Chronicles of America 

The Square Deal for Labor

It should go without saying that Roosevelt was vigorously and deeply concerned with the relations between capital and labor, for he was interested in everything that concerned the men and women of America, everything that had to do with human relations. >From the very beginning of his public life he had been a champion of the workingman when the workingman needed defense against exploitation and injustice. But his advocacy of the workers' rights was never demagogic nor partial. In industrial relations, as in the relations between business and the community, he believed in the square deal. The rights of labor and the rights of capital must, he firmly held, be respected each by the other--and the rights of the public by both.

Roosevelt believed thoroughly in trade unions. He realized that one of the striking accompaniments of the gigantic developments in business and industry of the past few generations was a gross inequality in the bargaining relation between the employer and the individual employee standing alone.

Speaking of the great coal strike which occurred while he was President, he developed the idea in this way:

"The great coal-mining and coal-carrying companies, which employed their tens of thousands, could easily dispense with the services of any particular miner. The miner, on the other hand, however expert, could not dispense with the companies. He needed a job; his wife and children would starve if he did not get one. What the miner had to sell--his labor--was a perishable commodity; the labor of today--if not sold today was lost forever. Moreover, his labor was not like most commodities--a mere thing; it was a part of a living, human being. The workman saw, and all citizens who gave earnest thought to the matter saw that the labor problem was not only an economic, but also a moral, a human problem. Individually the miners were impotent when they sought to enter a wage contract with the great companies; they could make fair terms only by uniting into trade unions to bargain collectively. The men were forced to cooperate to secure not only their economic, but their simple human rights. They, like other workmen, were compelled by the very conditions under which they lived to unite in unions of their industry or trade, and those unions were bound to grow in size, in strength, and in power for good and evil as the industries in which the men were employed grew larger and larger."1

He was fond of quoting three statements of Lincoln's as expressing precisely what he himself believed about capital and labor. The first of these sayings was this: "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

This statement, Roosevelt used to say, would have made him, if it had been original with him, even more strongly denounced as a communist agitator than he already was! Then he would turn from this, which the capitalist ought to hear, to another saying of Lincoln's which the workingman ought to hear: "Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights . .. . Nor should this lead to a war upon the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor; . . . property is desirable; it is a positive good in the world."

Then would come the final word from Lincoln, driven home by Roosevelt with all his usual vigor and fire: "Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built."

In these three sayings, Roosevelt declared, Lincoln "showed the proper sense of proportion in his relative estimates of capital and labor, of human rights and property rights." Roosevelt's own most famous statement of the matter was made in an address which he delivered before the Sorbonne in Paris, on his way back from Africa: "In every civilized society property rights must be carefully safeguarded. Ordinarily, and in the great majority of cases, human rights and property rights are fundamentally and in the long run identical; but when it clearly appears that there is a real conflict between them, human rights must have the upper hand, for property belongs to man and not man to property."

Several times it happened to Roosevelt to be confronted with the necessity of meeting with force the threat of violence on the part of striking workers. He never refused the challenge, and his firmness never lost him the respect of any but the worthless among the workingmen. When he was Police Commissioner, strikers in New York were coming into continual conflict with the police. Roosevelt asked the strike leaders to meet him in order to talk things over. These leaders did not know the man with whom they were dealing; they tried to bully him. They truculently announced the things that they would do if the police were not compliant to their wishes. But they did not get far in that direction. Roosevelt called a halt with a snap of his jaws. "Gentlemen!" he said, "we want to understand one another. That was my object in coming here. Remember, please, that he who counsels violence does the cause of labor the poorest service. Also, he loses his case. Understand distinctly that order will be kept. The police will keep it. Now, gentlemen!" There was surprised silence for a moment, and then smashing applause. They had learned suddenly what kind of a man Roosevelt was. All their respect was his.

It was after he became President that his greatest opportunity occurred to put into effect his convictions about the industrial problem. In 1909. there was a strike which brought about a complete stoppage of work for several months in the anthracite coal regions. Both operators and workers were determined to make no concession. The coal famine became a national menace as the winter approached. "The big coal operators had banded together," so Roosevelt has described the situation, "and positively refused to take any steps looking toward an accommodation. They knew that the suffering among the miners was great; they were confident that if order was kept, and nothing further done by the Government, they would win; and they refused to consider that the public had any rights in the matter."

