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The Liberal Mormon: Watch for the Union Label

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 14, 2011

[Note: I realize that the label discussed in this article was the label of a government agency rather than a labor union; still, I’m old enough to remember commercials like this one, which makes the association between garment labels and the anthem of the ILGWU inevitable.]

Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to the presidency of the United States in 1933. His initial responses to the challenge of the Great Depression were called “the New Deal”; the National Recovery Administration (N.R.A.) was one of the agencies he established as part of the New Deal, with authority to establish codes of fair commercial and employment practices with the goal of putting people back to work and stabilizing the economy. The “Blue Eagle” symbol of the N.R.A. used as a label or posted at a business signaled that a product or enterprise met the standards for fair competition set by the N.R.A.

In August 1934, the Relief Society, through a prominent statement in its Magazine, announced its support for the goals of the N.R.A. insofar as those goals were aimed at eliminating sweat shop conditions in clothing manufacture. The Relief Society called on the women of the Church to support the campaign for fair worker treatment by purchasing only those articles of clothing that bore the label of the N.R.A.

Support the N.R.A. Garment Label

When many are out of work, people, driven by need, will take any kind of work at any wage they can get. “The sweat shop boss has taken advantage of the depression but the Blue Eagle has clipped his wings.”

Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nation’s first consumer, who sewed the initial label into her winter coat, says: “I am happy to see this thing we all fought for so long come true: a label to identify garments made under proper working conditions. It must have the backing of all organized women. This is the psychological time to arouse public opinion. We are thinking in terms of economics. Self interest and public interest, as well as humanitarian feeling demand that working people work under good conditions. I hope and believe we are going to go on working for better and ever better conditions, until we are assured that everyone is having a happier and freer life. If the women of the country will all work together it can be done.”

Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, says: “In our industrial civilization protection against excessive hours of work and a less than subsistence wage is socially necessary. It is important to the community as well as to the employee that men and women be protected against starvation wages. In the wake of the sweatshop comes an inevitable train – child dependency, delinquency, illness and old age – for which, on debased wages, no provision can be made. Not only is the well-being of the worker and his family endangered, but as a purchaser he is limited to the most meagre necessities. He can contribute nothing to the community prosperity, and must usually turn to relief agencies to supplement his inadequate earnings. The safety of our industrial standards rests with an informed public opinion. We must reinforce the gains we have made in our long and difficult progress toward a civilized industrial order.”

Women should become “label minded” and support the fair-dealing manufacturer and merchant. Women should demand garments marked with the symbol of the New Deal. As they see the white satin label with the Blue Eagle they will know that the garment has been made under the code of fair competition. Unless women support this movement it will fail. If they unite in this campaign it will be a wonderful success and will do away with sweat shop conditions.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May 1935 that the underlying structure of the N.R.A. and its commercial codes, like the one behind the garment label, were unconstitutional: the codes were promulgated by the executive rather than the legislative branch of government, and they governed commerce within state boundaries as well as the interstate commerce which the Constitution permitted the legislative branch to regulate. While the Blue Eagle went away, many of the provisions of the N.R.A. codes were adopted into later congressional legislation — the goals themselves were constitutional; only the method of achieving them was overruled.

Note, please, that it was the principles of fair treatment of workers that the Relief Society endorsed; those principles – safe working conditions, fair pay, decent hours, and not exploiting the desperation of the unemployed – mesh well with the principles of the gospel (the Golden Rule, not “grinding the faces of the poor,” prompt payment of “the wages of him that is hired”). The Relief Society supported those goals and did not hesitate to champion them even when the vehicle for achieving those goals was a governmental rather than ecclesiastical one.

Remember: Comments arguing against the point of view expressed in this document from the Mormon past must address Mormonism. Commentary debating FDR’s policies or arguing political or economic ideologies without considering the existence of this strain of thought within Mormonism is not solicited. (Regular commenters at Keepa have far more leeway in this regard than once-in-a-while or first-time commenters.)

 



6 Comments »

  1. Thanks, Ardis. Considering that my four Utah Mormon Grandparents were strong FDR and New Deal supporters at that time (even if politics later changed at least on one side of the family), it’s not at all surprising that the Relief Society would support such a cause. I don’t think anyone is going to the Telestial Kingdom just for that. (Is that Mormon enough?)

    Comment by Grant — October 14, 2011 @ 8:35 am

  2. “Note, please, that it was the principles of fair treatment of workers that the Relief Society endorsed; those principles – safe working conditions, fair pay, decent hours, and not exploiting the desperation of the unemployed – mesh well with the principles of the gospel (the Golden Rule, not “grinding the faces of the poor,” prompt payment of “the wages of him that is hired”). The Relief Society supported those goals and did not hesitate to champion them even when the vehicle for achieving those goals was a governmental rather than ecclesiastical one.”

    :)

    Comment by Chris H. — October 14, 2011 @ 8:55 am

  3. My mother’s family was management. The only good union member was a dead union member. My father’s family was labor (Kennecott and the SLFD).

    Ah, the mesh of politics.

    Comment by queuno — October 14, 2011 @ 11:13 am

  4. One of the sad facts of Utah history is that the church and labor unions got off on the wrong foot and have never really recovered.

    It is understandable — many of the miners in Price and Bingham and Park City were Roman Catholic immigrants, and many of the unions took an aggressive anti-Mormon stance — but it is still a shame, and there is no reason for this animosity to persist.

    Comment by Mark Brown — October 14, 2011 @ 11:46 am

  5. My grandfather (then about 12) moved to California in the early 1930′s. His mother wanted to buy him a bike to ease the 2-mile (each way) journey to school, and secured a job as a seamstress. Her life history records she was paid fifty cents per “bundle” of three dozen pants.

    I suspect these are the type of situations the N.R.A. and the Relief Society were trying to remedy.

    Comment by The Other Clark — October 14, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

  6. In our industrial civilization protection against excessive hours of work and a less than subsistence wage is socially necessary.

    I think liberals and conservatives (in the modern sense) can both agree that this is true. The disagreement is how to achieve it. Government mandate or a grassroots, boycott-type effort of those stores and factories that don’t comply?

    Mormonism has been inconsistent, I think, on which road to go down. Some instances (such as Right to Work)they’re clearly sided with individual agency. For others, such as alcohol sales, gambling, and SSM, they’ve clearly opted for government compulsion.

    The most interesting for me is that a Church magazine would issue a formal stand on something like this. I wonder if “the Brethren” signed off on it, or if the RS was autonomous enough to just do it.

    Comment by The Other Clark — October 14, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

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