Oral History Interview with
Director U: S. Conciliation Service 1937-1944
John R. Steelman
February 27, 1975
by by Martha Ross, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
See also: John R. Steelman
Oral History, by Charles T. Morrissey
of the Harry S. Truman Library.
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted
by The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
. The reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
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the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
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Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
John R. Steelman
February 27, 1975
by Martha Ross, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
FMCS-OH 79, 80, 81
The Columbia University Oral History Research Office and the Harry S. Truman Library also have interviews with Dr. Steelman.
ROSS: The following interview with Dr. John R. Steelman was conducted on behalf of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service on Thursday afternoon, February 27, 1975. The interview took place in L. Lawrence Schultz's office, Main Labor Building, Washington, D.C. The interviewer is Martha Ross.
Well, good afternoon, Dr. Steelman. It's a great pleasure to see you today.
STEELMAN: I'm very glad to get back to my old stomping grounds. (Chuckle)
ROSS: Well, fine. I wonder if we could begin by having you tell me a little bit about how you first became interested and involved in labor-management relations. I believe it was back in Alabama.
STEELMAN: Yes. Like most of my life, it was sort of an accident. I was teaching sociology and economics in Alabama and I had a habit of roaming around over weekends of picking up new material to tell my students about, and so occasionally they'd have a strike in the coal mines, and I'd find out all about it and talk to my students about it. And it was really a strike in the steel mills up around Birmingham that led me actually to get into this work.
STEELMAN: I had been class advisor for four years and my class was graduating, and I suggested to the president of the college, Dr.[Oliver Cromwell] Carmichael that we ought to invite the first woman cabinet officer in the land, Madame [Frances] Perkins, to be our commencement speaker. And he said, "Oh, I doubt if she'd come," and I said, "Well, she just might, and I suggest that you write her a letter and invite her to be our commencement speaker." This was 1934. And he did, and she accepted.
So she came and after. the commencement exercises were over, she had four or five hours before her train that would be leaving to take her back to Washington. And since it was my commencement, I was sort of responsible for her during those hours, and there was a committee of strikers from Birmingham who asked to see her to talk to her about the steel strike. She asked my advice as to whether I thought she ought to see them, and I said, "Yes, I think that would be all right. You ought to have a talk with them." And I said, "After they leave, I'll tell you the rest of the story," (Laughter) which sort of surprised her.
So after they left she told me what they had said and then I told her a few things about the strike. And it surprised her greatly as to why a sociology and economics professor--why would he know the details of a steel strike up in Birmingham? Well, the fact is that I suppose through some of my students, probably--through some of my students or somewhere--the word got out among the strikers that they could trust Dr. Steelman. So I would go up on the picket line and talk to the boys, and they would tell me all the things they were up to. They used to get pretty rough up there. Some of them had rifles and they'd shoot up the mountainside and plug a hole in the water tank or something of the sort occasionally, (Laughter) and sometimes they'd get rambunctious and stop up the highway for (Laughter) a certain period of time, so there was a little rough stuff going on. But they trusted me; they'd tell me anything.
And some of my students' parents were connected with the other side--with the management side--and apparently they . . . the word got around that I was all right, so both sides would tell me anything in confidence. So I explained the strike to Miss Perkins and told her many things that the strikers had neglected to tell her. So she said, "Why don't you come up to Washington and help us settle some of these strikes? Do you think you'd be interested?" I thought she
was just making conversation, and, of course, I said, "Oh, yes, yes, I'm very much interested in that sort of thing." And she left and I forgot it. I assumed she had. As I say, I thought she was just making conversation. And about two weeks, as I recall it, about two weeks after she left I got a telegram wanting to know could I come to Washington at government expense to discuss entering the Conciliation Service? And I was surprised and shocked, but I answered. I couldn't come the day she wanted me, for some reason, and when I got here, she had had to leave the night before to go to San Francisco to some meeting--I believe the Organization of the United Nations or something--and she left word with her assistant, Richardson Saunders, who was the . . . . sort of the budget officer, business manager and her advisor--he had been Budget Officer for New York City before he came to Washington--she left word with him and with her general counsel, who is now Judge Wyzinski of Boston--she left word with both of them to hire Dr. Steelman. Well, they didn't think much of the idea. They were very nice, but very frankly told me, they said, "We think it's a bad mistake. We don't think you ought to accept, because we don't believe a young college professor can even talk the language of these strikers." Well, they didn't know that I came out of the log swamps of Arkansas and Louisiana, (Laughter) and I could talk to anybody in any, language. (Laughter) But they didn't know this, so they said they thought it was a mistake. But they said, "There's no use to beat around the bush. We've got orders to hire you if you'll accept. Will you?" And I said, "Well, I've got to think it over a little, and I've also got to get in touch with my college president, who's half way to Europe." So I sent a cable to Dr. Carmichael and asked him could I have a year's leave of absence. And I got a cable back saying, "Leave of absence granted." Incidentally, that leave of absence has been long delayed. (Laughter) So it really was an accident that I got . . . I came here and got in . . . was hired as a conciliator for one year. And as I say, that year lasted a long while. I was in the government and around Washington, at least thirty five years. I came here to stay a year in 1934 and I left in 1969, so I was slightly delayed here. (Laughter) But the whole thing was accidental.
