David L. Cole Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
David L. Cole

Served on Presidential boards in labor disputes in the coal mining, railroad, air line, and waterfront and maritime industries during the Truman Administration; Governor, National Academy of Arbitrators, 1948-52, President, 1951-52; and Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service 1952-53.

Paterson, New Jersey
September 20, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened December, 1974
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
David L. Cole


Paterson, New Jersey
September 20, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. Cole, to begin and for the record, would you relate a little of your personal background? Where were you born? Where were you educated and what positions have you held during your career?

COLE: Well, starting at the beginning, I was born here in Paterson, New Jersey and I have lived here practically my entire life. I was educated in the public schools and then attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School, graduating in 1921 from the college and in 1924 from the law school.

I practiced law in the City of Paterson, and for a short time in the City of New York. Very early in my career I was exposed to labor relations because Paterson, New Jersey, as you are probably aware, in its early years had a good deal of so-called "labor troubles


and labor agitators, etc." We like to say that that we had major labor disputes "before Hector was a pup."

We have the silk industry in Paterson, New Jersey, and this had a very tumultuous and confused labor background. All sorts of radical labor movements developed early in Paterson.

In my early years I represented silk manufacturers. My father was a silk manufacturer and my first experience was as advisor and ghostwriter for the president of the silk manufacturers association. The unions would have short lives. We'd have a union for a year or two and it would fall apart and another union would come in. But the one thing that we could pretty well depend on was that each year, starting about Labor Day, we would have a strike. Most of them were general strikes -- the entire city would go down. As a result of this type of thing I had a great deal of exposure. This continued until 1937 or '38 when Sidney Hillman came into Paterson as the Chairman of the Textile Workers Organizing Committee of the CIO. I was attracted to him, and I think he was to some extent to me. We both bemoaned the kind of experience that Paterson's silk industry and the textile workers


were constantly going through. We tried to work out a program under which the strike would be relegated to a secondary position and where we would find other ways of resolving differences. This turned out quite successful and as a result I discovered that many of the labor people with whom I had been quarreling over the years were pretty decent and responsive people.

In 1940 or '41 there was a new state mediation board in New Jersey. We then had as Governor, Charles Edison. He relied heavily on some of the better informed labor representatives or leaders. When he was searching for a chairman of the New Jersey Mediation Board, to my surprise the textile leadership, primarily Carl Holderman, nominated me for the position and the Governor appointed me. This put me in the middle position as a labor peacemaker. I have always regarded this as a great compliment, that the labor people with whom I had been battling would want to nominate me for a peacemaking position. Perhaps this was their way of getting rid of me as an antagonist. In either event I considered that a compliment too. I have remained in the middle of the road ever since 1941.

Shortly thereafter the War Labor Board was set up and the chairman of the New York State Mediation Board


and I, as chairman of the New Jersey State Mediation Board, were made public members of the regional board in New York, and from this position I moved into a number of national disputes on an ad hoc or semi-permanent basis.

Shortly after the war I began doing private arbitration, as a neutral -- the third man on the board or as the sole arbitrator. I remember very vividly my first private arbitration, which was between General Electric and the United Electrical Workers Union who had had little or no experience with arbitration either. At that time the vice president of General Electric was William Burroughs and [Albert] Fitzgerald, I believe, was the head of the UE. We had disagreements about the seating at the table and all that sort of thing. I do remember Mr. Burroughs asking permission of the union to tell me what was involved and they told him to go ahead. He said, "We're going to put a question to you and we want a direct answer, either 'yes' or 'no.' If your answer is 'yes' we owe twenty-five million dollars. Are you ready to proceed?" This was my first arbitration. It involved a disagreement over commitment that the union said the


company had made immediately after Pearl Harbor to reward the employees for increased production. The company said there had been no direct obligation or commitment of this kind, that what the company had done was simply to whip up enthusiasm for the war effort. The company pointed out that they had made other contracts with the union subsequently and no mention was made of this, arguing that it was an afterthought on the part of the union to try to get some additional compensation for their people. Then came a series of...

HESS: What was your answer?

COLE: My answer was "no." There was a drive for support of the Nation's war effort, but there was no contractual obligation. Their later agreements spelled out in fine detail things as unimportant as to where the union might post notices on the bulletin board, but not a word was mentioned about any special production bonus.

HESS: And that was the time that the union should have got it in the contract if they thought that that was...

COLE: A legal or contractual commitment.

HESS: An actual commitment.


COLE: Of course, anything as important as this, involving all these millions of dollars of additional pay for the employees, could hardly be overlooked as a contractual item when they were negotiating a new contract, and I so ruled.

In 1944 came my first national labor dispute board. It was during President Roosevelt's administration and it was the follow-up case to the "little steel" formula case during the war.

I was selected, I am convinced, because anybody who was known was objected to by one side or the other. I was almost completely unknown and this led to my acceptance.

