HYDE PARK, N.Y. -- The 65-year-old leaflet on display here features
the instantly recognizable image of America's 32nd president. The
words on the handout from the Mine, Mill and Smelter workers union
are equally distinctive.
it declares. "Your president wants you to join your local union.''
so he did.
the company of dozens of white-haired retirees and a reassuringly
large contingent of younger folks, I spent Labor Day at the Franklin
Roosevelt Library. The echoes of a better past served as a refreshing
antidote to the cynical politics that played out elsewhere in the
country that day.
Al Gore and George W. Bush jetted around the country in planes paid
for with corporate contributions, they mouthed some fine rhetoric
about the dignity of workers. Gore went notably further than Bush,
and the Democrat deserves a measure of credit for incorporating
some of Ralph Nader's anti-corporate rhetoric into his stump speeches.
when all is said and done, neither of this year's major party candidates
will touch Roosevelt's coattail when it comes to pledging solidarity
with factory workers and field hands, shop clerks and silicon chip
makers, technicians and tile layers. And neither Gore nor Bush will
deliver as Roosevelt did on the promise of "industrial democracy.''
he was a man of great personal wealth with deep roots in the genteel
countryside of New York's Hudson River region, Roosevelt did not
mince words on the most fundamental of all labor questions: "Which
side are you on?'' As he campaigned for the presidency in a Depression-ravaged
land, Roosevelt did more than merely collect the labor union endorsements
that even then went overwhelmingly to Democrats.
for a more equitable distribution of wealth, the Democratic presidential
nominee toured the nation in September of 1932, promising audiences
from Washington to Wisconsin that he would deliver "social
justice through social action.'' His election did indeed result
aide, Harry Hopkins, summed up the new administration's approach
when he was asked about timetables for its initiatives. "People
don't eat in the long run. They eat every day,'' he said, indicating
that the promised social action would be immediate.
it was. Roosevelt launched dozens of programs in his first 100 days
in office -- setting the tone for an administration that the president
promised would be characterized by "bold, persistent experimentation''
Roosevelt's most vital action for improving the lives of American
workers was to declare his personal solidarity with the burgeoning
trade union movement. The patrician president did not just push
for the passage of the groundbreaking National Labor Relations Act
-- which removed legal barriers to union organizing -- he also acted
to remove barriers of fear and uncertainty that prevented isolated
workers from uniting for the purpose of collective bargaining.
said that, were he an hourly worker in America, his first step would
be to join a union. He supported the display of posters that read:
"Uncle Sam Protects You! You Can't be Fired For Joining The
Union!'' And he gladly collected honorary life membership cards
in bakery, auto and construction unions -- many of which are now
displayed in the library that bears his name.
workers themselves must take the bold step of organizing unions.
But, as a visit to the Roosevelt Library well illustrates, it does
not hurt to have a president stand unequivocally at their side.
Copyright 2000 The Capital Times