Roche, Josephine (1886–1976)

views updated

Roche, Josephine (1886–1976)

American labor leader and U.S. Treasury official. Born Josephine Aspinwall Roche in Neligh, Nebraska, on December 2, 1886; died in Bethesda, Maryland, on July 13, 1976; daughter of John J. Roche (a mine owner) and Ella (Aspinwall) Roche; Vassar College, B.A., 1908; Columbia University, M.S.W., 1910; married Edward Hale Bierstadt (a broadcast writer), on July 2, 1920 (divorced 1922); no children.

Became first woman police officer in Denver, Colorado (1912); operated the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, the second largest coal mining company in Colorado (1927–39); first woman to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, under President Franklin Roosevelt (1934–37); named one of ten outstanding women in the United States (1936); organized and ran the United Mine Workers' welfare and retirement fund (1947–71).

Josephine Roche was born in Neligh, Nebraska, on December 2, 1886, a child of privilege as the daughter of millionaire mine operator John J. Roche. When she was 12, her father denied her request to visit the mines on account of the danger involved, prompting her to ask, "Then why is it safe enough for the miners?" This early sympathy eventually developed into an unyielding commitment to the improvement of labor conditions that affected change far beyond her father's Rocky Mountain Fuel Company. Although as a wealthy society woman she easily could have ignored the problems of labor, she chose to identify with downtrodden workers from the early years of the labor movement.

Roche developed her activist beliefs while at Vassar College, graduating in 1908 with an ardent desire to improve the welfare of children and fight crime. For a year following her graduation, she worked as a probation officer in Denver, Colorado, where her family had moved in 1906. She left that job to pursue a master's degree in social work at Columbia University in New York. Social reformer, labor advocate and later U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins also spent that year at Columbia, and the two became good friends, sharing similar ideas on social reform and public welfare issues. Roche worked for the New York Probation Society while finishing her degree (granted in 1910), and afterwards probed further into social and industrial investigations for Columbia and the Russell Sage Foundation, founded by Margaret Olivia Sage .

When she returned to Denver in 1912, Roche became Denver's first woman police officer, and was said to be more successful in controlling crime than the city's best male officers. When interoffice conflicts forced her out of the job, she became the executive secretary of the Colorado Progressive Society. Roche devoted herself to this endeavor until 1915, when she took an assignment in Europe during World War I as a special agent for the Belgian Relief Commission. Her brief return to Denver as director of the Girls' Department in the city's juvenile court was interrupted by her appointment by President Woodrow Wilson to serve on the Committee on Public Information and as director of the Foreign Language Information Service when the United States entered the war in 1918. Roche was responsible for coordinating editors of foreign-language newspapers in the government's efforts to disseminate information about U.S. activities to foreign populations. She remained in that post until 1923, when she became the director of the editorial division of the U.S. Children's Bureau in Washington. In 1925, she returned to Denver as referee of Denver's juvenile court.

When Roche's father died in 1927, she inherited his shares in the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, the second largest coal mining company in Colorado at the time. She quickly proved that her ownership in the company did not affect her loyalty to her ideals; she justified a strike at the company before the State Industrial Commission by citing intolerable working conditions. Indeed, Roche had inherited stock in a company rife with abuse of its workers. The company frequently cheated miners out of their full wages through the use of illegal scales for weighing the coal, and poor working conditions hampered miners' productivity in addition to contributing to numerous accidents and diseases. Her father had employed Pinkerton agents as moles to keep tabs on those miners who had dared discuss organizing, and a recent riot spurred by workers who belonged to the International Workers of the World (IWW or "Wobblies") had resulted in the deaths of six miners. The Industrial Commission's investigation of the riot ended with the recommendation that the miners be allowed to unionize, a recommendation with which Roche fully agreed. Other stockholders took exception to her efforts on behalf of the miners, and received an even greater shock when she proposed that the United Mine Workers of America be invited to unionize the Rocky Mountain workers. Roche took the shareholders up on their threats to sell their stocks, and quickly acquired a majority interest. Her first order of business was to appoint union-friendly officers in the company. She herself became vice-president; the new counsel was Edward P. Costigan, attorney for the United Mine Workers; and the director and manager was John P. Lawson, a former president of the Colorado State Federation of Labor whose unjust sentence of life imprisonment in connection with the infamous Ludlow massacre of miners and their families had been overturned by the Supreme Court. Roche followed that move by announcing that the company was ready to sign a union contract with the workers as soon as they organized. The 1928 contract was one of the first industrial union agreements west of the Mississippi.

