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I have been in a debate with a conservative friend recently about the attacks on public sector unions.  He brought up the idea that FDR himself thought that public sector unions were "unthinkable and intolerable."  Say what?  Then he gave me more:  "collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into public service"  -FDR-.  And apparently that was that.  If I didn't agree, then I was a hypocrite who only liked FDR when he confirmed my liberal views. . or whatever.

As it turns out, lots of people are talking about this.  When I Googled "FDR on Unions" I got a never ending stream of right wing articles pronouncing that FDR himself hated public unions. . even Bill Maher brought it up on Real Time.

The reaction to this pronouncement has been rather stunning to me.  The right wing is running with it enthusiastically because it fits right in with their views.  The people on the left are a little defensive without really taking it to it's depth.  I've heard things like: "Well. .  FDR was helping the private unions at that time and busting things up. . . and the government wasn't as big. .  and it was a completely different time. . " Heck, that was my own first response.  Then I decided to actually look it up.  I Googled "collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into public service" which led me to the original document.

Then I was even more surprised.  Nobody seems to be bringing up the original document.  Did I miss it somewhere in this avalanche of Right wing Meme?  As it turns out, Roosevelt was writing a letter, in his own absence,  to the Federation of Federal Employees praising them for their activities.

Yes, you read that correctly.  While many people might have an image in their mind of FDR standing at a podium somewhere condemning the public sector for "unioning up,"  FDR was actually writing a friendly letter to the Federation of Federal Employees praising them for their work.  He is unable to attend the meeting itself but he is sending a letter of approval to the Federal Employees for their Resolution Against Strikes.  Maybe I'm wrong. .  but that's how I read it.  Read it yourself:

Letter on the Resolution of Federation of Federal Employees Against Strikes in Federal Service
August 16, 1937

My dear Mr. Steward:

As I am unable to accept your kind invitation to be present on the occasion of the Twentieth Jubilee Convention of the National Federation of Federal Employees, I am taking this method of sending greetings and a message.

Reading your letter of July 14, 1937, I was especially interested in the timeliness of your remark that the manner in which the activities of your organization have been carried on during the past two decades "has been in complete consonance with the best traditions of public employee relationships." Organizations of Government employees have a logical place in Government affairs.

The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry. Organization on their part to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical, but meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government.

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.

Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable. It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that "under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government."

I congratulate the National Federation of Federal Employees the twentieth anniversary of its founding and trust that the convention will, in every way, be successful.

Very sincerely yours,

The only thing that FDR is saying in that letter is that collective bargaining, as it is usually done, can't work.  It must be a different variation of collective bargaining.  He is also saying that federal unions shouldn't strike.   If I understand the context of this letter correctly, he is only repeating back to the Federal Employees, a resolution that they have already agreed to.  I also happen to agree.

So what was the point of this quote again?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Wow (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Andrew C White, happy camper

    Fantastic find.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

    by Ex Con on Mon Mar 21, 2011 at 08:26:55 AM PDT

  •  Anyway Who Cares? It's Like Nitpicking Who in 30's (2+ / 0-)

    supported or opposed XYZ part of the New Deal, Social Security etc.

    The historical record is, a wave of legislation of programs and regulation and court decisions came down, and the middle class exploded and prospered for half a century until we began repealing our fixes.

    The historical record is, like clockwork as we removed the fixes the middle class declined and shrank.

    The right must express everything in terms of authority and associations because rational thinking would reveal that the policies, whoever implemented what and when, worked, while conservatism failed before we fixed it and has been failing since we began removing the fixes.

    For today's policy I wouldn't care if FDR was a child molestor. Much of his policy worked, and he defined a new approach to governance that together across the world became the finest exercise of governance in human history.

    The point of the email is to associate bad things with an opponent of the right. They say good-sounding things about people and policies they support, and bad-sounding things about those they oppose. They must never allow reason to get a foot in the door.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Mon Mar 21, 2011 at 08:29:52 AM PDT

  •  Happy to rec this. It's a great example (7+ / 0-)

    of the right wing taking everything out of context, dumbing it down, removing all nuance, and making it mean the exact opposite of what it actually means.

    It's the O'Keefe and Breitbart approach to historical analysis.

    Nice work on pulling up the original letter. I think your interpretation is exactly correct. But how much you want to bet that this discussion doesn't go viral? The paid internet flunkies hired by the Koch-funded "think tanks" will make sure that anything like this kind of analysis will be immediately trashed.

