Franklin D. Roosevelt

Excerpts from the Press Conference

May 03, 1935

Q. Mr. President, the National Business and Advisory Planning Council was here yesterday. I understand that you had something to say to them. Would you mind telling us something about that statement, if you made one?

THE PRESIDENT: I made a speech and my one regret is that there wasn't anyone to take it down because it was a good speech, on the spur of the moment.

I told them a lot of things, went back into history, and I think that nearly all of them agreed—use this as background, of course- nearly all of them agreed with the fundamental principles that we were both talking about. I told them that, for example, going back just in my own personal experience, I felt that in altogether too many cases so-called organizations of business men were very misrepresentative of a very large number of business men or, to put it another way, that business thought has very often been diametrically opposed to the corporate expression of that thought through some kind of organization.

I told them, from my own experience, of certain cases that I had run up against. For example, the first year I went up to Albany there was a very bad fire in New York called the Triangle Fire. Some of you older people will remember it. It burned up 150 or 200 girls who were working in a garment factory, the Triangle Building. They could not get out because the doors leading to the fire-escapes were locked.

There was started in the Legislature a committee of inquiry of which Bob Wagner was chairman; and there was a very young, not very experienced young woman who acted, I think, as secretary of that committee to investigate factory conditions. Her name was Frances Perkins. Well, as a result of this investigation there was proposed a factory inspection law. Practically the whole State was for it; and I believe very firmly that the great majority of manufacturers were for it, also the great majority of business men. But the principal lobbyists before the Legislature and objectors to that bill while it was pending were the chambers of commerce and the merchants associations and the manufacturers associations who, in my judgment, were absolutely misrepresenting the membership of those societies.

And then I went on and I told them about other similar experiences, the 54-hour bill in the Legislature to curtail the working hours of women and children in industry to 54 hours a week. The associations that I had mentioned were always against the law whereas the overwhelming majority of business men and manufacturers were probably in favor of curtailing the work of women and children in industry to 54 hours a week. Again, they misrepresented their membership.

In the same way, just to go on, I will give the simple example I stated to them—the Workmen's Compensation Act. The previous one passed when Chief Justice Hughes was Governor of New York was declared unconstitutional; and we passed another one in the 1913 Session of the Legislature, providing for a twofold method of workmen's compensation, one with a State insurance fund and the other with private insurance companies. It was a perfectly sound measure and the best proof is that it is still on the statute books, still running smoothly and with comparatively few amendments in all these years. Most business men, most bankers and most manufacturers were in favor of workmen's compensation as a whole, but the chambers of commerce and the merchants associations and the manufacturers associations spent thousands and thousands of dollars trying to block the bill from going through.

And then I stated to them another phase of legislation of this kind. I said, "Take, for instance, the Triangle fire. There is an example. We had on the statute books of the State, before that fire, various laws requiring this safety device and that safety device, and the city ordinances required not only adequate fire-escapes but unlocked doors and doors that opened outward. The law was all right before that fire, but we left it up to the business men and the manufacturers to enforce the law."

Today there is a lot of talk about "let us do all these things." But practice has shown that unless there is some kind of Government check-up, whether it be a municipal check-up or a State check-up or a Federal check-up, there are a certain number of people who either through carelessness, very often carelessness, but in some cases with malicious intent to avoid the law, will fail to live up to it. Probably in the case of the Triangle fire it was a matter of carelessness on the part of the management that these doors going out to the fire-escapes were locked.

But, when we put in inspection through a Government agency, and they knew that somebody was coming around at unexpected or unknown moments to check up on them, from that time on the law was lived up to about 99 percent.

I just used those as examples, not in answer to, but in explanation of, some of the statements made in meetings that have recently been had in Washington. I think that there was a pretty general meeting of the minds among these thirty members of this business council and myself on the general principles and objectives that we are all seeking to attain.

I cut this out of the paper this morning, because I think it is rather choice. "Francis E. Powell, head of the United States Chamber of Commerce in London, last night said that the Old World is amazed at the stubborn fight being made by business here against the New Deal. Tall and silver-haired, Powell once was chairman of the Anglo-American Oil Company. He was astonished, he said, at the frosty reception that greeted his attempt yesterday to bring peace between American merchants and the White House. Hundreds of delegates of the United States Chamber of Commerce Convention sat in grim silence as Powell proposed that a group be notified to call on Mr. Roosevelt and pledge cooperation." Then it goes on, "'I was astonished by their attitude,' he told the United Press in an exclusive interview. 'It couldn't have happened anywhere else in the world. I have listened for days to the criticism of the Government's policies.'"

Of course, the interesting thing to me is that in all of these speeches made, I don't believe there was a single speech which took the human side, the old-age side, the unemployment side. There were some glittering generalities, yes, "we hate to see old people starve," "we would not willingly throw people out of work," and so forth and so on—not exactly what you could call a constructive contribution.

However, the business men who were in here yesterday, I think they understand it pretty well just as I think the overwhelming majority of business men in this country, the individual men, the higher executives and the middle-sized executives and the lower executives, they understand pretty well what it is all about and I go along with them. . . .

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Excerpts from the Press Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Simple Search of Our Archives