The administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is remembered for its distinctive style of governing, which seemed remarkably modern at the time. FDR's "fireside chats" inaugurated the use of electronic media as a potent political tool. Young "Brain Trust" intellectuals competed for the President's attention with innovative ideas for jumpstarting the economy. A plethora of impromptu agencies with distinctive acronyms were created to administer emergency relief to the unemployed "one third of a nation."
Often, however, the picturesque quality of the New Deal obscures how profoundly it changed both the role of government and the country itself. Textbooks and television documentaries focus on breadlines, apple-sellers, the Dust Bowl, and FDR's disastrous attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937. Popular discontent is illustrated by the populist demagogy and mass appeal of figures like the "radio priest" Father Coughlin, who railed against bankers, Bolsheviks and Jews, or Huey Long with his Share the Wealth clubs. Typically, Roosevelt himself is presented as the axis of change, reducing the New Deal to his winning, patrician personality. The famous "New Deal Coalition" that made the Democrats a majority party is always invoked, but for many who did not live through that time , it seems merely an anomalous collection of ethnic and interest groups--Catholics and Jews, African Americans and farmers, Southerners and immigrants.
The longterm achievements of the New Deal need to be separated from Roosevelt as an individual, and from the colorful imagery of the Depression. They fall into two categories: legislation and government action that sharply increased the power of working class Americans and the labor movement; measures that directly intervened in the economic life of the country to promote the general welfare. In both cases, permanent effects were felt, and serious precedents were established that point the way towards a more activist government, even in the present.
Measured by its effects upon American political life, the single most decisive piece of New Deal legislation was the Wagner Act of 1935. This comprehensive bill gave labor unions the legal right to organize free from government and corporate repression for the first time in U.S. history. In the antebellum era, judges invoked conspiracy statutes against early labor organizers, deeming unions an illegal restraint of trade. In the later 19th century, unions began to appear, but from theGreat Railroad Strike of 1877, when thousands of workers fought pitched battles with state militias in cities like Pittsburgh, through the early 1920s, the history of American labor relations was one of unbroken violent class warfare. Lacking legal sanction, with strikes routinely broken by judicial injunctions and massive vigilante violence, unions sometimes resorted to illegal methods, such as bombing.
More often the labor movement simply accepted defeat, and a marginal role in the nation's political economy. The American Federation of Labor, founded by Samuel Gompers in 1883, focused on skilled craftworkers in construction and the railroad brotherhoods. The major exception was the United Mine Workers (UMW), which organized all workers on an inclusive "industrial" rather than a limited "craft" basis, and was one of the few major AFL unions that welcomed black members. Every major attempt to organize the mass of unskilled industrial workers, from the Knights of Labor in the late 1880s to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the 1910s, ended in failure. The IWW had scored impressive gains amongst the poorest, from New England textile factories to migrant timber, oil and agricultural workers in the West. But when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, an "Espionage Act" was quickly passed, and the entire IWW leadership was jailed. A massive attempt to organize the steel industry in 1919, when 350,000 struck with AFL backing, ended in complete defeat. By the early 1920s, the membership of organized labor was down to 3.5 million by 1926, a small fraction of the work force, and during the following decade it stagnated further. In many of the leading industries, companies organized "employee representation plans" (company unions) as a substitute for unionization. The existence of a bogus "company union" controlled by employers that claimed the legal right to represent a particular workforce was a particularly effective means of blocking independent organizing efforts.
The Wagner Act, named for its chief sponsor, Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York, was a response to both this long history of conflict, and the specific crisis of the Depression. Its major provisions were intended to change the unequal pattern of labor relations that had tilted the playing field in favor of employers. The legislation outlawed company unions and forbade management from discharging workers engaged in union organizing. Going a step further, it created a government agency to guarantee the right of workers to form a union if they wished. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was empowered to oversee elections in any workplace where a majority of workers had indicated they desired one, and to sanction companies for violating union rights.