    "But there is so much more to do." - Barack Obama, Nov. 4, 2008

    by flitedocnm on Mon Mar 21, 2011 at 08:32:36 AM PDT

  •  Terrific find (4+ / 0-)

    I think what can be thrown right back in their face is

    "... looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable."

  •  I'm not sure I completely agree with him (3+ / 0-)

    but he makes good and valid points that the relationship between the employer, the government, and the employees is different then in the private sector. Much of that relationship is dictated in the public sector by the legislative authority and is not in the hands of either the employer or the employee. Private business does not have this third party  involved.

    However, he speaks in absolutes that a strike is never ok. I can't really agree with that. In an extreme situation where a government... say Wisconsin... takes actions that harm its employees rights and well-being then they must have the right to counter balance that abusive action on the part of the government. It should not be used willy-nilly but I don't see any legal basis for taking away the right of these people to act collectively on their own behalf.

    However... let's take FDR's logic to its natural conclusion...

    Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.

    This logic applies equally well to Republican's in Congress who "manifest nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied..." through the threat of a government shutdown over the budget.

    "Such action, looking toward a paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable."

    In that I agree.

    Peace,

    Andrew

    "Do what you can with what you have where you are." - Teddy Roosevelt

    by Andrew C White on Mon Mar 21, 2011 at 08:53:00 AM PDT

  •  Here's another source (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    semiot

    A month earlier in a July 9, 1937 press conference:

    Government employees have no right to strike, and their right to collective bargaining is severely restricted by the fact that Congress establishes their wages, President Roosevelt said today. An extended discussion at his press conference of what the labor relations of the Federal Government should be was prompted by the question of the representative of a local newspaper. ...

    In a general way, Mr. Roosevelt explained, the administrative officials of the government have little or no leeway in their treatment of workers. Wages and hours are prescribed by Congress, and the workers must take their grievances to the Capitol, through their representatives in Congress, for any major change.

    In the minor matters where administrative officers might have some discretion, such as working conditions, the President felt that the employees should be permitted to exercise the maximum of collective bargaining in dealing with the responsible heads of the agencies. HE added that a government employee is free to join one or ten unions, if he pleases, subject to the anti-strike regulations of the Civil Service Commission.

    The president then related some stories of how he handled some wage and working conditions issues when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913. He handled those issues with "spare funds," executive orders and such.

    The summary of his remarks continues:

    Obviously, it was impossible, however, for any government executive to sign a contract with any or all of its workers, the President pointed out. Congress, with its power of the purse, must always be the final master in these matters. Under those circumstances, collective bargaining could not be regarded as a very important prerogative of the government's workers and any discussion of it approached the academic.

    The procedure which he instituted in 1913 is still used in the navy, and its principles, in his opinion, should be applicable to all government workers. He held that employees could place their views before their superiors individually, through a shop commitee, through an outside representative or through representatives of a minority.

    As to the pressure government employees might exert on Congress to better their wages or working conditions, Mr. Roosevelt said that Congress could take care of that problem. He added that there are civil service rules dealing with such efforts.

    The National Association of Manufacturers weighed in on the President's comments:

    The National Association of Manufacturers, through its law department, issued a statement asserting that Mr. Roosevelt's comments on collective bargaining by Federal employees emphasized "woeful defects in the National Labor Relations Act."

    "It is inconceivable that a government established for all the people and interested in the welfare of all employees should be subjected to demands by organized minorities," the statement said.

    "It is equally unbelievable that strikes against public agencies, whose uninterrupted operation is necessary, should be permitted. But as the law now stands, no matter what the President's attitude may be, there is no general Federal statute which specifically forbids strikes against or picketing of government agencies."

    source: NY Times, July 10, 1937

    That's a fascinating context I think. FDR was not being cheered by business for cracking down on public unions, he was being roasted by those interests for enabling public union efforts through the NRLA. And FDR's argument against collective bargaining was that it was academic in the context then in effect.

  •  Go FDR, Go! (0+ / 0-)

    I agree that unions shouldn't strike against the Federal Government, but I always thought it was quite fishy that FDR would denounce the idea of unions for public employees.  

    I've read a number of articles that talk about how most citizens have an issue with public employee unions and the benefits that they get, and I am sure that you can ask any question in a way that will get you your desired outcome.  So I don't take too much evidence from these studies.  

