Collective Bargaining and the Power Question

Dorothy Thompson

Great Falls Tribune/February 2, 1937

Is it not curious that the president, while rebuking Mr. Sloan for refusing to bargain collectively with representatives of the automobile union, and while his secretary of labor seeks increased government powers to enforce a conference, should himself arbitrarily assault the principle of collective bargaining in another field?

I am referring, of course, to the power fight. There is a curious parallel between the attitude of the president and the attitude of Mr. Sloan. Mr. Sloan says he won’t confer as long as the strikers are illegally occupying company territory. The president interrupted negotiations with the utility companies because the utility companies affected in the TVA area will not withdraw injunction suits, although these same suits have been pending since last May, and, although the president called his power conference last September in the full consciousness that the suits were pending and the full knowledge that they would be withdrawn only if the government, on its part, suspended further building of transmission lines until an agreement was reached.

In the one case General Motors refuses to negotiate. In the other, the government refuses.

There is an issue involved of profound importance for the American people. It is, in the estimation of this column, the issue. We are, like all the rest of the world, going through a period of profound social readjustment. And the question is not only what readjustments must be made but it is also: In what spirit and by what method shall we approach a solution of our problems? Are we to seek solution by fundamental democratic methods of investigation, reasonability and knowledge, seeking everywhere the greatest possible measure of consent, or are we to engage in naked contests of power, with the decisions determined by force and maintained by coercion?

The whole philosophical basis of democracy rests on a belief in human reason and the possibility of obtaining collaboration for specific ends between divergent groups. If that basis is abandoned, democracy is lost.

The president’s Portland speech, one of the finest of his campaign, indicated that he intended to approach the power question in the spirit of liberalism and democracy, concentrating on the attainment of objective ends. Those ends were “assurance of good service and low rates to the population” . . . the establishment of “the undeniable right” of any community “to set up its own governmentally owned and operated service”; the conservation of private utility operation and investment wherever fair rates are charged and only reasonable profits made.

“When state-owned or federal-owned power sites are so developed private capital should be given the first opportunity to transmit and distribute power on the basis of the best service and the lowest rates to give reasonable profit only.”

The calling of the power conference to discuss a pool; the appointment of a power policy committee to work out a solution between private and public interests, were all along the line of a liberal approach.

The power policy committee contained representatives of the interested parties—TVA and the private utilities in the field—Mr. Ickes, representatives of the federal power commission, Mr. Cooke of rural electrification, two representatives from the SEC and some of the most enlightened industrialists and technical advisers on finance of this country: Russell Leffingwell, one of the few men amongst bankers or bankers’ advisers who have defended the major parts of the president’s financial program; Alexander Sachs, who has spent years studying the power question and co-ordinations which have been made elsewhere in the world; and Louis Brandeis Wehle, a nephew of the Supreme Court justice, as another independent adviser.

It was a sympathetic committee, and if any group of men in the country was capable of working out a program along the lines of the Portland speech and bringing to it the prestige of knowledge, this group was.

It was charged on Oct. 1 to work out plans for realizing an administration program, outlined on broad lines, and it was approaching a reasonable compromise when it was wrecked by the extremists of the TVA and the senate. The wreckage was accompanied by extremely misleading public statements and the sort of headlines Mr. Roosevelt deplored, when, in another case, they were used by John Lewis.

Senator Norris, on Jan. 14, stated that the utilities have not in good faith lived up to their agreement at the White House conference; that at that conference there was an agreement to extend until February the contract between the TVA and the Commonwealth & Southern Corp., and that in violation of the terms of that extension and as soon as the extension was made, the utilities got out an injunction hamstringing the TVA in everything.

Wendell Willkie was able to produce evidence in the form of a correspondence with the president that Senator Norris’ statement was not in harmony with the facts and in this he was publicly supported by Mr. Wehle. And the true state of mind back of the extremists was expressed in Senator Norris’s other statement that “public and private power can no more mix than oil and water.”

That is a statement of opinion, rather than fact, and the opinion has little to support it. In all the democratic countries, public and private enterprise in the utility field is very happily mixed—in Great Britain and in Sweden, for instance, and obviously it was to find a way of mixing them that the president called a conference in the first place.

The reaction of a large part of the liberal press indicates that it has forgotten the essence of liberalism and prefers to join the fanatics, who are accustomed to redouble their efforts when they lose sight of their aim. Jay Franklin, for instance, joined the ranks of the demonologists when he attacked Dr. Arthur Morgan’s public statement on TVA policy. For Mr. Franklin’s whole attack on Dr. Morgan was centered around the argument that Dr. Morgan agreed with Mr. Willkie.

“For a concededly honest man.” he said, “Dr. Morgan could have done little more for the private utilities had he been on the payroll of the Commonwealth & Southern.” It seems utterly out of the question to Mr. Franklin that Dr. Morgan and Mr. Willkie actually might come to agreement honestly at any point. For Mr. Franklin, and for Senator Norris, and Mr. Lillenthal this is plainly not a question of finding the best method for giving the people cheap power and protecting their interests but is a fight between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Such a fight, being completely subjective, is never compromisable.

One might answer the devil chasers in Washington with another statement of Dr. Morgan’s, which has nothing to do with the power issue but is a statement of faith. I quote from the notes of Antioch College:

“The foundation of civilized society is reliance on intelligent and sympathetic fairness and reasonableness rather than on arbitrary power. Only to the extent that men have confidence that issues will be decided by efforts to reach the most reasonable conclusions can men disarm, physically, economically and socially.”

That is a liberal statement and whether the liberal spirit will prevail in the next four years will determine whether we are to move forward into new social and economic forms with a maximum of unity and consent or settle down to bitter warfare. And war—the liberals have always said—never really settles anything but merely sows the seeds for new wars.

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