Legislation has little effect without aggressive implementation, especially in the face of powerful opponents like the major industrial corporations. But the new NLRB, staffed with young radical lawyers, moved rapidly from 1936 on to meet the demands of workers. In many cases, they had to overcome employers who simply refused to meet with their employees, let alone bargain over the specifics of a contract. The potential for government intervention resulting in negative publicity, however, led some of the largest corporations in America, such as U.S. Steel, to pre-empt a strike or a NLRB-supervised election by meeting directly with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, an amazing turnaround from 1919 and earlier bloody strikes. Over time, a stable system of collective bargaining was established, and many millions of workers were brought into unions. From 1932 to 1942, the labor movement had grown from 2.8 million to 10.5 million members, an astonishing increase of almost 400%. Those gains relied on the government protections established by the Wagner Act, and put into action by the NLRB.
Perhaps the best evidence for putting the Wagner Act at the very center of New Deal initiatives is that following World War II, when the Republicans took control of Congress, their top priority was to chip away at the rights of labor. Certainly the single most damaging attack on the New Deal's legacy, with far-reaching consequences, was the notorious Taft-Hartley bill of 1947, which limited union's ability to strike, banned secondary boycotts, permitted government intervention to stop strikes if "in the national interest," and put legal barriers on labor militance by requiring any union requesting NLRB protection to provide affidavits certifying its officers were neither members or even supporters of the Communist Party.
The Wagner Act was not, however, the only piece of New Deal labor legislation with deep and permanent effects. Just as few people today can imagine an environment where working people could be beaten, shot and jailed simply for trying to organize, even fewer can imagine a labor market with no legal limits on hours worked, and no minimum wage. Indeed, since the 19th century, a central demand of organized labor had been for the eight-hour day. Outside of government work, however, this was still not yet a standard even in the Thirties. It was not until the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 that the 40-hour week was established as a national standard, with mandatory extra pay for overtime work, and a guaranteed minimum wage. In hindsight, this seems like a minimal protection against blatant exploitation. At the time, however, it constituted a gross violation of employer's rights to bargain directly with their employees. Just as later conservatives saw environmental and safety regulations as crippling their ability to earn a profit, the enactment of Fair Labor Standards legislation as binding federal law marked a key precedent in asserting that private property was no longer superior to government's right to represent and enforce the overall good of society.
In its second major area of accomplishments, the Roosevelt Administration took steps at the height of the New Deal that created a modern welfare state virtually out of whole cloth through the omnibus Social Security Act. In addition, though only temporarily, FDR and the Democratic Party moved decisively to overcome the fundamental crisis of unemployment but providing jobs and income to millions of the poorest Americans.
Until the 1930s, the United States had no central governmental policy to provide for the most truly needy: the aged, the disabled, and the out-of-work. Other than African Americans, old people were the largest class of poor people in society. Relatively few had private pensions, and some of those were cut off by the Depression. Most senior citizens were dependent on private family resources, as were those disabled by illness or workplace injuries. Unemployed workers received no assistance at all, other than the feeble attempts at local charity symbolized by the breadlines in Depression-era photographs. In fact, the best indicator of the condition of the millions of men and women thrown out of work from 1929 on is the huge numbers who took to the road, living in so-called "jungles" and "Hoovervilles" in shacks made out of cardboard.
Republican President Herbert Hoover symbolized the culturally-ingrained resistance to "hand-outs," meaning any form of nationwide relief, even for the aged. Hoover, like most middle-class people and virtually all businessmen, believed that the only solutions for poverty and unemployment were voluntary charity dispensed judiciously to those most in need, combined with self-help efforts by the able-bodied. In language familiar from our own time, he warned of the dangers of dependency that would destroy the sacrosanct work-ethic that had made American powerful, rich and free.
This distinctly American legacy of reliance on the free market and individual enterprise to solve all social ills, and distrust for any "unearned" assistance, stands in sharp contrast to the political evolution of the other major industrial states--including those considerably less democratic than the U.S. In the latter part of the 19th century, for instance, conservatives in both England and Germany had instituted substantial welfare measures, including unemployment insurance, in large part because of the growing strength of socialist and labor movements in those countries. The U.S., and especially the dominant Republican Party from 1896 to 1932, remained stubbornly impervious to this example of enlightened conservatism. From the Depression's onset straight through to FDR's inauguration in March of 1933, Hoover held firm against nationally-funded relief measures. His major initiative to combat the desperate poverty overcoming large sections of the working and lower middle classes was to sponsor a "President's Committee on_.," which published rousing broadsides urging the gainfully employed and businessmen to dig deeper into their pockets to help the needy.
