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“The Republic Is Imperiled”: John L. Lewis Warns of Ignoring Laboring People

John L. Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers of America, was instrumental in the organizing drive that transformed the coal fields in 1933. He had planned his campaign before the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) became law and even before President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. (The National Industrial Recovery Act included a provision, section 7(a), that protected workers’ right to organize.) In February 1933 (prior to the passage of the NRA), Lewis spoke passionately to the Senate Finance Committee about the need for action to protect workers. In his Senate testimony, Lewis called for emergency action, including allowing workers to unionize and replacing corporate autocracy with union democracy. He warned that if action was not forthcoming, the nation might face grave consequences and promoted unionization as the answer.

The political stability of the republic is imperiled. In excess of twelve million wage earning are unemployed. In certain industrial states the percentage of unemployed equals 40 percent of the enrolled workers. Of the remaining 60 percent a large number are employed on a part-time basis, and are the victims of a continuous schedule of wage cutting. Those who are employed, directly or indirectly, must inevitably bear the burden of supporting the millions to whom employment is unavailable. The cost of maintenance of government, and the support of non-productive institutions, is, therefore, day by day being passed to the continuously decreasing number of citizens who are privileged to work.

Our Republic and our institutions can not be expected to exist under the progressive accumulation of ills which result from our inability to properly organize our economic processes. Manifestations of widespread unrest and discouragement almost akin to despair, are daily becoming more violent. Over wide areas insurance companies and other investors find the population in rebellion against the usual processes of recovery from debt defaulters. Violent resistance to evictions for rent default daily becoming more evident. Disorder and rioting, because of the inadequacy of public relief, is increasingly prevalent. Continuing bank failures with their consequent train of human tragedies add to the sum total of bitterness of a population sick with waiting and deferred hope for intelligent economic and financial leadership. A student of history will find, in many a duplication of these appalling conditions in the misery of the French people antedating the French Revolution. The Bourbons of France like some of the modern Bourbons in our own country, indulged themselves in idle chatter and continued to believe in their own security, notwithstanding the suffering and degradation of the masses. They paid for their error and their inaction with their heads.

The appalling social and political problems arising from the present emergency are of a fundamentally economic concept. The restoration of order in our economic and industrial household is primarily essential to any intelligent disposition of the social and political problems of the nation. We are victims of our own national short-sightedness by failure in the halcyon days of prosperity to intelligently plan for the future. A horde of small-time leaders in industry and finance like the freebooters of old, vied with each other, looted the purse of the population, and diverted the proceeds to their own interests. Now that the day of adversity has come, these same leaders are destitute of competent suggestion to safeguard the present or the future, and they expect the population of this country to remain quiescent while they utter ponderous platitudes about balancing the budget, and the necessity for further wage reductions. The very application of their wage-cutting fallacy further reduces the national income to a point where the population can not sustain itself and the national budget can not remain balanced.

The balancing of the budget will not in itself place a teaspoonful of milk in a hungry baby’s stomach, or remove the rags from its mother’s back.

It must be obvious to any thoughtful person that the national budget can never be permanently stabilized in the face of ever-growing unemployment, shrinkage in business volume, mounting inability to pay taxes, and consequently depreciation of national income.

If democracy and corporate participation in industry are to survive in America, labor must have an opportunity to exercise its industrial rights for the protection of itself and our democratic and economic institutions. an emergency now exists which is more critical than would be the case if a fleet of a foreign power were at this moment bombarding the defenses of one of our major ports. The very foundation of democracy and integrity of American institutions is threatened. Labor should be granted the right of collective bargaining, with representatives of its own choosing, in those major industries of the Country where this right is now withheld.

In large areas of the coal, textile, lumber and steel industries, workers are denied the rights of collective bargaining and are treated more or less as serfs, compelled to accept any wage, no matter how inadequate, declared by a harassed employer existing on the verge of financial bankruptcy. Democracy in these industries is supplanted by an industrial autocracy.

Legalized collective bargaining will permit the workers of America to exercise their birthright of participation in the fixation of' the prices of their services and the conditions of employment.

Labor should be given greater recognition in the affairs of government and its spokesmen should be given representation upon boards and commissions exercising governmental functions.

During the period of the World-war labor was given such recognition, and inasmuch as the nation is now confronted with an emergency even more grave than was the case during the years of 1917 and 1918, labor should again be given its seat at the council table.

If given the right to organize in our major industries, labor can police those industries against communism, or any other false and destructive philosophy, more efficiently than can the government itself. American labor has in the past demonstrated its patriotism and its desire to stand behind and protect the accredited institutions of our land.

If labor is accorded its fundamental rights, it can render great service in the present crisis.

In consideration of the obvious circumstances, Congress should pass a joint resolution declaring a state of national emergency to effectuate intelligent organization of the industrial and financial activities of the nation.

A board of emergency control should be created. It should be composed of representatives of industry, labor, agriculture and finance. It should he given plenary emergency power under the direction of the President.

The board should be instructed to reduce the hours of labor, and the number of days in the work week to a point where the industrial machinery of the nation can substantially take up the slack of unemployment and under conditions where labor is accorded the right of collective bargaining through representatives of its own choosing.

This board should also be instructed to stabilize the prices of agricultural products and other commodities to a point that will express reasonable return to the producers thereof.

The board should be given such other instructions as to fundamental economic planning and other matter, in accordance with the judgment of the Congress

The foregoing recommendation may be criticized by some as being a form of dictatorship repugnant to the American concept of government. Nevertheless, it is the form of procedure resorted to by our nation during the crisis of the World war, when the enemy was three thousand miles from our shore. Today the enemy is within the boundaries of the nation, and is stalking through every community and every home, and, obviously, this proposal is the most democratic form of internal regulation that can be devised to deal with our economic and industrial collapse.

Source: United Mine Workers Journal 44,(March 1, 1933): 3–4.

See Also:"Union Dues": Coal Miners Express Their Gratitude to FDR