of a remarkable group of photographers in the organization’s historical section. Tugwell placed his former Columbia University teaching assistant, Roy Stryker, in charge of the program. The consequence was a national treasure of documentary photographs of rural life, Depression conditions, and ultimately, of America itself. The historical section was carried over into the FSA, and the wonderful collection of photographs is generally referred to under the Farm Security Administration label.
The FSA photographs, several of which are reproduced in this volume, represented an achievement that in some ways paralleled the accomplishments of the WPA arts projects. There were, however, significant differences. The photographers were certainly artists, but they were dealing more directly with unfiltered reality than were the Federal Art Project mural painters or the directors in the Federal Theatre Project. A more important difference was that the FSA photographers were not on relief. They were hired solely for their professional talents, not because they were without a job. The monument left by Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott, Carl Mydans, Russell Lee, John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein, and the other FSA photographers represents today one of the most important collections of documents on Depression America. Even if the RA/FSA had done nothing else, this effort would easily secure its place as an important contribution of the New Deal.
The same members of Congress who pinched pennies for RA and FSA and who usually complained about New Deal extravagance were less stingy when it came to large farm owners. After the Supreme Court struck down the original AAA processing tax in 1936, a new bill was hastily drawn up to pay farmers for conserving soil. They would do this by planting such soil enrichers as soybeans and clover instead of the overproduced staples. This end run around the Supreme Court worked constitutionally, but failed agriculturally. With crop surpluses multiplying and a friendlier majority on the high bench, Roosevelt called late in 1937 for a new AAA law. The main problem here came not from legislators intent on cutting back on the administration proposal, but from farm bloc representatives seeking to enlarge the program. In February 1938, Congress passed the bill, which allowed the secretary of agriculture to establish acreage allotments for growers of staple crops. It established the basis of American agriculture policy for decades to come. Even so, the surpluses continued to mount. Export subsidies were authorized in mid-1938, but the overflow rose until World War II temporarily solved the problem.
Aside from the farm bill, FDR’s only major successes in the Seventy-fifth Congress of 1937–38 were a housing bill and wages and hours legislation. Both of these trophies emerged from Congress already well tarnished. Despite an acute need, low-cost housing had never been a top priority in Roosevelt’s plans. The agrarian myth held too high a place in the President’s heart for him to get enthusiastic about rebuilding urban slums. The PWA had originally been given responsibility for dealing with this problem, but it accomplished little. The National Housing Act of 1934 set up a separate agency, the Federal Housing Administration, which was quite helpful in insuring loans for middle-class people seeking to buy houses or to make home improvements. The FHA was of no assistance to those in need of low-income housing.
While FDR remained uninterested in the housing problem, Senator Wagner pushed persistently for a federal housing act. As in the case of the labor relations bill, Roosevelt was late in joining the cause of the New York senator. Unlike the labor bill, however, the housing measure needed presidential support, With it, the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act became law in the summer of 1937. It established the United States Housing Authority, which could make loans for the construction of low-cost dwellings. Conservatives had placed crippling amendments on the bill, however, greatly restricting the USHA’s effectiveness. The results of the act corresponded more nearly to Roosevelt’s than Wagner’s commitment to it.
Although there had been overwhelming support in 1935 for the National Labor Relations Act, proposals to place a floor under wages and a ceiling over hours enjoyed a smaller constituency. The President himself had long favored such a fair labor standards bill, but two important groups within the New Deal coalition were unenthusiastic. Southerners feared that their region would lose its primary attraction for industry—its pitifully low wage scale. And although it might seem surprising at first glance, organized labor was lukewarm toward the proposal. Some union leaders feared that minimum wages would in effect become maximum wages. They also wanted to gain increases through union bargaining rather than government decree.
During the early months of 1938, conservatives on the House Rules Committee prevented the bill from reaching the floor. Not all southerners opposed the legislation, however, and this provided a means of getting it through. Claude Pepper of Florida, one of the strongest supporters of the New Deal in the Senate, was in the midst of a tough primary race in the spring of 1938. The White House encouraged Pepper to speak out clearly for the wages and hours bill. This he did, and when he won a smashing victory in May, other members of Congress began to see the wisdom of supporting Fair Labor Standards legislation. Before conservatives let the bill pass, though, they weakened it. Domestic workers and farm laborers were excluded from its provisions, as they had been from the Social Security Act. Many other categories of workers were similarly exempted. Tongue in cheek, one representative suggested an amendment to the bill. “Within 90 days after appointment of the Administrator,” it would read, “she shall report to Congress whether anyone is subject to this bill.”
