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Labor's Non-Partisan League


With the approach of the presidential election of 1936, labor unions in the United States offered President Franklin D. Roosevelt their undivided support. Never before in American history had a president been so sympathetic to their needs and so willing to convert that sympathy into protective legislation. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 had provided the country's first minimum wage law, had guaranteed the right of unions to bargain collectively, and had outlawed "yellowdog" contracts, which required employees to pledge that they would not join a union. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 went even further, establishing the National Labor Relations Board as an independent federal agency with the power to investigate disputes between labor and management, and enforce legal and judicial regulations regarding labor union rights. The 1935 act also guaranteed majority rule and exclusive representation, outlined unfair practices, and required management to bargain with the labor unions of their employees' choice. William Green, head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), found the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 so extraordinary that he labeled it the "Magna Carta of the labor movement in the United States."

Not surprisingly, such major labor unions as the AFL and the Committee (later Congress) of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and most of their constituent members considered Roosevelt's reelection critically important to the labor movement. Roosevelt was only too eager to get their support. In April 1936, John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers as well as the CIO, founded Labor's Non-Partisan League. Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union and George L. Berry of the Printing Pressman joined Lewis in the effort. Labor's Non-Partisan League, Lewis bluntly said over and over again, existed for one reason: to secure reelection of the president. To make sure that the League did not appear to be a front organization for the Democratic Party, the term Non-Partisan was used, but few were fooled. Labor's Non-Partisan League raised more than $1 million for the president's reelection campaign. On election day, the League provided funds to get Democratic voters to the polls. Finally, the League established the American Labor Party in New York. Many socialists and other left-wing voters wanted Roosevelt reelected, but they were ideologically opposed to supporting the Democratic Party. When the American Labor Party nominated Roosevelt as its presidential candidate, left-wingers could cast a vote for Roosevelt without smudging their virtue.

The effectiveness of Labor's Non-Partisan League will never be accurately measured. Public support for President Roosevelt and the New Deal was already overwhelming. The last thing a substantial majority of Americans wanted in 1936 was to have a Republican back in the White House dismantling the New Deal. When the votes were tabulated, the president won with 27,252,869 popular votes to Landon's 16,674,665; at 523 to 8, the vote in the Electoral College was even more lopsided. William Lemke of the Union Party received 882,479 popular votes and no electoral votes. Labor's Non-Partisan League claimed that their assistance gave the president his margin of victory in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. The 1936 election, however, was the high water mark for the League. Leaders quickly fell into ideological squabbling, rendering the League useless in terms of marshaling political support.

John L. Lewis's decision in 1940 to oppose Roosevelt's reelection, and his endorsement of Republican nominee Wendell Willkie, spelled the demise of Labor's Non-Partisan League. In 1944, the CIO formed its own Political Action Committee, spelling the end of the league. Although Labor's Non-Partisan League had a short life span, its legacy—a constituency forming a political action committee to promote its interests—became standard in American politics.



Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941. 1970.

James S. Olson

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