What You And I Owe the 146 Victims of the Triangle Fire

Mar 25, 2011Frank L. Cocozzelli

triangle-fireTheir sacrifice can live on if we fight for the reforms sparked by their deaths.

triangle-fireTheir sacrifice can live on if we fight for the reforms sparked by their deaths.

The names of the of the victims of the Triangle fire mean more to me than most Americans. Having lived most of my life in Italian and Jewish neighborhoods in and around New York City, I feel as though I know these people. Their faces were faces I grew up with. Their names -- Caputo, Colletti, Levine, Kaplan, Maltese, Schneider and Uzzo -- are names I've known all my life; names that echo with the same Southeastern European cadences and rhythm as mine.

What do we owe the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire? It is something I've thought long and hard about, especially on the one-hundredth anniversary of this great tragedy.

I remember once traveling by train through Southern Italy at night. I gazed out of the compartment window seeing mountain villages in the dark distance. Even then in the late twentieth century they appeared so isolated from the modern world. As I stared I thought about those who almost a century earlier had the courage and audacity to leave this then-still medieval world behind and risk the future in what was a totally alien culture of the industrial United States. I equally wondered in amazement at those who left behind their shtetls in Poland and Russia. They also took the same incredible gamble.

My great-grandmother, who came from Italy in the late nineteenth century, was a garment worker during the same period of the Triangle fire. My grandmother, Josephine, and her sisters Mary, Tessie and Rosie were also garment workers. And my mother-in-law, who came here from Italy in 1970, was also a garment worker. Like those who came before her, she spoke no English when she arrived. Yet just three days after coming to America she courageously got on a subway train, road from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and began work at a sewing machine.

As a boy, I vividly remember going to visit my grandmother in her work places, and in later years I remember going with my wife to pick her mother up at the end of her workday. All these shops were very much the same. Even with union representation they were dimly lit and cramped. Foremen still pressed for greater productivity. In the winter they would be chilly and in the summer, stifling hot. And yet they worked with the understanding that honest labor is a form of high honor.

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But what binds the victims of the Triangle fire to the garment workers I knew, and by extension, all of us? Any link I have to the 146 victims goes beyond ethnicity and neighborhoods. While many of the victims were Italian or Jewish New Yorkers, it is a greater link; indeed, it is a quality that goes to the heart of the American experience. What binds all of us is a concept of liberty that is almost too oblique to those who are now attempting to take away collective bargaining rights or gut job safety regulations. It is how many of these garment workers themselves could have defined liberty, not just as a means to accumulate massive wealth but "as a beacon of hope, shining out to oppressed peoples; it was the future teaching out to the present, to unchain humanity from the shackles of the past."

Part of that "beacon of hope" was the ability to earn their way into a better life. In exchange for giving their honest effort every work day, all they wanted was a fair wage and a safe place to toil. Those essential attributes of liberty were denied to the victims of the fire. And because they were so denied, they became reluctant martyrs for reform. Unwittingly, their burning bodies, tumbling through space, energized a movement that would lead to the creation of the modern American middle class. Their death and suffering earned a better life for you and me. And yet question still remains: What do we owe the 146 who perished that early spring day one century ago?

Frances Perkins, FDR's future Secretary of Labor, witnessed the fire. She was instrumental in the effort of progressive reform and was quoted as saying that March 25, 1911 was "the day the New Deal began." What she meant was that the tragedy of that horrible fire made Americans begin to truly realize that working people were not merely a means to wealth, but ends in and of themselves, worthy of being treated with dignity. It was the singular event that transformed Al Smith and Robert Wagner, Sr., from Tammany Hall hacks into champions of reform. It caused the Democratic Party to better live up to it moniker, "the party of the people."

Grover Norquist echoes the sentiments of many movement conservatives by saying that he wants to take the country back to the time before the Progressive Era, which began with the Triangle fire. At the very least, we owe the Triangle victims the task of reminding everyone what that world looks like. It bares the face of child labor and unsafe working conditions. And sadly we need not look to the past to be reminded; it now exists in third-world countries where far too many of our clothes are  being made. Beyond that, as advocates of FDR's legacy we owe the victims a promise that we will fight to keep the Democratic party from slipping back to its pre-fire days, when they catered to wealthy factions, by supporting those who still carry the mantle of reform.

We owe them that much. To fail to do so would dishonor their terrible sacrifice.

Frank L. Cocozzelli writes a weekly column on Roman Catholic neoconservatism at Talk2Action.org and is contributor to Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. A director of the Institute for Progressive Christianity, he is working on a book on American liberalism.

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From the Triangle Fire to Wisconsin, Rights for Women Workers

Mar 22, 2011Brigid OFarrell

raised-fist-150Remembering Women’s History Month and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, New Deal 2.0 tells the surprising story of how women became citizens — and how their economic

raised-fist-150Remembering Women’s History Month and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, New Deal 2.0 tells the surprising story of how women became citizens — and how their economic lives have evolved along with their rights. Brigid O'Farrell urges Republicans like Scott Walker to listen to the women following in the footsteps of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strikers and Eleanor Roosevelt.

