Wagner, Robert F.

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Robert F. Wagner

born june 8, 1877 nastätten, germany


died may 4, 1953 new york, new york


u.s. senator




"He is one of the most approachable men in the Senate. He is 'Bob' to his friends, and those who know and admire him refer to him in this manner."

from senator robert f. wagner and the rise of urban liberalism

A German immigrant, U.S. senator Robert F. Wagner was a political champion for the worker and common citizen in the United States. He embraced progressive politics, strongly believing that the government had a responsibility to help solve pressing social problems. (Progressive ideas gained support from a variety of groups in the United States in the early twentieth century.) In the Senate Wagner was one of the leading advocates of President Franklin D. Roosevelt 's (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) New Deal in the 1930s and President Harry Truman's Fair Deal programs later on. (The New Deal was a collection of federal legislation and programs designed by the Roosevelt administration to aid those most affected by the Great Depression, America's worst economic crisis. The Fair Deal was Truman's proposed program to promote greater racial and economic equality in American society.) Throughout his career Wagner contended that in an industrial society, it is the government's role to provide economic security for the working class. To achieve this goal of economic security, Wagner sought a balance of power between business and labor and supported the workers' right to form labor unions. A spokesman for the disadvantaged, Wagner created legislation that had great influence for the remainder of the twentieth century. His numerous legislative victories included recognizing the rights of workers to organize into unions and creating public housing for the poor.



A gifted student

Robert F. Wagner was born in June 1877 in Nastätten, a small Rhineland village near Wiesbaden, Germany. He was one of the youngest of seven children in the family. His father, Reinhard Wagner, ran a local dyeing and printing business. Farmers and villagers brought their homespun woolens and other textiles to him for coloring. His mother, Magdalene, was a schoolteacher. Although they were reasonably comfortable financially, the Wagners decided to immigrate to the United States in 1886, when Robert was eight years old, to seek better economic opportunities for their children. They settled in New York's Upper East Side in Yorktown, a German immigrant colony. It was a tough area full of poverty and occupied mostly by lower-working-class immigrants. With industrialization in America well established, Reinhard found little demand for a craftsman dyer. Instead he worked as a janitor for various tenement houses, earning five dollars a week and receiving a basement apartment for the family. Magdalene did washing for money, and the children made additional money for the family by doing odd jobs. Even young Robert would sell newspapers and deliver groceries after school.


Robert's parents decided that at least one of their children should have a chance at a college education. Robert, who graduated at the top of his class in high school, was the chosen one. Readily meeting the relatively high academic standards of City College of New York, Robert enrolled in the tuition-free school. While attending college Robert worked as a bellhop at the New York Athletic Club, where he became acquainted with many of New York's wealthy residents. He was a well-rounded student, excelling in academics and the debate team as well as being quarterback and captain of the football team and shortstop on the baseball team. In 1896 with Robert established in school, Reinhard and Magdalene, tired after a decade of hard work making ends meet, returned to Germany. When Robert earned his degree in 1898, a close friend convinced him to seek a law degree. Wagner graduated from New York Law School with honors in 1900.



New York law and politics

Fresh out of school, Wagner began a New York law practice and became active in the Democratic Party. He first served as a local representative of the New York Democratic political machine (an organization that tightly controls a political party's activities in a particular city or region) known as Tammany Hall, which dominated the city's politics until 1933. He also joined other organizations and made many useful political and business contacts. Quickly showing aptitude in politics, Wagner won a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1904 and moved to the state's upper house in 1908. That same year he married an Irish American woman, Margaret Marie McTague. They had a son, Robert F. Wagner Jr. (1910–1991), who would later become mayor of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s.


With the rise of progressive politics in New York in the early 1900s, Wagner embraced progressive social reform goals, seeking to change society to better meet the needs of workers and the common citizen. As a young legislator he successfully sponsored a highly popular public transit bill that reduced fares for many working-class riders who commuted long distances. With his reputation rising, in 1910 at age thirty-three Wagner became the youngest legislator in New York history to assume the lead of the state senate. In all, he guided fifty-six reform bills through the New York legislature, addressing a wide range of labor and industrial concerns. One of his biggest successes was regulation of public utilities through the creation of the Public Service Commission, which had the task of overseeing the rates charged for gas, electricity, and public transportation. Regulation of these everyday expenses served to protect the average citizen's pocketbook. Wagner also established a workmen's compensation law to make payments to workers injured on the job. It was considered the most effective legislation of its kind in the nation at the time. After a tragic industrial fire in New York City killed almost 150 workers, Wagner played a critical role in the investigation. Using the findings to support his arguments, he pushed through labor laws that addressed workplace safety and sanitation, restricted child labor, and limited working hours for women. He was less successful sponsoring legislation designed to promote labor unions by legally protecting their activities.

In 1918 Wagner was elected to the New York State Supreme Court, one of the busiest judicial districts in the nation. As a justice he handed down a number of historic decisions, including rulings that protected the rights of striking workers and rulings that upheld laws controlling rent prices. He issued the first court order in U.S. legal history requiring an employer to honor an agreement with its workers. Reluctant to leave a stable position of influence, he nevertheless accepted the Democratic Party's call to run for the U.S. Senate in 1926. His campaign was successful, and he joined the Senate in 1927. Constantly supporting the underdog, he would serve in the Senate with sweeping popular support for twenty-two years.



