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Joseph D. Keenan Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Joseph D. Keenan

As a Chicago labor official has served as Secretary of the Chicago Federation of Labor. Since 1940 his positions have included: Labor Adviser to the Associate Director General, Office of Production Management, 1940-41; Associate Director, Labor Production Board, 1942; Vice Chairman, labor production, War Production Board, 1943-45; Labor Adviser to General Lucius D. Clay, Berlin, Germany, 1945-47; Secretary-Treasurer, Building and Construction Trades Dept. (AFL), 1950-54; Director, Labor's League for Political Education (AFL), 1948-55; Director, Committee on Political Education (AFL-CIO), 1955 to present; and International Secretary, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 1954 to the present.

Washington, D.C.
February 2, 1971
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 April, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


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


Oral History Interview with
Joseph D. Keenan


Washington, D.C.
February 2, 1971
by Jerry N. Hess


HESS: To begin this morning Mr. Keenan, would you give me a little of your personal background; where were you born, where were you raised and what positions have you held?

KEENAN: I was born in the city of Chicago, November 5, 1896. I spent all of my adult life in Chicago and I attended grammar school in Chicago. I went to night school for awhile and to Lewis Institute and St. Ignatius College. I had a number of jobs before I started my apprenticeship as an electrician. I was a messenger boy for a ladies hat firm, and I worked in the factory of a ladies hat firm. I was enrolled as an apprentice in IBEW Local 134 in 1914.

I started my apprenticeship with the Chicago Telephone Company and stayed with that company after becoming a journeyman in 1920. I then transferred


to construction work and was in the construction industry working, as an electrician does, for a number of firms. I became an officer in Local 134, as an inspector. Then I became Recording Secretary in 1925 and held that position until 1951.

I was elected secretary of the Chicago Federation of Labor to succeed a great leader out there, Eric Neckols, in 1937. From then on I had various jobs. My entrance in the Government was in 1940 when I was called by Daniel Tracy, our International President, who in turn turned me over to Sidney Hillman, who was one of the seven members of the National Defense Council.

Sidney Hillman represented labor in that council, and I became his assistant, representing the AF of L. John Owens of the miners represented the CIO and a gentleman by the name of Mr. [Timothy] Shea represented the railroads. I served as Hillman's assistant until the Defense Council was reorganized in 1941 as the Office of Production Management, and then that was dissolved and they set up the War Production Board.

I became an assistant to Wendell Lund, who was the director for labor in the original setup. Later it was changed and they made two vice presidents, with fulltime


duties. My title was Vice President in Charge of Labor Production. Clint [Clinton S] Golden was named Vice President in Charge of Manpower. My association there brought me in contact with nearly all of the military and other agencies, as far as construction was concerned, and I developed a friendship, through our working relationships, with General [Lucius] Clay and Admiral [Arthur Granville] Robinson.

When General Clay was made Military Governor of Germany he asked me to go with him as labor advisor. I spent, off and on, about three years in Germany.

HESS: What were your main duties in Germany?

KEENAN: Reorganizing, and trying to relocate the labor leaders that were disposed of in 1933, finding them, bringing them back to their towns in the American zone, and using them as the means of reorganizing the trade unions in the American zone.

HESS: Were they difficult to locate?

KEENAN: Well, they could be...

HESS: Did you locate very many?

KEENAN: Well, yes, we located most of those that were alive. They were under heavy restrictions when they were arrested in 1933 on May 1 or May 2. They were given


certain instructions. Many left the country, and they started to come back.

One of the outstanding men in that group was a fellow by the name of Fritz Turnow. He was a member of the Reichstag and was truly representative of the trade union movement. And he was able to escape. They had arrested him one night and probably there was a slip between the lip and the cup and he was released on his own recognition. Then he was spirited out of the country and he lived most of this time, I think, in Sweden and in England. And he returned and became the first secretary of the DGB when it was reorganized in 1948.

HESS: Did you have any particular difficulties in reestablishing the trade union movement after the war?

KEENAN: Not at all. Clay gave me a free hand. And he allowed me to reorganize the unions along the United States line. I knew nothing about Germany when I went there, nothing at all. But with Father [Edmund] Walsh and Miss [Florence] Thorne of the AFL, she was in research, I had a chance to meet with Stennis, who was there. Ed Stennis I think his name was, he was with the Haverford College. I had a chance to talk


with [Heinrich] Bruening, I think it was, he was at Harvard. And there was another man I think was at Knox College. And when they read about me taking this appointment with Clay they immediately called me and we made arrangements to meet.

They gave me a background. Stennis was the son of one of the great industrialists of that country, prior to Hitler. And so through these people, I got a breakdown on how the unions were operating over there. You had the Christian unions, you had the Democratic unions, you had the Einheit unions, you had these Communist unions. And then they had the Works Council that fitted in and kind of reduced the effectiveness of the trade unions as an organization.

So, anyhow, I got all that advice and went to Clay and told him what I had in mind and he said, "You go ahead." Well, that meant that I had to talk to the Democrats. And I talked to the Christian unions, and to Cardinal Falharper, who was the titular head of the Christian unions in Germany. [Kurt] Schumacher was in the English zone, Cardinal Falharper was in our zone, and I talked to the leaders at that time because we hadn't had them tied together in 1945-1946, but


we made the tie in 1947-1948. And I think it was in 1947 we, the British and the Americans, agreed and they allowed our form of unionism to be used also in the English zone.

HESS: Was there anything of this nature going on in the Russian zone at this time?

KEENAN: Well, we never could find out what was going on in the Russian zone. In the Russian zone, the Russians applied their system, and the only labor law that we got real support on was the Works Council and they pushed the Works Council Law through almost immediately. But they had a reason for that because they knew they had no chance of taking over, but they could be very effective in the Works Council and they did cause a lot of trouble in the coal mining areas. Most of these unions had these old leaders. When we found them they were up in years, sixty, sixty-five, seventy. Well, Turnow was sixty-seven and Hans Bechler was older than that. He became the first George Meany of Germany.

And you take the miners. A fellow by the name of [August] Schmidt, he was well over seventy. And we had a young fellow there by the name of Argott, who was the vice president. He was a fellow of about


twenty, thirty years old. He was an out and out Communist and he really gave us some hell. He had these floating gangs of pickets that went to these mines. And we needed coal -- it was 1945-1946, the winter of 1945-1946 was one of the worst years. And we needed coal to run equipment, run these steam engines, and run the plants. But we needed it, and also the railroads. And they caused a lot of trouble in that.

HESS: What methods could you use at that time to keep the Communists from infiltrating and taking over?

KEENAN: No way. They had the majority. The only thing we could do -- I suppose if it got bad enough -- it never got that serious, but I suppose if it had we would have thrown them in jail, which they didn't mind.

HESS: When you wanted to discuss something, would you take it directly to the General, or were there people on the staff that you used?

KEENAN: Directly to Clay, and then he gave me an entree to all of his administrative people that I needed to carry out the job I was over there to do.

HESS: Moving back just a little bit, but at the time that you were at the War Production Board, two very important men were there at that time: Donald M. Nelson, who was


chairman, and then later, Julius Krug.

KEENAN: I worked very closely with them.

HESS: What do you recall about those two men, and what kind of men were they?

KEENAN: I think Donald Nelson was a great American, one of the finest. He had a lot of courage and we are lucky he did, because I'