ROSS: You never got back to college.
STEELMAN: The whole thing was an accident. And it was an accident that I was appointed Director, too. I was appointed Director within a year or so. I went from the top . . . from the newest man to
the top place in about a year and a half. The way that accident happened has never been written, I'm sure. President Roosevelt decided to appoint Arthur Altmeyer, who was Assistant Secretary of Labor, as the first head of the Social Security Board. And he said to Miss Perkins, "You can name . . : you suggest who you want as Assistant Secretary of Labor. And you think it over and let me know." So Miss Perkins came back and she was talking to Richardson Saunders. She said, "Richardson, the President's going to let me name a successor as Assistant Secretary of Labor." She said, "I'd like to have somebody with some education and . . ." Because in those days there were quite a few around who weren't very well educated. And she said, "I'd like to have somebody who has some education and also who has some common sense and also who has had experience, so that whoever it is can really help me run this department. So here comes another accident. Saunders said, "By the way, I was just around the hall talking to Hugh Kerwin, and how about this young fellow Steelman that you forced us to hire against our better judgment?" She said, "How about him? How is he doing?" And Saunders said, "It's the damndest thing that has ever happened." He said, "Steelman is setting the woods afire settling strikes." He said, "Mr. Kerwin said that last week every night for seven nights in a row, Steelman wired me about a strike settlement from a different state of the union." She said, "Bring him in immediately. He's the one I want."
Now to go back a little, I say that was an accident. Nobody is that good. I've had conciliators work for me who were better conciliators than I am. But I don't care how good they are. I couldn't do that, George Taylor couldn't do that, David Cole couldn't do that. It was just an accident that for seven days in a row I got from one state to another and settled a strike. I couldn't do it again to save my life, and nobody can do it. It was just purely an accident, but it struck Kerwin, and it struck Saunders, so he told Secretary Perkins and it struck her, so she sent for me.
Well, I didn't want any political appointment, and I assumed that that would be considered as one. I considered myself a professional man, and so before . . . I said, "Mr. Kerwin, I just can't come in right now. It's going to take me a week to clean up these strikes I'm working on. Would it be all right if I came in next Monday, or when . . . whatever?" And he said, "Well, I'm sure that's all right. I'll tell the Secretary you're cleaning up some things." Well,
in the meantime, in addition to cleaning up a few things, I got in touch with William Green, president of the AF of L, I got in touch with John Lewis, I got in touch with the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce--I've forgotten who he was at the time, but they were all friends of mine--in the meantime I'd made friends with them--and I got some of the businessmen that I'd had dealings with in on the deal to put the pressure on the president of the Chamber of Commerce. I had it fixed up with all of them that if I didn't like it in Washington, and I didn't know at the time--I was merely told that they wanted me to come in to Washington to work. I didn't know what they were going to offer me.
ROSS: I see.
