Harry S. Truman photo

Labor Day Address in Cadillac Square, Detroit

September 06, 1948

Mr. Mayor, distinguished leaders of labor and fellow citizens:

This, in my opinion, is a great day for labor. This is a great day for the country. When I can stand on this same platform in the city of Detroit with the Mayor and with Walter Reuther and Frank Martel, I know the country is on the road to recovery.

I am more than happy to join in this Labor Day celebration. I am more than happy to be present with the CIO and the A.F. of L. in marching together side by side in the interests of the welfare of the country's citizens.

In unity there is strength. Working people need every ounce of strength they possess to meet today's problems. Forces in the world, and in our Government, would destroy free labor. Therefore, I am urging you with everything I have, to send Frank Hook to the Senate of the United States, and to send a Congressman from Michigan that will go along with me on that program.

As you know, I speak plainly sometimes. In fact, I speak bluntly sometimes. I am going to speak plainly and bluntly today. These are critical times for labor and for all who work. There is great danger ahead. Right now, the whole future of labor is wrapped up in one simple proposition.

If, in this next election, you get a Congress and an administration friendly to labor, you have much to hope for. If you get an administration and a Congress unfriendly to labor, you have much to fear, and you had better look out.

I believe that a strong and free labor movement constitutes a tremendous force for preserving our form of government. A free and strong labor movement is our best bulwark against communism. To remain strong and free you must have a friendly administration and a friendly Congress.

There is only one test of friendship. It is a test of the heart. You know without being told who is your friend and who is not your friend. Glance back over the years between 1900 and 1933. Labor was dealt three major blows. In each case these blows coincided with depressions which occurred under Republican administrations and Republican Congresses.

In the depression years of 1907 and 1908, sweeping injunctions were used against labor and sent its trusted leaders to jail. But another blow to the heart of labor came in 1921 when the Republican depression put nearly 6 million workers out of employment. The strength of labor organizations dropped off and vicious campaigns of anti-labor propaganda swept the country. It was an era of the open shop and the yellow-dog contract.

A few years passed, and you all remember came the Republican panic of 1930 and the great depression, which dealt the workers of the country a terrible blow. There was no unemployment compensation under the Republicans. There was no floor under wages under the Republicans. Average hourly earnings in 1932 were only 45 cents under the Republicans. From 12 to 15 million workers were out of work and unemployed under the Republicans.

And then in 1933 came the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

For the first time, labor received the recognition and encouragement that it merits. By constructive legislation, President Roosevelt and a sympathetic Congress corrected many of the abuses against which labor had been contending. That Democratic administration, of which I was a party from 1935, passed the Wagner Act to assure fair collective bargaining, abolished the sweat shop, provided unemployment compensation, passed the Social Security Act, saved millions of workers' homes from foreclosure, brought the average wage from 45 cents to $1.33 per hour.

You all remember how a Democratic administration turned the greatest depression in history into the most prosperous era the country has ever seen.

Sixty-one million people are employed today.

The gains of labor were not accomplished at the expense of the rest of the Nation. Labor gains contributed to the Nation's general prosperity.

Incomes of farmers and businessmen are higher than ever before in the history of the world.

But we still have to fight to keep the gains that we have made in the last 16 years. The plain fact is that these gains are under heavy attack by the spokesmen of reaction.

Two years ago the people of this country, and many workingmen among them, seemed to feel that they wanted a change. They elected the Republican 80th Congress--and they got their change. That Congress promptly fell into the familiar Republican pattern of aid for big business and attack on labor. The Republicans promptly voted themselves a cut in taxes, and voted you a cut in freedom.

That 80th Republican Congress failed to crack down on prices but it cracked down on labor all right!

The Republicans failed to give the consumers of America protection against the rising cost of living, but at the same time they put a dangerous weapon into the hands of the big corporations in the shape of the Taft-Hartley law which I vetoed, but which was passed over my veto.

The union men with whom I have talked tell me that labor is just beginning to feel the effects of the Taft-Hartley law. And you and I know that the Taft-Hartley law is only a foretaste of what you will get if the Republican reaction is allowed to continue to grow.

Important Republican newspapers have already announced in plain language that Republicans in Congress are preparing further and stronger measures against labor.

If the congressional elements that made the Taft-Hartley law are allowed to remain in power, and if these elements are further encouraged by the election of a Republican President, you men of labor can expect to be hit by a steady barrage of body blows. And if you stay at home, as you did in 1946, and keep these reactionaries in power, you will deserve every blow you get.

Not only the labor unions, but all men and women who work are in danger, and the danger is greatest for those who do not belong to unions. If anything, the blows will fall most severely on the white-collar workers and the unorganized workers.

And that is not all!

If this Taft-Hartley law remains in effect, labor's position will be bad enough. But suppose, while that law is in effect, a reactionary Republican administration were to bring upon us another "boom and bust" cycle similar to that which struck us during the last Republican administration?

I don't have to tell you that that is an exceedingly real possibility if the Republicans get control of this country again. You can already see signs of it. The "boom" is on for them, and the "bust" has begun for you.

