Franklin D. Roosevelt

Address at Teamsters Union Convention, Washington, D.C.

September 11, 1940

Mr. Tobin, Members of the Convention:

I am in a sort of quandary tonight.

I do not know whether this is a political speech or not. I do not know, because these days, if, in a certain period of the year, you refer in any way to things that happened in the days of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, or any other period in the past, including the past seven years, it is a great question as to whether you are talking American history or politics.

So I throw myself upon your indulgence and the indulgence of the radio companies who would in the one case be paid and in the other case not be paid. I throw myself on the indulgence of the American public. I do not know.

During these past weeks in several sections of the country within an overnight journey of Washington, where I have to stick pretty closely, I have been inspecting the progress of our national defense. I have gone through navy yards and private yards to watch the building of destroyers, submarines and aircraft carriers; I have visited aviation units to see our modern fighting planes; I have been in our great gun factories where I have seen the most modern weapons of all types swiftly being molded into shape; I have visited camps where young Americans are receiving training and instructions in the tactics of warfare and the broader tactics of life today. Through all of it there was the impressive conviction that America is rising to meet the evergrowing need for an adequate, physical armed defense of the United States.

Tonight, in a very real sense, I feel as I stand here that I am visiting another type of national defense equally important in its own way in meeting the needs of the times. Enduring strength to a nation and staying power in an emergency definitely call for an efficient and determined labor force carrying on the processes of industry and trade. When I speak of "labor force" I very definitely include those who toil in their fields as well as those who toil in business and industry. I think that teamsters will be the first to assert that farmers labor too.

It is one of the characteristics of a free and democratic modern nation that it have free and independent labor unions. In country after country in other lands, labor unions have disappeared as the iron hand of the dictator has taken command. Only in free lands have free labor unions survived. When union workers assemble with freedom and independence in a convention like this, it is proof that American democracy has remained unimpaired; it is a symbol of our determination to keep it free.

Yours is now one of the greatest international labor unions of America. You can remember, however, other days when labor unions were considered almost un-American by some individuals in our land. You can remember when it was rare indeed for an employer even to consider collective bargaining with his workers; when it was the common practice to discharge any worker who joined a union. You can remember when employers sought to meet threatened strikes by demanding that their government, Federal or State, call out armed troops. You can remember when many large employers resorted to the un-American practice, still unfortunately followed in some sections of the land, of hiring labor spies and setting up private arsenals to ferret out and destroy members of the union.

The cause of labor has traveled forward since those days over a long road beset with difficulties, both from within its membership and from without. Your organization is an outstanding example of the progress that has been made. By 1933, which seems almost like ancient history to me, your membership had dropped in that year to 70,000. Within the last seven years you have grown to a membership of 500,000.

In those same seven years organized labor as a whole has become stronger in membership, stronger in influence, and stronger in its capacity to serve the interests of the laboring man and woman and of society in general, than at any other time in our whole history. Much of this progress has been due, I like to think, to the one thing that this Administration from the very beginning has insisted upon: the assurance to labor of the untrammeled right, not privilege, but right to organize and bargain collectively with its employers. That principle has now become firmly imbedded in the law of the land; it must remain as the foundation of industrial relations for all time.

That great principle has the support today not only of organized labor as a whole but also of hundreds of thousands of decent, practical, forward-looking employers. A decade ago a minority of employers were willing to accept the principle of collective bargaining; but today I believe the majority of employers gladly accept it.

With that foundation, the last seven years have seen a series of laws enacted to give to labor a fairer share of the good life to which free men and women in a free nation are entitled as a matter of right. Fair minimum wages are being established for workers in industry; decent maximum hours and days of labor have been set, to bring about the objective of an American standard of living and recreation; child labor has been outlawed in practically all factories; a system of employment exchanges has been created; machinery has been set up and strengthened and successfully used in almost every case for the mediation of labor disputes. Over them all has been created a shelter of social security, a foundation upon which we are trying to build protection from the hazards of old age and unemployment.

But you and I know that this progress of the last seven years has been mighty difficult. It has been beset by obstructions and by bitter propaganda from certain minority groups in the community who had been accustomed for too many years to the exploitation of the great mass of people who worked for them. It was the same type of opposition to which I had become accustomed a great many years ago, during the very beginnings of what has been a certain amount of varied political experience dating back to my first election to the Senate of the State of New York thirty years ago this Autumn, continuing through my service for nearly eight years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and my service during four years as Governor of the largest labor-employing State in the union.

