Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 34

Miss Perkins

It's been a day of jubilation at the hospital. Sister Harkins' brother is reported safe as a prisoner of war in Germany. Of course, one wouldn't ordinarily want a loved one to be a prisoner of the Nazis, but the camps are inspected by the Red Cross operating from Switzerland. The war is beginning to be won, and there's every reason to expect that he'll be liberated in a year or two.

I have been able to write without help for some days now, and my legs have returned to their customary condition, mostly numb with only intermittant pain. However, the routine of the hospital overcomes moderate pain, and my own routine consists in trying to order the past, or at least my minute part in it.

In the spring of 1933 Roosevelt came into office with his "offensive of the first hundred days", a vast legislative program that affected agriculture, banking, virtually every industry, welfare, and education.

The New Deal impinged on us primarily through the administration of the NRA, the National Recovery Act. The idea behind it was that a modern industrial economy couldn't afford the sort of chaos which free competition between companies, and confrontation between companies and unions, seemed to engender. Instead, everyone in each industry must get together, plan, and come to agreement. In the case of railways, representatives of all the major lines would meet with representatives of the unions, and we would set forth the terms of fair competition and fair employment. Having done that, there would be an end to strikes.

The New Deal idea stopped short of European syndicalism in that the railways and the unions weren't to be given quasi-governmental status, nor was there to be a government Department of Railways which would give us orders. Instead, the head of the NRA, the frenetic General Hugh Johnson, was to lead and guide these joint conferences of industry and labor, browbeating them into agreement only when necessary. Although both Mac and I were impressed with Roosevelt himself, our plans were not congruent with those of the NRA. As Mac said in one or another of the conferences in Huntington,

"I don't want to talk to the bastards that run the other railways. I want to drive them into Salvation Army shelters. As regards labor, I only want to talk to one union president, John Henry Jamieson."

There was a certain aura of sweetness and light about the New Deal which didn't entirely allow for a man like Mac. Moreover, since we in the GER were paying what were considered sub-standard wages to an ever-increasing proportion of our work-force, there was a considerable danger that we would come to be perceived as among the worst of the bad guys.

On the other hand, General Johnson had no real power. The NRA could give its seal of approval, a Blue Eagle, to concerns which satisfied it, but there were no penalties for not satisfying it. As Mac said, in one of his gentler moods,

"Well son, I don't mind if General Johnson wants to go around painting eagles blue, but I don't much want them on the sides of our box cars."

When Johnson did come to Huntington, Mac and Sam Hanks were polite but busy. I was responsible for shepherding him around, and I adopted tactics similar to those I had used on Vignis' father at her wedding. I was again sentimental and romantic, this time about our work force. I even got the poor general to sit through a thoroughly amateur rehearsal for a philosophical play authored by myself. He left thinking me a fool, too vague and fuzzy to be capable of serious negotiation. Needless to say, we never got a Blue Eagle.

In coming to terms with the New Deal, we had already decided not to bother much with General Johnson. He alternated periods of frantic activity with drunken sprees, and would obviously not last long. Much more durable, quite possibly more intelligent, and certainly more reasonable was the new Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. The first woman to be a cabinet officer, she was a witty lady from New England with a gift for improvization and very few qualms about entering previously all-male strongholds.

The Department of Labor was, as one irreverent reporter termed it, a bastion of male horse-shit. One of Miss Perkins' first actions was to have the building cleaned and the old cigar butts thrown out. She told one acquaintance that, when she went around to meet her chief subordinates, the first seven told her that they were in charge of immigration. The eighth and last was the only one who did not, and he bore the title of Director of Immigration.

By this time, Miss Perkins had gotten rid of those sorts of people, and was jockeying her department into position with the others. I took it upon myself to examine her speeches and interviews, especially in order to discover her attitude toward the NRA. At one of our meetings, I summarized my researches,

"She's a friend of Johnson and the NRA, but she probably knows better than most that it won't last long. She'll want to be in position to pick up some of the pieces when it crumbles."

When something crumbled, it was most often the omniverous Harold Ickes at the Department of the Interior who got the remnants, but, this time, he might get some competition. Frances Perkins was, according to my information, less given to internecine warfare than her male colleagues, but, still, she knew that a girl had to look out for herself. I thought that we might be able to do her a useful turn in exchange for a little influence.

Vignis announced, pleasantly but firmly, that Mac should not be the one to approach Frances Perkins. The rest of us, possibly even Mac himself, agreed. He was good at rolling over people, but Miss Perkins wasn't easy to roll over.

Recently, having just completed a speech in an industrial town, she discovered that those with union sympathies hadn't been allowed into the hall to hear her. When she then prepared to address the crowd from the front steps of the hall, the mayor intervened and threatened to arrest her for disturbing the peace. Just then, Miss Perkins noticed an American flag in front of a post office. Since that was federal property, she led the mob into it, stood on a chair, and had her say. It was obvious that a soft and reasonable approach to her would be required.

Vignis, who had taken temporary charge at this juncture, might reasonably have nominated herself. Instead, she suggested John Henry and myself. That suggestion wasn't really an unmitigated compliment, as far as I was concerned. While it was assumed that I would be good at stating our case, it was also, I think, assumed that my male image wouldn't be strong enough to make Miss Perkins sharpen her wits and prepare to do battle.

With John Henry, the reasoning was obvious. He was black, and was the freely elected president of a union in an industry whose unions excluded blacks. That, alone, said a great deal about our company. Even more important, it would be clear to anyone who met him that he wasn't anyone's captive union president, not even Mac's.