If you let the Republican administration reactionaries get complete control of this Government, the position of labor will be so greatly weakened that I would fear, not only for the wages and living standards of the American workingman, but even for our Democratic institutions of free labor and free enterprise.

Remember that the reactionary of today is a shrewd man. He is in many ways much shrewder than the reactionaries of the twenties. He is a man with a calculating machine where his heart ought to he. He has learned a great deal about how to get his way by observing demagogues and reactionaries in other countries. And now he has many able allies in the press and in the radio.

If you place the Government of this country under the control of those who hate labor, who can you blame if measures are thereafter adopted to destroy the powers, prestige, and earning power of labor?

I tell you that labor must fight now harder than ever before to make sure that its rights are kept intact. In practical terms, this means a powerful political effort which must culminate in an all-out vote on election day. Anything short of an all-out vote would be a betrayal by labor of its own interests.

It is not only the rights of the unions which are at stake, but the standard of living of your families. If prices are permitted to rise unchecked, it is your wives and your children who will suffer. As real wages decline in the face of rising prices, it is the housewife who must try desperately to feed and clothe her family while her buying power is steadily whittled away.

My sympathy is with those best of business managers--the wives and mothers of this Nation. Think how they have made the pay envelope stretch with each rise in prices.

Now, Mother has to outfit the children for school at outrageous prices. How she does it, I don't know. I tried to help her out in this terrible price situation, but I got absolutely no help from that "do-nothing" 80th Republican Congress.

Make no mistake, you are face to face with a struggle to preserve the very foundations of your rights and your standards of living.

If we were to have a reactionary administration in the years ahead, labor could be only on the defensive, fighting a losing fight. If you produce a smashing victory at the polls, you have much to hope for.

Given such a victory I foresee the time, and not far off, when it will be possible to develop a new and sounder program of labor relations for the Nation; when it will be possible for labor to obtain a more equitable share of the Nation's increased productivity than it ever has had.

As a basis for such a new program of labor relations, I think it is clear that labor will need to link its position more closely with that of the farmers and the small businessman.

I know from my own experience with labor leaders and unions that the ability of labor to discipline itself and to cooperate with other groups in the country is steadily growing.

During the war, when I was surveying American industry as Chairman of the Senate Investigations Committee, I came to know the conditions under which labor works and lives. I came to know and respect the minds and spirit of workers and union leaders. I saw them and talked to them, and visited their homes in scores of communities. I watched them at work in hundreds of plants.

I know that labor is just as willing as any other group in the country to cooperate with intelligent programs in the interest of the Nation as a whole.

I am one of those who believes in the fundamental good sense and good feeling of the American people. It is my conviction that Republican reaction will be rejected. The American public wants a Congress and an administration that will play fair with labor. The people will support a program under which labor makes gains consistent with the progress of our total economy.

I said a moment ago that the public is full of good feeling and good sense. That is certainly true of the great majority.

Nevertheless, I must point out that there are too many short-sighted and unthinking Americans who have adopted a "damn labor" attitude which doesn't become any citizen of this country.

It is time that every American recognize what our fathers knew--that it is an honorable thing to work with your hands.

Our basic social freedoms can be traced largely to the fact that labor had its birth of real freedom in the United States of America. That is why our fathers came to America-to find the country where the man who worked with his hands is as good as the next man.

Today, too many Americans in dining cars, in country clubs, and fashionable resorts are repeating, like parrots, the phrase "labor must be kept in its place." It is time that all Americans realized that the place of labor is side by side with the businessman and with the farmer, and not one degree lower.

One of the aspects of this Taft-Hartley agitation that has been most shocking to me has been the Republican attitude as expressed in the pious speeches of some of their leaders in Government and in business. They seem to think that labor is some kind of a spoiled child that needs to be spanked. They lift their eyes sympathetically and say "it hurts me more than it hurts you." It does not hurt them one bit, but it certainly does hurt you.

In practical terms, it means that labor needs to unite in common causes. They must unite, and it will be a great day for labor and a great day for the country when that happens.

All of labor stands at the crossroads today. You can elect a reactionary administration. You can elect a Congress and an administration which stands ready to play fair with every element in American life and enter a new period of hope. The choice is yours.

Do you want to carry the Taft-Hartley law to its full implication and enslave totally the workingman, white-collar and union man alike, or do you want to go forward with an administration whose interest is the welfare of the common man?

Labor has always had to fight for its gains. Now you are fighting for the whole future of the labor movement. We are in a hard, tough fight against shrewd and rich opponents. They know they can't count on your vote. Their only hope is that you won't vote at all. They have misjudged you. I know that we are going to win this crusade for the right!

Note: The President spoke at 1:40 p.m. in Cadillac Square. In his opening words he referred to Eugene I. Van Antwerp, Mayor of Detroit, Walter Reuther, President of the United Automobile Workers, and Frank Martel, President of the Detroit and Wayne County Federation of Labor. The address was carried on a nationwide radio broadcast.

Harry S Truman, Labor Day Address in Cadillac Square, Detroit Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/232777

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