For Women's History Month this year, thousands of people around the country are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire. On Saturday, March 25, 1911, flames engulfed a sweatshop just off of Washington Square, in New York City, where women's shirtwaist blouses were made. One hundred and forty-six workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian girls, were burned to death by the fire or jumped to their deaths to escape. Doors were locked and the fire ladders couldn't reach the top floors of the burning building. Women died at their sewing machines, but they didn't have the right to vote in elections. The fire was an historic turning point for the country. The movement for social justice took on new urgency. Workplace safety legislation became a reality, the union movement gained momentum, and eventually women won the right to vote.

March is a time to celebrate the progress that women have made since the Triangle Fire, but there is also reason to pause and consider the fight that continues. We need only turn to Wisconsin. Governor Walker's outright attack on unions is, indeed, a fundamental attack on working women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over half of state workers and 61% of city workers are women. Thirty-one percent of state workers and 42% of local government workers belong to unions. They earn better wages than those who are not union members and the pay gap between women and men is smaller among union members.

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These employees are our elementary school teachers, university professors, nurses, social workers, secretaries, and administrative assistants. They are women who are critical to making our cities work and who help turn our towns into livable communities for our families. Through their unions they have secured decent wages, reasonable benefits, ways to resolve grievances, and some security for their retirement. Yet they are being criticized and their rights taken away for economic problems they didn't create.

We can learn from Eleanor Roosevelt. She believed that all workers had a right to a voice at work. Legislation and unionization were the only two ways to protect workers, and she thought joining a union was the best way for women to improve their working lives. For her, workers' rights were human rights, and it is this basic right to have a voice at work that is being lost in Wisconsin.

Eleanor Roosevelt gave careful consideration to her positions. President Roosevelt was skeptical of public-sector unions, though definitely not anti-union as some conservatives have suggested, and his wife struggled with the issue in her newspaper column "My Day" after his death. In the 1950s, as public employee unions began to organize and grow more rapidly, however, she was shocked when a city police commissioner refused to meet with a workers' grievance committee. She acknowledged budget problems, but asked if "any workers should be kept at starvation wages?"

By the late 1950s, she concluded that unionization in the public sector was necessary because employers in the public sector were little different from those in the private sector, refusing to listen to workers and treat them fairly. "Employees who are quite evidently not receiving a living wage and are dissatisfied with their conditions of work," she wrote, "would simply be slaves if they were obliged to work on without being able to reach their employers with their complaints and demand negotiation."

When teachers went on strike in New York City in 1962, shortly before her death, she wrote that there was no "method of complaint and adjustment that could take the place of collective bargaining with the ultimate possibility of a strike." She concluded that "Under the present set-up teachers have no other recourse but to strike to draw attention to their legitimate complaints." Female public employees in Wisconsin followed Roosevelt's advise and joined unions.

Governor Walker should listen to Eleanor Roosevelt. He would learn that his time might be more productively spent cooperating with the women who teach our children and care for the sick and meet the needs of the public everyday. He could learn to solicit their ideas on how to improve services and reduce costs, then negotiate solutions. Wisconsin government could be a model of a democratic workplace, rather than a leader in an effort to dismantle workers' rights. The women of Wisconsin are joining the spirit of their sisters in the Triangle Fire and they are fighting back. They need our support. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "We can't just talk, we have got to act."

Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar whose new book is She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker, Cornell University Press.

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Obama's Delay in the Libya Intervention Took a Page from FDR

Mar 22, 2011David B. Woolner

Obama's insistence on international support may be his most Rooseveltian action yet.

As the crisis in Libya has unfolded, a number of commentators have criticized the Obama administration for the time it took to act. It has also been reprimanded for not taking the lead among the international community and for insisting, as the crisis intensified, that it would not act without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council.

Obama's insistence on international support may be his most Rooseveltian action yet.

As the crisis in Libya has unfolded, a number of commentators have criticized the Obama administration for the time it took to act. It has also been reprimanded for not taking the lead among the international community and for insisting, as the crisis intensified, that it would not act without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council.

Given the harrowing scenes broadcast from cities such as Zawiya, some of this frustration is understandable. But the process by which the administration arrived at the decision to intervene is significant, for it marks perhaps the strongest indication to date that President Obama wishes to return the United States to a more Rooseveltian foreign policy.

As an admirer of both Woodrow Wilson (for whom FDR served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy) and Theodore Roosevelt, FDR entered the White House with a unique perspective on global affairs. While he appreciated and maintained a deep respect for Wilson's idealistic calls for collective security and multilateral cooperation, he also understood -- from his distant cousin TR -- the important role and responsibility that the world's leading powers had for maintaining the peace.

Frustrated by America's neutrality laws and by the fact that the United States was not a member of the League of Nations during the inter-war years, there was little FDR could do in the 1930s except watch with alarm as the League failed to keep the peace in Asia, Europe and Africa. But this experience also proved significant, for once the United States entered the Second World War FDR became determined to establish a new world organization that would in effect combine the idealism of Wilson with the hard-hitting realism of TR.