This turned out to be a rather important case. It was a national steel case -- basic steel. There were some six hundred companies involved, many of them not really in the steel industry, but in the case merely because the Steelworkers' Union represented their employees. We had in this great steel case companies that manufactured paving blocks or that canned pork and beans, things of that kind, but nevertheless, there they were in the national basic steel case. It was a six-man board and Professor [Nathan P.] Feinsinger was my associate chairman. We had two industry representatives


and two labor representatives. It was a hotly contested case. There were some rather distinguished and well-known people in it. Philip Murray presented the case primarily for the union; his attorney was Lee Pressman. John Stevens was then the vice president of U.S. Steel and pretty much the top figure on the management side, except when Benjamin Fairless appeared.

Of course, with all these companies, there was a good deal of coordinating to do. They all had their own attorneys and their own spokesmen. Chester McLain, who was counsel at the time to Bethlehem, became the number one legal spokesman for the industry. He had been my teacher at law school and the reversal of positions rather intrigued me. I remember talking to him one day as we were walking back to the hotel from the Inter-departmental Auditorium, where we were conducting the hearings. He asked me, "How much do you get for serving as chairman of a board like this?"

I answered, "There's no secret about it; it's in the statute." And I believe at that time it was $45.68 per day or something of that kind, and he expressed surprise that one would be expected to carry such responsibility at these rates.


I added, "I get $9 a day for subsistence, too. Well," I said, "you've asked me, now I'll ask you. How much do you get?"

"Oh," he said, "of course, you know, I have research assistants here and secretaries."

I said, "I'll assume your disbursements are in addition, but what is your fee?"

"It hasn't been settled," he said, "it depends on how long it goes on." And he said, "You must remember I'm only representing Bethlehem Steel, the other attorneys here all represent other companies."

"Well," I asked, "what's your estimate?"

Thoughtfully he replied, "My best estimate is about a quarter of a million dollars."

HESS: He was doing a bit better, wasn't he?

COLE: A bit better, yes. But curiously in those days one didn't think in terms of comparisons or inequities or unfairness in compensation. The exhilaration of sitting as chairman in a proceeding of that kind and having my former professor and other important lawyers appear before me and appeal respectfully for my favorable consideration amounted to great compensation in itself.


After that there came a series of labor disputes in which the President or the President's office was concerned. The basic steel case was the most important one I participated in during the Roosevelt administration. There were many more after President Truman came into office. There were railroad cases; there was another national basic steel case; airline cases; and, of course, the John L. Lewis coal mining cases.

HESS: Good, we will want to go into those cases rather deeply. But, first, what are your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman?

COLE: I came to Mr. Truman by way of John Steelman. He was the guardian at the door or the gate, and the man who did the inviting, and who pretty much set up things in important labor matters in the early experiences I had with President Truman.

I approached President Truman as I would any President, with great respect. He was the President. I had never met him before. I was quickly impressed with his informality, his total lack of pretense. He was just a straightforward person, and a regular guy, so to speak.


I was also very much impressed with the great attention that he gave to anything that was said to him. He would ask a question and he would really wait to hear the answer. He would look at you and remember, too, what you told him. I must say, parenthetically, that some years later I ran into another younger man who had the same habit, but there was something different about him. The younger man was President Kennedy. Kennedy would also ask questions and listen carefully and remember what you told him, but somehow it seemed to me he was listening critically, whereas, Truman was listening sympathetically. He wanted to hear you and he seemed to want to accept and respond.

HESS: He wanted the information.

COLE: He wanted the information, he wanted to know what you thought, because after all he had invited you in to give him advice and help, and he wanted to take the advice and help. He wasn't there primarily trying to find some way of disagreeing or being critical.

HESS: And that was the feeling that you had with President Kennedy?


COLE: With President Kennedy I had a feeling, as I have said, that he was listening more critically. He was ready to find some flaw in what you were telling him, but he was very flattering also in that he listened very carefully and he did remember, because sometimes a month or two later he would come back to the subject we had been discussing, remind us about some detail and ask some questions about it.

HESS: Do you recall anything about Mr. Truman's handling of the Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program? The Committee he headed while he was a Senator?

COLE: Yes. I knew about it at the time, of course, but not in any personal way. I merely knew about it as a citizen, one who was interested and, of course, interested in Senator Truman.

I know that, generally -- and this is certainly not news at all that -- I suppose this is when he made his reputation, when he came to favorable national attention.

HESS: What did you know about Mr. Truman at the time that he was selected by the Democratic Party to be the vice-presidential nominee in 1944?


COLE: I knew very little about him other than the fact that he had been a politician in Missouri and that some people considered this a handicap. My own feeling was that a man who had done the job that he had as chairman of the Committee on Defense Contracts certainly was not a routine or run of the mill politician. But I knew very little about him, other than what I read in the newspapers and heard. Of course, what one hears in these situations on the eve of an election, reflects mainly the viewpoint and prejudices of the person talking -- including his politics. By and large I would say that his selection was not too favorably received at the time.