History Repeats Itself

It has been said that if we don't learn from history we are bound to repeat it. During my extensive study of labor history for my book "Miner Injustice the Ragman's War" and the sequel "Wildcat Strike" I have found this to be true especially with the struggle to establish a workers union. On this page I will relate current events to conditions during the labor movement of the 1920's and 1930's.


I am the author of "Bucket of Blood the Ragman's War" , "Miner Injustice", and presently working on "Wildcat Strike, Building A Union". I am the daughter of a coal miner, union organizer, and early civil rights activist. A graduate of Thiel College, I live in the mountains of rural Virginia with my husband, two golden retrievers, and bossy cat.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Price of Social Security—Blood, Death, and Tears

It is brittle, faded, and dark from age. Once laminated for preservation, after years of wallet wear, the plastic is brittle and flaked away. My father carried it with him for 50 years until he died—the document was that cherished. It was his original social security card, one of the first issued after the Social Security Act was signed into law.
My mother had sent for a new card to replace the washed out original. Pap refused to carry it and filed it away. I once asked him why. “We worked hard for this card,” he replied. “The price paid for it was blood, death, and tears.” He then explained to me what life was like for the worker when there was no “official” union, labor laws, or social security. The workers were at the mercy of the company. They had to work long hours under unsafe conditions. If they didn’t have a relative to move in with when they grew old, they worked until they dropped dead on the job or starved.
Pap was a union organizer for the United Mineworkers of America. He started his career by finding relief for striking miners and their families during the 1927 strike in the Western Pennsylvania coalfields. The strike involved almost 200 thousand miners, tired of being slaves of the coal company, who refused to work. It lasted approximately 15 months. State Coal and Iron Police brought into the area to evict the families from their homes, imposed unconstitutional restrictions, seized their property, and put them out of their homes. It was a time of brutal beatings, rape, and murder. The story is documented in the book, Bucket of Blood the Ragman’s War.
The horrid conditions in the coalfields prompted a Federal investigation that resulted in the draft of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Proposed to congress in 1928 it failed. By fall the strike had ended and the union was in shambles. The miners went back to work for whatever wages were offered. Times were hard. Deductions from the workers meager wages barely covered rent and tools let alone food.
The NIRA did not pass until after Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933. It became the centerpiece of his “New Deal.” Before the ink was dry on the new recovery act, members of the UMWA started to organize the mines. Although unions were now legal, the coal companies did everything within their power to stop the movement. It was a dangerous time for union organizers and many lost their lives. The steel, coal, and rail industry even attacked the National Industrial Recovery Act through the court system. In 1935 the NIRA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
In a counter move the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) was enacted by Congress that same year. The Wagner Act guaranteed workers the right to join unions without fear of management reprisal. It created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce this right and prohibit employers from committing unfair labor practices that might discourage organizing or prevent workers from negotiating a union contract.
In 1933 soon after he was elected, President Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor, the first woman in American history to hold a Cabinet post. She moved to Washington, “to serve God, FDR, and the common workingmen.”
Labor now had a sympathetic ear in a high office. Supporters of old age insurance, many like my father, expanded their efforts into organizing a grass roots letter writing campaign. Thousands of letters poured into the President’s office pleading for help. Union activists also collected signatures on petitions that supported the Old Age Revolving Pension Plan as proposed by Francis Townsend.
On June 29, 1934, Roosevelt established the Committee on Economic Security and gave it responsibility for designing social security for the United States. The resulting Social Security Act, revised by both the Congress and the Senate, was signed into Law on August 14, 1935.
The newly enacted Social Security Act faced two challenges. The first was the 1936 Presidential election. Republican candidate Alf Landon, advocated repealing the Social Security Act. The Hearst newspaper chain attacked the law with front-page articles based on gross distortions. The second challenge came from the Supreme Court. Resolute to restrain the biased Court packed by his predecessors, Roosevelt requested that Congress enact a bill that would empower him to appoint one additional Justice for every one who turned 70 and did not retire, for a maximum of six, thus enlarging the Supreme Court from nine Justices to up to fifteen.
With a Court docket that included, in addition to the Social Security Act, the popular pro-labor Wagner Act, the Court had a thorny dilemma. Most of the Justices, loyal still to industrialist interests, were opposed. On the other hand, if they voided them, Congress would most likely enact Roosevelt’s Court packing proposal. After weighing the options, the Court decided to uphold both the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act.
The gains in fair labor laws and social security were hard won. The leaders in labor and government have their place in history, but their triumphs would not have been possible without the efforts of the common working man. Today we enjoy the benefits of their labors. They and their families paid the ultimate price of human suffering and sacrifice—“blood and tears,” to quote my father. No wonder he was so proud of that yellowed dog-eared card.


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