Robert F. Wagner

Robert F. Wagner

Robert Ferdinand Wagner, the youngest of nine children, was born in Hesse-Nassau, Germany, on 8th June, 1877. His family emigrated to the United States in 1885 and settled in New York City. Wagner was unable to speak English when he started school but he was a good student and eventually graduated from the New York City College (1898) and the New York Law School (1900).

Wagner was active in the Democratic Party and with the support of Charles Murphy and the Tammany Society he won a seat in the state legislature in 1904 and four years later was elected to the state senate. Wagner took a particular interest in industrial working conditions and developed a sympathy for the emerging trade union movement.

The New York Times reported: "In ability and character, in honesty of purpose and manliness of action. Senator Wagner has been an inspiration to younger legislators and a beacon light to men older than him in years. He was the friend of the laboring man and the defender of women and children who have to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow and yet he never was a demagogue. All the gold in the world could not buy him; all the beckonings of ambition could not induce him to abandon the cause that was righteous and the issue that was true. There is not a black spot upon him. He has served the people well." In 1919 Wagner became a justice of the New York Supreme Court. He held this position to 1926 when he was elected to the United States Senate. During his first term Wagner failed in his attempts to persuade Congress to pass legislation to help trade unions and the unemployed.

After he was elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt initially opposed massive public works spending. However, by the spring of 1933, the needs of more than fifteen million unemployed had overwhelmed the resources of local governments. In some areas, as many as 90 per cent of the people were on relief and it was clear something needed to be done. His close advisors and colleagues, Wagner, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, Rexford Tugwell, Robert LaFollette Jr., Fiorello LaGuardia, George Norris and Edward Costigan eventually won him over.

On 9th March 1933, Roosevelt called a special session of Congress. He told the members that unemployment could only be solved "by direct recruiting by the Government itself." For the next three months, Roosevelt proposed, and Congress passed, a series of important bills that attempted to deal with the problem of unemployment. The special session of Congress became known as the Hundred Days and provided the basis for Roosevelt's New Deal.

Wagner was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the first chairman of the National Recovery Administration. Wagner became an important figure in the Roosevelt administration and helped draft the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Social Security Act, and the National Labour Relations Act - commonly called the Wagner Act.

Frances Perkins explained in her book, The Roosevelt I Knew (1946): "It ought to be on the record that the President did not take part in developing the National Labor Relations Act and, in fact, was hardly consulted about it. It was not a part of the President's program. It did not particularly appeal to him when it was described to him. All the credit for it belongs to Wagner. The proposed bill, it must be remembered, was remedial. Certain unfair practices which employers had used against workers to prevent unionization and to cripple their economic strength had been uncovered by Wagner. The bill sought to correct these specific, known abuses, and did not attempt to draw up a comprehensive code of ethical behaviour in labor relations. Such a comprehensive code, however, was needed. Roosevelt supported my suggestion that labor leaders who wanted to distinguish themselves should draw up such a code and let us take a look at it."

Wagner and Hugh Johnson, the head of the National Industrial Recovery Act often disagreed on the subject of trade unions. As William E. Leuchtenburg, the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963) has pointed out: "President Roosevelt shared Wagner's indignation at the intransigence of employers, but he shared too Johnson's perturbation that mass labor organizing might impede the recovery drive... Roosevelt had far more interest in developing social legislation to help the worker than in seeing these gains secured through unions."

The NAACP hoped that the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt would bring an end to lynching. Two African American campaigners against lynching, Mary McLeod Bethune and Walter Francis White, had been actively involved in helping Roosevelt to obtain victory. The president's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, had also been a long-time opponent of lynching.

Robert F. Wagner and Edward Costigan agreed to draft a bill that would punish the crime of lynching. In 1935 attempts were made to persuade Roosevelt to support the Costigan-Wagner bill. However, Roosevelt refused to speak out in favour of the bill that would punish sheriffs who failed to protect their prisoners from lynch mobs. He argued that the white voters in the South would never forgive him if he supported the bill and he would therefore lose the next election.

Even the appearance in the newspapers of the lynching of Rubin Stacy failed to change Roosevelt's mind on the subject. Six deputies were escorting Stacy to Dade County jail in Miami on 19th July, 1935, when he was taken by a white mob and hanged by the side of the home of Marion Jones, the woman who had made the original complaint against him. The New York Times later revealed that "subsequent investigation revealed that Stacy, a homeless tenant farmer, had gone to the house to ask for food; the woman became frightened and screamed when she saw Stacy's face."

Wagner argued in the Senate that "there is no greater evil than mob violence and there is no reform for which I have pleaded with greater certainty of its wisdom than this bill." The Costigan-Wagner received support from many members of Congress but the Southern opposition managed to defeat it. However, the national debate that took place over the issue helped to bring attention to the crime of lynching.

In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Wagner as the first chairman of the National Recovery Administration. Wagner became an important figure in the Roosevelt administration and helped draft the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Social Security Act, and the National Labour Relations Act - commonly called the Wagner Act.

In 1937 Wagner persuaded Congress to establish the United States Housing Authority, an agency to provide loans for low-cost public housing. However, he was less successful in his attempts to create a national health care system.

Wagner resigned from the Senate for health reasons in 1949. However, he recovered and spent his last few years helping to establish the new nation of Israel. Robert Ferdinand Wagner died in New York City on 4th May, 1953.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) New York Times (1st August, 1918)

In ability and character, in honesty of purpose and manliness of action. Senator Wagner has been an inspiration to younger legislators and a beacon light to men older than him in years. He was the friend of the laboring man and the defender of women and children who have to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow and yet he never was a demagogue. All the gold in the world could not buy him; all the beckonings of ambition could not induce him to abandon the cause that was righteous and the issue that was true. There is not a black spot upon him. He has served the people well.