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FDR did so by organizing the new international body around a concept he called the "four" -- later five -- "policemen." Originally made up of Great Britain, the United States, China and the U.S.S.R. (with France added near the end of the war), FDR sought to counter the ineffectiveness of the League by creating a stronger executive body. It was made up of these five powers plus a small number of other states, and would have the power -- and the means -- to act to keep the peace. His thinking along these lines can be traced as far back as January 1, 1942 when, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, some 26 governments signed a document called the "Declaration of United Nations" in Washington, D.C. Pledging to adhere to the Atlantic Charter and to the conviction that "complete victory" over their enemies was "essential" in the defense of "life, liberty, independence and religious freedom," the list of signatory states was led by the United States, Britain, the U.S.S.R. and China, followed by the other 22 nations in alphabetical order. Hence FDR's wartime alliance, commonly referred to as the "United Nations," granted pride of place to the four powers he felt were essential to the maintenance of world peace.

On matters involving the social and economic well-being of the world community, FDR assumed that a more broadly based deliberative body composed of all member states would hold sway. In essence, then, FDR separated matters of security from other non-security issues, arguing that a small executive body that could act quickly (and was supported by armed forces provided by the member states) must be placed at the head of any new "United Nations Organization" to insure that the policing function of the organization was efficient and effective.

Today's United Nations -- with a Security Council made up of five permanent and ten rotating members, and a General Assembly made up of all member states -- reflects this vision. So too do the many other multilateral institutions -- the IMF, World Bank, NATO and WTO -- that were created during and after the war. It is important to remember that these institutions were largely created under American direction in the firm belief that they would advance American -- and world -- interests. As such, President Obama's decision to adopt a multilateral approach to the crisis in Libya and to pursue a Security Council resolution in support of military action does not represent a diminution of American sovereignty or an abandonment of American leadership. What it does represent is a move away from the unilateralism that characterized America's foreign policy in the previous administration (and in the 1930s) and an embrace of the more traditional post-war multilateral expression of American power perhaps best exemplified by George HW Bush in the first Gulf War and by Harry S. Truman at the onset of the Korean War. In both cases, each president placed a great deal of emphasis on the need to obtain a Security Council Resolution and in building a coalition of powers -- which in Bush 41's case included Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, among others -- before committing US forces to combat.

All this is not to say that there are not times when the United States can and must act militarily on its own authority. But the conditions and regional sensitivity surrounding the crisis in Libya make it imperative that we act in concert with other states in the region and with the endorsement of the international community as sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. Doing so can be frustrating, but in the long-run we will be far better off having taken the time to gain the support of the world community in our efforts to help the people of Libya free themselves from the oppressive grip of one of the world's most brutal dictators.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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FDR Had Mad Skills

Mar 18, 2011

What would FDR say if he had a Twitter account and 500 million Facebook friends? The world may never know, but at least we can imagine some of his inner thoughts with a brand new, ND20-created meme. Making your own is easy -- click here and enter whatever you imagine he might have thought to himself. Share your work in the comments section and we'll round up some of the greatest hits in a post! To get us started, here's the first (h/t to James Call, who created this one):


What would FDR say if he had a Twitter account and 500 million Facebook friends? The world may never know, but at least we can imagine some of his inner thoughts with a brand new, ND20-created meme. Making your own is easy -- click here and enter whatever you imagine he might have thought to himself. Share your work in the comments section and we'll round up some of the greatest hits in a post! To get us started, here's the first (h/t to James Call, who created this one:


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Fresh Ideas For Spring: You're Invited to the Hamptons Institute April 16

Mar 17, 2011

Spring is here! And so are fresh debates about the issues you care most deeply about.

Spring is here! And so are fresh debates about the issues you care most deeply about.

The Roosevelt Institute is joining with Guild Hall in East Hampton once again to offer the 2011 Hamptons Institute weekend symposium, starting Saturday, April 16th. The ideas festival will begin with an 11:00 a.m. session, "America's Fiscal Fitness; Where Do We Go From Here?", which will feature Peter Orszag, former head of the Office of Management and Budget under President Obama, in conversation about fiscal austerity with 60 Minutes' Steve Croft. At 2:00 p.m., Paul Farmer, the renowned Harvard physician and social anthropologist currently serving as UN Deputy Special envoy in Haiti, will address global challenges in health and human rights in "Healing the World: Can We Succeed?"

Expect multiple perspectives and meaningful dialogue on the menu, plus the spectacular natural setting of East Hampton. The programs are open to the public, with tickets on sale through Guild Hall.

Last year's event was a huge success, with speakers including Elizabeth Warren, George Soros, Michael Greenberger, and others. You can check out full video from that event here. Watch the first panel:

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Memo to Chris Christie and Other Budget Cutters: Infrastructure Projects Benefit Everyone

Mar 8, 2011Mark LaFlaur

hudson-river-tunnelChris Christie might claim that he can't afford high-speed rail, but a recent panel explained why the country can't afford to miss out on it.

hudson-river-tunnelChris Christie might claim that he can't afford high-speed rail, but a recent panel explained why the country can't afford to miss out on it.

