Municipal Government

Spotlight on American Labor History

April 3, 2017
By Bill Hohlfeld

Bill Hohlfeld

Last night’s broadcast was about the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, an agency brought into existence in April of 1933. As praiseworthy as that organization was, I think it is important to remember that it was only one of several life- saving initiatives that came to light thanks to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal politics.

It had plenty of companions in what many would refer to as the “alphabet soup” that got America’s workforce moving again.

For starters, it was accompanied by the Civilian Works Administration (CWA)which employed men in construction jobs across the nation. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) came into being, and went about the business of regulating mortgages and foreclosures in order to ensure that our out of work brothers and sisters did not immediately become homeless as well.

Then too was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) which was an early attempt at labor management legislation, struggling to find the sweet spot where the concerns of business and workers could peacefully coexist. Despite an original Supreme Court ruling that found it unconstitutional, cooler heads prevailed, made the necessary amendments and floated it back out there in the socio-economic bleachers of the political arena.

Yet another economic stimulus was the Public Works Administration (PWA). And if you think all those folks did was stand around and lean on shovels, then I urge you to leave your cubicle next lunch period and stroll through Bryant Park. Enjoy the shade trees, or just sit and sip a coffee and people watch for a while. Those folks scurrying back and forth getting a little taste of nature right in the center of the Big Apple are the children and grandchildren of the workers who built that park.

And of course, the Social Security Act was signed into law, and for the first time in American history senior citizens who had been wage earners their whole lives, could be assured of an income in their old age. At least some of their economic anxiety could be relieved by the knowledge they would not go hungry after a life of labor. Their government told them they would not be tossed onto the scrap heap merely because they were no longer as young, strong and healthy as they once were.

This list is by no means exhaustive. It is; however, indicative of the policies that came into play when our forefathers were challenged by the “Great Depression.” The various agencies that were created may have targeted slightly different segments of our society, but their commonality greatly outweighed their differences.

All were predicated on the notion that the American worker was not lazy. Given the opportunity, he or she would much rather engage in meaningful work rather than receive a handout. They also acknowledged that while a vibrant capitalism may have provided millions of us with the wherewithal to grow and thrive, it also could not be allowed to grow and fatten itself unchecked. For if it did, the result would be more misery than it was worth. And while most of us rejected the socialist rhetoric that claimed we were all entitled to the same amount, most of us were comfortable with the idea that we all deserved enough to survive, provided we were willing to contribute.

For the last thirty years or so we have been pummeled with the idea that “big government” is our enemy. We will all be better off if we just “get government off our backs” we are assured.

I suppose it is true that we would all be a lot better off with a government that was not filled with self-serving individuals who are more comfortable spending endless hours discussing conspiracy theories or analyzing tweets instead of hammering workable solutions for health care and immigration. (You know, the hard stuff that they get paid to do.) I can’t deny that.

Yet, I distinctly remember my father teaching me that there was a time and a place for everything. Granted, he did not have a law degree or a PHD in political science. In fact, he had to drop out of high school to help support the family. And not long after he did that, at age 16, he joined the CCCs.

April 3, 2017

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