A century of federal labor policy

THIS year is the centennial of the first presidential message on labor. Delivered by Grover Cleveland in the spring of 1886, the message is historic for two reasons. First, before 1886, the federal government neither recognized nor supported the workingman, as it had the businessman and farmer. From Hamilton's ``Report on Manufactures'' (1791) to land legislation in behalf of farmers, the preference of the federal government in serving these two constituencies was clear cut. The same could not be said for labor, especially the union worker -- until 1886.

Second, Cleveland's message inaugurated an approach to labor that would serve the federal government well for the next century: voluntary arbitration. Unfortunately, Cleveland failed to employ his own strategy in the disastrous Pullman strike of 1894.

To be sure, Cleveland's message was not motivated by abstract humanitarian considerations. The year 1886 was plagued by strikes and violent labor confrontations, double the number of any previous year.

Nevertheless, Cleveland's message was decidedly liberal: ``The laboring man, bearing in his hand an indispensable contribution to our growth and progress, may well insist, with manly courage and as a right, upon the same recognition from those who make our laws as is accorded to any other citizens having a valuable interest in charge.''

Cleveland called the situation between employers and employees ``far from satisfactory,'' in large part because of ``the grasping and heedless exactions of employers and the alleged discrimination in favor of capital as an object of governmental attention.'' Labor he faulted as ``not always careful to avoid causeless and unjustifiable disturbance.''

Any solution, according to Cleveland, had to pay heed to constitutional restrictions as well as practical considerations. ``There are many grievances which legislation by Congress cannot address, and many conditions which cannot by such means be reformed.'' Existing state railroad arbitration commissions, Cleveland believed, could be emulated by the federal government. Specifically, an arbitration commission associated with the Bureau of Labor could serve labor and employers before situations worsened.

``If such a commission were fairly organized,'' said Cleveland, ``the risk of a loss of popular support and sympathy resulting from a refusal to submit to so peaceful an instrumentality would constrain both parties to such disputes to invoke its interference and abide by its decision.''

Cleveland's liberal message evoked considerable controversy. Many newspapers, including the New York Times, put most of the blame for strikes on laborers. And Congress would give Cleveland only a part of what he wanted, passing in 1888 a bill that authorized voluntary arbitration of railroad labor disputes. Nevertheless, the general strategy of the federal government's playing a role in arbitrating labor crises would not be lost on subsequent Presidents, especially Theodore Roosevelt, who successfully used it in the anthracite coal strike of 1902.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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