(2) Robert F. Wagner, speech in the Senate (31st March, 1937)

The uprising of the common people has come, as always, only because of a breakdown in the ability of the law and our economic system to protect their rights. The sitdown has been provoked by the long-standing and ruthless tactics of a few great corporations who have hamstrung the National Labor Relations Board by invoking court actions, which they have a perfect legal right to do; who have openly banded together to defy this law of Congress quite independently of any court action, which they have neither the legal nor the moral right to do; and who have systematically used spies and discharges and violence and terrorism to shatter the workers' liberties as decided by Congress, which they have neither the legal nor the moral right to do. The organized and calculated and cold-blooded sitdown against Federal law has come not from the common people, but from a few great vested interests. Make men free, and they will be able to negotiate without fighting.

(3) Frances Perkins was secretary for labor in Franklin D. Roosevelt's first cabinet. She wrote about this period in her book, The Roosevelt I Knew (1946)

It ought to be on the record that the President did not take part in developing the National Labor Relations Act and, in fact, was hardly consulted about it. It was not a part of the President's program. It did not particularly appeal to him when it was described to him. All the credit for it belongs to Wagner.

The proposed bill, it must be remembered, was remedial. Certain unfair practices which employers had used against workers to prevent unionization and to cripple their economic strength had been uncovered by Wagner. The bill sought to correct these specific, known abuses, and did not attempt to draw up a comprehensive code of ethical behaviour in labor relations. Such a comprehensive code, however, was needed. Roosevelt supported my suggestion that labor leaders who wanted to distinguish themselves should draw up such a code and let us take a look at it.

(4) Rexford Tugwell was an assistant secretary in the Agricultural Department in 1933. He wrote about his experiences in The Democratic Roosevelt (1957)

Senator Wagner had been chairman of the National Labor Board during the first half of NRA. During that service he had seen how little could be accomplished without powers to enforce the principles that were supposed to be those of all New Dealers. Such intractable employer corporations as Weirton Steel, Budd Manufacturing, and Ford Motor were either refusing compliance or were making use of company unions to evade collective bargaining.

In February 1934, Senator Wagner induced Franklin to issue two executive orders authorizing the Board to hold elections for determining bargaining agents and to prevent violations to the Department of Justice for prosecution. But Wagner was convinced that more was necessary and on 1st March he introduced a Labor Disputes Bill.

Senator Wagner's bill enumerated several "unfair practices" to be prohibited, such as the sponsoring by employers of company unions, interfering with employees' choice of bargaining representatives, and refusal to bargain with elected agents. Under the bill a new labor board would be set up, fully equipped with staff to investigate and powers to enforce the provisions of the act.

(5) Roy Wilkins interviewed Huey P. Long for The Crisis in February, 1935.

"How about lynching. Senator? About the Costigan-Wagner bill in congress and that lynching down there yesterday in Franklinton..."

He ducked the Costigan-Wagner bill, but of course, everyone knows he is against it. He cut me off on the Franklinton lynching and hastened in with his "pat" explanation:

"You mean down in Washington parish (county)? Oh, that? That one slipped up on us. Too bad, but those slips will happen. You know while I was governor there were no lynchings and since this man (Governor Allen) has been in he hasn't had any. (There have been 7 lynchings in Louisiana in the last two years.) This one slipped up. I can't do nothing about it. No sir. Can't do the dead nigra no good. Why, if I tried to go after those lynchers it might cause a hundred more niggers to be killed. You wouldn't want that, would you?"

"But you control Louisiana," I persisted, "you could..."

"Yeah, but it's not that simple. I told you there are some things even Huey Long can't get away with. We'll just have to watch out for the next one. Anyway that nigger was guilty of coldblooded murder."

"But your own supreme court had just granted him a new trial."

"Sure we got a law which allows a reversal on technical points. This nigger got hold of a smart lawyer somewhere and proved a technicality. He was guilty as hell. But we'll catch the next lynching."

My guess is that Huey is a hard, ambitious, practical politician. He is far shrewder than he is given credit for being. My further guess is that he wouldn't hesitate to throw Negroes to the wolves if it became necessary; neither would he hesitate to carry them along if the good they did him was greater than the harm. He will walk a tight rope and go along

as far as he can. He told New York newspapermen he welcomed Negroes in the share-the-wealth clubs in the North where they could vote, but down South? Down South they can't vote: they are no good to him. So he lets them strictly alone. After all, Huey comes first.

Anyway, menace or benefactor, he is the most colorful character I have interviewed in the twelve years I've been in the business.

(6) Robert F. Wagner, speech in the Senate (19th June, 1945)

We face the issue of whether public funds shall be used to help guarantee full employment - and public housing raises this issue.

We face the issue of whether subsidy shall be used to share our wealth more equitably among the people of this country - and public housing raises this issue.

We face the issue of whether we shall solidify or break down the ghettos of segregation in our cities - and public housing is confronted with this issue in every step it takes.

We face the dramatic challenge of rebuilding America - the greatest challenge ever issued to our inventive genius plant capacity, and physical and mental resources. Without public housing, no such rebuilding program can even commence to get started.

We will be faced with a postwar challenge from overseas - from the other nations that will be building or rebuilding their cities.

If we want to lead the world, the people of America cannot be left living in slums.