The bill outlawed, at long last, the use of child labor in interstate commerce. It set standards of 25 cents per hour and 44 hours per week, which must be improved within two years to 40 cents and 40 hours. Even such low wage standards were of more than passing interest to 12 million workers covered by the new law who had been making less than 40 cents an hour. The Fair Labor Standards Act was less than the President wanted, but it did establish the principle of government regulation of these matters. The defects and exclusions might be remedied in the future. Roosevelt signed the bill into law on June 25, 1938.
As Congress became less tractable President Roosevelt’s patience wore thin. He had been especially hurt by the desertion on the Court plan of many Democrats he had supported. It was a poor issue to make into a test of loyalty, but Roosevelt “stayed mad” at the Court “deserters.” The President seemed bent on what one critic called “high school girl revenge.” On a deeper level, both Roosevelt and some of his advisers wanted a realignment of the parties, with all liberals becoming Democrats and conservatives of various stripes joining the Republicans. Many conservatives also hoped for such a change in party composition. The 1938 primaries became the testing ground for this attempt to sort out the confusing American party setup.
Of the thirty-four Senate elections in 1938, Republicans were incumbents in only three, and all of them were considered “safe” for the GOP. (How could they be otherwise if they had remained in Republican hands six years before, in 1932?) Therefore any improvement for Roosevelt in the upper house would have to come from the replacement of conservative Democrats by liberals. Some of Roosevelt’s assistants intervened in early primaries, and late in June the President himself used a fireside chat to launch what came to be known as his “purge” of conservative Democrats. The attempt to rid the party of legislators unfriendly to the New Deal is generally considered to have been a disaster for Roosevelt. Of the four pro-New Dealers who were seriously challenged by more conservative opponents, though, three won. Southern liberals Lister Hill of Alabama, Claude Pepper of Florida, and Hattie Carraway of Arkansas demonstrated that the New Deal was not entirely unpopular in the South. In Idaho a New Dealer lost, but the victor tried to link himself to FDR, endorsed the Townsend Plan, and was an isolationist, which was a popular position to take in the state. In addition to all this, large numbers of Republicans crossed over in the primary to vote against the New Deal candidate.
New Deal Senators Alben Barkley of Kentucky and Elmer Thomas of Oklahoma were also victorious. Clearly, it was not in the defeat of New Deal supporters that Roosevelt’s plans for the 1938 primaries failed. The administration targeted five conservative Democrats for defeat: Guy Gillette of Iowa, Frederick Van Nuys of Indiana, Walter George of Georgia, “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina, and Millard Tydings of Maryland. All five were renominated.
The story, however, is not as simple as it appears. Roosevelt did not personally intervene against Gillette or Van Nuys. The former made a point of not attacking the President, insisting only that he would not be a rubber stamp. Van Nuys was renominated by state party leaders who were loyal to Roosevelt but could find no suitable alternative candidate. It was, therefore, on the contests in Georgia, South Carolina, and Maryland that the “purge” focused. Roosevelt spoke publicly against the three conservative incumbents. But the President had not added to his persuasive abilities in the South earlier in the year when in a Georgia speech he had compared southern feudalism to fascism. Liberals in the three states failed to come to the aid of Roosevelt’s candidates. Most significant was the stress that George and Smith placed on their commitment to most of the New Deal. They appealed to voters on the traditional issues of racism and state independence. Off-year elections are usually decided on local issues and personalities. The conservative victories were therefore something far short of repudiations of the New Deal. Although Tydings does not fit so neatly into this analysis, he too emphasized state independence and not being a “rubber stamp.”
“Outside interference” is almost always resented in state elections. Roosevelt was, however, successful in one important House primary. Representative John J. O’Connor of New York, chairman of the Rules Committee, which had blocked Roosevelt’s desires on several occasions, was defeated. The President found solace in this victory, saying “Harvard lost the schedule but won the Yale game.” A comforting thought, no doubt, but wishful thinking all the same. The attempted purge could only help convince other Democrats that they could oppose the President and survive. Despite all the ambiguities, the failed purge was a serious political setback for Roosevelt and hopes for any further reform.
The general election in 1938 brought even worse news to the White House. The Republicans, so recently the subject of numerous obituaries, gained 13 governorships, 8 seats in the Senate, and 81 in the House. The overriding reason was the new economic collapse. American voters tend to blame the party in power when things go wrong. Yet surface appearances are again deceptive. Democrats continued to do well among the lower income groups, and they won 75 percent of the Senate races and 61 percent of the House contests. Moveover, many Republicans who won had to move toward the left in order to do so. A minimum of 40 of the 169 successful Republican House candidates in 1938 owed their victories at least in part to their (often hypocritical) endorsements of the Townsend Plan. And Roosevelt could justly claim to be the first two-term President since the one-party days of James Monroe who had kept a majority in Congress throughout his administration.4