As the situation grew more and more dangerous, the President directed the head of the Federal Labor Bureau to make an investigation of the whole matter. From this investigation it appeared that the most feasible solution of the problem was to prevail upon both sides to agree to a commission of arbitration and promise to accept its findings. To this proposal the miners agreed; the mine owners insolently declined it. Nevertheless, Roosevelt persisted, and ultimately the operators yielded on condition that the commission, which was to be named by the President, should contain no representative of labor. They insisted that it should be composed of (1) an officer of the engineer corps of the army or navy, (2) a man with experience in mining, (3) a "man of prominence, eminent as a sociologist," (4) a Federal Judge of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and (5) a mining engineer. In the course of a long and grueling conference it looked as though a deadlock could be the only outcome, since the mine owners would have no representative of labor on any terms. But it suddenly dawned on Roosevelt that the owners were objecting not to the thing but to the name. He discovered that they would not object to the appointment of any man, labor man or not, so long as he was not appointed as a labor man or as a representative of labor. "I shall never forget," he says in his "Autobiography", "the mixture of relief and amusement I felt when I thoroughly grasped the fact that while they would heroically submit to anarchy rather than have Tweedledum, yet if I would call it Tweedledee they would accept with rapture." All that he needed to do was to "commit a technical and nominal absurdity with a solemn face." When he realized that this was the case, Roosevelt announced that he was glad to accept the terms laid down, and proceeded to appoint to the third position on the Commission the labor man whom he had wanted from the first to appoint, Mr. E. E. Clark, the head of the Brotherhood of Railway Conductors. He called him, however, an "eminent sociologist," adding in his announcement of the appointment this explanation: "For the purposes of such a Commission, the term sociologist means a man who has thought and studied deeply on social questions and has practically applied his knowledge."

The Commission as finally constituted was an admirable one. Its report, which removed every menace to peace in the coal industry, was an outstanding event in the history of the relations of labor and capital in the United States.

But the most interesting and significant part of Roosevelt's relation to the great coal strike concerned something that did not happen. It illustrates his habit of seeing clearly through a situation to the end and knowing far in advance just what action he was prepared to take in any contingency that might possibly arise. He was determined that work should be resumed in the mines and that the country should have coal. He did not propose to allow the operators to maintain the deadlock by sheer refusal to make any compromise. In case he could not succeed in making them reconsider their position, he had prepared a definite and drastic course of action. The facts in regard to this plan did not become public until many years after the strike was settled, and then only when Roosevelt described it in his "Autobiography".

The method of action which Roosevelt had determined upon in the last resort was to get the Governor of Pennsylvania to appeal to him as President to restore order. He had then determined to put Federal troops into the coal fields under the command of some first-rate general, with instructions not only to preserve order but to dispossess the mine operators and to run the mines as a receiver, until such time as the Commission should make its report and the President should issue further orders in view of that report. Roosevelt found an army officer with the requisite good sense, judgment, and nerve to act in such a crisis in the person of Major General Schofield. Roosevelt sent for the General and explained the seriousness of the crisis. "He was a fine fellow," says Roosevelt in his "Autobiography", "a most respectable-looking old boy, with side whiskers and a black skull-cap, without any of the outward aspect of the conventional military dictator; but in both nerve and judgment he was all right." Schofield quietly assured the President that if the order was given he would take possession of the mines, and would guarantee to open them and run them without permitting any interference either by the owners or by the strikers or by any one else, so long as the President told him to stay. Fortunately Roosevelt's efforts to bring about arbitration were ultimately successful and recourse to the novel expedient of having the army operate the coal mines proved unnecessary. No one was more pleased than Roosevelt himself at the harmonious adjustment of the trouble, for, as he said, "It is never well to take drastic action if the result can be achieved with equal efficiency in less drastic fashion." But there can be no question that the drastic action would have followed if the coal operators had not seen the light when they did.

In other phases of national life Roosevelt made his influence equally felt. As President he found that there was little which the Federal Government could do directly for the practical betterment of living and working conditions among the mass of the people compared with what the State Governments could do. He determined, however, to strive to make the National Government an ideal employer. He hoped to make the Federal employee feel, just as much as did the Cabinet officer, that he was one of the partners engaged in the service of the public, proud of his work, eager to do it efficiently, and confident of just treatment. The Federal Government could act in relation to laboring conditions only in the Territories, in the District of Columbia, and in connection with interstate commerce. But in those fields it accomplished much.

