The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “F*D*R: A Biography” by Ted Morgan from Chapter XIV on page 401 and I quote: “Under its dynamic leader Hugh Johnson, the NRA seemed to be the very spirit of the New Deal, with labor, industry, and government sitting down together to work out agreements. Johnson saw himself as the marquess of Queensberry of industry. In laissez-faire there were no rules, you fought without gloves, and by pickling your hands in brine or alum you could mar your opponent for life. That was what codes were—they eliminated eye gouging and ear chewing and below-the-belt blows.
The Blue Eagle became the symbol of the New Deal. Only industries that agreed to a code (including a minimum wage of $12 for a forty-hour week) had the right to display it. It was a sort of licensing device that enhanced the product. There were parades in various cities celebrating the bird that Senator Carter Glass referred to as “the Blue Buzzard.”
Hugh Johnson rapidly achieved the status of national hero, the man who was bringing equity to business. Talking to reporters on July 13, he said he had no political ambitions even though he was getting more publicity than Roosevelt. All he wanted, he asserted with becoming modesty, “was to be down between Brownsville and Matamoras where the owls fucked the chickens,” which was evidently an old army expression.
In the first euphoric months, Johnson had a resounding success. At the textile code hearing, the room burst into applause when cotton magnate George Sloan announced that the mills would abolish child labor. By August, Johnson had these notches on his gun; steel, lumber, shipbuilding, woolens, electricals, the garment industry, and the automobile industry with the exception of Henry Ford, who made one car out of four. While Chevrolet and Chrysler said they were proud to have the Blue Eagle on their windshields, Ford refused to submit to collective bargaining, saying “I wouldn’t put that Roosevelt buzzard on my cars.” The only nationally known businessman to stand up to the NRA, Ford won a good deal of public sympathy as the champion of individualism who paid good wages without government interference, and in 1934 he increased his share of the market to 28 percent. Eleanor Roosevelt said that he had done more than any other man to wreck the NRA.
In September, the soft-coal operators signed the code after a dramatic White House meeting on September 6 where we can observe FDR in action as the honest Broker. “Come along and sit ye down, let’s make it a family party,” said the president to the four coal operators and their archenemy, United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis, setting a tone of cordiality. At issue was a clause the operators wanted telling the workers they did not have to join the UMW. FDR said the wording was unclear–”. . . I don’t know what it means. I tried hard for ten minuted to make it out and if I, as a lawyer, can’t figure it out—well, that language is obscure. Why not let me, as President, put it plainer, what you want to say is that a man shall have the right to work without being a member of a union. Neither Johnson nor I are happy about these weasel words that were put in to the auto codes. They will always add difficulties and finally land us in an endless mess.”
Both sides agreed that FDR should draft a preamble to the code. At this point, in his first meeting with Roosevelt, the fearsome brawler John L. Lewis was lamblike in his meekness. When the president asked him whether he agreed that there were too many miners and that 100,000 miners had to be moved into other occupations, Lewis, who did not agree at all, said, “Yes, Mr. President.”
It was also part of the president’s technique to give those assembled a little lecture, to show that he knew as much as they did about the matters under discussion. “Remember,” he said, “quite a lot of that country was farm country in 1810, but the top soil has been running off it since the mines opened and it’s all in the creek bottoms and that land will have to go back to forest. There used to be 20,000 farm families in Harlan County. It dropped to 10,000 and coal jumped it up to 50,000. They came in from the valleys and have been getting poorer and poorer. It is a very difficult problem. . . . the move out is a lot slower in coal. You now the saying ‘once a miner, always a miner,’ and it’s darned hard to get a miner to do anything else or to change his point of view. . . . . Look at Lewis!” this brought a round of laughter.
In the meantime, Hugh Johnson had been drafting FDR’s preamble to the code. “Well,” said FDR, “can we write out something to suit everybody.?”
“This is it,” said Johnson, handing him a slip of paper, which he read.
Feeling they were being bulldozed, one of the operators said, in a last-ditch attempt at resistance: “They may ask you Mr. President, to explain what it means.”
“Oh,” said another with sarcasm, “He’ll call in Mr. Richberg [the NRA counsel]. Mr Richberg can explain anything.”
“Can you sign up for General Johnson tonight?” FDR asked.
“No,” said an operator, “we’ve got 100 other generals to deal with, but we might get through with it in the morning.”
“You get that contract written up tomorrow, and if you’ve anything else on your minds, just let me know,” FDR said.
The code was written up and signed, thanks to FDR’s willingness to use the prestige of his office to exert a little discreet arm-twisting.
It was also noteworthy that labor was treated as an equal partner in the discussions, reflecting an unforeseen result of the NRA, the boom in union recruiting. John L. Lewis saw the passage of Section 7(a), as a golden opportunity an sent 100 organizers into the coal towns with posters showing a picture of FDR with the caption: “The President Wants You to Join the Union.” He fixed a day for a rally, and the miners came out of the mountains like an army on the march. By the end of June the UMW had enrolled 128,000 new members among Pennsylvania soft-coal miners. Thanks to the NRA, Lewis had become a national figure, invited to the White House.
