A couple of links for Labor Day evening:
After Roosevelt won the election but before he took office, Sen. Hugo Black (D-Ala.) introduced a bill backed by the American Federation of Labor to temporarily shorten the workweek drastically, to only 30 hours — six hours a day, five days a week. For a while, it had Roosevelt’s support, and he began negotiating with business leaders behind closed doors; if they would shorten the workweek to 30 hours voluntarily, then he would go easy on antitrust reforms, he said, according to Hunnicutt.
As soon as Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, he called Congress into a special session — what would become its most productive streak in history. Over the next 100 days, Roosevelt and his Cabinet guided more than a dozen major bills through the House and Senate, stabilizing the banking system, regulating Wall Street, subsidizing farmers and getting relief checks into the hands of the unemployed.
Amid this flurry, on April 6, the Senate passed Black’s 30-hour week bill 53 to 30 in a bipartisan vote. Supporters claimed it would create 6 million jobs, The Washington Post reported. It was expected to pass the House, and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins was publicly supportive.
Business leaders were up in arms. “Instead of looking at the increase in leisure as inevitable or as potentially beneficial,” Hunnicutt wrote, they feared that if workers got a taste of a 30-hour week, they would never want to go back, and the law would become permanent. Men of industry held emergency meetings in Chicago and Philadelphia, and Perkins, who also supported a federal minimum wage, was flooded with messages of opposition.
Meanwhile at the White House, as Roosevelt worked on a comprehensive recovery plan, he began to turn against the 30-hour week. What if, rather than sharing available work, there was just more work? As the plan for a massive public works program took shape, support for the 30-hour week collapsed. Instead, Roosevelt used the threat of it as leverage to get industry leaders to agree to ban child labor, set a modest minimum wage and limit the standard workweek at 40 hours, Hunnicutt wrote.
To make their case to workers, Democrats need only point to Republican attacks on Mr. Biden’s agenda. Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, has compared his plan to boost subsidies for day care to Soviet-era Communism. Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida derided his $300-per-child per month allowance as “welfare assistance.”
Republicans have also attacked the PRO Act, a Biden-backed measure that would increase workers’ bargaining power by making it easier for them to unionize. Democrats ask: How can Republicans claim to be a party for workers while opposing the very institution, unions, that fights for workers?
When Republicans do offer pro-worker measures, they are usually far less generous than Democratic proposals. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, one of the most vocal Republicans advocating a pro-worker pivot, backs a $15 minimum wage, but only for workers at corporations with annual revenues of $1 billion or more. Senator Mitt Romney has proposed a monthly child allowance of up to $350 per child, but some Democrats criticized his proposal for eliminating many welfare grants and tax credits for children.
What explains the G.O.P.’s halfhearted attempt to rebrand? The reason is the success of Donald Trump, who vaulted himself into the White House by casting himself as a billionaire best friend of workers. But Trump didn’t really walk a pro-worker walk. Instead, he pushed a $1.5 trillion tax cut that favored corporations and the rich, tried to gut health coverage for millions of Americans and slashed health and safety enforcement in the nation’s workplaces, while appointing judges who favored business over workers and unions.
On paper, the party of F.D.R. is clearly more pro-worker than Republicans. But the Democrats’ big problem, time and again — one that has long rankled many blue-collar voters — is their failure to enact policies that will uplift workers (usually because of Republican filibusters).
So what can the Democrats do to cement working-class support?
Mr. Biden can use his executive authority, beyond what he’s already done, to make federal contractors increase workers’ pay and benefits. His Labor Department and National Labor Relations Board can also help boost worker pay and bargaining power.
In Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer would do well to enact Mr. Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plans and pass the PRO Act. Pushing through his $3.5-trillion spending plan would also deliver big-time to workers — not only its vast ambitions on physical infrastructure, but also its provisions guaranteeing paid parental leave and stepped-up subsidies for child care.
The 100th anniversary of Blair Mountain, merely the largest domestic insurrection since the Civil War, is finally getting some real commemoration. I know a few of the people involved in this and they are good peeps.
On the shoulder of a lonely stretch of highway miles into the hills, a sign stands in the weeds. “Battle of Blair Mt.,” it says, informing the tumbledown cinder block building across the road that here, 100 years ago, was the largest armed labor uprising in U.S. history.
In late August 1921, thousands of rifle-bearing coal miners marched to this thickly wooded ridge in southern West Virginia, a campaign that was ignited by the daylight assassinations of union sympathizers but had been building for years in the oppressive despair of the coal fields. The miners’ army was met at Blair Mountain by thousands of men who volunteered to fight with the Logan County sheriff, who was in the pay of the coal companies. Over 12 miles and five days, the sheriff’s men fought the miners, strafing the hillsides with machine-gun fire and dropping homemade bombs from planes. There were at least 16 confirmed deaths in the battle, though no one knows exactly how many were killed before the US Army marched in to put a stop to the fighting.
The roadside marker and the spent shell casings found in the hillsides are the only reminders at Blair Mountain that this took place.
The country has begun wrestling in recent years with its buried trauma, memorializing vile and suppressed histories like the Tulsa Race Massacre. The Battle of Blair Mountain, the culmination of a series of violent conflicts known as the Mine Wars, would also seem to be a candidate for such exhumation.
The army of miners that came to Blair Mountain was made up of Black and white people, new immigrants and people with deep roots in Appalachia. They did perilous work under conditions close to indentured servitude: They were kept in line by armed guards and paid only in company scrip, with their pay docked for the costs of housing, medical care and the tools they used in the mines. These conditions eventually erupted in the largest insurrection since the Civil War.
But while there are commemorations this weekend in West Virginia, including talks, rallies and re-enactments, a century of silence enforced by power and fear has left the battle nearly forgotten elsewhere.
“It is one of the most amazing confrontations between workers and bosses ever in this country and no one knows about it,” said Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America and a great-nephew of Bill Blizzard, who led the miners’ army in 1921. “It seems to be almost impossible unless there’s a concerted effort for people not to know about it.”