On this day in 1933, William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, testified to a joint session of the Senate and House Labor Committees that he opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s proposed unemployment law as “smacking of fascism, Hitlerism and in some respects of sovietism”. This objection, from a prominent union leader, gives us a sense of how the New Deal was done: in ongoing negotiations among various groups, each looking out for its own.

The plan to which Green objected would become the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal’s first real effort at relieving joblessness (more on it in a few days). It was not a broad-gauged relief measure; it aimed specifically to solve the problem of unemployed young men—young men who might otherwise go out on the road to relieve their families of the burden of supporting them, who might become freight-hopping transients, criminals, a class of the lost.

Instead, if they enrolled in CCC, the federal government would give them a job preserving the nation’s forests, housing and clothing them in work camps out near said forests, paying their wages to their families, keeping them tied to their parents—hence AFL president Green’s objection to “regimentation”. But also, of course, he disliked the plan because “Won’t these men, therefore, be in competition with free labor in many places?”

On the very same day, in another part of the country, the Republican politician William A. Prendergast praised his party for backing the administration’s bank, budget, and beer bills, but said now Republicans should stop supporting Roosevelt. “[N]ow … we approach another period, a period of legislation that is not really emergency legislation,” he warned.

The union leader and the Republican had much in common: they worried that the New Deal might, in the name of addressing the crisis, erode the foundations of the interests they represented. They didn’t know quite what the Democrats were up to and they didn’t trust the administration to limit itself.

Nor do we, in retrospect, know that they should have. Roosevelt might well have used broader discretionary powers if he had been able to get them. As it was, the New Deal was always just what its name implied: a constant re-negotiation of the relationship of government to economy, with Roosevelt, the Democratic Congress, the Republican opposition, the courts, and various interest groups fighting their own corners of a polygonal arena. The many-sided opposition shaped the New Deal as much or more than Roosevelt’s own intentions.

When the voters put Roosevelt back in office by such an overwhelming margin in 1936, they almost certainly thereby expressed not (or not just) confidence in Roosevelt personally, but a willingness that this process of negotiation, of push and push-back, should continue. It was giving American liberalism a robust and lasting set of institutions.

“Job Bill ‘Fascism’ Alleged by Green.” NYT 3/25/1933, p. 4.

“Would Curb Roosevelt.” NYT 3/25/1933, p. 5.