FDR's first labor bill - a strange story

A coupla days ago, I recommended the Martens book on the history of labor law and US unions that took the story up to passage of the Norris-LaGuardia in 1932.

There's no doubt that the Depression and the consequent risk of serious civil unrest and worse had the Congress in an mood amenable to labor law reform.

Martens' section on Norris-LaGuardia (p158ff) shows Norris getting nowhere with the anti-injunction bill he introduced in 1928; by 1932, only 14 reps and 5 senators voted against the final version.

(And the act was passed in the March, a year or so before FDR took up the reins of presidential office.)

One issue both parties addressed in the 1932 prez campaign was working hours - a key demand of the AFL under William Green.

Both the Dem plaform -

We advocate the spread of employment by a substantial reduction in the hours of labor, the encouragement of the shorter week by applying that principle in government service;

- and the GOP platform -
We favor the principle of the shorter working week and shorter work day with its application to government as well as to private employment, as rapidly and as constructively as conditions will warrant.

supported a reduction of hours (in their own ways).

What happened after the prez election is related in a fascinating 1946 articleLabor and the Recovery Program, 1933 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (it's a JSTOR link: I've not seen the story covered anywhere freely available online).

Action on an hours bill did not wait for FDR to be inaugurated. Hugo Black (ex-KKK) of AL introduced a Thirty Hour Bill (S 158) in December 1932.

Green, natch, was ecstatic about the bill; but had to curb his enthusiasm until it could be taken up again in the 73rd, with the WH under new management.

FDR, it turned out, was not so keen: he'd not formulated his plans for recovery, and evidently had no intention of being preempted by a bunch of grandstanding MCs!

However, while his plans were maturing, he decided to let the Black bill act as placeholder, and summoned Senate leaders to suggest they raise the maximum weekly hours permitted from 30 to 36.

But - lo and behold! - the Senate proved to be a bunch of bolshies, and voted down the WH amendment (on April 6) 41-48, before passing the bill 53-30 the same day. (Voteview has the breakdown.)

Within the admin, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins thought that, with amendment, the bill might be made acceptable, but others (like future NRA honcho Hugh Johnson) did not.

The Black Bill (in more or less identical form) was then introduced in the House by Labor Committee chairman William Connery.

Then amendments devised by Madame Perkins and colleagues (without AFL input - uh oh!) were proposed: one group increased the maximum hours permitted, with provision made for seasonal spikes; the other provided for minimum wages to be fixed in industries where they no longer provided a fair return or a living income to the workers.

(So far as I'm aware, this was the first proposal (first peacetime proposal?) from the Federal executive branch for any kind of legal minimum wage for men.)

But, in accordance with longstanding AFL policy, Green absolutely rejected the Perkins minimum wage amendment. (Minimum wage laws were fine for women and children - because they were deemed to be unorganizable, and therefore not potential members of AFL unions - but not for men.)

Some industrial unions within in the AFL (like the UMW and the ACW) supported a Federal minimum wage for all, because, in their industries, union power was often much less.

(Needless to say, this difference of view was to get well aired during the long legislative history of the FLSA in 1937-8.)

Labor reported out (unanimously!) an altogether different text from that of the Senate-passed bill: a Federal Trade Regulation Board (consisting of the Labor Secretary and a representative each of employers and labor) would license businesses to operate in interstate commerce! Only businesses that paid satisfactory wages and did not interfere with organization of their workers could be licensed.

Unfortunately, by that stage, Connery's Workers' Paradise had been overtaken by events, viz, FDR's decision to go with the NRA: he thought, not unreasonably, that attempting economic recovery without securing the cooperation of business (one might say, with poking business in the eye!) would be a tad foolhardy.

The Connery bill never made it out of Rules (hence, there was never a roll call vote on it, hence it's not on Voteview, hence I've no bill number for it!) Quite what the Senate would have done with such a radical text, we'll never know.

