The Roosevelt Critics
Not everybody revered the Roosevelts. FDR may have been saving American capitalism, but the East Coast elite responded to his efforts with disgust and the accusation that he was a traitor to his class. Some critics went so far as to claim that FDR's polio was really a venereal disease and that his wife was a Bolshevik, with her bleeding heart set on turning America into a Marxist "workers' paradise."
No less than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce assembled its troops in Washington in 1935 to denounce the New Deal as an attempt to "Sovietize America." The demagogue Huey Long of Louisiana, a renegade Democrat whose "share the wealth" platform claimed to radically redistribute income, stepped forward to challenge FDR for the White House. At the same time, Detroit-based Catholic priest Charles Edward Coughlin, a pro-fascist anti-Semite, denounced the President with such sustained vehemence that his rantings began to have a real impact on the millions of Americans who listened to his radio program. Coughlin: "God hates a hypocrite."
But however shrill their critics became, most Americans stayed firmly behind the Roosevelts. In 1936, FDR easily won reelection, again in 1940, and yet again in 1944. And he remains the only president in U.S. history to win four consecutive terms.
Roosevelt's lasting popularity in office looks less remarkable in retrospect. The perspective of history makes it easier to see the complexity of his strategies for dealing with the many troubles of his time. Consider, for example, how FDR handled the resurgence of the moribund U.S. labor movement.
By the mid-1930s, the fiery United Mine Worker chief John L. Lewis had taken charge of a new labor union, the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. It was a huge and not yet powerful union, an association of workers from many different industries and services. Under his leadership, CIO-affiliated automobile workers tried a new tactic: the "sit-down strike," in which employees simply refused to leave their workplaces until they were granted collective bargaining rights.
You have to imagine the risk: thousands of men putting their hard won jobs on the line in the middle of the Depression to take a stand for their rights as workers. It worked. The idea caught fire and spread throughout 1936. That December, a massive sit-down strike was staged at a body plant in Flint, Michigan in response to General Motors' heartless firing of two brothers.
For forty days, two thousand striking workers engaged in outright urban warfare, turning fire hoses on the police who attacked them with tear gas. Eventually the police were driven back, but only after thirteen workers were seriously injured. A nervous Michigan Governor Frank Murphy had to call in the National Guard to quell the siege.
It didn't end there: soon the strike spread to other General Motors factories. In the end, the strikers' intransigence paid off: they agreed to a six-month settlement and went back to work. But the die was cast. Not just General Motors, but all the automotive giants in Detroit were forced to accept that from then on, they would have to deal with the powerful CIO rather than the powerless individuals who comprised it.
Before the GM showdown in 1936, there had been 48 sit-down strikes in various U.S. industries; in 1937 there were ten times that. Whether the strikes were orchestrated by garbage haulers in Connecticut, gravediggers in New Jersey, or broom makers in Colorado, successful collective actions showed workers the power in unity, as well as that deals could be made by simply refusing to budge. The risks, of course, could be just as high. On Memorial Day, 1937, for example, a strike at the Republic Steel plant in Chicago ended with police firing upon a mass picket line and killing ten of the striking workers, whom autopsies showed had been shot in the back as they tried to run away.
Yet Franklin Roosevelt managed to turn even this labor unrest to the good of his troubled nation. He created new labor-relations boards to mediate between industries and their discontented workers. More important, he left little doubt whose side he was on, championing egalitarian new labor policies designed to improve the lot of the average working American. Most important, however, FDR instituted the most sweeping government program in U.S. history, before or since, specifically to allay American workers' fears for their economic futures.
The Social Security Act
The source of this new sense of security was the groundbreaking Social Security Act, passed by Congress in August 1935. Roosevelt: "Fifteen millions of our citizens will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation, through old age pensions, and through increased services for the protection of children and the prevention of ill health." Although hardly a new idea, as progressives had spoken of such a federal retirement program for decades, the Social Security system itself was revolutionary.
The United States had been built on individualism and the volunteer spirit; except for war veterans, the federal government had never provided old-age pensions, unemployment compensation, health insurance, or public assistance of any other kind. The Great Depression changed that. Under the new Social Security Act, nearly all American employees and their employers were obliged to pay a payroll tax. The revenues would go into a reserve fund.
Beginning in 1939, workers who retired at age 65 would receive monthly disbursements between ten and eighty-five dollars from this fund depending on their earlier contributions to it. Employees would also pay a new unemployment tax to provide benefits to those out of work through no fault of their own. Social Security squared with America's historical individualism because it was neither structured as a welfare program nor sold to the public as such. Instead, it was presented as a form of insurance plan that would pay benefits not according to need but based on the contributions a worker had paid into it.
As Roosevelt explained to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins in 1934, in order to work, Social Security had to be "very simple, a bureaucratic plan that would ensure that everybody in the United States would be covered." The system would cover every American from cradle to grave, a concept that astounded the public. This disarmed opponents. And Social Security would prove the most significant social welfare program in American history. Franklin Roosevelt called it the New Deal's "supreme achievement."