What was supposed to be business’s big chance turned out to be labor’s big chance. FDR sided with Lewis when the captive mines (the coal mines owned by steel companies) refused to accept the coal code. He write Myron C. Taylor, the head of U.S. Steel, a man of the world who shot grouse in Scotland and had autographed portraits of Mussolini and FDR in his office, that “the old doctrine of ‘pigs is pigs’ applies. Coal mining is coal mining, whether the coal is sold to some commercial plant. . . or whether the coal goes to run a steel plant.” FDR told Taylor that October that union dues should be deducted from pay envelopes, but U.S. Steel would not comply.
“I am getting a bit fed up,” FDR said, “and if I am I guess the coal miners are.” The miners were fed up to the extent that 35,000 of them went of strike in Pennsylvania. FDR summoned the steel men to the White House as he had summoned the coal men, and a few days later the captive-mine owners agreed to recognize checkoffs and allow the miners to choose their union. The miners went back to work. The United Mine Workers had breached the walls of the steel industry.
Behind the facade of early success, however, the NRA rested on shaky foundations. The part of the code concerning trade practices regulated such things as price reporting, advertising, and sales below cost. One-cent sales and ads that said Macy’s sold at 6 percent below other stores were prohibited. The codes covered a wide area of business practices and tended to be in restraint of trade. The big firms, with their louder voice, could co-opt the code and control the industry.
That was one danger; another was noncompliance. Johnson had trouble enforcing the codes. A small group within an industry would start price-cutting, and soon the others would follow. There was also, lurking in the background, the danger that the entire act was unconstitutional. Finally, there was the collective-bargaining provision, which industry fought with various forms of noncompliance, such as setting up company unions.
Soon the NRA, the act that had something for everyone, became the act that was hated by everyone. Harry Hopkins told Johnson: “Hugh, your codes stink.” Seven Cleveland grocers wired the president: “NRA is the worst law ever passed by Congress.” Strikers on a Baltimore picket line carried a sign that said: “NRA Means National Run Around.”
Johnson aggravated the situation with his manic faith that codes would solve all the nation’s ills; there was a code for the hog ring industry and a code for the fishhook industry. George Creel, head of the NRA in California, said there were “scores of new agencies, boards, and commissions, headed by campus experts and pink-pill theorists. . . . The spread of the bureaucratic mania had the sweep of pestilence. . . . The manufacturers of egg-beaters and bird cages were not put under the Wire Code, but had separate codes of their own.”
Johnson, who was going at full throttle all the time, had begun to drink heavily. He would arrive at the office incoherent, or go off on bats and not show up for a week. In October, he checked into Ward 8 of the Walter Reed Hospital with delirium tremens. He could not have functioned without Robbie Robinson, his secretary and mistress, to cover up for him.
But in September, when Johnson was due to talk at a big NRA rally in New York, the leader of a women’s group called the White House and told Marvin McIntyre that no one wanted “that Robinson woman.”
FDR was trying to get the country back on its feet, and now he had to deal with the adulterous conduct of one of his agency heads. He sent for Frances Perkins and said, “What am I gong to do, Frances? They’re up in arms n New York. They don’t want this Robinson girl there with Johnson.”
“The only thing she does is keep him from drinking,” Miss Perkins said.
“Does he drink too much?” FDR asked.
Is the pope in Rome, Miss Perkins might have replied, but she didn’t have time, because the president ordered her to drive to the airport and make sure Miss Robinson did not go to New York.
By the start of 1934 the NRA was a big muddle. Antitrusters on the Senate floor blasted away that Johnson was promoting cartels in the interest of scarcity profits. Employers herded their workers into company unions. Businesses that wanted no part of the codes sued to stay out of it, while companies found in violation of the codes, such as Firestone and Goodrich, sued to enjoin the NRA from taking away their Blue Eagles. To all critics, Johnson replied with disdain that they knew as much about industry as he knew about “the queer ichthyology of the great Pacific deep.”
Responding to the criticism, FDR created on March 7 by executive order a National Recovery Review Board headed by the famed criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow to hold hearings on some 3,000 complaints. Darrow’s report, published on May 20, found that most of the codes favored the big companies and encouraged monopolistic practices. For instance, the motion-picture distributors’ code had been written by the chain houses, though 13,571 of the 18,321 theaters were independent.
Darrow’s conclusions were highly dubious, for in fact there was no corporate strategy to co-opt the codes. Big business did not step in and take over; indeed it was the loudest in its denunciation of the program, and one of the biggest industrialists in the country, Henry Ford, had stayed out of it rather than use it to increase his share of the market. A more accurate complaint was that the codes had fragmented industry. There were now 750 codes, including the dog food code, the shoulder pad code, and the burlesque theatrical industry code, which determined the number of strippers in each production.
