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Washington Sweatshop (1937)

Washington Sweatshop

by Robert S. Allen, The Nation July 17, 1937

Editor’s Note: Wage-hour legislation was a campaign issue in the 1936 Presidential race. The Democratic platform called for higher labor standards, and, in his campaign, President Roosevelt promised to seek some constitutional way of protecting workers. He tried to pave the way for such legislation in his speeches and news conferences in which he spoke of the breakdown of child labor provisions, minimum wages, and maximum hour standards after the demise of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) codes….When Roosevelt won the 1936 election by 523 electoral votes to 8, he interpreted his landslide victory as support for the New Deal and was determined to overcome the obstacle of Supreme Court opposition as soon as possible. In February 1937, he struck back at the “nine old men” of the Bench: He proposed to “pack” the Court by adding up to six extra judges, one for each judge who did not retire at age 70. Roosevelt further voiced his disappointment with the Court at the victory dinner for his second inauguration, saying if the “…three-horse team [of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches] pulls as one, the field will be ploughed, but that the field will not be ploughed if one horse lies down in the traces or plunges off in another direction.”

Washington, July 12

The Administration’s wage-hour bill emerged from committee as emaciated as if it had spent the past month in a reducing cabinet. Once ample enough to cover some 12,000,000 workers, it now blankets a scant 3,000,000. Broad enough at one time to outlaw such practices as use of strike breakers and labor spies, it is nothing now but a wage, hour, and child-labor bill, and an inadequate one at that. It permits a proposed Labor Standards Board to go as far down the scale as it likes in fixing minimum wages but forbids it to go above 40 cents an hour. The sky is the limit in establishing a work week but this must never be less than 40 hours. Most railroad workers are exempted and so are seamen and agricultural hands of all kinds. Even the child-labor restrictions are loaded down with reservations. They do not apply to farm children or to those working for their parents or to those in whose cases the Children’s Bureau may rule that work does not interfere with their schooling or harm their health. That leaves, as beneficiaries of the bill, those employees of manufacturing plants, mines, and public utilities whose products move in interstate commerce, plus railroad maintenance-of-way men—those, that is, who now earn less than $16 a week. Reduced to this gaunt ghost of its former self, the measure has little charm for most of its early admirers.

At the moment its chance of passage seems as slender as its new proportions. There are three reasons for this:

First, and most important, is the indifference of organized labor. Two years ago when the NRA was garroted by the Supreme Court, labor was extremely anxious for a wage-and-hour law. Today, absorbed in a fierce family vendetta, it has little time or thought for anything else. The C. I. O., making a desperate bid for power, has its forces scattered over a hundred fronts. It would like to have a wage-hour law but it is much more concerned with what Congress says and does about the sitdown strike and the massacre of workers in Chicago. Its leaders have had little time to think about new legislation. John L. Lewis did appear at the joint committee hearings, but he appeared with a statement an aid had written and thrust into his hand which inveighed against one of the chief provisions of the bill—Section V, permitting adjustment of wages upward above the 40-cent minimum. To correct that faux pas Sidney Hillman rushed to the committee with a fervid plea for the higher wage provision, but the damage had been done. The bill, as it was reported, had none of the provisions which Hillman hoped would be used to improve a large number of textile wages instead of just a few. Neither did it contain the ban against Southern differentials which Lewis wanted.

The A. F. of L., while apparently friendly to the bill, secretly has been sabotaging it. It has dark suspicions of the whole thing because it thinks the legislation was instigated by the C. I. O. This isn’t true, but so vindictive are the Federation moguls that anything bearing C. I. O. approval automatically incurs their hatred. William Green, yessing and no-ing with characteristic pomposity, bestowed his pontifical blessing on the measure at the committee hearings, but the zeal with which the A. F. of L usually lobbies its bills through Congress has been missing. In fact behind the scenes the Federation’s official Congressional lobbyist has been sniping at the bill.

Members of the Senate Labor Committee were not slow to recognize this apathy or to take advantage of it by stripping the bill down to a shadow. To please the President, the committee members agreed to a wage-hour bill, but they saw no point in courting employer wrath if there was to be no corresponding gain in labor favor.

