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?