    What I do look at and find disturbing is that many Americans look down at unions because they don't feel like they have the opportunity to get the same concessions in their jobs in the private sector, which is sad and illustrates how far organized labor has fallen in the last 30 years.  

    I do think that Governor Walker's attempt to break the public unions does provide a great opportunity for unions to reestablish a narrative with the larger public and maybe educate people on the benefits of organized labor.  And, I think that this could also provide an opportunity for labor to use this renewed focus to become more effective at doing better by their members so that they elevate their memberships standard of living through better educational and training opportunities.  

  •  The defensiveness of liberals (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    icemilkcoffee

    about this is wrong, but for a different reason than you suggest.

    The proper response to conservatives who cite this Roosevelt quote is that Roosevelt was not this perfect example of liberal ideology, that he was not this infallible paragon of wisdom to whom liberals must always defer.

    I think the defensiveness of some liberals to this is of their own making.  They've built up this godlike image of Franklin Roosevelt that does not correspond neatly with the historical reality of Franklin Roosevelt.  Thus when that legend of Roosevelt is pierced by inconvenient historical facts, such liberals tend to excuse those facts as not being Roosevelt's fault, or that those facts are not as damning as they appear, or they accuse those who cite those facts of practicing historical revisionism.  

    In fact, this diary makes the same mistake in downplaying Roosevelt's opposition to public unions.  The letter you cite above makes clear that Roosevelt isn't merely saying that public unions "can't work" as if he was only holding that view because of practical reasons.  He actually makes a fairly strong case against public unions from a moral and ethical standpoint.

    Just look at the wording he uses in making his case.  He says that federal employees have an "obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities", an obligation which is "paramount."

    The mere fact of his proclamation that public employees shouldn't strike already suggests how strongly he feels about this, because what power does a public union have if it does not have the power to strike?  But Roosevelt doesn't just issue a short and simple statement of opposition to giving federal employees the right to strike.  He denounces in fairly strong terms this power to strike on the part of public employees as "nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied" and that "Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable."

    The fact is that Roosevelt was a much more complicated figure that most liberals believe.  Frankly, the Roosevelt mythology on the left is not unlike the Reagan mythology among many on the right.  I also know that many of you reading this will accuse me of tearing down Roosevelt to defend Obama, but that is not my intent whatsoever, and frankly that would speak volumes about the ideologically-blinded and Obama-obsessed world view of such accusers.  Criticize Obama all you like, I really don't care, because Obama is irrelevant to what I'm getting at here.  My point is that if you're going to cite history, do so with respect for history.  And if you truly have respect for history, you will do so by trying as best you can to accurately and honestly present the history, and to keep your ideology out of your presentation of that history, as much as possible.

    "I used to try to get things done by saying `please'. That didn't work and now I'm a dynamiter. I dynamite `em out of my path." - Huey Long

    by puakev on Mon Mar 21, 2011 at 10:31:43 AM PDT

    •  False Equivalency of FDR & RR mythology (0+ / 0-)

      RR said:

      "You can run but you can't hide" regarding the bombing in Lebanon that killed 240+ US Marines.  Then RR pulled the Marines out of Lebanon.

      Where is a similar gap between FDR talk and (in)action (actually, reverse action)?

      RR said:

      "Tear down this wall"  Then RR  gets credit for bringing down the Soviet Union.  

      Where does FDR get credit for a moment in history in which he had a similarly small amount of participation?

    •  Agreed. FDR is not infallible (0+ / 0-)

      FDR also sent the japanese americans to internment camps. So certainly he is not infallible.

      The right response to the right-wing citation is :"so what if FDR said that?"

    •  @ Puakev (0+ / 0-)
      He denounces in fairly strong terms this power to strike on the part of public employees as "nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied"

      Did you see at the end of all that indignation about striking where he says he is glad to see that the Federal Employees put a no strike clause in their union constitution:

      It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that "under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government."

      That sounds to me like it is the Federal Employees who have already decided that striking was "unthinkable and intolerable" and he was applauding them for it.  What other interpretation could there be?

  •  The point of the quote, (0+ / 0-)

    ..like everything else said on FOX - and repeated endlessly in the right wing echo chamber is to get people to believe lies, and vote according to their beliefs.

    An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics - Plutarch

    by Anthony Page aka SecondComing on Mon Mar 21, 2011 at 11:31:02 AM PDT

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