You will remember that kind of opposition in the campaign of four years ago—when certain employers, certain politicians and certain newspapers, all of whom are now active in this campaign, in an effort to mislead and intimidate labor, went to the extent of putting untrue electioneering notices in pay envelopes in order to smash the new Social Security Act and to force its repeal by electing its enemies.

That kind of opposition comes only too often from those who regularly for three years and eight months block labor's welfare, and then for four months loudly proclaim that they are labor's true friends, from those who love the laboring man in November but forget him in January.

In spite of that opposition the vast majority of our small business men have now become convinced that the gains of labor are the gains of the entire interdependent community, and that the welfare of labor is indispensable to the welfare of all. They know now that their best customer is a satisfied, adequately paid worker with a feeling of security against unemployment and against poverty in his old age.

We are still, however, quite distant from the objective we seek—the security and the high standard of living for every man, woman and child that the resources and man power of America make possible.

Our advance has been accomplished with patience and deliberation. That, I think, is the democratic way; that is the road which leads to lasting results. Here in America we have kept our feet on the ground; our progress has been steady and sure and we have not been misled by illusory promises.

Events abroad have shown too late the result of the other kind of methods, promises of swift, revolutionary relief; seductive pictures of panaceas; short cuts to prosperity and plenty, pictured as simple and easy—all these have led, and I am talking recent history, to the same cruel disappointment.

For these promises people yielded up their liberties and all that made life dear. In exchange they have received only the rationing of their news, the rationing of their religion, the rationing of the clothes upon their backs and the rationing of the bread upon their tables.

Our progress must continue to be a steady and deliberate one; we cannot stand still, we cannot slip back. We must look forward to certain definite things in the near future. For example, the benefits of social security should be broadened and extended; unemployment insurance should cover a larger number of workers. Our old-age pension system must be improved and extended; the amount of the pension should be increased, and, above all, these pensions must be given in a manner that will respect the dignity of the life of service and labor which our aged citizens have given to the nation they love.

Yes, it is my hope that soon the 'United States will have a national system under which no needy man or woman within our borders will lack a minimum old-age pension that will provide adequate food, adequate clothing and adequate lodging to the end of the road and without having to go to the poorhouse to get it. I look forward to a system coupled with that, a system which, in addition to this bare minimum, will enable those who have faithfully toiled in any occupation to build up additional security for their old age which will allow them to live in comfort and in happiness.

The people must decide whether to continue the type of Government which has fostered the progress to date, or whether to turn it over to those who by their action, if not always by their word, have shown their fundamental opposition to the main objectives toward which we have worked in the past and to which we are definitely committed for the future.

There are some who would not only stop now the progress we are making in social and labor legislation, but would even repeal what has been enacted during the past seven years—on the plea that an adequate national defense requires the repeal. They would seek unlimited hours of labor. They would seek lower wages. They would seek the cancellation of those safeguards for which we have all struggled so long.

I still believe, as I did when I said on the twenty-sixth of May last:

"We must make sure in all that we do that there be no breakdown or cancellation of any of the great social gains that we have made in these past years. . . . There is nothing in our present emergency to justify a retreat from any of our social objectives— conservation of resources, assistance to agriculture, better housing, and help to the underprivileged."

Our mighty national defense effort in which we are engaged today, against all present and potential threats, cannot be measured alone in terms of mathematical increase in the number of soldiers and sailors and guns and tanks and planes. Behind them all must stand a united people whose spiritual and moral strength has not been sapped through hunger or want or fear or insecurity. The morale of a people is an essential supplement to their guns and planes.

I am convinced that a breakdown of existing labor and social legislation would weaken rather than increase our efforts for defense. Continuance of them means the preservation of the efficiency of labor. It means the return to work of several millions who are still unemployed.

The employment of additional workers and the provisions for overtime payments for overtime work will insure adequate working hours at decent wages to do all that is now necessary in physical defense. We will not overlook the lesson learned in Europe in past years.

At times we all know that internal obstacles to the growth of labor unions have come in those rare instances where the occasional scoundrel has appeared in a position of leadership. Labor unions are not the only organizations that have to suffer innocently for the crimes and misdeeds of a handful of selfish and guilty members. The rule applies to all organizations, all trades, all professions alike, including the profession of the law, to which I belong.

