Date: Mon, 17 Feb 97 17:21:45 CST
From: (Brian Hauk)
Subject: Roosevelt As A 'Friend Of Labor' Is Just A Myth

Roosevelt As A 'Friend Of Labor' Is Just A Myth

By Art Preis, in the Militant,
Vol. 61, no. 8, 24 February, 1997

Below we print an excerpt from Labor's Giant Step - The First Twenty Years of the CIO: 1936-55 about Franklin Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1933-45. To this day he is held up by liberals, Stalinists, and the labor officialdom as a "friend of the working class." This selection from the chapter " 'New Deal' - Myth and Fact" gives the true picture of what the Roosevelt administration represented. It is copyright 1964 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted with permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.

Roosevelt's big election campaign pitch was "government saving." He said in his nomination acceptance speech of July 2, 1932: "For three long years I have been going up and down this country preaching that Government - federal, state and local -costs are too much...I propose to you, my friends, and through you, that Government of all kinds, big and little, be made solvent and that the example be set by the President of the United States and his cabinet."

As for unemployment relief, he explained that "primary responsibility for relief rests with localities, now, as ever" - that is, with bankrupt local communities. He wound up with the oft-quoted declaration: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people."

After Roosevelt's death in 1945, his Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, in her naively revealing The Roosevelt I Knew, spilled the beans about the "New Deal." She wrote that when Roosevelt took office in March 1933, "the New Deal was not a plan with form or content. It was a happy phrase he had coined during the campaign, and its value was psychological. It made people feel better....

This "happy phrase" concealed the real purpose of the medicine in Roosevelt's prescription. He was intent on saving dying American capitalism and he was ready to use all means to that end.

His first major official act after he took office on March 4, 1933, was to save the big banks and big depositors at the expense of the small banks and small depositors. His bank moratorium on withdrawal of deposits and other emergency bank measures consolidated the big banks while thousands of the small ones never opened again or paid back only a fraction of deposits....

The picture of Roosevelt as a "friend of labor" giving the people concessions out of the tenderness of his heart - this portrait painted by both the conservative trade union officialdom and the Stalinists - is completely false. Roosevelt was a clever, adroit politician who carefully gauged popular sentiment. His slightest concession to the workers was given grudgingly out of fear of the masses and to prevent their moving left....

Paltry relief for the unemployed

The labor leaders and liberals who have built up the popular myth about Roosevelt's "humanitarianism" and "love for the little man," rest their case mainly on two claims: (1) that he "gave relief and jobs to the unemployed"; (2) that he "gave labor the right to organize."

Let us examine his aid to the unemployed. Speaking of the annual average of more than 12 million unemployed during Roosevelt's first term, his relief administrator and intimate colleague Harry L. Hopkins boasted in his book, Spending to Save, published in 1936, that "in the last three and a half years we have spent almost six billion dollars in helping these families maintain themselves." The average annual expenditure for the unemployed ran about $1- 1/2 billion, while the total yearly cost of government was a little more than $7 billion. When it came to war, however, Roosevelt was to spend $79 billion in 1943, $95 billion in 1944 and more than $100 billion in 1945.

The Emergency Relief Act of 1933 granted only $500 million to the states to continue the starvation doles previously given some of the unemployed. By 1935, Roosevelt was to declare his intention to "get out of this business of relief" and to abandon three-quarters of the unemployed to the tender mercies of local relief agencies without funds.

Roosevelt's works program never provided jobs for more than 25% of the jobless. His first such program, the Civil Works Administration started in November 1933, lasted only three months. It paid $15 a week, with minimum wages of 40 cents an hour in the South, 45 cents in the Midwest and 60 cents in the Northeast. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration program, which got under way in the summer of 1934, began to fold up in the spring of 1935. It employed an average of fewer than 2,000,000 workers, at a wage of $12 a week.

The peak of the work relief program was reached under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This paid the "prevailing wage rates" of the local communities - as low as $19 a month in the South and $40 a month in the North for common labor....

Throughout the entire first two terms of the Roosevelt administration, there were continuous unemployed demonstrations, relief works strikes and riots. The highest relief, the most relief jobs and the biggest wages were in direct proportion to the number of unemployed struggles....

Roosevelt's program for the unemployed seemed generous only by comparison with Hoover's. But in terms of even minimum subsistence standards it was, as the Unemployed League put it, "not enough to live on and just too much to die on."

The main prop of the Roosevelt myth is that he gave American labor "the right to organize." This claim is based on Section 7(a) inserted into Roosevelt's chief piece of early "stabilization" legislation, the National Industrial Recovery Act, known as NRA, enacted in June 1933. Actually, the right to organize had been fully sanctioned in the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932, adopted in Hoover's administration.

To be sure, labor already had that right to organize - whenever it exercised the right and fought to maintain it. If there were no such right, how could the AFL have existed at all? In fact, 14 years earlier the AFL had organized more than four million workers. Had the workers not been ready and eager for organization, Section 7(a), affirming their right to organize and bargain collectively and to pick their own union representatives free from employer interference, would have had no effect in any sense.

The facts are that the workers were already on the move when Roosevelt took office and Section 7(a) was a reluctant response to labor pressure. The same upsurge of protest against conditions that had swept Roosevelt into office was also expressed at the start of 1933 in the biggest strike wave since the early twenties. These strikes were especially significant because many occurred in unorganized, company-dominated basic industries, particularly auto.

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