Tags: AFL, Black-Connery Thirty Hour Bill, FLSA, Frances Perkins, Hugo Black, Labor History, Labor Law, Minimum Wage Legislation (FDR), Norris-LaGuardia Act, NRA, S 158 (73rd), William Connery, William Green (all tags)



Re: FDR's first labor bill - a strange story

That is a strange story! A 30-hour work week? That would have put those French socialists to shame wouldn't it.

Although I wonder if FDR should have gone for it. I mean really, in 1933 did the business community have any leverage at all?

I don't know if the results would have been good, but it at least it (meaning the hours bill but especially the inter-state commerce bill) would have set a precedent for giving workers and much bigger seat at the table in determining how our economy is structured. Sounds like it would have led to something more akin to Germany's system where labor has a seat on every company's board.

Plus, if Roosevelt wanted business on board, it's not like they came on board anyway. Remember that workers got notices in the paychecks in 1936 that they'd get a pay reduction due to social security unless they voted out FDR. They of course, kindly declined the advice.

by adamterando 2007-04-22 05:38PM | 0 recs
Re: FDR's first labor bill - a strange story

Not something that I've really looked at; but my impression is that business was all over the place in 1933.

Perhaps something of a tripartite division: some clung to the idea that the problem was government interference getting in the way of a capitalist economy (supporters of Smoot-Hawley, most of them, I dare say!); others preferred the associationist model, in which privately organized associations of businesses divided up the available market and eliminated wasteful competition; still others were amenable to an NRA-type regime edging towards a corporate state à la Mussolini which disciplined labor as well as business - the Swope Plan went some way along that route.

My reading of the 1946 article is that the bill reported out by the House Labor Committee (proposing the Federal Trade Regulation Board) wasn't in play long enough for the various elements of business interests to make up their mind on it.

Plus - I'm not sure whether business leaders would have by then been aware that FDR was going to give them a better deal in the shape of the NRA.

Or whether any of them thought there was the slightest chance that the Labor version of the bill could pass Congress!

I think that, if anything radical was going to be done, Spring 33 was the time to do it: but not only was FDR not ready with his plan: I doubt whether he had any intention of embracing a radical solution. (After all, it wasn't just business which was acting under the pressure of 3½ years of Depression: I doubt FDR was at that stage (at any stage, probably) prepared to bet the farm on a significant breakup or rejigging of existing institutions.)

(That's no more than a hypothesis on my part: it's not something I've ever looked at, to speak of.)

My sense on the evolution of business attitudes is that, as the economy picked up and the threats of widespread civil unrest and state intervention in the economy receded, business leaders felt more confident to oppose FDR.

But, as the Patterson book on the Conservative Coalition I mentioned a week or two back describes, the ever-growing popularity of the prez (through elections in 32, 34 and 36) was a powerful inhibitor of action by those in Congress sympathetic to business and their views on said prez.

(For instance, in 1935, the utilities bill (PUHCA) was much fought over, but, despite the efforts of Wendell Willkie of Commonwealth and Southern, FDR got 95% of what he wanted.)

My guess (no more) would be that the bulk of businessmen stuck pins in FDR's effigy but were not themselves attracted to radical action against his policies - assuming such action were feasible which, failing support elsewhere in the polity, it wasn't.

(The possibility of a dictator, for which role Huey Long was most often canvassed, was apparently widely believed to be a real one in the mid-30s, however absurd it seems today.

Some businessmen might prefer their chances with a Duce; I doubt whether many did.)

By the time the Roosevelt Recession struck, later in 1937, it was far too late for business to do anything other than stick with it.

(Of course, late 30s politics are incomprehensible without taking into account the virtually universal assumption that FDR would not run in 40. In 40, a new era was promised in which anything was possible - so folks of all shades of opinion thought.)

There must be a book on the evolution of business opinion in the 30s: I can't remember having seen one, though.

by skeptic06 2007-04-23 11:20AM | 0 recs


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