The meeting took place in August. Miss Perkins looked much as I had expected, a youthful middle-aged woman of energetic appearance. However, we were hardly seated before I saw that we were in trouble. It's always a bad sign when someone asks why you've come to see them, and not someone else. In this case, she asked why we came to the Department of Labor, as opposed to the NRA. I said straight off that we had doubts about the NRA and explained,

"We think that it encourages labor and management to form cartels against consumers."

"Right now, the danger is deflation, not inflation."

"Yes, but those agreements would be hard to annul later on once the balance swings. They'd allow us to raise wages as much as we want, and then tack on whatever profits the railways agree on. Since almost everything has to be shipped by rail at some point, there'd be an uncontrolled element tending to raise all prices, one that wouldn't even be very visible to the general public."

"That point is sometimes made, Mr. Witt, and it may have some validity. But you're the first businessman I've met who wants to run his business to benefit the economy as a whole five or ten years down the road."

She obviously didn't believe that that was our real reason, and, of course, she was right. I tried again,

"Our other reason for staying clear of the NRA is that we don't think it's flexible enough to take account of our unusual labor force and our associated policies. I think that is a matter for the Department of Labor."

Miss Perkins nodded, and then turned to John Henry with a smile.

"You're an elected official, aren't you, Mr. Jamieson? Who is it that elected you?"

When John Henry spoke at length for the first time, I could see her surprise. He explained carefully how he had first been elected by the workers on the Lackawanna, and then gave the dates for the other elections on the eastern circle. Miss Perkins seemed to know a good deal about us and said,

"I gather that the colored men in your system won't vote for the brotherhood candidates."

"Not hardly, maam. When Eugene Debs founded the first American Railway Union, it was supposed to include everyone who worked on the railways, no matter what their job. It did, provided that they were white."

That stopped Miss Perkins for a moment. She then said,

"If we managed to pressure the brotherhoods enough to let you in, would you join?"

"We already have many whites in our union. We've never excluded any man or woman, white or black, who works on the railway. I think the members of the brotherhoods ought to join our union."

There was a pause. Miss Perkins then replied,

"It must seem odd to you that, despite our rhetoric of helping the poor and the powerless, we never say anything at all about helping those who are, on the whole, the poorest and least powerful."

I made a conciliatory gesture. John Henry had already mastered the art of looking stonily straight ahead and saying nothing. Miss Perkins, not at all flustered, continued,

"I think I can assure you that every important person in this administration, including the president himself, is painfully aware of the position of Negroes in America. But there's such a thing as political possibility. The Democratic Party can't do anything at all without the support of white southerners. And we can't even publicly address the problem without losing that support. And, even if we did make a stand and go out of office, the Republicans wouldn't do anything either. Negroes may vote republican because of Abraham Lincoln, but that doesn't mean that the party is willing to lift its finger to help them."

It was, of course, an old story. Constituents are told by an elected or appointed official that their case is deserving, but that it's not politically possible to do anything for them. As if reading my mind, Miss Perkins added,

"Politics is the art of helping a group that has forty eight per cent of the vote against the rest when it has a good case. If you have only something like fifteen per cent, it doesn't matter how good your case is."

Miss Perkins' mention of a particular figure was, I was sure, no accident. Blacks accounted for about ten per cent of the population, but a great many weren't allowed to vote. Of the ones that did, not all even desired racial equality. If you added in the white liberals who actually wanted and were willing to support black equality, the resulting sum was certainly no greater than fifteen per cent.

While Miss Perkins didn't have to run for election, she worked for a man who did. She was a person of considerable idealism, but she couldn't have served effectively without a sense of political possibility. I think that John Henry recognized, just as much as I did, that there was little that she could do. It was, however, left to me to state our case.

"Miss Perkins, there are some things that Mac Garner can do to promote racial and other kinds of equality which no politician or party could even contemplate. There are a group of us, including Mrs. Vignis Garner, who are off to a good start. It'll be a while before we can pay standard wages, but, in the end, we'll not only do that but radically open the structure of working class America."

She smiled and asked,

"You want only to be left alone?"

"Do you trust us enough to do that?"

Miss Perkins looked appraisingly at both of us, but particularly at John Henry. She replied,

"It's one thing to trust your intentions. But good intentions count for nothing if you don't succeed."

"No, but what if we can show that we're making progress, month by month and year by year?"

"All right. I'll be happy to study any relevant information that you send me."

"That's most of what we want. For the rest, we might ask that, if you find our data convincing, you might explain our efforts to General Johnson or anyone else who might want to take action against us."

I knew, at this point, that there was a factor working in our favor which I didn't have to mention, even in the most subtle way. The first high government official to have anything to do with us would, if we succeeded, go down in history as the one who had promoted racial equality. Miss Perkins was certainly high-minded, but, like everyone, she was concerned about her enduring reputation. She smiled and replied,

"All right. If you can convince me, I'll help you convince others."

In the time since, I have met other noteworthy politicians. If there's no negotiating to be done, they may show to good advantage. They may even sound like the same people who have made the stirring speeches, speeches they may even have written themselves.

One should accept the fact that there is almost no concrete action, no matter how well justified, that most of them will take on any given occasion.

Many people react to that discovery by concluding that they are fakes, all show and no substance. I learned, first with Miss Perkins, that talk alone can be important, and that it can be a matter of setting out a style. More people will copy a style than will ever obey a set of rules. Many people will exercise great ingenuity in evading laws they don't happen to like, but it's a rare person who can resist a dominant style.

Miss Perkins brought into office a style a little different from anything that had gone before. John Henry and I weren't entirely unaffected by it. We wanted to please her, and I suspect that, at various places down the line, we acted, in relatively modest ways, to blunt those of Mac's initiatives which we wouldn't want brought to her attention.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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