James P. Mitchell: Social Conscience of the Cabinet

By Guzda, Henry P. | Monthly Labor Review, August 1991 | Go to article overview

James P. Mitchell: Social Conscience of the Cabinet


Guzda, Henry P., Monthly Labor Review


Secretary of Labor in an administration widely perceived to be "probusiness, " Mitchell's farsighted attempts to promote peaceful labor relations, address the concerns of disadvantaged citizens, and seize the opportunities offered by new technology won accolades from both sides of the political fence

Henry P. Guzda is an industrial relations specialist, Bureau of Labor-Management Relations and Cooperative Programs, U.S. Department of Labor.

President Dwight David Eisenhower appointed Martin P. Durkin as Secretary of Labor in January 1953. Alleging that the President had reneged on promises to support amendments to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, Durkin resigned, having been in office less than 8 months. Durkin was former president of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters union, and organized labor defended their fellow unionist's efforts to change what they called the "slave labor act."

Eisenhower appointed industrial relations specialist James P. Mitchell to replace Durkin. Joseph Loftus, of The New York Times, wrote that Mitchell "was like a man heading into an Arctic gale in a sunsuit." Most of the labor movement was critical of Mitchell's appointment because he came from management's side of the bargaining table, and labor, in general, viewed the Eisenhower administration as favoring business concerns over workers' interests. Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks, who believed his agency represented business and thus should have a voice in labor policy, deemed the appointment as "incredulous." American Federation of Labor president George Meany stated that "Jim Mitchell will be as good a Secretary of Labor [as Weeks] will let him be." Considering the scenario, The Washington Evening Star asked, why did Mitchell even want the job?

The Secretary-designate also faced internal chaos. Following World War 11, the Congress had practically dismantled the Labor Department, transferring labor functions to other Cabinet or Government bodies. In fact, congressional debate often centered on the possibility of merging the Department of Labor, the smallest of Cabinet agencies, and the Department of Commerce. A.H. Raskin, correspondent for The New York Times, noted that the Department of Labor was disorganized and without proper resources. It was said that morale in the Labor Department was lower than at any other executive agency.

Seven years later, in 1961, incoming Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg accepted the transference of power, thanking Mitchell for delivering to him a strong, vibrant entity. Between 1953 and 1960, programs and resources of the Labor Department expanded dramatically. Although still the smallest agency in the Cabinet, its personnel levels and program funding had increased. Mitchell was instrumental in rebuilding the agency's morale.

In 1961, Department employees expressed their affection for the departing Mitchell by organizing a testimonial dinner. Organized labor also hosted a dinner, and George Meany, not known to praise the Eisenhower administration, introduced the outgoing Secretary as "Jim Mitchell, the best secretary of labor we have ever had!"

Building blocks

James P. Mitchell's life has been described as the classic Horatio Alger story-from rags to riches. He was born in 1900, in a working-class neighborhood in Elizabeth, NJ. His father died in 1912, leaving the family without any means of support. Mitchell's childhood was cut short. He and his two sisters, and his uncle, Thomas Mitchell (15 years old)-a future Academy Award winning actor-were obliged to contribute to the family's support. Despite the hardships, James completed his primary education at Saint Patrick's school in Elizabeth, and graduated from high school in 1917, even managing to devote some spare time to amateur boxing.

In 1919, Mitchell opened a small "butter and egg" dairy store; he opened a second store in 1921. He married his high school sweetheart, Isabelle Nulton, on January 22, 1923, but the young couple had little time to enjoy business success.

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