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The New International, November 1943


Books in Review

Government and Labor


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 10, November 1943, p. 319.<<br /> Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Labor’s Voice in the Cabinet
by John Lombardi
Columbia Univ. Press

A short history of labor’s political struggle for a voice in the government through the medium of a Department of Labor has just been published in a new book called Labor’s Voice in the Cabinet, by John Lombardi.

The author is a liberal who, of course, believes that labor should have a voice, together with capital, in the executive branch of the government. His book is factually accurate and filled with item after item of references and detail.

Beginning with the agitation for the creation of an “executive arm of the government” to represent labor, which coincided with the rise of the labor movement in the 1860s, he follows its history through the first ten years of the department’s existence.

Lombardi goes back to William H. Sylvis, president of the National Labor Union, and his introduction of a resolution into his union in 1868 calling for labor’s representation in government. The resolution stated in part: “... Whereas, we find as part of our government in Washington a Department of State, of War, of the Navy, of the Interior, of Finance, and others of a similar character, all supposed to be for the benefit of the people but sadly prostituted in their administration and used almost exclusively for furthering the rich and powerful of the land; and whereas, there is no department of our government having for its sole object the care and protection of labor, and the various enterprises and undertakings of workingmen, having for their object an equitable distribution of the products of industry and the elevation of those who labor ...”

But the initial agitation of Sylvis was short-lived. It died with the National Labor Union in 1873. Soon afterward it again picked up in the form of a fight for the creation of a Bureau of Labor Statistics when Terence V. Powderly, leader of the Knights of Labor, felt that by tempering the complete demand for a full department he would be able to at least win the much needed statistical information which labor wanted. With these statistics he hoped to see to it that “unscrupulous employers will not have it in their power to rob labor of its just due and take all the profits of the combination of labor and capital for their own aggrandizement.” This demand was further supplemented with the request that these bureaus be staffed with labor members and sympathizers.

In 1884, together with the newly formed AFL, the Knights were able to secure the first Federal Bureau of Labor. Again upon realization of labor leaders that the bureau was only a statistical agency and that it did not eliminate any of the injustices of big business against the working men, the union movement, through the AFL, carried on constant agitation for a quarter of a century until finally, in 1912, Congress created the Department of Labor.

The first head of the Department of Labor was William B. Wilson, one of the leaders of the United Mine Workers, and he became the first labor man to enter a cabinet. While the author gives us a glowing picture of Wilson as a “fair” man who didn’t let his past record as a union man interfere with his ability to be above both labor and capital, we can actually see a complete picture of this man, who remained Secretary of Labor until 1921, as the typical example of the labor lieutenant of the bourgeoisie!

One of the most interesting phases of the book is its chapters on the Department of Labor during the last war. As today, they had then created a War Labor Board “to settle by mediation and conciliation controversies arising between employers and workers in fields of production necessary for the effective conduct of the war ...” This board, while not granted as much power as the present WLB, was the same thorn in the side of the trade union movement. Its record was just as black as it is today. Only it lacked the teeth of Little Steel formulas and executive orders with which to bite and enslave labor. But, as today, it knew how to tie up labor when it was asking for something. For example, the book tells us that out of the eight hundred and seventy-four cases that then came before the board, it listened to only four hundred and fifty-five of them and made awards in only seventy-two of these cases.

The book is of value only as a collection of data and facts on this single subject to the student of labor history. If you can read cold data mixed with liberal hash, then go ahead. But one things remains clear, a Department of Labor and a Secretary of Labor in the cabinet have not been a boon to the working class.

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