The Museum of the City of New York recently hosted a panel discussion titled "Roads to Nowhere: Public Works in a Time of Crisis," part of the museum's ongoing Urban Forum series on infrastructure in New York. The discussion focused on NYC and environs, but has implications for public works projects -- infrastructure and transportation -- around the nation. The same pressures affecting public works funding (or slashed funding) in New York hold for the U.S. generally.

About 150 transportation and public works geeks came to hear such eminent public works and transportation experts as Jeffrey M. Zupan, senior fellow for Transportation, Regional Plan Association; Denise M. Richardson, managing director, General Contractors Association of New York; Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Capital Construction Company; and Joan Byron, director, Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at Pratt Institute. The discussion was intelligently moderated by New York Times transportation reporter Michael M. Grynbaum.

Hanging over the evening's discussion was a shocking, job-killing decision in October 2010 by New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Citing cost overruns, he pulled the state out of the ARC project -- a new train tunnel under the Hudson River that would have doubled commuter rail capacity between New Jersey and Manhattan, making room for an additional 25 New Jersey Transit trains per hour. Christie objected that his state had to pay more than originally budgeted and he refused to raise taxes to cover the costs. The ARC project was the nation's largest infrastructure project. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Transit administrator Peter Rogoff went to Trenton to negotiate a compromise, but Christie rejected their offers.

Denise Richardson said that the ARC project would have provided public benefits for at least a century to come, not to mention easier commutes and less auto traffic. Christie's cancellation immediately cost about 6,000 direct jobs at a time when unemployment among contracting workers is already at 30%. (The blog 2nd Avenue Sagas says the cancellation means $478 million flushed down the drain for New Jersey alone.) Jeffrey Zupan noted wryly, "To say I was chagrined about Christie's decision is sugarcoating it." And Michael Grynbaum pointed out that Christie isn't alone in shooting down rail projects. Other Republican governors across the United States -- in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida -- have also been rejecting federal appropriations for high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, Michael Horodniceanu pointed out that Christie would not have even been the one to cut the ribbon and it was merely a political decision to appear fiscally conservative. Joan Byron observed that Christie was largely elected by "south Jersey drivers," not by "north Jersey riders," so the only people inconvenienced would be those who hadn't voted for him in the first place. Byron stressed -- and other panel members agreed -- that supporters of the ARC project had not built a sufficient base of support so that its benefits would be clear even to those who would not actually be traveling through the tunnels. We must all make clear to our fellow citizens, she said, that such public works projects raise the property values of people in the areas served and raise the overall economy by making it easier to get to and from good-paying jobs.

The public does not want to have to pay any higher taxes, understandably, but often the benefits of the public works programs are not evident to already overstressed taxpayers, and thus support is lacking. The projects support the construction workers, the materials suppliers -- an entire ecosystem of benefits. The tax income gained by state and federal treasuries as a consequence of infrastructure development and the related industries and services they feed spreads the wealth around to the general population. Public works projects should be understood as investments that last for generations.

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And even though the common view in upstate New York is that only New York City benefits from the public works projects in the greater metropolitan area, in fact the city's health is a matter of survival for the entire state. Three-quarters of the state's tax income is received from the greater New York City area. That revenue feeds services in Buffalo, Syracuse, and so on; it's in those residents' interest to ensure that New York City and environs has a healthy, robust transportation infrastructure. The same is true, of course, of New Jersey, or Philadelphia, or any other metropolitan area. A vibrant capital nourishes the provinces, and vice versa.

But Horodniceanu pointed out that it is difficult to spread the view of public works as beneficial to the public generally amid the pervasive anti-government rhetoric used by conservative politicians. With gasoline prices already rising, tax increases to pay for public transportation -- as Europeans do as a matter of course -- would be politically unacceptable. He contrasted the widespread American view (and unwillingness to pay for public transportation) with the French readiness to embrace and pay for public works. He cited a field trip of a group of French students to see the building of the trans-English Channel tunnel, popularly known as the Chunnel, while across the Channel a group of British citizens were protesting the "eminent domain" taking of wheat fields to be used for the tunnel and rail line into London. The clear implication was that the American attitude is more akin to the British than the French.

Two important subjects the MCNY panel did not discuss -- they only had an hour, after all -- were the political dimension to the "time of crisis" and the environmental benefits of public transportation. Why are there budget shortfalls? Which political party is doing most of the canceling of projects, and why? What wouldn't be possible if the rich and corporations paid their fair share of taxes? And why aren't the President or congressional Democrats pushing anything like the WPA & CCC programs that rebuilt America and employed millions in the last big depression?

To be sure, President Obama does often speak of the importance of high-speed rail and has spoken of a $50 billion, ten-year National Infrastructure Bank. In a speech to the Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 7, the President said "I want to put more people to work rebuilding crumbling roads, rebuilding our bridges. That's why I've proposed connecting 80 percent of the country with ... high-speed rail." The President understands the importance, but he and Congress have to know (and be reminded repeatedly) that there is strong popular support for these projects.