STEELMAN: So I had it fixed up so that if I didn't like it here in Washington, I would tip them off and they'd all start raising Cain to get me back as a conciliator. (Laughter) So I came in and the Secretary told me that I could be Assistant Secretary of Labor. I said, "No, thanks." And she was shocked. She said, "Why, it would double your salary. It would be a great honor. You might even succeed me--might be Secretary some day. I'm not going to stay here forever." And I said,
"No, thanks. I don't want any political appointment. " "Why," she said, "it would double your salary, and it would . . ." and so forth. And I said, "No, no." And then I said, "I'll tell you what I'll do, though. Until you find somebody, I'll come and take Mr. Altmeyer's office over, and I'll do his work. I'll help you run the department; I'll do anything I can, but just leave me on the Conciliation payroll." And she said, "At half price?" And I said, "Yes, at half price. Just leave me on the Conciliation payroll."
So I came in . . . I came in to this building as Special Assistant to the Secretary, and I took over Mr. Altmeyer's office. So I helped the Madame run the Department here for--I think about nine months. Anyway, during that nine months, I virtually took the building over, because I out-worked the Secretary. My father had told me when I left home at the age of fourteen to go out in the world to work, he said, "You know, work never really hurt anybody," and he said, "If you'll outwork everybody wherever you go, you can get forward. You'll get up there." And so I always had that in my mind.
So the Secretary . . . people couldn't find her, but they could find me--I worked until three o'clock in the
morning. People in San Francisco would go to a meeting and get home at midnight, and they thought nothing of calling me up at three o'clock in the morning to discuss the meeting. So people quit calling the Secretary; they just called me, so I had virtually taken the place over. But about nine months later Mr. Kerwin died at nine o'clock one night, and at nine o'clock the next morning I was appointed Acting Director of Conciliation. The reason for the "Acting Director" was that they wanted to get clearance from my senators--my Alabama Senators, who were, I believe Hill and Bankhead. And of course that came very fast, so that's all there was to that, and I was made Director. So, as I say, my coming to Washington in the first place was an accident, my getting called in here from the field to be Assistant Secretary was an accident, and then from there on, why, that's the story.
STEELMAN: I liked conciliation work, because I like to deal with human beings, and so it just worked out, but it was really an accident.
ROSS: Could you tell me a little bit about Mr. Kerwin, personally, how he ran the Conciliation Service?
STEELMAN: Yes. Well, he . . . Of course he was here when it was small, and he was a very easy going man-everybody loved him. He spent most of his time talking to different people who would drop in and chat, and they'd chat for an hour or two or three. I've forgotten their name, but there were several labor leaders here in town that he liked and who liked him, and they'd
just come by and chat half of the day away. He didn't pay too much attention to the job--he didn't have to in those days. (Laughter) He was very easy-going.
After I was appointed one of his men got in touch with me, or I believe I got in touch with him. One of his men checked into a hotel in New York some three or four years before, and--I would want this kept in confidence for many years to come--but this man . . . I think I called him up, and I said, "What are you working on up there?" And he said, "Well, I'm waiting here for an assignment. Mr. Kerwin sent me here four years ago and told me to stand by for further instructions." And he'd been there waiting ever since. Mr. Kerwin forgot him, see? So that's the kind of . . . (Chuckle) We all loved Mr. Kerwin, but that's a kind
of a sample of the way he ran the place. (Much laughter) So I called this fellow back and put him to work. I sent him to Philadelphia or somewhere else and started giving him plenty of assignments. (Laughter) But he'd been waiting around three or four years to hear from his boss.
Mr. Kerwin was very easy-going and all . . . everybody loved him. And in his time he probably did the job about the way it ought to have been done. There wasn't much to do. The new unions hadn't come along, so that most of the cases they had back in those days, as far as I know, were cases of a limited number of unions, and so they didn't have too many cases or too much to do. But during the New Deal days, things began to pick up mighty fast. (Laughter)
ROSS: Now what were your immediate plans when you became Director? Obviously you could see that there needed to be changes made.
STEELMAN: Well, yes. I saw that . . . some of the fellows . . . Some had been working and some hadn't. The work wasn't very well distributed, and of course you never can distribute it exactly right, but having been out in the field and having talked to the different conciliators; I knew a number of things that might be tightened up a bit. I found one or two men who were a little lax about their expense accounts. They charged up a few things that I didn't think they ought to charge up and so forth, so I tightened the whole ship up just a little and tried to get everybody busy. Of course, pretty soon thereafter we were . . . everybody was busy anyway, so (Laughter) it worked out pretty good.
ROSS: What about the professional stature of the people who were in the Conciliation Service at the time that you took over?
STEETMAN: Well, there were (Cough) . . . Most of them . . .most of them had a labor background. There were . . . there just weren't any applicants from the other side. There wasn't . . there wasn't anybody, or almost nobody on the industry side had had any experience, and so most of them were former labor leaders--some of them fairly well educated, some not. The man that I was sent out with to train me . . . Mr. Kerwin was a smart man. And he (Chuckle) he said, "You know, Doctor," He said, "I've got a man I'm going to send you out with and I think,"
he said, "he's a good conciliator. He'll rub off on you and,
"he said, "I'm sure you'll rub something off on him and that'll help him." (Laughter) So he said, "I want to send (Chuckle) the least educated man I have out with the best educated man I have, (Laughter) and see if you don't rub off on each other." (Laughter) It was a man named (Charlie) Richardson. He was an old railroad engineer. He'd been fired in the 1922 railroad strike, as many had, and the union lost I believe it was '22--they lost a big strike. So Commissioner Richardson . . . Kerwin said, "Now, his typewriter is all out of joint--it can't spell." He showed me one or two of his written reports where he had typed and he couldn't spell but, he said, "Don't let that fool you. Richardson is smart and he can settle strikes." Well, I found that Mr. Kerwin was exactly right. Richardson was a wonderful man and a wonderful conciliator. So I trained with him.
Now there was . . . there were those who were better educated and . . . but I don't know that they had any better experience than he had had. And as I say, practically all of them were former labor leaders. For example--and I mention this to make .a point--the fact that the fellow had been a labor leader doesn't necessarily mean he wasn't a good conciliator, or it doesn't necessarily mean that he was pro-labor. Some of the most fair-minded men I've ever seen were former labor leaders, so that doesn't necessarily mean he was prejudiced. There was a man in Chicago named Harry Scheck, who used to be president of the Building Trades Council, I believe, or maybe of the Chicago Labor Council. Yes. I'm sure he was president of the whole Labor Council of Chicago. And in sort of reorganizing the place, I had in mind to transfer Harry Scheck to somewhere else, because I thought maybe it was unfair for a man who had been president of the Labor Council to turn over and try to be an impartial mediator. Well, I let it be known, out around Chicago, that I might transfer Scheck and who do you think got after me right quick, and that's a bunch of business men. They said, "Don't ever move Scheck. He can do more with these labor fellows than anybody else. He can tell them off better than any outsider could. He's as fair a man--you couldn't send us a man who is more fair than Harry Scheck. So leave him alone." See? So I mention that just to show you that when I say nearly all the conciliators were former labor leaders, that doesn't necessarily mean they weren't fair and impartial conciliators, because most of them were. As a matter of fact, I've often recalled this--that the only man I ever remember firing for being unfair was not a former labor leader but a former industrial man.
STEELMAN: I forget his name, but I had a man come to work for me and he used to work for some company in their labor relations department, and he was so prejudiced against managers that I had to fire him. He wasn't fair. He leaned over backwards when he got to working in the labor relations field. I never knew why, but he just couldn't see both sides. And most of the former labor leaders can see both sides right quickly. They may not like to admit it but they can see them. (Laughter) And I wish I could remember this fellow's name, but he's the only one Iever remember firing for being unfair, and he was not a labor leader but a former business . . . industry man.
ROSS: Hmmm. Did you have any kind of mandate from Secretary Perkins?
STEELMAN: No. I wanted to tell you that, too, because that's never been written and nobody knows it, I don't suppose. But the day I was appointed she sent for me. She wanted to talk to me. She said, "Mr. Steelman," she said, "you know by law I am pro-labor. The law says I am to promote the welfare of labor. That's my job just like the Secretary of Agriculture promotes
the farmers and the Secretary of Commerce, et cetera. But, "she said, "by definition,” she said, "I don't know what the law . . . whether there is any law about it, but by definition you can't be pro-anything. You can't be pro-labor, you can't be pro-management, you have to stand in the middle and be fair to everybody. So," she said, "I'm on my side, somebody else is on the other side, you're in the middle. You have your job to do and," she said, "you have my blessing. I
will never try to tell you what to do. I'll never tell you who to hire. I'll never tell you who to fire. I will never butt into your business in any manner whatsoever. God bless you, and if you ever need to talk to me let me know, but you run your business and I'll run mine." And that's the way
That leads to another subject, and I may be getting ahead of your questioning here, and that is about the question of the Conciliation Service . . . or being taken out of the Department of Labor.
