Look to the past to understand income inequality

04/01/2014 3:11 PM

04/01/2014 3:11 PM

Few political issues are more combustible than that of rising inequality in American society. We seem unable to agree even on how to measure inequality, let alone what can or should be done about it. Yet consensus was not always so elusive, as the nation discovered in the aftermath of a tragedy that occurred 100 years ago this month.

On April 20, 1914, some two dozen men, women, and children were ruthlessly killed by state militia mobilized to put down a strike at a Rockefeller-owned coal mine in Ludlow, Colo. The so-called Ludlow Massacre capped a series of bloody confrontations between labor and capital that helped galvanize public opinion behind legislation long advocated by progressive reformers.

Leading the reform brigade was the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations (IRC), which investigated the massacre under its congressional mandate to “seek to discover the underlying causes of dissatisfaction in the industrial situation and report its conclusions thereon.” The blue-ribbon commission — proposed by Republican President William Howard Taft and launched by his Democratic successor, Woodrow Wilson — outlined a robust vision for social and economic justice that sets a high bar for today’s progressives.

The IRC’s chairman was a charismatic, street-smart Kansas City labor attorney, Frank P. Walsh, whom Wilson picked in part to shore up his support among organized labor. Under Walsh’s colorful and frequently combative leadership, the commission held national hearings, taking testimony from Andrew Carnegie, “Big Bill” Haywood, Samuel Gompers, Louis Brandeis and Henry Ford, as well as blue-collar workers, business people and industrial relations experts.

In early 1915, Walsh invited John D. Rockefeller Jr. to give the IRC the benefit of his views on the tragedy in Colorado. The young plutocrat had good reason to be wary: Less than a decade earlier, his father had been brought to heel by Missouri’s Republican attorney general, Herbert Hadley, in the course of a brilliantly argued antitrust prosecution that helped set the stage for the Taft administration’s breakup of Standard Oil in 1911.

Junior, who had resigned most of his corporate directorships to reinvent himself as a philanthropist, countered Walsh’s inquisition by mounting a charm offensive. At a hearing in New York City Hall, he spotted Mother Jones in the crowd, extended his hand, and invited the legendary labor organizer to stop by his office for a chat, saying, “There are so many things on which you can enlighten me.”

Unluckily for Rockefeller, government investigators soon uncovered hard evidence of his complicity in the mining company’s actions. In their final report to Congress, Walsh and his fellow commissioners unanimously condemned the widening gap between haves and have-nots as posing an existential threat to American democracy. Among the far-reaching reforms they recommended were recognition of workers’ right to unionize and bargain collectively, a living wage, an 8-hour workday and equal pay for women.

The IRC’s bipartisan consensus testifies to a moment when Americans recognized that workers had been denied their fair share of the wealth generated by the nation’s expanding economy. Redressing the balance was widely seen as a matter of both fairness and national security. A century later, progressives hungry for change they can believe in could do worse than take a page from Frank Walsh’s playbook.

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