Even before Hoover left office, however, virtually all of the nation's private, voluntary charitable resources had been exhausted. In many areas, largescale starvation and familial collapse became a real threat. At first, Roosevelt tried relatively modest measures, but by 1935 it was clear that much larger and more comprehensive legislation was required. Operating from an acute sense of crisis, the Social Security Act was passed. Its provisions seem modest in retrospect. Rather than a guaranteed old-age pension, as in many other countries, workers and employers were both required to pay into a common fund, which after age 65 would ensure small payments to the retired. Similar provisions were made for the disabled. The bill also created the first insurance for those who lost their jobs in U.S. history--again, this seems like the easiest way to alleviate distress caused by economic downturns and plant closings, but to many in the business community, and even conservative Democrats like 1928 presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith, it smacked of "socialism."
What the American people needed immediately were jobs, however, and in this area the New Deal took more and more far-reaching steps to ensure survival and self-respect for the tens of millions who in many cases had been out of work for several years. The New Deal's original relief programs were relatively modest: the Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps set up in Roosevelt's first year employed several million between them over the following years. Much more effective, however, was the legendary WPA (Works Progress Administration), which became for a time the largest employer in America. Eight million people had WPA jobs between 1935 and 1943, when it was dissolved, and despite the jibes of the cynical, they made a tremendous contribution to the nation's infrastructure, building and renovating thousands of schools, bridges, roads, parks and other public facilities. In later years, the WPA and related programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps have been treated as artifacts, quaint reminders of a time when millions worked for the public good. Instead they should be seen as examples and precedents relevant to the future of American politics. Simply enough, the WPA demonstrates that under sufficiently compelling circumstances, the U.S. government is capable of providing socially useful employment for all able-bodied (and willing) citizens. In that sense, it is a telling rejoinder to the advocates of "workfare," who advocate a kind of indenture in exchange for a minimal stipend, and would use welfare clients to replace regular employees. Similarly, the CCC shows that it is possible to take a systematic approach to youth poverty without resorting to military service; President Clinton's Americorps was a modest move in this direction, but typically lacked sufficient scale and funding to make an impact equivalent to that of the CCC.
Of course, the achievements and major benchmarks of the New Deal go far beyond the Wagner, Fair Labor Standards and Social Security Acts, and the WPA. Many of its major efforts were less successful, such as the NRA (National Recovery Administration) of 1933-35, symbolized by the famous "Blue Eagle," which attempted through business-dominated councils to control prices, production and wages, and thereby refloat the economy. Its agricultural policies, embodied in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (the Triple A) certainly stabilized the more prosperous farmers through setting up the price support and "parity" systems we know today, but this was at the cost of throwing vast numbers of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, black and white, off the land they had worked for years. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was as close as the New Dealers came to large-scale socialist-style planning and direct intervention in the economy, but TVA's record was mixed. On the one hand, it brought economic development and prosperity to a large swath of the mountainous mid-South, with a very democratic ethos. On the other, it was openly and rigidly segregated, and its environmental costs were considerable. From the standpoint of two generations later, what we retain as the New Deal's legacy at the end of the century are Social Security, unemployment insurance and an apparatus of collective bargaining and guaranteed labor rights, however eviscerated by conservative Administrations in Washington since the Seventies. In addition, while the WPA and CCC as actual programs are long-gone, they remain in memory as examples of what the United States government can do to solve structural problems of poverty and unemployment, given sufficient political will.
Less tangible, but equally as important as government policies, is the cultural legacy of the New Deal programs. In the 1990s, liberals and conservatives feud over granting a few hundred million dollars to the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, money which in turn is disbursed mainly to established institutions, artists or scholars. The idea of the government directly employing thousands of the poorest and least-known writers, painters, sculptors, poets, dramatists and actors simply to make their own "art" would be seen as absurd, wild-eyed radicalism. Yet that is exactly what the WPA did in the latter part of the Thirties. Under the aegis of its Arts Project, young painters like Jackson Pollock drew a regular paycheck simply for producing a guaranteed number of canvasses in a government-funded workshop. Thousands of writers (10,000 in all) across the country helped produce the WPA Guidebooks that are now considered invaluable local histories, and others taped the life stories of the forgotten, aging black people who could still remember slavery. The Federal Theater Project was perhaps the most remarkable, in terms of building new institutions that made art available to ordinary working people on a mass scale. FTP productions put on by more than thirty different companies reached millions with "living newspapers" and much of the Thirties' best drama, such as Orson Welles' version of Macbeth set in Haiti, took place under WPA auspices.
