The choice of expression “New Deal” is of course not accidental. It is quite explicit in the report. The authors state: “Drawing our inspiration from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s courageous programme launched in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929, we believe that a positive course of action can pull the world back from economic and environmental meltdown.” They also draw on “a succession of left leaning politicians” as well as Roosevelt, Leon Blum and Clement Attlee. “But the instigator and genius behind this radical re-ordering of society was the British economist, John Maynard Keynes”.
The Roosevelt myth — that he was a great progressive or some sort of friend of labour — remains one of the most pernicious in history. Yet it hardly stands up to a cursory examination of the evidence. Anyone interested in discovering the reality of Roosevelt’s New Deal should read Labor’s Giant Step by Art Preis (1964). The book charts the rise of industrial unionism in the US from 1933 to 1955, and in doing so sets the record straight on Roosevelt’s hostility to workers’ self organisation.
Roosevelt did not adequately tackle the scourge of unemployment. The jobless figure never fell below 8 million during the New Deal, and was still above 10 million in 1940. When industrial production fell in 1937, Roosevelt still cut relief.
Of the welfare schemes Roosevelt introduced, the Civil Works Administration lasted three months and paid a wage of 60c an hour. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration ran from the summer of 1934 to the spring of 1935, but less than two million benefited, earning $12 a week. As the Unemployed League put it at the time, this was “not enough to live on, just too much to die on”.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) lasted a bit longer, but still paid less than $50 a month, and ended in ignominy when 1.5 million workers were fired from in the spring of 1939 for taking strike action. Roosevelt told them, “You can’t strike against the government”.
Nor did Roosevelt give workers the legal “right” to organise. This came about before his term of office, through the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act 1932. Section 7(A) of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was passed by Congress in June 1933 only after protests from AFL’s William Green. It was an “incidental afterthought” in the words of one Roosevelt insider. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) suspended anti-trust laws, in return for voluntary agreements on fair competition, minimum wage and maximum hours. This did provide openings for union organising, with the mineworkers union (UMW) signing up 300,000 members in two months. However company union membership grew faster than the AFL unions.
More significantly as Preis explained, what followed the signing of the NRA was the most ferocious assault on American labour in its history, a “virtual civil war”. Hundreds of striking workers were killed, thousands wounded, tens of thousands arrested, mass victimisations, with the use of troops, private goons, spies and vigilantes during the 1930s.
In 1933 the National Guard intervened in a dispute at the Saline Company in Illinois; nine strikers were shot on a picket line in Ambridge after a charge of 200 deputy-sheriffs; and strikers fought a pitched battle in Pittsburgh and barricaded highways. The London Times (10 October 1933) reported that “strikers representing three different labour unions attempted to march in a succession of parades to the local NRA headquarters [in New York] to present their grievances”. They kept shouting “Down with NRA”. In September 1933 alone, there were nearly 200 disputes, involving 250,000 workers with over 3 million working days lost. (Emile Burns, The Roosevelt Illusion)
Workers fought and won the right to organise through their own efforts. The 1934 strikes at Toledo Auto-Lite, Minneapolis teamster drivers and San Francisco docks were won with the blood of mass picketing. The textile strike in 1934, which involved 400,000 workers including from the South, saw 15,000 militants barred from the industry in the aftermath.
The great sit down strikes, beginning with the Akron rubber tyre workers strike November 1935 and reaching a highpoint at the Flint GM plant in November 1936, were the reason why some workers won shorter hours. During the Little Steel strike in 1937, Roosevelt publicly rebuked workers and management by declaring “a plague on both your houses”.
Roosevelt attacked the right to strike and threatened to use the National Guard against strikers even before the US entered World War Two. The Allis-Chalmers strike was the first use of an armoured car firing tear gas at strikers, on 13 March 1941. The North American Aviation strike witnessed a “day of infamy” (9 June 1941), when troops were used to suppress the strike.
The Minneapolis labour case, beginning in 1941 and aimed at Trotskyists and the Teamster local 544, saw the trial and imprisonment of revolutionary socialists and worker-militants for opposing the war.
Roosevelt imposed arbitration and then a wage freeze in 1942, while prices, taxes and profits all went up. Profits doubled between 1940 and 1943. Profits in third quarter of 1943 were the highest in US history, generating more “war millionaires”. Roosevelt went on to threaten labour conscription and in the Montgomery Ward mail order strike (1944) had the building seized.
Writing in 1937, Trotsky described the New Deal as a “blood transfusion” for capitalism. He described Rooseveltism as the form of the People’s Front in US conditions. Trotsky’s supporters in the US, the Communist League of America, wrote in October 1933:
“In the absence of a proletarian revolution, a breathing space for American capitalism is possible. It still has very powerful resources at its disposal. It is now attempting to consolidate its position by a process of sweeping reorganizations.
“This reorganization finds its popular expression in the NRA section of the New Deal program, which is presented as a vehicle of recovery. On the one hand it aims ostensibly at the restoration and stabilization of the purchasing power of the broad masses, though distinctly on the lowest possible level, together with an upturn in commodity prices to re-establish the profit inducement for capital investments.
“On the other hand — and this is far more fundamental — it aims at greater concentration of industry and centralization of capital, the strengthening of monopoly capital under governmental regulation and support, to prepare the basis for new imperialist expansions. This will facilitate the quick transformation of industry to a war footing when deemed necessary.
“In a word, the reorganization of American economy aims at the restoration of capitalist profits and has nothing in common with planned economy.
“Flowing from the fundamental aim of strengthening of monopoly capitalism the NRA is designed as a means of regulating social relations, that is, class relations. Its whole pattern is interwoven with attempts to elevate the system of class collaboration to the status of a permanent institution.”
(Quoted in George Novack, Ten Years of the New Deal, Fourth International, March 1943)
That verdict still stands. The New Deal rapidly became the War Deal. It was officially buried in December 1943. At every stage it was a Raw Deal for working class Americans. Giving a green gloss to an updated version is a long way away from what is needed in the current crisis.