The eight-hour law for workers in the executive departments had become a mere farce and was continually violated by officials who made their subordinates work longer hours than the law stipulated. This condition the President remedied by executive action, at the same time seeing to it that the shirk and the dawdler received no mercy. A good law protecting the lives and health of miners in the Territories was passed; and laws were enacted for the District of Columbia, providing for the supervision of employment agencies, for safeguarding workers against accidents, and for the restriction of child labor. A workmen's compensation law for government employees, inadequate but at least a beginning, was put on the statute books. A similar law for workers on interstate railways was declared unconstitutional by the courts; but a second law was passed and stood the test.

It was chiefly in the field of executive action, however, that Roosevelt was able to put his theories into practice. There he did not have to deal with recalcitrant, stupid, or medieval-minded politicians, as he so often did in matters of legislation. One case which confronted him found him on the side against the labor unions, but, being sure that he was right, he did not let that fact disturb him. A printer in the Government Printing Office, named Miller, had been discharged because he was a non-union man. The President immediately ordered him reinstated.

Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor, with several members of its Executive Council, called upon him to protest. The President was courteous but inflexible. He answered their protest by declaring that, in the employment and dismissal of men in the Government service, he could no more recognize the fact that a man did or did not belong to a union as being for or against him, than he could recognize the fact that he was a Protestant or a Catholic, a Jew or a Gentile, as being for or against him. He declared his belief in trade unions and said that if he were a worker himself he would unquestionably join a union. He always preferred to see a union shop. But he could not allow his personal preferences to control his public actions. The Government was bound to treat union and non-union men exactly alike. His action in causing Miller to be reinstated was final.

Another instance which illustrated Roosevelt's skill in handling a difficult situation occurred in 1908 when the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and certain other lines announced a reduction in wages. The heads of that particular road laid the necessity for the reduction at the door of "the drastic laws inimical to the interests of the railroads that have in the past year or two been enacted." A general strike, with all the attendant discomfort and disorder, was threatened in retaliation. The President wrote a letter to the Interstate Commerce Commission, in which he said:

"These reductions in wages may be justified or they may not. As to this the public, which is a vitally interested party, can form no judgment without a more complete knowledge of the essential facts and real merits of the case than it now has or than it can possibly obtain from the special pleadings, certain to be put forth by each side in case their dispute should bring about serious interruption to traffic. If the reduction in wages is due to natural causes, the loss of business being such that the burden should be, and is, equitably distributed, between capitalist and wageworker, the public should know it. If it is caused by legislation, the public and Congress should know it; and if it is caused by misconduct in the past financial or other operations of any railroad, then everybody should know it, especially if the excuse of unfriendly legislation is advanced as a method of covering up past business misconduct by the railroad managers, or as a justification for failure to treat fairly the wage-earning employees of the company."

The letter closed with a request to the Commission to investigate the whole matter with these points in view. But the investigation proved unnecessary; the letter was enough. The proposed reduction of wages was never heard of again. The strength of the President's position in a case of this sort was that he was cheerfully prepared to accept whatever an investigation should show to be right. If the reduction should prove to be required by natural causes, very well--let the reduction be made. If it was the result of unfair and unwise legislation, very well--repeal the legislation. If it was caused by misconduct on the part of railroad managers, very well--let them be punished. It was hard to get the better of a man who wanted only the truth, and was ready to act upon it, no matter which way it cut.

In 1910, after his return from Africa, a speaking trip happened to take him to Columbus, Ohio, which had for months been in the grasp of a street railway strike. There had been much violence, many policemen had refused to do their duty, and many officials had failed in theirs. It was an uncomfortable time for an outsider to come and make a speech. But Roosevelt did not dodge. He spoke, and straight to the point. His speech had been announced as on Law and Order. When he rose to speak, however, he declared that he would speak on Law, Order, and Justice. Here are some of the incisive things that he said:

