- - Sunday, September 3, 2017


American workers weren’t satisfied with achieving a national Labor Day in 1894. They wanted a Cabinet-level department, a quest that predates concern for a holiday.

Indeed, from the time of President Andrew Johnson’s presidency (1865-1869), the labor movement set its sights on getting Congress and the president to approve a federal department solely for the purpose of protecting the rights of workers. And from 1865 to 1900 over 100 bills for that purpose were introduced in Congress.

But the political and economic environment wasn’t congenial for such a goal. Conflicting labor organizations and frequent strikes as well as economic downturns put a lid on magnanimous goals. The best that was achieved was a Bureau of Labor that became law under the presidency of Chester Arthur (1881-1885) and was placed in the Interior Department.

Even this modest achievement was beset with problems, with Arthur turning down labor leaders’ recommendations for a commissioner and choosing a yes-man instead.

In 1888 the Bureau was made independent of the Interior Department and dubbed the Department of Labor, but it had no Cabinet status. President Grover Cleveland was amenable to strengthening the new unit by appointing Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor, as its commissioner. But Powderly refused, telling the president: “You can serve labor interests far better by recommending a real department of the Federal Government with a secretary as its chief, sitting in your Cabinet.”

But Cleveland was defeated in his re-election bid, and shortly thereafter both business leaders and farmers pursued their goals of getting separate, Cabinet level departments. Although farmers had, like labor, a Bureau of Agriculture, they objected strenuously to congressional attempts to establish a compromise, namely, a Department of Agriculture and Labor. Their persistence paid off, and in 1888 the Department of Agriculture became a reality.

Still, some labor leaders thought that even a merger with business into a department was better than getting nothing at all. So in 1903 the compromise legislation creating a Department of Commerce and Labor was passed. Cabinet level status was achieved but not harmony. The first secretary of the new department, Oscar S. Straus, thought the two groups were like two peas in a pod:

“Labor and capital,” he said, “were two arms of industry, the proper functioning of which could be secured by cooperation, which in turn could best be promoted by administering their interests together.” Soon, however, their objectives clashed, not only about bread-and-butter issues such as working hours, safety and pay but political matters.

Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, opposed immigration as a threat to American workers, Straus wanted few restrictions or tests for entry into the nation, save for anarchists.

The congressional elections of 1910 resulted in more labor reformers, including 15 union members. And after delays and haggling, a bill establishing a cabinet-level department was passed, but not without imperfections. It would house a Bureau of Labor Statistics, a Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization and a Children’s Bureau. As for the secretary of Labor, that appointee would “act as a mediator and to appoint commissioners of conciliation in labor disputes.”

No matter the watered-down objectives, President William Howard Taft was reluctant to sign the bill, largely because Gompers had already been successful in getting congressional backers to ensure the Department of Justice’s appropriation bill had a rider preventing prosecuting union leaders working to improve better conditions for their members. Taft tried to bargain with Gompers, but the AFL leader wouldn’t budge. So on the morning of March 4, 1913, the president affixed his signature but added a message of reservation:

“I sign this bill with considerable hesitation, not because I dissent from the purpose of Congress to create a Department of Labor, but because I think that nine departments are enough for the proper administration of the government, and because I think that no new department ought to be created without a reorganization of all departments in the government and a redistribution of the bureaus between them.”

It was an enormous day of celebration. Bands, parades, speeches. “Great Throngs Line Streets and Cheer Parades,” read one headline in the Washington Herald the next day. “Procession Takes Four Hours,” read another. But the news stories had nothing to do with labor’s victory, which received only passing reference.

For March 4, 1913, was the Inauguration Day of President Woodrow Wilson.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide