FDR’s warning: Public employee unions a no-no
JOHN REINIERS | Hernando Today
October 17, 2010
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the patron saint of the American labor movement, was a man of strong character. One has to look no further than the heroic way he coped with his crippling polio. This dreadful disease undoubtedly made him the consummate realist.
For example, although he had a lock on labor’s vote, he expressed caution about public sector unions. In a little-known letter he wrote to the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees in 1937, Roosevelt reasoned:
“… 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 … The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for … officials … to bind the employer … The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives …
“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 … This obligation is paramount … A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent … to prevent or obstruct … Government … Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government … is unthinkable and intolerable.”
To get this in historical context, Congress enacted the landmark National Labor Relations Act (“Wagner Act”) in 1935 – the Magna Carta of the American labor movement. It excluded federal, state and local employees. It created the National Labor Relations Board to enforce the rights of labor. Employers were legally obligated to bargain collectively with their employees. In 1937 in a Senate speech, Roosevelt intoned, “The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy.” (One would be led to think that before 1935, America was not a democracy.)
But FDR had no inkling of what the end game would be. In 1958, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner signed an executive order allowing civil workers to unionize. It was an obvious appeal to union voters. A Wagner aide suggested that city workers would be a large enough constituency to guarantee his re-election.
This opened up the floodgates around the country as other Democratic legislators followed Wagner’s lead. In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to enact public employee collective bargaining laws. President John F. Kennedy then followed with an executive order granting federal employees the right to bargain collectively. As journalist Roger Lowenstein wrote in his recent book detailing the explosion of government pension debt, “Membership in public unions rose exponentially.”