There has been some other good news that was not mentioned by the panelists. In early February, Amtrak announced the Gateway Project, a $13.5 billion tunnel that will go approximately where ARC would have gone and will boost the capacity of the Northeast Corridor. The Infrastructurist reports that the Gateway Project "would triple the number of hourly Amtrak trains heading through New York (from four to 12) and, if Amtrak ever achieves its (true) high-speed hopes for the corridor, the new tunnel could service that too." It would be the first phase of a $117 billion master plan announced by the national rail service in October that has a target completion date of 2040.

On the other coast, a rather surprising development reported by The Infrastructurist and the California High-Speed Rail blog is that Japan's ambassador to the United States has said that his country might be willing to pay up to half of the costs of a bullet-train system in California. According to California High-Speed Rail, "Basically our Japanese allies are begging us for the chance to build our train because they know it's going to profitable."

At a time when the Republican party is driven by ax-wielding Tea Party activists and the president continues to seek common ground with the party that abhors him, we must take help where we can find it, with Japanese yen or other sources. We must also work to build consensus among our fellow Americans to demand investments here at home for the tax dollars we're paying to Washington. Is our contribution to the Treasury to be spent forever on foreign wars and military bases in 150+ nations, or is it going to be spent here at home? National security begins at home, and we cannot afford a WPA or CCC to work our way out of the current (unmentionable) great depression if a half-trillion dollars and rising is going to the Pentagon every year. And the U.S. certainly cannot afford the rebuilding it needs if its treasury is being starved by the wealthy and corporations unwilling to pay their fair share of taxes.

Mark LaFlaur is Founder of LeveesNotWar.org.

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Roosevelt Institute Campus Network Spring Policy Conferences

Mar 7, 2011

alert-button-150Join the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network this spring as we host a series of national policy conferences across the country, highlighting the w

alert-button-150Join the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network this spring as we host a series of national policy conferences across the country, highlighting the work of our student network.

Each conference will be hosted by one of our student policy centers and will focus on interactive, thematic programming that convenes progressive organizations from across the country with our network of student leaders. Partners will engage with our students; leading discussions and workshops, providing feedback on student projects, and working with students to create local (and potentially, national) implementation plans.

The events will also promote our recently released Blueprint for Millennial America, the Think2040 model of engagement, and our newest volume of the 10 ideas series.

The conference calendar is as follows:

March 26-27th: "Defense, Development, & Diplomacy" Conference hosted by our Defense and Diplomacy Policy Center at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Students will be presenting a progressive vision for America's 21st century grand strategy; using defense, development, and diplomacy as equal pillars of US foreign policy. Students will be making presentations on reforming foreign assistance, energy security, cyber security, nuclear non-proliferation, and more. Guest speakers include Larry Korb, Gen. Paul Eaton, and Will Davis, director of the United Nations Center. Click here for more information.

April 1-3rd: "Growing the Future" Conference hosted by our Energy and Environment Policy Center at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Campus leaders will be guiding conference participants in an exploration of ASU's urban agriculture initiatives, and students from across the country will be making presentations on sustainable urban development, gulf oil spill restoration, and agricultural policy reform. The event will also serve as a springboard for choosing national energy and environment projects for the upcoming 2011-2012 academic year. Click here for more information.

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April 8-10th: "Serving the South" Conference hosted by our Health Care Policy Center at the Universities of Duke and North Carolina. Our students will be partnering with local community organizations to engage in a day of health service, provide trainings on effective grassroots policy making, and convene a community health town hall meeting. Click here for more information.

April 9th: "Rally for Rights" Conference hosted by our Equal Justice Policy Center at Northwestern University in Chicago. Our students will be presenting their policy projects based on human, civil, and consumer rights to a host of local and national organizations. Guest speakers include Gillian Sorenson, and representatives from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicaid. Click here for more information.

April 15-16th: "Defining a New Economic Reality" Conference hosted by our Economic Development Policy Center at Columbia University in New York City. Our students will be using the content from their projects to promote a new economic vision for Millennial America that stresses community development and capital stewardship. Students will also conduct an interactive workshop on financial literacy. Guest speakers include Rob Johnson, Bo Cutter, and Philippe Aghion. Click here for more information.

April 16th: "A Blueprint for Comprehensive Education Reform" Conference hosted by our Education Policy Center at UCLA in Los Angeles. The event will be co-sponsored by Teach For America and will highlight the work of our students on comprehensive education reform. The conference will also serve as a platform to highlight our Think2040 campaign and the release of our Blueprint for Millennial America. Click here for more information.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Reese Neader is the Roosevelt Campus Network’s Policy Director.

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Rolling Back the Clock in Wisconsin: Governor Walker’s Assault on the New Deal

Mar 1, 2011David B. Woolner

Unions helped boost productivity and wages during FDR's time -- shouldn't we learn that lesson?

Unions helped boost productivity and wages during FDR's time -- shouldn't we learn that lesson?

