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
“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.