The Service came out of the original law setting up the Labor Department, where there was a statement that the Secretary of Labor shall have the right to appoint mediators, et cetera. There came to be a lot of discussion in my day about making the Conciliation
Service independent. Well, it couldn't possibly ever, by law, be made any more independent than I already was, see? As a matter of fact, since then many times under the new law, the Secretary of Labor has had quite a bit to say. But the Secretary of Labor never had anything to say to me, and the business people knew it, the union people knew it, and every time somebody in my day .
You see, I figured that some day the Mediation Service would be an independent agency but not right then, because in those early days I thought this--that I had some psychological advantage in dealing with new union leaders, for example, to say, "Well, here, this is your own Department. We're trying to help you, see? And you listen." The business people, they didn't care, the industry people didn't care where . . . what building I was in--they'd take you for what you are, see? If you're impartial and fair, they know it; if you aren't, they know it. They may think you are when you aren't or vice versa, but in general the industry peopl-- they'd just accept you as you are and deal with you. And the older, experienced union leaders, too. They wouldn't care where you came from, they'd take you as you were, too. But the new fellows who joined the union yesterday and were about to strike today it was a little advantage to me to be able to say, "What are you talking about, man? I'm your own department. Here, you'd better listen to me, see?"
Every time some Senator . . . I remember old Senator [Royal Samuel] Copeland used to . . . every once in a while he'd get excited, he'd want to pass a law taking me out from under the Secretary of Labor. Well, I wasn't under the Secretary of Labor in the first place. But I would stop it, because I'd get somebody . . . two or three times I'd get the president of the Chamber of Commerce to say a word. "Leave Dr. Steelman alone." And I'd get [William] Green or John [L.] Lewis to pass the word down: "Don't be talking about moving Steelman. Leave him where he is. He can do a better job where he is, see?" And so during my day I thought that was best, and I kept it from becoming an independent agency as long as I was here. But later on the thing came up again and the time had arrived when it was perfectly logical. But in my day I was just where I wanted to be, and I was perfectly independent anyway.
ROSS: In other words, I read an article that said in fact you made the Conciliation Service autonomous.
STEELMAN: That's right.
ROSS: And this was an agreement between you and Secretary Perkins.
STEELMAN: Absolutely. She told me before I ever took the oath of office, "You're the boss. I have nothing to do with you." And the Presiden--President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt--the only thing he ever did to me was he . . . he was a great one for getting mixed up in labor disputes. He never tried to tell me what to do. He was always . . . every time he had anything to do, he would say, "Can I be of assistance to you in this strike?" And I'd . . . most of the time I'd say, "Well, now Mr. President, you know, that's strange. I was just thinking about you. I'm thinking that within about a week, this situation may be ripe enough and I may have to call on you
to help out, if you will. But in the meantime it isn't quite ripe." Then I'd get busy and try to settle it before the week was up! (Laughter)
ROSS: Why was that? (Laughter)
STEELMAN: Well, . . . (Laughter)
ROSS: Tell me about the complications of getting the President involved.
STEELMAN: Well, you don't want to get the President mixed up in things like that if you can help it. (Laughter) The less the President has to do with that kind of thing, the better, for many reasons. First of all, if you use him too often, why, (Pause) it isn't useful. And if you don't use him very often, sometimes he comes in mighty handy, you know, but he was always willing to help. And sometimes he'd offer when we weren't quite ready for him. (Laughter) But (Pause) the further down the line you can settle the better.
