The Careers of 18 Labor Secretaries

By Grossman, Jonathan | Monthly Labor Review, February 1988 | Go to article overview

The Careers of 18 Labor Secretaries


Grossman, Jonathan, Monthly Labor Review


The careers of 18 Labor Secretaries

The role of a Secretary of Labor and his or her place in history is determined by a combination of personal qualities -- and circumstances beyond the Secretary's control while in office JONATHAN GROSSMAN

On March 4, 1913, Congress created "an executive department in the Government to be called the Department of Labor, with a Secretary of Labor, who shall be the head thereof, to be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate ...." The purpose of the Department of Labor shall be "to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States ...."(1) In the 75 years since then, there have been 19 Secretaries from varied backgrounds and with different philosophies regarding the Department. The first three Secretaries were labor leaders. Six came from the ranks of the trade union movement. Others have been lawyers, professors, politicians, businessmen, and personnel directors.

(1)Public Law 426, 62d Cong.

Early secretaries

The first Secretary of Labor, William B. Wilson, would not recognize the Department over which he presided from 1913 to 1921. When he assumed office under President Woodrow Wilson, there were about 2,000 employees, of whom more than 90 percent worked on the immigration and naturalization functions of the Department. Now there are about 18,000 employees. In 1913 (aside from immigration laws), the Department administered no statutes but today the Department is a regulatory agency.

Secretary Wilson emigrated from Scotland when he was 8 years old and soon worked 10 hours a day loading carts in a Pennsylvania coal mine. At age 14, he was secretary of a coal miners' local union. He later became secretary-treasurer of the national union. In 1906, Wilson ran for Congress and won a narrow victory. He represented the 15th Pennsylvania District for 6 years and was a leading advocate of a bill to create a Cabinet-rank Department of Labor.

As Secretary of Labor, Wilson explained that even though the purpose of the Department was to promote the welfare of American workers, "in the execution of that purpose the element of fairness to every interest is of equal importance ... fairness between wage earner and wage earner, between wage earner and employer ...."(2) Despite this declaration of fairness, however, business generally mistrusted the Department. Secretary Wilson asserted that no other Department of the Federal Government had been organized under such trying circumstances. One example is the fact that although Congress had authorized the Department to conciliate labor disputes, it provided no funds for that activity. Wilson drew from the limited resources of other bureaus and created a Conciliation Division, yet neither striking workers nor employers utilized the service to any great extent.

(2)Annual Report, 1913, quoted in O. L. Harvey, ed., The Anvil and the Plow: U.S. Department of Labor, 1913-1963 (Washington, U.S. Government Printing office, 1963), pp. 11, 13.

World War I changed the situation. If a Department of Labor had not existed at the outbreak of the war, Secretary Wilson said, Congress would have had to create one. To mobilize labor, 15 departmental bureaus, services, and boards were created. The number of employees increased to more than 6,000. While it is difficult to describe the achievements of all the labor agencies participating in the war effort, a partial listing indicates their scope and significance: the U.S. Employment Service, the War Labor Policies Board, the Women in Industry Service, the Division of Negro Economics, the Farm Service Division, the Child Labor Division, the Working Conditions Service, and the U.S. Housing Corp.

In 1917, Secretary Wilson became chairman of the President's Mediation Commission, a body which mediated thousands of wartime labor disputes. The President also created the War Labor Administration to coordinate labor activities of the government.

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