The second handicap under which the legislation labors is the threat of protracted debate on the Supreme Court issue. One of the principal objectives of Supreme Court reform is to insure permanence of a wage-hour law, but that fact will not prevent Congress from shelving the bill and stampeding for home if it gets a chance. The longer the Senate fight over the court measure lasts, the more the wage-hour bill’s chance of passage dwindles. On the other hand if the court bill should be defeated, directly or by being sent back to committee, action on the wage-hour bill would be futile, for its fate depends on a change of the collective judicial heart.

Finally the death of William P. Connery, chairman of the House Labor Committee, was a body blow to the wage-hour bill. If Connery had lived the measure might already have been passed by the House. He knew the subject backward and forward, was wholeheartedly for the legislation, and would have lost no time in getting it onto the floor. His death brought to the committee chairmanship, through the rule of seniority, Mrs. Mary T. Norton, henchman of the egregious, refulgent, and anti-labor boss Frank Hague of Jersey City. What Mrs. Norton doesn’t know about the wage-hour bill would fill volumes. Administration leaders tried to dissuade her from taking the chairmanship but she insisted on her seniority rights. Their forebodings about her were well founded. Committee members are reporting that she has been secretly urging them to shelve the bill for “further study.”

With Mrs. Norton’s succession, the Administration had to reshuffle its whole plan of strategy. Instead of taking the lead in the House Committee it had to switch to the Senate Labor Committee. Unless the House Committee swings into line promptly and gets the bill onto the floor there is not likely to be any wage-hour legislation this year.

The Supreme Court fight makes up in zest what the wage-hour engagement lacks. So far the Administration definitely has the upper hand. It started the floor combat with a bang and has maintained an aggressive, hard-hitting offensive ever since, striking out this way and that with an ardor that has been missing in New Deal attacks this session. Floor Leader Joe Robinson, whether stung by the criticism on his desertion of Roosevelt in the relief fight, or for some other reason, has been on top of the ball and hitting hard. He has had excellent support from Senators Hatch Logan, Guffey, Schwellenbach, Minton, and others. All have been merciless in exposing the hypocrisy of the opposition’s arguments.

One of the principal weaknesses of the opposition is its oversupply of leaders. It has more prima donnas than the Metropolitan Opera Company. Several, such as “Kemal Pasha” Vandenberg and Bennett Clark, cherish presidential ambitions. Burke of Nebraska is an incorrigible grandstander and Burt Wheeler has so far abandoned his one-time liberalism as to consort openly with Alice Longworth, Frank Kent, and other reactionary storm troopers. None of the group is personally liked in the Senate and their malice is so great that other Senators are wary of them. Moreover, the opposition is badly split on the question of strategy. Old-timers like Borah and McNary are opposed to a filibuster. They contend it exposes the weakness of their position and, more serious, is certain to alienate public support. They want to center their efforts on a move to send the court bill back to committee. The maneuver admittedly is a last-ditch plan. It is their hope that the worthy Democrats who don’t quite dare vote against Roosevelt and yet are against the bill will take this way out of their dilemma.

In the other camp is a group of amateur die-hards who see in a filibuster a chance for notoriety. Senator Joe O’Mahoney is representative of still another group. He is opposed to the court plan but he is also opposed to a filibuster or a move to recommit. As a member of the Judiciary Committee he had to take a stand and he wants his colleagues to have to take their medicine, too.

The Administration’s plan is to let debate run until the end of the month, meanwhile making things as tough as possible for the opposition by recessing from day to day, so that no Senator may speak more than twice, and enforcing all other rules usually honored in the breach. At the end of three weeks or so it will start pressing for a vote. It has a majority of the Senate and is sure to win on the Logan compromise if it can wear out the opposition and force a vote. Filibusters in the past have been successful only at the end of a session, when adjournment was fixed by law or when trunks had been packed and there was no holding the boys. Neither condition prevails now. There is no limit to the session, and if the Administration will be tough enough it can smash a fillbuster. It has the votes, and the opposition knows it. There is every indication at present that in the end they’ll be counted.

 Source: Allen, Robert S., “Washington Sweatshop,” The Nation, Vol. 145, No. 3, P. 63-64, (July 17, 1937), New Deal Network, (September 26, 2014).


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