For example, you're interested, I'm sure, in the War Labor Board days. The fact that there's somewhere else to go makes it more difficult to settle here, see--it's just logical. So you . . . if the White House gets mixed up in labor disputes as a habit, which finally did almost develop under President Roosevelt, so far as the big ones were concerned--railroads and steel and so forth, then the fellow down the line can't settle it. They get all they can here, and then they go on there, hoping to get a little more, you see. So it's bad to use the White House. And we always tried to . . the further down the line you can settle, the better. Just like if the man out in the field can settle it without bringing it to the Director, why that's better, you
know. But you just go up the line as far as you have to go, but you're reluctant to use the fellow upstairs (Laughter) whoever he be--the Director or the President.
ROSS: How about attempts--any attempts at political influence on say, appointments or assignments, from people like Congressmen, Senators, during your tenure?
STEELMAN: I had very little, very little. I stood very well with the Congress, and I'll tell you in a minute why I think I did. But I've had a few recommendations, but they would always say, "Dr. Steelman, you understand I'm suggesting this because I've had a little pressure put on me, but you know better than I do who can be a conciliator and who can't. I wouldn't want to force
anybody on you." That was the general attitude of the Congress toward me, because they were always very favorable to me. I did have . . . there was a black Congressman from New York
who tried to force me to hire a particular person and (Pause) he threatened me if I didn't hire this particular person. I said, "This man isn't qualified. I've got . . ."
I say a colored man. He was not--he was not a black man, he was a . . . he was a rather a radical Congressman, I forget his name now.
ROSS: [Vito] Marcantonio?
STEELMAN: Marcantonio. Yes, Marcantonio. He's the one who threatened me. And so when he threatened me, I just hung up right in his face and slammed the receiver down right fast, because I wasn't afraid of him. He would be a lone guy on the Hill if he ever tried to fight me, and that's the last I ever heard of him.
STEELMAN: But he tried to--he tried to bully me and I wouldn't stand for it because I had too many friends on the Hill for that kind of stuff. (Laughter) But (Pause) No, I had . . . I had . . . I'd say no political pressure and very few political recommendations.
STEELMAN: I do recall one political recommendation that I shall never forget because of the way it worked out. It was a man, a Congressman from the Far West on my appropriations committee, and he called me up very reluctantly one day and he said, "Dr. Steelman, I . . . the fact that I'm on your appropriations committee makes me most reluctant to even mention this to you, but I've got a good constituent, a good friend of mine, who is putting a lot of pressure on me, and he wants to see you to see if he can get a job from you." And he said, "Would you see him for me?" And I said, "Well, . . "I said, "who is he and what age man is he? What experience has he had?" "Well," he said, "he's the number one conductor on the Northern Pacific Railroad. He's had a lot of labor relations experience, but he wants to leave the railroad, and he wants
a job with you. He's sixty-five years old." I said, "Forget it." I said, "He couldn't stand the pressure that I would put on him. I expect him to work eighteen to twenty hours a day. He couldn't stand it." "Well, all right." He hung up and we're still friends.
Well, a few days later he called me again. He said, "This man insists he wants to talk to you, and he wants to pay his own way to come to Washington. Could you at least see him?" I said, "Well, he'd be wasting his time." "Well," he said, "would you talk to him on the telephone just to get me off the hook?" I said, "Yes, I'll talk to him. Tell him to give me a ring." The guy called me up and in ten minutes he sold himself to me over the telephone so much that I hired him sight unseen. (Laughter) I said, "Any guy that can handle a situation the way he handled me, he's a good . . . he's okay." So I hired him.
He turned out to be one of the most effective men I have ever had work for me, and all during the war I had him located in Hawaii, and he kept things in good shape over there. He worked for me for a number of years. He later was labor relations man for the movie industry. And the day he was eighty-five, he wrote me a letter from Los Angeles and said, "I'm eighty-five today and I played golf and I shot an eighty-five." (Laughter) He could outwork over half of the men I had
with me, even when he was up in his seventies. So I hired him right over the telephone. He talked himself right in, so I had to call the Congressman back and I said, "Congressman, I was wrong all the time. This man is good, and I haven't even seen him." He's the only man I ever hired sight unseen. (Laughter) But I could tell, he was good. (Laughter)
ROSS: What about your relationship with Congress?
