Seal of the Department of Commerce and Labor, 1903-1913.
“True, this was the ‘Progressive Period,’ the start of the Age of Reform; but it was a reluctant reform, aimed at quieting the popular risings, not making fundamental changes.” -Howard Zinn, 1995.
In January of 1906, a man named Albert Horsley, known by his pseudonym Harry Orchard, was placed on death row for the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg. Horsley had planted a bomb in Caldwell, Idaho, that killed the former governor, and it was in the Caldwell prison where he awaited his trial. As governor, Steunenberg had repressed the 1899 Coeur d’Alene miners’ strike, and authorities believed his motive was revenge on behalf of labor.
However, an infamous Pinkerton detective named James McParland had Horsley moved to a prison in Boise with better conditions. Beginning January 22, McParland sat down with Horsley in private meetings, and by February 1, Horsley confessed to the assassination and then accused three of the nation’s most prominent labor leaders of orchestrating the assassination and giving him the orders. He named the “inner circle” of the Western Federation of Miners: Charles Moyer, William Haywood, and George Pettibone, the president, secretary-treasurer, and advisor respectively. Haywood had also been a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Though later acquitted, these three men were initially arrested and faced a highly publicized trial, through which Horsley would receive life in prison. The trial became so sensationalized that it sparked a minor scandal for President Theodore Roosevelt when a newspaper article in 1907 quoted Roosevelt in a private letter as referring to Haywood and Moyer as “undesirable citizens.”
The problem for Roosevelt was that he had spent much of his administration trying to bring labor and business together, and this quote publicly contradicted his commitment to both. Though Roosevelt later clarified that he did not mean they were guilty, his condemnation of two labor leaders on trial for a high-profile political assassination (after Roosevelt himself had become president following a similar political assassination, that of President McKinley) exposed the fault lines in his own efforts to support workers and capitalists alike.
A centerpiece of those efforts was the Department of Commerce and Labor, which Roosevelt created in 1903 as a response to growing unrest between workers and industrial capitalists at the turn of the century. During the 1890s, Howard Zinn notes there were “about a thousand strikes a year” (Zinn 331), and the strike that Steunenberg crushed was just one example of workers responding to brutal conditions and meager compensation. Lewis Gould observes that “precise figures for industrial accidents did not appear until the end of Roosevelt’s presidency, but estimates put work-related deaths at twenty thousand per year, and at least five hundred thousand other workers were injured or maimed” (Gould 35). Roosevelt’s solution, in addition to some trust-busting, was to create the Department of Commerce and Labor.
Though Roosevelt was far more willing to support workers than his predecessor, his policies were intended to be a centrist balancing act between labor and capital, a good faith attempt to see both sides of an inherently unequal battle.
The new department satisfied almost no one. Doris Kearns Goodwin writes that congress opposed the department’s Bureau of Corporations, which would have “substantial powers to investigate the internal operations of corporations engaged in interstate commerce” and would even have “authority to compel testimony, and to subpoena books, papers, and reports” of corporations (Goodwin 344). As such, businesses also adamantly opposed the Department for its power to investigate, for example, the conditions that led to the estimated twenty-thousand work-related deaths that took place in 1901.
But the Department was unpopular among several labor leaders as well. The American Federation of Labor advocated a separate Department of Labor to support workers without having to make any concessions to industrialists. The treasury-secretary of the AFL at the time, Frank Morrison, went so far as to say that “a man would have to be a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to meet the requirements of a Department of Commerce and Labor.”
But there was another factor motivating their opposition. Numerous unions wanted to restrict immigration because they saw it as a threat to their security. The Secretary of Commerce and Labor, Oscar Straus, favored immigration (Grossman 9), and industrialists preferred to have migrant labor because it was cheaper and, as is the case today, migrant workers often face difficulty joining unions whose paperwork is entirely in English. Many union leaders believed that an independent Department of Labor would be instrumental in limiting immigration.
A prime example was Samuel Gompers, then president of the AFL. Gompers was a talented organizer, but was openly hostile to Chinese immigrants in particular. Decades earlier, he had actively supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and in 1902, he “reported to the [AFL], on the eve of the exclusion law’s expiration, that the Chinese were entirely at variance with Americans” (Mandel 187). Gompers did not hide his racism, and when the Department of Commerce and Labor was created, his opposition to it stemmed largely from his desire to lobby for similar exclusion laws through a department that would cater exclusively to groups like the AFL.
Gompers was not an outlier, but he was also not representative of the whole. Discussion of labor and capital inaccurately treat labor as a unified front in the early 1900s. Today, many on the left express nostalgia for the labor movement of the turn-of-the-century, and this misses a crucial point: labor was certainly growing in strength, but it was far from unified. As Zinn puts it, the Progressive era under Roosevelt and Taft “was a time of public investigations aimed at soothing protest” (Zinn 341). Strikes were many and localized, and national organizations like the AFL of Gompers, the WFM of Moyers, and the IWW of Haywood sought to organize, protect, and accentuate these local protests with their own individual goals in mind. Strikers carried many nineteenth century hostilities from the Populist Party and the anti-immigration Know Nothing Party, but many more strikers were also part of the left-leaning IWW or the Socialist Party. Labor, then, was an unhelpful umbrella term for a broad spectrum of movements.
By 1907, when Haywood, Moyers, Pettibone, and Horsley were on trial, the tension between labor and capital had only grown, and grew more complex. Union membership increased and union leaders began running for office. The AFL “reached a membership of 1,676,000 by 1905” (Gould 35), and by 1906 “successfully backed six union members for congress” and fifteen more in 1910 (Grossman 10) in a wave that gave Democrats, who had begun courting unions with calls to create a separate Department of Labor, control of the House. By 1912, they had enough influence to push Taft to create two separate departments for labor and commerce, which he did on his last day in office, March 4, 1913, ending Roosevelt’s ten-year fusion of the two. The very next day, President Woodrow Wilson appointed William B. Wilson, who “dropped out of school at the age of nine and then went to work for ten hours a day in a coal mine” (Grossman 11) as the first Secretary of Labor.
The tension between labor and commerce resulted in volatile shifts in the American political landscape in ways that have mostly been forgotten, overshadowed by the chaos of the First World War, which halted most of the progress of the Progressive era through efforts to crack down on unions and pacifists, like the Sedition Act of 1918.
The Department of Commerce and Labor demonstrated the limits of treating both labor and capital as equal in a system designed to favor capital. The trial of Haywood, Moyers, and Pettibone was a revelation, a unifying persecution narrative for that decade’s competing interests. After the trial, a small handful of labor leaders got what they wanted in dissolving Roosevelt’s initial department. But by siding with Wilson’s camp to dismantle the limited progress of Roosevelt, many labor leaders also sided with the man who would go on to dismantle what progress they had made on their own.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Bully Pulpit. Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Gould, Lewis. The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. University Press of Kansas, 1991.
Grossman, Johnathan. The Department of Labor. Praeger Publishers, inc., 1973.
Lukas, J. Anthony. Big Trouble. Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Mandel, Bernard. Samuel Gompers: A Biography. Antioch Press, 1963.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial, 1995.