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This Day in Labor History: August 23, 1912

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On August 23, 1912, the United States Commission on Industrial Relations was founded. One of the most remarkable moments in American labor history, the USCIR (more popularly known as the Walsh Committee) forced industrial leaders to testify about the conditions of American labor in front of a government committee. For the first time in the nation’s history, the plutocrats, long used to running their operations without responsibility, were called onto the carpet in front of directly hostile committee members for their actions. While the USCIR did not create specific reform bills, it did signify a changing tone in American labor and American society in general that took power away from the plutocrats and created government responsibility for the conditions of American workers.

The USCIR was created in response to the labor violence becoming more prevalent in the U.S. by the early 1910s. In particular, the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 by two Ironworkers angry about the paper’s anti-union owner Harrison Gray Otis, one of the most loathsome people in American history, finally got the government’s attention. While President William Howard Taft created it, it was mostly operated under the administration of Woodrow Wilson, a far more pro-labor president than the Republican. Most of the committee members were Wilson appointees after several of Taft’s nominees did not receive confirmation from the Senate. Had they, the commission would have been far more pro-business and probably less memorable.

The head of the committee was the remarkable Frank Walsh. A poor boy from Kansas City who dropped out of school at the age of 10, Walsh trained himself in the law and became a leading Progressive and Democratic Party operative in that city, attracting the attention of Wilson, who nominated him as the USCIR’s chairman. Between 1913 and 1915, the USCIR interviewed hundreds of people about the conditions of American work. Traveling the nation, it set up shop for a few weeks in a given city and did its best to cover all the major regional types of work. Investigators in the Northwest discovered stories about logging camp cooks infected with venereal disease and still allowed to prepare food, loggers beaten by owners and having their money stolen, and workers getting so sick from timber camp food that they could not work for weeks. No wonder the IWW was so successful organizing these workers. One investigator writing about miners at U.S. Steel operations in Duluth detailed how the police, owners, and city leaders all conspired to crush a strike. Labor newspapers told these stories all the time, but never before had a the government invested the resources to document the horrors committed against working people.

Said the groundbreaking journalist Walter Lippmann, “The nine members of the Industrial Relations Commission have before them the task of explaining why America, supposed to become the land of promise, has become the land of disappointment and deep-seated discontent.” Walsh encouraged people to criticize employers. Reformers such as Louis Brandeis testified as to moral corruptness of employers’ absurdly wide view of “freedom of contract,” noting how this led to the widespread exploitation of American labor. S. Josephine Baker, the child labor crusader, talked of how American corporations using child labor did not train those workers for any kind of future, dooming them to permanent poverty, “having entered adult life and are still earning a child’s wage.” Labor leaders and even everyday workers testified about their conditions. But most famously, Walsh saw his role as a crusader for American workers. He alienated the capitalists quickly. After the Ludlow Massacre, he called John D. Rockefeller Jr. before his committee, and publicly humiliated the powerful man for his company thugs and indifference to workers’ lives. It didn’t help the capitalist that his PR man said that truth was “as the operators saw it.” The embarrassment led Rockefeller to push for company unionism, which for all its very real limitations, was a concession.

Some capitalists did better in their testimony. When Andrew Carnegie testified, he openly lied about his role at Homestead, claiming he was out playing in Scotland when in fact he had ordered Henry Clay Frick to bust the union while he was away. When Walsh announced he would also investigate the South, Georgia senator Hoke Smith led a charge to cut the USCIR budget by 75 percent. When the vote failed, Walsh directly targeted Georgia to stick it to Smith, holding some of his most pro-worker hearings in that state.

Not everyone on the committee was a pro-worker as Walsh and his attacks upon the rich made many uncomfortable. This meant that as an institution, the USCIR was unable to fulfill its potential. The final report, issued in 1916, was actually three different reports prepared by different sections of the committee. The Walsh faction openly called for an industrial democracy. It called agricultural work, such as had led to the Wheatland Riot “industrial feudalism in an extreme form.” The word “feudalism” was applied heavily throughout the report–to company towns, to the coal regions, to rural labor.

The response to the Walsh report was mixed. Labor publications and unions were ecstatic at the honest portrayal of the conditions of American workers. The Masses went so far as to call it, “The beginning of an indigenous American revolutionary movement.” Again, it’s worth noting here how out of character for American history the Walsh report and USCIR in general was that American radicals would see it in this light. On the other hand, the president of the Pittsburgh Employers Association called for Walsh’s assassination, perhaps tongue in cheek, perhaps not. The majority report was written by the labor economist John Commons, which in a more typically Progressive manner than Walsh’s activism called for impartial labor boards rather than involve labor in politics, which reflected the belief of much of American labor during this period, including the American Federation of Labor.

