La Follette Civil Liberties Committee
LA FOLLETTE CIVIL LIBERTIES COMMITTEE
The La Follette Civil Liberties Committee (1936–1940) was a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor set up to investigate the heavy-handed methods employers used to prevent labor unions from organizing and bargaining collectively. Chaired by Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., it was the most extensive congressional inquiry ever conducted into civil liberties violations. In the process, it helped galvanize liberals and supporters of organized labor and drew attention to the work of the new National Labor Relations Board.
For years, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Federation of Labor, various religious organizations, and other groups had urged government probes of civil liberties violations and oppressive labor practices. Senator La Follette, a Progressive from Wisconsin and one of organized labor's staunchest defenders, introduced the Senate resolution that created the investigatory committee in the spring of 1936. Along with La Follette, who became its chairman, the committee consisted of two Democrats—Elbert D. Thomas of Utah and David I. Walsh of Massachusetts (who did not join until 1939, three years after the original appointee died in a car accident).
Although La Follette and Thomas were the most visible representatives of the committee, much of the work of amassing evidence, identifying witnesses, and preparing questions was done by committee staff. In general, staff employees were liberal and pro-labor in orientation and tended to blame business for tensions that existed between labor and management. The Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act) had been passed the year before, and part of the work of the committee was to ensure that it succeeded. The first phase of the committee's work during the fall of 1936 and the following spring concentrated on four anti-union weapons: the employment of strikebreakers, the use of private police forces, the hiring of private detectives and labor spies, and the stockpiling of munitions, such as tear gas, nauseating agents, billy clubs, and even machine guns.
By May 1937, with the labor situation improving, the Committee for Industrial Organization (later called the Congress of Industrial Organizations) growing in strength, and the Supreme Court having validated the Wagner Act, it appeared that the La Follette Committee might soon complete its task. Then a clash between police and company detectives on one side and striking workers on the other on Memorial Day at the Republic Steel Company's South Chicago plant, which left ten strikers dead and more than one hundred wounded, led to demands for further probes, extending the life of the committee for three more years. During a second round of hearings, attention focused on the Little Steel Strike of 1937, union-busting tactics used by employers' associations, and the violence-ridden farm-labor situation in California. These investigations proved less dramatic and more complex than the earlier ones, and press coverage dwindled. Though failing to generate new legislation, the committee in the end issued seventy-five volumes of transcripts and documents and more than twenty reports, and its work led to a lessening of strong-arm practices by businesses during labor disputes and helped undergird a growing governmental commitment to the cause of civil liberties.
Auerbach, Jerold S. Labor and Liberty: The La Follette Committee and the New Deal. 1966.
Maney, Patrick J. "Young Bob" La Follette: A Biography of
Robert M. La Follette, Jr., 1895–1953. 1978.
John E. Miller