Late last week, President Obama accused Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker of unleashing "an assault on unions" in his drive to push through legislation that would strip away many of the collective bargaining rights currently held by public sector workers in that state. The President also said that while everyone will need to make some "adjustments" in the current fiscal climate, we should not forget the "enormous contributions" public employees make to our states and to our citizens.

The President is certainly correct when he says that the move by Governor Walker is an assault on the unions. But his hint that wage and benefit concessions (adjustments) might be necessary unfortunately plays into the hands of the deficit hawks who keep insisting that the only way for us to climb out of the Great Recession is through massive cuts to state and federal budgets.

As Robert Reich recently observed, nothing could be further from the truth. The real cause of these budget deficits is not excessive spending, but a dramatic fall in tax revenue perpetuated in part by the recession and in part by "tax giveaways to the rich."

Indeed, in our forty-year drive to provide a greater and greater share of our national income to those who need it the least -- the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans -- we have managed to expand their take of total national income from 9 percent to 20 percent. With more and more of the nation's wealth flowing to a smaller percentage of the population -- whose contributions to the national well-being has declined precipitously thanks to cuts in income, estate and other forms of taxation -- is it any wonder that the middle class has been severely hurt by this recession or that governments, thanks to declining wages and the loss of jobs among working Americans, are struggling to meet their obligations?

Under similar circumstances nearly 80 years ago, Franklin Roosevelt's response to the nation's worst economic crisis was not to strip away labor's right to bargain collectively or to slash government to the bone, but rather to use government and the legislative process to strengthen the ability of working Americans to secure fair wages and working conditions. As such, a key element of the New Deal was the passage of labor laws like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, two monumental pieces of legislation that set up a permanent National Labor Relations Board, granted private sector workers the right to form unions and to bargain collectively, established a national minimum wage, and guaranteed "time and a half" for overtime in certain jobs. In this vastly improved climate, union membership increased dramatically, from less than 3 million in 1933 to more than 14 million in 1945. So too did wages. By 1937, in fact, real weekly earnings were 30 percent higher than they had been when FDR first took office and fifteen percent higher than they were in 1929.

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Meanwhile, for those who had lost their jobs or were suffering in poverty in their old age, the Roosevelt Administration provided work building the nation's economic infrastructure through such federal programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA). It also provided a measure of economic security through the passage of the Social Security Act with unemployment insurance and old age pensions. All of this required considerable spending on the part of government, spending that, much like today, ran into substantial opposition from fiscal conservatives and organizations like the American Liberty League, which accused the Roosevelt Administration of taking the country down the path of socialism. Hemmed in by this political opposition, and lacking experience in the new field of Keynesian economics, the Roosevelt Administration was not able to unleash the level of federal stimulus -- deficit spending -- that was needed to restore the economy until the security demands of World War II rendered the arguments of the deficit hawks irrelevant.

Led by a government committed to working with both management and labor to make the United States the most powerful nation on the planet, US wartime production exceeded all expectations and dwarfed our allies and enemies alike. Moreover, in the pro-labor climate of the time, union membership expanded at an ever more rapid pace. By 1945, it had reached a record 35 percent of the non-agricultural workforce, while over the same period wages increased by a healthy 65 percent.

Thanks to the willingness of the federal government to invest in the wartime economy (which included federal expenditures that reached a high point of 46.5 percent of total GDP in 1943), and to the wartime collaboration between the federal government, private enterprise and organized labor, the United States emerged from the war not only as the richest and most powerful nation on earth, but also the country poised to dominate the world's economy for generations to come. And all of this with a highly paid and highly unionized work force.

It is true that the labor legislation of the 1930s did not apply to public service employees, but it seems highly unlikely that once achieved FDR would support any effort, like the one currently underway in Wisconsin, to take away these rights. Indeed, when Franklin Roosevelt took office in midst of the despair of the Great Depression, he promised to "wage war" against the economic crisis. He also once remarked that "if ever I went to work in a factory, the first thing I'd do is join a union." Under his leadership, working Americans were not stripped of their rights, but were encouraged to organize for better wages, hours and working conditions. In doing so, they not only helped lift themselves out of the Great Depression, they also helped lift the nation out as a whole. Rather than follow the false promise of economic growth through ever more tax decreases for the rich, isn't it time we tried the opposite tack? Shouldn't we consider raising taxes on the wealthy and looking to expand the economy -- and state and federal revenue -- through increased wages and benefits for the millions of working Americans in Wisconsin and elsewhere who make up the backbone of this country?

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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Oscar Winner 'The King's Speech' and George VI's Visit to America

Feb 28, 2011William vanden Heuvel

the-kings-speech-movie-posterFDR began an important relationship with the shy monarch who is the star of this year's Oscar-winning film.

the-kings-speech-movie-posterFDR began an important relationship with the shy monarch who is the star of this year's Oscar-winning film.

The visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the United States in June 1939 was without precedent. Never before had a reigning British monarch set foot in America. President Franklin Roosevelt proposed the visit (the royal couple were going to be in Canada) and planned every detail of it personally. He saw it as an opportunity to confront the isolationist forces in this country, who insisted that the gathering storm in Europe was not our concern. FDR had no faith in the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, known for his policy of appeasement, but he thought the young King and Queen would touch the hearts of Americans and help them understand that our countries had to stand together to confront the Nazi threat. For several years, FDR had seen world war as inevitable.