STEELMAN: They were very good. Tell you what I did. I don't remember how I accidentally came upon it . . . this plan. I found out that when an important strike is going on in a certain locality of the United States, the Congressman begins to get mail about it. People will . . . they don't know who else to tell about it, so they get after him, they write their Congressman,
or telephone him, or wire him. If it's a big thing in the state, the Senators also get interested. So they get a lot of mail.
I recall now how it happened. Every once in a while the papers would say that Miss Perkins was about to leave town. Some people didn't like her, so they'd try to get her out of town by spreading rumors. There was a Congressman up on the Hill who got a bright idea to start a movement on the Hill to get President Roosevelt to make me Secretary of Labor. So he sent for me, wanted to know if I could come up to his office. He wanted to talk to me about something important, and he didn't want to be seen down in this department because he might be asked what he was up to, see? So I went up to see him, and he told me what he was up to, and I stopped him right quick. I said, "You don't do any such a thing. I wouldn't be Secretary of Labor for a million dollars a year. I don't want any political appointment. Leave me alone. I'm happy right where I am, and I can do more good where I am. It's my line. Don't be talking to me about taking a Cabinet post."
Well, from him I learned that . . . in fact, he showed me some letters he had about a strike in his district, and he said, "All of us get letters like this. We don't know what to tell the people. So I said, "Well, I'll tell you what you do. When you get a letter and when you get interested in a strike like this, if you get any mail, why, you call me up and talk to me a few minutes on the phone, and I'll tell you that I've got a man on the way or I've got a man out there. You write back and tell them you've been in touch with me, and that puts you in good and that lets the people know that you and I are both trying to do something for them." So I adopted that as a policy.
I didn't wait for them to call me. When I would assign a conciliator to a case in Podunk, I would also inform the Congressman that I had assigned a conciliator to such and such a case. All right. If he got a letter or a telegram from either side, he could ,write and say, "Yes, I know about your situation. In fact, the Director has informed me that he has a man on the way." So, boy, that was great for him, you see. And so I did that.
One night here in Washington I went to a meeting where Senator [Estes] Kefauver was making a speech in favor of an amendment--of a law he had introduced. He was kind of hep on the British system, and thought we ought to have a law forcing every Cabinet officer to report to Congress, I believe quarterly or something, to come and report to Congress on what he was doing. And Kefauver saw me sitting in the back of the audience and he pointed back and said, "I. see Dr. Steelman sitting back yonder, the Director of the U.S. Conciliation Service. He's the only man in this man's government that I know what he's doing. He keeps me informed on a daily basis of whatever he's doing in my state." And he thought that was great. (Chuckle)
Well, you can see why if anybody tried to hurt me on the Hill, he'd got in trouble right away! (Laughter) I never had a question about my budget. Twice they gave me more than I asked for, which I think is a record. I don't believe any other agency in the federal government has ever had the Congress say, "We don't think you asked for enough. We think we ought to add some more here and we want you to do a little educational work or this, that and the other." Twice my budget was up from what I asked for and they said, "We want you to have this. We think you ought to have it."
One time, one time Congressman [Malcolm C.] Tarver, who was chairman of my subcommittee, Tarver of Georgia, a nice old gentleman--one time he got mad at me about something that I had nothing to do with, and he cut my appropriation, I think, by $10,000. We dealt with little figures in those days anyway. I never did ask for much, just enough to pay my staff. I never wanted to build up any big bureaucracy, and they knew it, so the Congress would give me whatever I asked for. They knew I just wanted enough to pay my men. There was a textile strike in Georgia, and the parties agreed on everything but wages and they agreed to arbitrate wages. And they, as I recall it, agreed on an arbitrator. I didn't even appoint the arbitrator. If I had, I wouldn't have known anything about the details, you know. I don't think I even appointed him, but since
I'd had a man on the case up to the point of the arbitration, Tarver . . . probably some employer had gotten sore about the thing--somebody told Tarver and gave him the impression that it was my fault the way the case came out. So Tarver got sore and he cut my appropriation, and some of his own members called me up and tipped me off that Tarver wanted to cut me by ten thousand. And they said, "If you want it back, why, you know how to get it back." And I said, "I
sure do." (Laughter)
So Tarver cut me--I think it was ten, maybe it was twenty-five thousand. Anyway, I appealed it to the Senate and then got it back, except in the meantime I saved, I think five thousand, because I had a vacancy and didn't fill it for a while and so forth. So When I went before the Senate I said, "I want this restored." And they said, "How much do you want?"* And I said, "Well, I saved so much but so here's what I need to pay my staff, you see--so it is." So I never had any trouble. The chairman of the Senate committee was an old Senator from Tennessee.