I cannot add to the terms of condemnation which your president, my old friend Dan Tobin, included in his report to your convention in which he said:

...It is indeed pitiful and heartbreaking and seriously depressing to find that amongst our enormous membership, composed of clean men, fathers of families, Americans of the purest type, to find amongst this membership some creatures so bereft of decency and honor as to bring disgrace upon the international union.

Labor knows that there is no room in the labor movement for the racketeer or the strong-arm man. Government is determined to help labor unions clean their own house of those few persons who have tried to betray them.

In this great crisis in the past year, additional proof has come that organized labor, as well as other groups of our citizens, is aware of its own responsibilities. I have called on representatives of labor to serve, and I have placed them in responsible positions to take part in the defense work of their Government. From the very start, representatives of labor, including your own distinguished president, have shared in formulating and administering the program.

I am particularly glad to be able to say that the A.F. of L., the C.I.O. and the Railroad Brotherhoods are all loyally cooperating in this effort with me and with the National Defense Corn. mission and with the Army and the Navy. That cooperation in the task of national defense will, I hope, encourage closer and more friendly relations between all these great labor organizations.

I know that America will never be disappointed in its expectation that labor will always continue to do its share of the job we now face and do it patriotically and effectively and unselfishly.

In our search for national unity as the basis of national defense, it is necessary and it is fair that every human being in the United States contribute his share. This applies both to those who train in the fighting forces and to the great forces of workers behind the lines.

It is equally necessary and fair that every dollar of capital in America also contribute its share. Just so long as we continue to call upon men to train for combat, and to train for service behind the lines, will we also continue to call upon the industrial plants of the nation for the service that they can give.

Capital and industry as well as labor and agriculture are responding and I take it almost for granted that they will continue to respond.

The Nation, through its elected representatives—not just the President all alone, but through the elected representatives in the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States—is now adopting the principle of selective universal training of its young men. On the same principle, no reasonable person can object to giving the Government the power to acquire the services of any plant or factory for an adequate compensation, if the owner refuses to make its services available to the defense needs of the Nation. You know this is nothing new in American life. The principle of eminent domain or eminent use, as I prefer to call it, is as old as democratic government itself. It merely permits Government to acquire or to use, for a fair and reasonable price, any property, anywhere, which is necessary for the proper functioning of the United States.

The overwhelming majority of our munitions and other defense requirements are now manufactured, as we all know, by private enterprise under private management. We are continuing that process. It is only in the rare case, the isolated case, that the owner of a plant will refuse to deal with the Government in a fair way.

But if and when such a case does arise, the Government cannot stand by, helpless in its efforts to arm and defend itself. No business is above Government; and Government must be empowered to deal adequately with any business that tries to rise above Government.

In all these plans for national defense, only those who seek to play upon the fears of the American people, discover an attempt to lead us into war. The American people will reject that kind of propaganda of fear, as they have rejected similar types which are "occasionally" spread forth near election time. They know that against the raging forces loose in the world today the best defense is the strongest preparedness, fighting men and equipment in front, and fighting industry and agriculture behind the lines.

Weakness in these days is a cordial invitation to attack. That's no longer a theory; it's a proven fact, proved within the past year.

I hate war, now more than ever. I have one supreme determination—to do all that I can to keep war away from these shores for all time. I stand, with my party, and outside of my party as President of all the people, on the platform, the wording that was adopted in Chicago less than two months ago. It said:

We will not participate in foreign wars, and we will not send our Army, naval or air forces to fight in foreign lands outside of the Americas, except in case of attack.

Let us have an end to the sort of appeasement that seeks to keep us helpless by playing on fear and by indirect sabotage of all the progress that we are making. "Appeasement" is a polite word for misdirected partisanship.

In our efforts for national defense, fine teamwork throughout the Nation has been developed, and you who are teamsters in this great organization know what that word "teamwork" means.

The continuance of this teamwork, after the present emergency is over, will have consequences of lasting good to the Nation as a whole. It will enable us to enjoy an internal security that I hope will transcend anything we have known heretofore.

Ours is a great heritage; we are determined with all our effort and all our might to keep it intact. The workers in the factories, the farmers on the land, the business men in plants and offices, are at last awake to the perils that threaten America. No selfish interest, no personal ambition, no political campaign, can sway the majority will of our people of America to make America strong, and to keep America free.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address at Teamsters Union Convention, Washington, D.C. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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