In the masterful movie The King's Speech, Americans have been introduced to this gentle, shy sovereign. He had come to the throne reluctantly, reflecting the virtue of selfless devotion to public duty, when his elder brother, Edward VIII, abdicated in December 1936 to marry the woman he loved. For a time the House of Windsor looked bad, very bad. As it turned out, it would have looked a lot worse had Edward remained king. It is well known that Edward and his American wife, Wallis Simpson, consorted with Nazi sympathizers. In the fall of 1937, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor even made a trip to Germany as special guests of Hitler.

There were many reasons for FDR and King George to respect each other. Not least was that both had overcome a significant disability as they were called upon to lead their countries. The King had been a stutterer since childhood, who was to labor for decades to overcome his speech impediment. The President, ever since an attack of polio when he was 39, had been a paraplegic.

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On June 10, 1939, having been entertained at the White House the evening before, King George and Queen Elizabeth traveled to New York and visited the World's Fair, then motored to Hyde Park, FDR's family home. (FDR had written to King George VI, in November 1938: "If you could stay with us at Hyde Park for two or three days, the simplicity and naturalness of such a visit would produce a most excellent effect.") The crowds along the route were enormous. The Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, was traveling with them. He noted in his diary that the party sat down to dinner at 10 pm ("most enjoyable... a sort of family affair"), and then the ladies retired early and the three men had a frank and open discussion that went on until 1:30 am.

Mackenzie King, deeply impressed with FDR, wrote in his diary: "His whole conversation with the King was to the effect that every possible assistance short of actual participation in war could be given. He added that he hoped he might get freed of the Neutrality Act. Was not sure how long Congress might continue to delay its consideration..."

The King said that the Germans had been spying on England for years, and he believed that his German relatives had been used to wiring information from other members of the royal family. He said that his father, George V, had vowed never to shake hands with the German Ambassador again. Clearly he did not bring up his elder brother, the Duke of Windsor.

King George then spoke "very intimately" about Winston Churchill. He held him accountable for the tragic disaster of Gallipoli in World War I. The Canadian Prime Minister noted in his diary: "The King indicated he would never wish to appoint Churchill to any office unless it was absolutely necessary in time of war." The Prime Minister added: "I confess I was glad to hear him say that because I think Churchill is one of the most dangerous men I have ever known."

Less than three months later, World War II began. Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty. Eleven months later, Churchill became Prime Minister. During the war, King George and Churchill became trusted comrades with deep respect for each other. Churchill and FDR needed each other and relied on each other. Churchill's wartime speeches record for all time the valiant courage of his leadership, which -- along with that of FDR -- helped save the western world from Nazi barbarism.

When the King died in February 1952, Winston Churchill was again Prime Minister, left with the solemn responsibility of welcoming a new Elizabethan Age. He and the King had become trusted comrades with deep respect for one another. Each had played their historic roles to perfection. Churchill described him in his eulogy as "Without ambition or want of self-confidence" when he assumed the heavy burden of the Crown. Winston Churchill became his most loyal minister.

As we all know, history could so easily have taken different turns.

Ambassador William vanden Heuvel has served as Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and as U.S. Ambassador to the European Office of the U.N. He serves on the board of the Roosevelt Institute.

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When FDR Came to Wisconsin to Fight the Kochs and Walkers of 1934

Feb 24, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

fdrmain-150FDR didn't just stand up for workers, but he took a stand against the fat cats working against them.

fdrmain-150FDR didn't just stand up for workers, but he took a stand against the fat cats working against them.

This past Tuesday evening, nearly 1,000 unionists and their supporters gathered here in Green Bay, Wisconsin to register their appreciation for Senator Dave Hansen, one of the 14 Democrats who have absented themselves from the state to deter passage of Governor Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill. The bill threatens to not only severely cut workers' incomes but also effectively eliminate their collective bargaining rights.

We also came together to consider what we were going to do next about that threat. Everyone -- from teachers and social workers to firefighters and snowplow drivers -- said they were ready to fight on against a governor who has insisted he will not negotiate. Most, though it pained them, said they were willing to sacrifice income to address the state's budget woes. And yet nobody was willing to give up their rights. Not only in "radical" Madison, but even here in supposedly conservative Green Bay, it seemed that Americans were ready to start making democratic history again -- not on the gridiron this time but in the struggle to win, and hold onto, the rights of democratic citizens and workers.

Listening to the speakers, I felt their enthusiasms and anxieties. But I also had questions and concerns. It angered me that union leaders were giving way on the dollar question when we all know that tax cuts and giveaways for corporations and the rich will continue. I wondered why nobody on the platform referred to the fact that the "class war from above" against labor and working people had been going on for more than thirty years now. It disappointed me that we were not discussing how we might address the hostility -- and plight -- of those private sector workers who believe public sector employees have it easy. And it bothered me that we were not talking about a movement to "take back America" from the likes of the billionaire Koch brothers and the Tea Party. But I stayed quiet -- recalling all too well how the efforts of some of us to organize Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice in support of the late 1990s revival of the labor movement had self-destructed in intellectual and political wrangling.