Some of the progress achieved under the New Deal is hard to quantify. One good example is the role of African Americans within New Deal and Depression politics. No one could legitimately claim that the Roosevelt Administration took any serious steps to alleviate the specific miseries of this poorest and most despised group of Americans. At no point did FDR challenge the sacrosanct institutions of Jim Crow in the South, and in most instances when his support was needed, as in the effort to get an anti-lynching bill onto the Senate floor for a vote in 1934, he was conspicuously silent.
Yet, if placed in its historical context, the New Deal marked a significant improvement in the political fortunes of Black America. Until then, "the Negro" had been seen as an insignificant ward of the Republican Party, a small constituency easily bought off with minor patronage and election-year references to Abraham Lincoln. After all, the overwhelming majority of black people still lived in the rural South, where they were almost completely disenfranchised. The black vote in Northern cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago and New York had little impact. From the point of view of most politicians, white or black, it had nowhere else to go but the Republican Party, since the white "Solid South" held veto power among the Democrats. And most Southern Democrats were openly racist and white-supremacist, including many key figures in FDR's administration like former South Carolina governor James F. Byrnes.
However silent they were on black rights, the Democrats under FDR made one decisive change by deciding to compete openly for African American votes. Working with a coterie of disaffected former black Republicans, in 1932 and then much more aggressively in 1936 they made the argument that FDR was good for all those suffering from the Depression, whatever their color. Just as important, for the first time in American history, a visible cohort of black policymakers began to emerge within the Federal government. This was the so-called "Black Cabinet," an informal group of mid-level officials in cabinet departments, led by Mary McLeod Bethune, a highly respected educator who was made head of the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration, a division of the WPA
Mrs. Bethune, and a few white liberals like Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, made major efforts to fight discrimination within New Deal programs, with some success. Just as important as her title and authority, however, was Mrs. Bethune's relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt's remarkable role as a public advocate for African American equality is a final legacy of the New Deal. Rather than legislation, she dealt in political symbolism. When the First Lady was photographed taking tea with black people, vast social barriers were assaulted; this was, after all, a time when the Congressional Dining Room was still segregated. The crowning blow in this politics of symbolism was Mrs. Roosevelt's resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939 when that eminent group refused to allow the great black contralto Marian Anderson to perform at the DAR-owned Constitution Hall. The Administration quickly gave approval for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Ickes introduced her to a national radio audience, saying "Genius draws no color line."
As Nancy Weiss has shown in Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, perhaps the greatest effect of the New Deal upon black Americans, and vice versa, was in the visible and measurable increase in the politicization of the African American community. In the act of identifying personally with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and overcoming a bonedeep tradition of unrewarded Republicanism, huge numbers of black people began to think of themselves as potential political actors. For the first time in more than a generation, they could see the possibility of a career in government or politics connected to the major issues of the day, as in the much-publicized doings of the Black Cabinet members. In practical terms this politicization process, bringing a generation of ex-Republican "Young Turks" into Democratic Party politics such as future Congressmen William Dawson and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was focused on Northern and Midwestern cities, but it did make inroads into the deepest South. The furor of Marian Anderson notwithstanding, far more significant in the long run was Mrs. Roosevelt's participation in the founding conference of the inter-racial Southern Conference for Human Welfare in 1938. The First Lady openly defied local Jim Crow laws requiring that she not sit "with" black people, and was warned by local police of possible arrest. This act of defiance and disrespect, however muted by her refusal to directly attack segregation in public speeches, struck at the heart of white Southern mores. Indeed, a powerful if evidently apocryphal tale circulated among Southern white women in the Thirties and Forties that their black maids and cooks were forming "Eleanor Clubs," with the secret encouragement of the White House.