"Now, the first requisite is to establish order; and the first duty of every official, in State and city alike, high and low, is to see that order obtains and that violence is definitely stopped. . . . I have the greatest regard for the policeman who does his duty. I put him high among the props of the State, but the policeman who mutinies, or refuses to perform his duty, stands on a lower level than that of the professional lawbreaker . . . . I ask, then, not only that civic officials perform their duties, but that you, the people, insist upon their performing them . . .. I ask this particularly of the wage-workers, and employees, and men on strike . . . . I ask them, not merely passively, but actively, to aid in restoring order. I ask them to clear their skirts of all suspicion of sympathizing with disorder, and, above all, the suspicion of sympathizing with those who commit brutal and cowardly assaults . . . . What I have said of the laboring men applies just as much to the capitalists and the capitalists' representatives . . . . The wage-workers and the representatives of the companies should make it evident that they wish the law absolutely obeyed; that there is no chance of saying that either the labor organization or the corporation favors lawbreakers or lawbreaking. But let your public servants trust, not in the good will of either side, but in the might of the civil arm, and see that law rules, that order obtains, and that every miscreant, every scoundrel who seeks brutally to assault any other man--whatever that man's status--is punished with the utmost severity . . . . When you have obtained law and order, remember that it is useless to have obtained them unless upon them you build a superstructure of justice. After finding out the facts, see that justice is done; see that injustice that has been perpetrated in the past is remedied, and see that the chance of doing injustice in the future is minimized."

Now, any one might in his closet write an essay on Law, Order, and Justice, which would contain every idea that is here expressed. The essayist might even feel somewhat ashamed of his production on the ground that all the ideas that it contained were platitudes. But it is one thing to write an essay far from the madding crowd, and it was quite another to face an audience every member of which was probably a partisan of either the workers, the employers, or the officials, and give them straight from the shoulder simple platitudinous truths of this sort applicable to the situation in which they found themselves. Any one of them would have been delighted to hear these things said about his opponents; it was when they were addressed to himself and his associates that they stung. The best part of it, however, was the fact that those things were precisely what the situation needed. They were the truth; and Roosevelt knew it. His sword had a double edge, and he habitually used it with a sweep that cut both ways. As a result he was generally hated or feared by the extremists on both sides. But the average citizen heartily approved the impartiality of his strokes.

In the year 1905 the Governor of Idaho was killed by a bomb as he was leaving his house. A former miner, who had been driven from the State six years before by United States troops engaged in putting down industrial disorder, was arrested and confessed the crime. In his confession he implicated three officers of the Western Federation of Miners, Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone. These three men were brought from Colorado into Idaho by a method that closely resembled kidnaping, though it subsequently received the sanction of the United States Supreme Court. While these prominent labor leaders were awaiting trial, Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada seethed and burst into eruption. Parts of the mining districts were transformed into two hostile armed camps. Violence was common. At this time Roosevelt coupled the name of a giant among American railroad financiers, with those of Moyer and Haywood, and described them all as "undesirable citizens." The outbursts of resentment from both sides were instantaneous and vicious. There was little to choose between them. Finally the President took advantage of a letter of criticism from a supporter of the accused labor leaders to reply to both groups of critics. He referred to the fact that certain representatives of the great capitalists had protested, because he had included a prominent financier with Moyer and Haywood, while certain representatives of labor had protested on precisely the opposite grounds. Then Roosevelt went on to say:

"I am as profoundly indifferent to the condemnation in one case as in the other. I challenge as a right the support of all good Americans, whether wage-workers or capitalists, whatever their occupation or creed, or in whatever portion of the country they live, when I condemn both the types of bad citizenship which I have held up to reprobation . . . . You ask for a 'square deal' for Messrs. Moyer and Haywood. So do I. When I say 'square deal', I mean a square deal to every one; it is equally a violation of the policy of the square deal for a capitalist to protest against denunciation of a capitalist who is guilty of wrongdoing and for a labor leader to protest against the denunciation of a labor leader who has been guilty of wrongdoing. I stand for equal justice to both; and so far as in my power lies I shall uphold justice, whether the man accused of guilt has behind him the wealthiest corporation, the greatest aggregations of riches in the country, or whether he has behind him the most influential labor organizations in the country."

It should be recorded for the sake of avoiding misapprehension that Roosevelt's denunciation of Moyer and Haywood was not based on the assumption that they were guilty of the death of the murdered' Governor, but was predicated on their general attitude and conduct in the industrial conflicts in the mining fields.

The criticisms of Roosevelt because of his actions in the complex relations of capital and labor were often puerile. For instance, he was sternly taken to task on one or two occasions because he had labor leaders lunch with him at the White House. He replied to one of his critics with this statement of his position: "While I am President I wish the labor man to feel that he has the same right of access to me that the capitalist has; that the doors swing open as easily to the wageworker as to the head of a big corporation--AND NO EASIER."

  1.  Autobiography (Scribner), pp. 471-78.