At the same time, I not only appreciated that my fellow citizens and unionists felt no less determined to defend themselves, their families, and their rights than I did. I also was pretty sure they had more experience in doing so than this tenured professor. And those thoughts led me to recall Franklin Roosevelt's visit to this city in the summer of 1934 to celebrate the tricentennial of the first settlement of the area by French "voyageurs."

The Great Depression continued to devastate American lives, but FDR's New Deal was giving Americans hope. It mobilized their energies and renewed labor's energies, which promised a mobilization of workers in favor of not only recovery and reconstruction but also real reform. Standing before a huge crowd at Bay Beach Park, the President spoke of what joined Americans together and of the struggles they had waged and were continuing to wage:

...Men everywhere throughout Europe -- your ancestors and mine -- had suffered from the imperfect and often unjust Governments of their home land, and they were driven by deep desire to find not alone security, but also enlarged opportunity for themselves and their children. It is true that the new population flowing into our new lands was a mixed population, differing often in language, in external customs and in habits of thought. But in one thing they were alike. They shared a deep purpose to rid themselves forever of the jealousies, the prejudices, the intrigues and the violence, whether internal or external, that disturbed their lives on the other side of the ocean.

Yes, they sought a life that was less fettered by the exploitations of selfish men, set up under Governments that were not free. They sought a wider opportunity for the average man.

Having achieved that initial adventure of migrating to new homes, they moved forward to the further adventure of establishing forms of government and methods of operating these forms of government that might assure them the things they sought. They believed that men, out of their intelligence and their self-discipline, could create and use forms of government that would not enslave the human spirit, but free it and nourish it throughout the generations. They did not fear government, because they knew that government in the new world was their own.

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I do not need to tell you that here in Wisconsin they built a State destined for extraordinary achievements. They set up institutions to enforce law and order, to care for the unfortunate, to promote the arts of industry and agriculture. They built a university and school system as enlightened as any that the world affords. They set up against all selfish private interests the organized authority of the people themselves through the State. They transformed utilities into public servants instead of private means of exploitation.

People know also that the average man in Wisconsin waged a long and bitter fight for his rights. Here, and in the Nation as a whole, in the Nation at large... man has been fighting... against those forces which disregard human cooperation and human rights in seeking that kind of individual profit which is gained at the expense of his fellows...

In the great national movement that culminated over a year ago [1933], people joined with enthusiasm. They lent hand and voice to the common cause, irrespective of many older political traditions. They saw the dawn of a new day. They were on the march; they were coming back into the possession of their own home land.

As the humble instruments of their vision and their power, those of us who were chosen to serve them in 1932 turned to the great task. In one year and five months, the people of the United States have received at least a partial answer to their demands for action; and neither the demand nor the action has reached the end of the road. But, my friends, action may be delayed by two types of individuals. Let me cite examples: First, there is the man whose objectives are wholly right and wholly progressive but who declines to cooperate or even to discuss methods of arriving at the objectives because he insists on his own methods and nobody else's.

The other type to which I refer is the kind of individual who demands some message to the people of the United States that will restore what he calls "confidence." When I hear this I cannot help but remember the pleas that were made by government and certain types of so-called "big business" all through the years 1930, 1931 and 1932, that the only thing lacking in the United States was confidence.

Before I left on my trip... I received two letters from important men, both of them pleading that I say something to restore confidence. To both of them I wrote identical answers: "What would you like to have me say?" From one of them I have received no reply at all in six weeks. I take it that he is still wondering how to answer. The other man wrote me frankly that in his judgment the way to restore confidence was for me to tell the people of the United States that all supervision by all forms of Government, Federal and State, over all forms of human activity called business should be forthwith abolished.

Now, my friends, in other words, that man was frank enough to imply that he would repeal all laws, State or national, which regulate business -- that a utility could henceforth charge any rate, unreasonable or otherwise; that the railroads could go back to rebates and other secret agreements; that the processors of food stuffs could disregard all rules of health and of good faith; that the unregulated wild-cat banking of a century ago could be restored; that fraudulent securities and watered stock could be palmed off on the public; that stock manipulation which caused panics and enriched insiders could go unchecked. In fact, my friends, if we were to listen to him and his type, the old law of the tooth and the claw would reign in our Nation once more.

The people of the United States will not restore that ancient order. There is no lack of confidence on the part of those business men, farmers and workers who clearly read the signs of the times. Sound economic improvement comes from the improved conditions of the whole population and not a small fraction thereof.

Those who would measure confidence in this country in the future must look first to the average citizen...

That's where I'm looking. And from what I can tell, the people are hurting, but their struggle to extend and deepen American freedom, equality, and democracy continues.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. A member of the National Writers Union/UAW who looks forward to becoming a member of a UW faculty union, he is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye

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