La Follette Civil Liberties Committee Hearings
LA FOLLETTE CIVIL LIBERTIES COMMITTEE HEARINGS
LA FOLLETTE CIVIL LIBERTIES COMMITTEE HEARINGS. From 1936 to 1940, a special committee of the U.S. Senate, known as the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee, held the most extensive hearings in American history to that date into employer violations of the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Conducted by Senator Robert M. La Follette Jr. of Wisconsin, the hearings exposed the heavy-handed, often brutal tactics many of the nation's leading corporations used to prevent their workers from forming unions.
A colorful cast of witnesses, including unrepentant businesspeople and strikebreakers, told how companies had planted spies within the ranks of labor; stockpiled weapons, such as submachine guns, rifles, and tear gas; and subverted local law enforcement by hiring their own police forces. The two most famous sets of hearings both occurred in 1937. In the spring the La Follette committee investigated oppressive conditions in the coal-mining company towns of Harlan County, Kentucky. In the summer the committee staged dramatic hearings into the Memorial Day Massacre, during which police had killed ten strikers and wounded a hundred others outside the gates of Republic Steel's South Chicago factory. In 1939 and 1940 the committee brought its investigations to a close by holding hearings on the plight of migrant farm workers in the fruit and vegetable fields of California.
Business critics accused La Follette and his cochair, Senator Elbert D. Thomas of Utah, of rigging the hearings in favor of labor, and indeed the sympathies of committee members did rest with workers. But most commentators gave the committee high marks for procedural fairness and for safeguarding the rights of witnesses. Although some communists or communist sympathizers served on the committee's staff, no evidence indicated that they significantly influenced the committee's hearings or its voluminous reports and legislative recommendations.
By turning the spotlight on oppressive labor practices, the hearings put corporations on the defensive and helped spur the growth of organized labor during the depression decade. The committee's ninety-five volumes of hearings and reports are one of the best sources of information on labor-management relations in the 1930s.
Auerbach, Jerold S. Labor and Liberty: The La Follette Committee and the New Deal. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.
Maney, Patrick J. Young Bob: A Biography of Robert M. La Follette, Jr. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2002.
U.S. Congress, Senate, Subcommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor. Hearings Pursuant to S. Res. 266, Violations of Free Speech and Rights of Labor. 74th–76th Cong., 1936–1940.