Economic hard times

With the onset of the Great Depression in late 1929, Wagner sought to bring economic relief to the common person and worker. During President Herbert Hoover 's (1874–1964; served 1929–33; see entry) term, Wagner pushed for improved gathering and tracking of labor statistics and for deficit government spending (spending more than received in revenues) to fund public works projects that would aid the unemployed. Public works projects funded by the government included construction of roads, public buildings, and parks; these projects created many new jobs. Wagner believed the jobs would increase public purchasing power, which would stimulate industrial recovery. After having had one public works bill vetoed by Hoover, Wagner pushed through the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, which Hoover reluctantly signed, in 1932.

In 1933 the Democrats, led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, came into power. Wagner became a leading supporter and defender of Roosevelt's New Deal programs. He began as sponsor of the Federal Emergency Relief Act and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. Both provided jobs for the unemployed. Wagner played a leading role in drafting the key industrial recovery legislation, the National

The Wagner Act


Only five weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was unconstitutional, Senator Robert Wagner successfully worked a new piece of labor legislation through Congress. On July 5, 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), reasserting the right of workers to organize into unions. The NLRA, more commonly called the Wagner Act after Senator Wagner, is the most important piece of labor legislation in U.S. history. The act prohibits employers from firing employees simply for joining a union. It also prohibits companies from engaging in certain unfair business practices, including interfering in union activities, refusing to bargain with a union, or gaining control over a labor organization. The act also bars unions from requiring workers to join a union. To enforce these provisions, the Wagner Act created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), whose members are appointed by the president for terms of five years. The NLRB holds considerable power to enforce the law. For example, when a company violates the act, the NLRB can issue a cease and desist order demanding that an employer halt questionable activities. If the company persists, the NLRB can go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for a ruling to force the company to stop unfair practices. The NLRB promotes unions by helping workers hold elections to decide whether to form a union and, if a union is formed, elections to determine their representatives. After passage of the Wagner Act, the number of unions in the United States rapidly increased.




Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). He was particularly interested in three of its provisions: the right of workers to bargain collectively for improved working conditions through independent labor unions; establishment of industrial codes for minimum wages, maximum hours, and working conditions; and establishment of the Public Works Administration (PWA) to create jobs for the unemployed. The NIRA also created the National Labor Board (NLB) to settle labor disputes and make sure NIRA programs were carried out. Wagner was named head of the NLB. However, the board had insufficient power to be effective; many companies refused to recognize unions and defied the spirit of the act. Frustrated with the NLB, in March 1934 Wagner introduced the Labor Disputes bill, which was designed to give the NLB enforcement powers. However, the bill faced strong industry opposition and got nowhere in Congress.


When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on May 27, 1935, that the NIRA was unconstitutional, Wagner already had a stronger new bill in the works. The bill, introduced in Congress on February 21, 1935, more effectively recognized the rights of workers. It was designed to strengthen certain aspects of the NIRA, such as enforcing workers' rights rather than simply settling labor disputes. Formally named the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), but more commonly called the Wagner Act after Senator Wagner, it was passed on July 5, 1935. The landmark act prohibited certain unfair labor practices and created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to oversee management-labor relations. Wagner also sponsored many other acts through the 1930s, including the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act of 1937. The housing act established the U.S. Housing Authority and provided federal funds for low-income housing.

Other legislative efforts proved less successful. Wagner's concern for victims of racial discrimination led to his cosponsoring an antilynching bill in the Senate. The bill was introduced in January 1934, but strong resistance from Southern members of Congress and the absence of Roosevelt's endorsement led to the bill's ultimate demise by February 1938. Wagner also actively supported unsuccessful bills prohibiting discriminatory voting laws. In foreign policy, Wagner joined Roosevelt in sounding early alarms about the rise of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and Nazism in Germany. He was also out-spoken in favor of allowing an increased flow of Jewish refugees to enter the United States from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.


Postwar period

After World War II (1939–45) Wagner became involved in a wide range of issues once again, including labor, Social Security, full employment (an economic condition where job opportunities are plentiful and unemployment rates are kept below 6 percent), housing, international economic assistance, the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, and economic development of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the Northeast. Wagner had success with legislation promoting public housing and urban redevelopment, and the Jewish state, Israel, became a reality in 1948. With the strong support of President Harry Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) Wagner also promoted legislation for national health insurance and civil rights. However, the conservative Congress made Wagner's proposals increasingly difficult to pass. A major defeat came when Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over Truman's veto. The act revised the NLRA and reduced the power that Wagner had helped labor achieve in the previous decade.

With his health failing, Wagner quietly resigned from the Senate on June 28, 1949. In his retirement statement he proudly proclaimed that he could count more legislative victories than defeats in the battle for human rights. During his years of service Wagner had reflected the rise of progressive politics and the increased political power of immigrants. He died in New York City in May 1953 in the same neighborhood where he grew up as a young immigrant boy.


For More Information

dubofsky, melvyn. the state and labor in modern america. chapel hill, nc: university of north carolina, 1994.

huthmacher, j. joseph. senator robert f. wagner and the rise of urban liberalism. new york, ny: atheneum, 1968.

martin, george. madam secretary: frances perkins. boston, ma: houghton mifflin, 1976.

tomlins, christopher l. the state and the unions: labor relations, law, and the organized labor movement in america, 1880–1960. cambridge, ny: cambridge university press, 1985.