The extent to which the USCIR really changed the nation is somewhat up for debate, but it’s likely that its findings fed the pro-labor Democratic platform in 1916. It’s worth remembering that even when considering the horrors of the Red Scare and the government suppression of the IWW in World War I, the Wilson administration was still by a significant margin the most pro-labor administration in American history before FDR. Wilson would make alliance with Samuel Gompers during World War I to bring labor into the national planning for the war and the AFL saw significant gains during the war, however short-lasting they were. Charles Evans Hughes campaigned against Wilson in 1916 based in part of what he saw was the waste of the USCIR, but to little effect. The more moderate Commons report would become influential in the welfare capitalism of the 1920s, which still provided gains of sorts for workers.

Walsh would later go on to become the co-chair of the National War Labor Board with William Howard Taft, where the two clashed over the former’s staunchly pro-union policies and abrupt manner with the capitalists. Walsh eventually lost Wilson’s favor over his other favorite cause–Irish nationalism.

You can read the final report and all the testimony, which is voluminous and a wonderful resource for labor historians of the period here
. I used the timber testimony extensively in the first chapter of my logging book manuscript.

This is the 116th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Happy Jack

    The USCIR was created in response to the labor violence becoming more prevalent in the U.S. by the early 1910s. In particular, the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 by two Ironworkers angry about the paper’s anti-union owner Harrison Gray Otis, one of the most loathsome people in American history, finally got the government’s attention.

    This seems to imply that violence was the only method to get the attention of the powerful. Would a non-violence movement have provided the same outcome?

    Wilson would make alliance with Samuel Gompers during World War I to bring labor into the national planning for the war and the AFL saw significant gains during the war, however short-lasting they were.

    In other words, this short-lived alliance was solely for the meat grinder of war, but didn’t extend to the peace-time economy?

    • On question 1, it was neither a violent nor a non-violent movement per se, but rather a situation where a few violent people did get the attention of the government.

      On question 2, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Many in the Wilson Administration were genuine about a longer-term alliance with labor, but the Red Scare, something Sam Gompers participated in with full vigor, also gave employers the opportunity to paint all labor as red. With Wilson’s stroke and the rise of proto-fascist elements in the government like A. Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover, the employers quickly turned the tables.

      • Bruce Vail

        The ferocity of Palmer’s Red Scare was probably inspired by his belief that reds had tried to blow up his wife and children.

        Still, ‘proto-fascist’ is probably not too strong a phrase…

    • DrDick

      There is a fairly large body of research on social movements that suggests that the existence of a violent faction, or at least a credible threat of violence, along with more moderate factions can be a critical factor in movement success,

    • Woodrowfan

      the alliance started well before the war. Gompers was one of those who lobbied Wilson to recognize the Carranza faction in Mexico in 1915 in large part because many of the Mexican unions backed Carranza.

  • As we speak someone from AEI or the Heritage Foundation is reading this and thinking “Hey! That just might work!”

  • witlesschum

    My first thought was we could use another such report, but it’s the kind of thing that would be much more easily ignored today.

    • And not because the labor movement was that much stronger then. But because the upper classes don’t care and they were kind of starting to care in 1912.

    • Bruce Vail

      Such a Commission, with a detailed report (including recommendations for legislative action), would indeed be welcome today.

      Just as the USCIR provided ammo for pro-union forces for the following 20 years, a new version of the report would a tool for pro-worker activists for the next 20 years.

      This is something that Obama could do with little difficulty, and would be perfectly consistent with his current campaign theme of income inequality. Who knows, he may even decide to devote some of his post-presidency efforts to seeing it through?

  • j_kay

    I recommend David McCoullough Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal books to the thread and Loomis. They are great stories of everything, including engineering and labor.

    The books are named, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, .

    The Brooklyh Bridge was done in YOUR time of study so you have no choice. The Panama Canal saw an century-earlier Ukraine, just because TR was too impatient, so
    it’s not useless. And plenty of plague-killed dead horses and men.

    I’ve even read McCoullough’s shopping lists, I’m that much of an old engineering geek even as a kid, when I read both…..

  • j_kay

    And I forgot about his Johnstown Flood book, also in your period.

    It’s also the only time Brooks was only half wrong was his Katrina article pointing out that big storms can create big political storms. Though he of course somehow neglected that it’s when the fix’s in.

  • Pingback: This Day in Labor History: A Digest - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money()

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