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Published on September 7, 2000 in the Madison Capital Times
Roosevelt Formed A More Perfect Union
by John Nichols
HYDE PARK, N.Y. -- The 65-year-old leaflet on display here features the instantly recognizable image of America's 32nd president. The words on the handout from the Mine, Mill and Smelter workers union are equally distinctive.

"Miners!'' it declares. "Your president wants you to join your local union.''

And so he did.

In the company of dozens of white-haired retirees and a reassuringly large contingent of younger folks, I spent Labor Day at the Franklin Roosevelt Library. The echoes of a better past served as a refreshing antidote to the cynical politics that played out elsewhere in the country that day.

As Al Gore and George W. Bush jetted around the country in planes paid for with corporate contributions, they mouthed some fine rhetoric about the dignity of workers. Gore went notably further than Bush, and the Democrat deserves a measure of credit for incorporating some of Ralph Nader's anti-corporate rhetoric into his stump speeches.

But, when all is said and done, neither of this year's major party candidates will touch Roosevelt's coattail when it comes to pledging solidarity with factory workers and field hands, shop clerks and silicon chip makers, technicians and tile layers. And neither Gore nor Bush will deliver as Roosevelt did on the promise of "industrial democracy.''

Though he was a man of great personal wealth with deep roots in the genteel countryside of New York's Hudson River region, Roosevelt did not mince words on the most fundamental of all labor questions: "Which side are you on?'' As he campaigned for the presidency in a Depression-ravaged land, Roosevelt did more than merely collect the labor union endorsements that even then went overwhelmingly to Democrats.

Calling for a more equitable distribution of wealth, the Democratic presidential nominee toured the nation in September of 1932, promising audiences from Washington to Wisconsin that he would deliver "social justice through social action.'' His election did indeed result in action.

Roosevelt's aide, Harry Hopkins, summed up the new administration's approach when he was asked about timetables for its initiatives. "People don't eat in the long run. They eat every day,'' he said, indicating that the promised social action would be immediate.

So it was. Roosevelt launched dozens of programs in his first 100 days in office -- setting the tone for an administration that the president promised would be characterized by "bold, persistent experimentation'' in policy.

But Roosevelt's most vital action for improving the lives of American workers was to declare his personal solidarity with the burgeoning trade union movement. The patrician president did not just push for the passage of the groundbreaking National Labor Relations Act -- which removed legal barriers to union organizing -- he also acted to remove barriers of fear and uncertainty that prevented isolated workers from uniting for the purpose of collective bargaining.

Roosevelt said that, were he an hourly worker in America, his first step would be to join a union. He supported the display of posters that read: "Uncle Sam Protects You! You Can't be Fired For Joining The Union!'' And he gladly collected honorary life membership cards in bakery, auto and construction unions -- many of which are now displayed in the library that bears his name.

Ultimately, workers themselves must take the bold step of organizing unions. But, as a visit to the Roosevelt Library well illustrates, it does not hurt to have a president stand unequivocally at their side.

Copyright 2000 The Capital Times


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