After the political wrangling surrounding the recall election that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived in June, it is time to lay to rest another controversy in the struggle over public-sector unions and their role in government.
I have to correct the misinformation about the 1937 letter from President Franklin Roosevelt to then-National Federation of Federal Employees National President Luther Steward, a letter that many claim demonstrates Roosevelt’s disfavor of public-sector unionism.
I know this letter well because the original version of it hangs on the wall five feet outside of my office at the national headquarters of NFFE, the organization I lead.
Union critics point to excerpts from this letter that they feel are demonstrative of Roosevelt’s suspicion of public unions, most commonly: “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. ... Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities.”
At first glance, it is not a stretch to interpret this passage as a slight toward the idea of public-sector unionism. But there is much more to this letter, and volumes of separate correspondence penned to our union’s leadership at the time, that suggest otherwise.
In the letter, Roosevelt says: “Organizations of Government employees have a logical place in Government affairs. The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry.”
So what is one to take from Roosevelt’s perceived dissonance about public unions? This letter was saying one thing and one thing only: Federal employees should not have the right to strike.
At the time Roosevelt wrote this letter, the right to strike was implicit because the private sector was the only sector in the U.S. where collective bargaining existed, and private-sector unions did — and still do — have the right to strike. Bargaining without the right to strike simply did not exist in America, hence his argument that “collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
Roosevelt’s concern was that if federal employees were to strike, it could present a threat to the nation’s security — a legitimate concern for the government, where about half of workers are employed by agencies with a clear national security mission. At a time when the great powers of Europe and Asia were re-engaging the gears of war, it is no wonder Roosevelt would be concerned about the continuity of federal service.
That is precisely why when President Kennedy granted federal workers bargaining rights at the height of the Cold War in 1962, they were not given the right to strike.
It is clear that this letter was written to federal employees about the importance of not having strikes in federal agencies because of national security concerns. Nothing more.
To suggest this is evidence that Roosevelt — the father of workers’ rights to form and join unions — shares an ideological lineage with Walker’s union-busting tactics is outrageous and disingenuous. A voice in the workplace for teachers, firefighters and other public employees is not a matter of national security, it is a matter of dignity for workers.
I can say with conviction and history firmly on my side that if Roosevelt was around today, he would lead the charge for workers’ rights to unionize — public and private.
William R. Dougan is the national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, a labor union that represents 110,000 employees at 40 federal agencies and departments.