FDR’s thinking on the NRA was as confused as the average man’s. He admired the Brandeisan philosophy of smallness, but he was also drawn to the idea of agreements that could eliminate market gluts and increase employment. Above all, the NRA was a constant headache, with litigants lined up in front of the White House to state their case. In March, when he announced the creation of an Automobile Labor Board favoring no particular union, FDR seemed to be giving legal sanction to company unions. The unions felt they had been sold out and concluded that they would win bargaining rights not by invoking Section 7(a) but by going on strike.
By this time, Senator Robert Wagner had realized that there had to be legislation to implement collective bargaining. The National Labor Board that FDR had set up in August 1933 to mediate NRA labor disputes was being flouted by employers. Wagner an his aide, Leon Keyserling, drafted a bill that would create a National Labor Board with teeth, armed with subpoena powers and the authority to enforce its orders through the federal district courts. This labor dispute bill was introduced in the Senate on March 1.
FDR did not back the Wagner bill. He seemed to fear that it would alarm industry, saddle the country with widespread strikes, and split his congressional majority. Rather than accept the implication of Section 7 (a) as a mandate for all workers to choose the union they wanted, he preferred to use the machinery of the codes to deal separately with each labor crisis as it arose. Thus, at a press conference on March 23, 1934, when he was asked his position on the Wagner bill, he said, “You are a little previous on that.”
On April 14, he effectively killed the bill’s chances in that session of Congress when he told a group of influential senators, “We can get by without legislation, if Bob could be persuaded to take his Bill and say ‘I would like to have 7/8ths of this studied until the next session.”
“This might just as well be made absolutely clear once and for all,” FDR told the press on June 15. “About 120,000,000 million people out of 124,000,000 understand plain English; there seems to be a very, very small minority that does not. . . . Section 7(a) says that the workers can choose representatives. Now if they want to choose the Shkoond of Swat they have a perfect right to do so. If they want to choose the Royal Geographic Society they can do that. If they want to choose a union of any kind, they can do that. They have a free choice of representation and that means not merely an individual or a worker, but it means a corporation or a union or anybody.””
(THE STRENGTH OF PRESIDENT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT WAS THE FACT THAT HE UNDERSTOOD WORKING PEOPLE AND THAT HE KNEW THEY NEEDED A MINIMUM WAGE and HE KNEW THIS COULD BE ACCOMPLISHED THROUGH THE NRA (NATIONAL RECOVERY ACT) AND THE SYMBOL WHICH THE COMPANIES COMPLYING WITH THE GOVERNMENT MANDATES DISPLAYED ON THEIR WINDOWS WAS A BLUE EAGLE. NO PERSON WAS HARDER TO CONVINCE THAT JOHN L. LEWIS, THE LEADER AND PRESIDENT OF THE UMW (UNITED MINE WORKERS). ONCE CONVINCED AND I QUOTE FROM PAGE 403:
“It was also noteworthy that labor was treated as an equal partner in the discussions, reflecting an unforeseen result of the NRA, the boom in union recruiting. John L. Lewis saw the passage of Section 7(a) as a golden opportunity and sent 100 organizers into the coal towns with posters showing a picture of FDR with the caption: “The President Wants You to Join the Union.” He fixed a day for a rally, and the miners came out of the mountains like an army on the march..By the end of June the UMW had enrolled 128,000 new members among Pennsylvania soft-coal miners. Thanks to the NRA, Lewis had become a national figure, invited to the White House.
What was supposed to be business’s big chance turned out to be labor’s big chance. FDR sided with Lewis when the captive mines (the coal mines owned by steel companies) refused to accept the coal code. He wrote Myron C. Taylor, the head of U.S. Steel, a man of the world who shot grouse in Scotland and had autographed portraits of Mussolini and FDR in his office, that “the old doctrine of ‘pigs is pigs’ applies. Coal mining is coal mining, whether the coal is sold to some commercial plant. . . or whether the coal goes to run a steel plant.” FDR told Taylor that October that union dues should be deducted from pay envelopes, but U.S Steel would not comply.
“I am getting a bit fed up,” FDR said, “and if I am I guess the coal miners are.” The miners were fed up to the extent that 35,000 of them went on strike in Pennsylvania. FDR summoned the steel men to the White House as he had summoned the coal men, and a few days later the captive-mine owners agreed to recognize checkoffs and allow the miners to choose their union. The miners went back to work. The United Mine Workers had breached the walls of the steel industry.”
YOU REALLY HAVE TO GIVE HUGH JOHNSON, EVEN THOUGH HE HAD SOME FAULTS, CREDIT IN THE WAY HE RAN THE NRA, UNTIL PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT TOOK CHARGE.
LaVern Isely, Overtaxed Independent Middle Class Taxpayer & Public Citizen & AARP Members