Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 981

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 981


This is the grave of Frank Walsh.

Born in 1864 in St. Louis, Walsh grew up in a poor Irish family. He dropped out of school at the age of 10 and found work as a telegraph boy. But this was a smart kid. He started teaching himself. He became an expert in stenography and decided to go into the law after working for several years as a clerk in local law offices, passing the bar in 1889. As an Irish-American, he became a staunch Democrat. If only that was the case for Irish-Americans today.

Walsh was politically ambitious and rose in the world of Kansas City politics, where he practiced law. He was a fantastic public speaker, which helped in both in the courtroom and with the Democratic Party. He was not a fan of the Pendergast machine and sought to curtail their power. Walsh got a position on the Board of Welfare for the city, where he led a report that absolutely ripped the machine for the poverty in the city. They hated him. But it was the Progressive Era and crusading lawyers were popular. Somewhat amusingly, Walsh came to defend Jesse James, Jr., son of the outlaw, who was accused of robbing a train. Walsh got him off despite an openly hostile judge. He was so impressed with the young James that he encouraged him to go into the law himself, which he did. They then worked together in labor law, often suing railroad companies for killing workers.

Walsh came under the eye of Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Wilson appointed him as the head of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations. 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.

In 1918, Wilson named Walsh the co-chair of the War Labor Board, along with former president William Howard Taft. He and Taft complained about each other constantly, with Taft defending capital and Walsh attacking it.

Walsh was a huge Irish nationalist. Like, he was an active supporter of the Irish cause, raising money for Irish revolutionaries. Finally, he angered Wilson by pushing so hard for the U.S. recognition of Irish independence before the British came to terms. Now, I get where Wilson was coming from I guess. But Walsh was also calling out Wilson’s hypocrisy on self-determination around the Fourteen Points. But it was one thing to tear apart former enemy powers and another to end the English colonial empire and from India to Ireland, Wilson was highly uninterested.

After Walsh left the government, he became a lawyer for workers’ causes. The National Women’s Trade Union League hired him to represent them in a case before the War Labor Board (Walsh was out there by then) when streetcar conductors were fired to replace them with men. Walsh won the case. He also had an expansive view of the law, one that the New Deal would prove to be ascendant, whereas the urged the Railway Labor Board to quit finding technicalities in the law to hurt workers and instead imbibe in the spirit of the law to find in favor of workers. Of course conservatives hated him for all of this. He was also the long time legal council to the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, which by this time was a pathetic union that was completely outclassed by the CIO’s Steel Workers Organizing Committee when it arose in 1937, but the AA was the best things got in steel when Walsh was working with them. He was also on Sacco and Vanzetti’s legal team. By this time, he was based in New York, not Kansas City, and became chairman of the New York Power Authority in 1931. He was also an advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he was governor of New York, helping to lay the groundwork for the New Deal. Walsh continued to fight for workers as long as he lived. In 1937, he returned to Kansas City to represent the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in a case where the workers were striking and the company used an injunction to stop it. Walsh did not win the case unfortunately.

Walsh died of a heart attack while walking on a New York street in 1939. He was 75 years old.

Frank Walsh is buried in Mount Saint Mary’s Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Brown Lennon is in Bloomington, Illinois and Florence Harriman is in The Bronx. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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