STEELMAN: McKellar. Kenneth McKellar. And the day I appeared before the Senate, McKellar was on a rampage. He was knocking everybody off. I remember the Wage and Hour Division had appealed for an increase. And he said, "How many cases have you got?" And I've forgotten the numbers, but just for example, if the Director said, "Well, we've got sixty-four cases in court." "And how many lawyers do you have on your payroll?" And he said, "Sixty-four." He mentioned the same number. He . . .McKellar pounded the table. He said, "You mean to tell me you got a lawyer for every case?" He said, "Why, I'm a lawyer myself. If I couldn't handle that many cases by myself, I wouldn't tell anybody I'm a lawyer." So he took
some more off of the poor fellow (Chuckle) instead of giving him what he was asking for. (Laughter) He was cutting everybody--the Wage and Hour Division, the Bureau of Labor
Standards--he was rampaging.
So before I went up, realizing that the old Senator was getting kind of old, I talked to his brother Don. Don practically ran the office for years, so I told Don what the circumstances were and I got to have this money back, so I said, "You tip off your brother." And he did. So when they got around to me, he said to the other people, "Well, we're through with you now. Goodbye. Now," he said, "next we have the Conciliation Service." So he went over in the corner and said, "Dr. Steelman, come here. I want to ask you something." I said, "What was it?" He said, "I've kind of forgotten. What . . . you want us to put some money back?" I said, "Yes, sir, Senator." He said, "How much?" And I said . . . And he said, "Okay." (Chuckle) So he went back and sat down at the table and he said, "Now gentlemen, it's getting mighty late here and I don't have any time left for discussion," but he said, "Dr. Steelman, just state briefly, what is it you want?" So I
told him. He said, "Anybody got any questions for Dr. Steelman?" Nobody said a word, and he said, "Granted. Goodbye." So out I went. (Laughter)
Frank Keefe, a Republican from Wisconsin, was on my appropriations committee. I think Frank's the one that tipped me off that (Pause) the old Congressman from Georgia was sore at me about an arbitration. So I had no trouble on the Hill. I was fair and open with them, I kept them informed as to what I was doing, and I convinced them that I wasn't trying to build up any great big organization. I just wanted the number of men that I had to have to handle the cases, and that's all the money I ever wanted, so whatever I asked for, I got. And twice, more than I asked for.
ROSS: What sorts of changes, innovations, did you want to see brought into the Service?
STEELMAN: Well, I . . . of course I wanted to up-grade the ability of the group gradually as more people of the right type and people with the right interest and knowledge and so forth became available. It was all so new in those days. The conciliators had to learn, the union leaders had to learn, the employer representatives that bargained--the whole business of collective bargaining was really an educational program back there. Now I'm sure they're all sophisticated enough that it's a matter of persuasion in another way, but my work was very largely educational and I tried to hammer that in to my own people, too.
For example, one of the first things I did after my training with Commissioner Richardson was . . I was sent out to West Virginia. There was a state-wide sawmill workers' strike: And two different conciliators had been out there and tried to settle it and had failed. And what they had done was to call a big meeting in Charleston, West Virginia, and they'd get them all in together and they'd all get in a big fight and they'd break up and go home. And I was sent out there, and I sized up the situation. I talked to one of the men who had been out there, and I said, "Well, I think I see what." I said, "They don't know what they're talking about; neither side. They've never bargained before. They don't even know what it's all about." So I said, "You know what I'm going to have to do? I'm going to have to go to every damn sawmill in West Virginia and talk to them individually and teach them how to bargain." And I did. It took me all summer.
I went all over the state, and I taught them what it's all about--democracy in industry. "If you're going to have democracy, you've got to have responsibility. You've got to be fair. You've got to be intelligent, know what you're talking about, this, that and the other, and sit down and treat each other lik