Assuming the presidency of the company in 1929, Roche initiated sweeping changes. Rocky Mountain Fuel offered the highest wages of any company in Colorado, at $7 a day, and vastly improved working conditions in the mines. Workers responded to Roche's changes with greater productivity on an average of three tons more coal per day than other mining companies in the state. Roche also backed out of agreements with other contractors designed to eliminate competition by dividing the markets among themselves, earning the ire of her competitors. In retaliation, other mining companies initiated a pricing war, drastically reducing their prices by cutting their workers' pay. Rocky Mountain employees came to Roche's aid by lending the company half their wages until the pricing war ended. By 1932, Roche had come out on top. Rocky Mountain Fuel had doubled its share of coal in the state, and workers put in more days of work per year than did those at any other company. Although Roche had to slash the daily wage to $5.25 in order to stay competitive during the Depression, she still was able to offer $0.25 more than other companies.

Roche's leadership in the mining industry also gave her a leadership role in the formation of the National Bituminous Coal Code, and she worked actively as a member of the Bituminous Coal Authority. In 1934, publicly prodded by a number of newspaper editors, she entered politics, running for governor of Colorado with the campaign slogan "Roosevelt, Roche and Recovery." Her political platform backed Roosevelt's New Deal and called for a change in the state income tax. She had the support of liberals across the state and the country, and swept the vote in cities, but lost the election largely because of gender prejudice among conservatives in rural areas of the state.

Despite her defeat, Roche returned to Washington in 1934, when President Roosevelt appointed her the first woman to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Taking the helm of the U.S. Public Health Service (which was then part of the Treasury), she successfully coordinated the government's various health services and initiated studies of chronic disease and rural sanitation. As part of her job, she acted as the Secretary of the Treasury's representative to the President's Cabinet Commission on Economic Security, lending a hand to that commission's establishment of the National Social Security Act. Her other appointments included chair of the executive committee of the National Youth Administration and chair of the interdepartmental committee to coordinate the health and welfare activities of the U.S. government.

In 1937, Roche resigned her treasury position in order to fill a leadership gap in Rocky Mountain Fuel, which was experiencing a downturn in the competition with natural gas fields and oil. She was unable to secure financial help from the company's bondholders, and her failure to create a compromise after two years led her to step down as head of the company in 1939. That same year she became president of the National Consumers' League, and continued her political work in the area of health.

In 1947, labor leader John L. Lewis recruited Roche as the first director of the United Mine Workers' welfare and retirement fund. During her 24-year administration of the fund, $2.5 billion was collected, with $1.2 billion paid out in pensions and another $900 million spent on medical care for miners and their families. The American Public Health Association cited the fund as a model health services program and awarded it the Albert Lasker Award in 1956. American Women named Roche one of the ten outstanding women in the United States in 1936, and in 1941 the Federation of Women's Clubs cited her as one of the women making great strides in the first half of the 20th century. She retired from the UMW welfare and retirement fund in 1971, when she was in her mid-80s, and died in Bethesda, Maryland, in July 1976.


Bernikow, Louise. The American Women's Almanac. NY: Berkley, 1997.

Bird, Caroline. Enterprising Women. NY: New American Library, 1976.

Block, Maxine, ed. Current Biography 1941. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1941.

The New York Times Biographical Service. July 1976, p. 1059.

Jane E. Spear , freelance writer and editor, Canton, Ohio

About this article

Roche, Josephine (1886–1976)

Updated About content Print Article