|ONLINE VERSION||SEPTEMBER 1999|
|Robert F. Wagner: The Man Behind the Act
by Debra E. Bernhardt
On June 8, 1877 in Nastatten, Germany, a child was born who would grow up to serve as New York's Senator from 1927-1949. Robert F. Wagner would draft and push into law dozens of measures in support of workers' economic and social rights, one of the most important of which would be the National Labor Relations or "Wagner" Act which gave workers the right to bargain collectively through unions of their choice.
Wagner was the seventh child of a textile dyer and some-time school teacher. When he was nine, his parents uprooted the family, settling in Yorkville, a German enclave in New York City. The "land of opportunity" did not treat the elder Wagner kindly; he could only find work as a janitor of a tenement where the family lived rent-free in a basement apartment. His mother took in washing and all the children worked to supplement their father's meager income. After school, "Bobby" sold newspapers, delivered groceries and peddled candy.
Remembering the privation of his boyhood, Wagner would later say, "I came through it, yes. But that was luck, luck, luck! Think of the others!" Part of Wagner's good fortune was to have the backing of his eldest brother, August. A cook in the posh New York Athletic Club where he got his brother a bellhop's job, August believe that at least one member of the family should take advantage of free public education. August saw to it that Wagner finished high school, graduating valedictorian of his class in 1983. "Bobby" was able to attend the tuition-free "People's University" -- City College, where he played football and joined the debating team. Upon graduation in 1898, he was about to embark on a career as school teacher when a boyhood friend convinced him to enroll in New York Law School. He graduated with honors, and after passing the bar in 1900, formed a partnership with his friend.
Wagner became involved in politics as many young lawyers do, to build their practices. At that time New York City politics was the domain of the Tammany Hall democratic machine. During the early years of Wagner's political career, according to Wagner's biographer, J. Joseph Huthmacher, the machine belied its unsavory reputation by acting responsively to the needs of its immigrant constituents and furthering the reform impulses of the Progressive Era. Tammany Hall, through young machine democrats like Robert F. Wagner and Alfred E. Smith, became an unlikely cradle for modern urban liberalism.
First elected to the New York State Assembly in 1904, Wagner was hand-picked to serve as president pro tem of the State Senate with only two years Senate experience.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire proved a turning point in the life of the machine democrat. The famous industrial tragedy which occurred on March 25, 1911, claimed the lives of 147 garment workers, most of them young immigrant women. In the fire's wake, unions, socialists and reformers demanded a legislative investigation of working conditions in the state. Wagner and Al Smith, the majority leaders of the state legislature, sponsored the bill creating a New York State Factory Investigating Commission.
Between 1911 and 1915 when Republicans took back control of the State House and the Commission's mandate was allowed to expire, Wagner presided over an unprecedented and excruciatingly detailed analysis of America's new industrial order. Wagner heard hundreds of witnesses testify and made tours of factories and tenements throughout the state. He would not quickly forget what he saw. Based upon the Commission's recommendations, Wagner and Smith introduced 60 measures for humanizing the work place; 56 of them became state law.
When Al Smith was elected New York's governor in 1918, Wagner chose to run for and was elected to the New York State Supreme Court to be closer to his young son and Margaret, his beloved wife of eight years who early in the summer of 1919 was tragically killed in a trolley accident. Wagner never remarried. He threw his energies into work.
Wagner served ably on the bench until 1926 when Tammany Hall drafted him to run for U.S. Senate against a popular Republican incumbent. Because of a split between pro- and anti-prohibition Republicans, Wagner won the seat. There, the shy, mild-mannered, squarely built little man who smoked cigars, liked a good hand of poker, and spoke with a touch of the East Side ("work" became "woik"), moved with "Teutonic tenacity" toward his objectives. His objective had become economic security for all Americans.
Legislation for public workers, public housing, minimum wage, federalizing the crime of lynching, national health insurance and Social Security all bore his stamp. At one point there were so many "Wagner Acts" progressing through Congress, that legislators were forced to ask "Which one?" The Wagner Act, narrowly passed in 1935, guaranteed workers the right to bargain collectively and set up the National Labor Relations Board which Wagner hoped would promote labor-management cooperation, economic recovery and industrial peace.
Wagner served as "the legislative pilot of the New Deal," prodding, planning and supporting Franklin Roosevelt's program. In failing health, he lived to see passage of what he called the "reactionary, unfair, and unduly political" Taft-Hartley "amendments" to his act. He resigned from the Senate in 1949 and died in 1953.
Robert F. Wagner is memorialized in his papers at Georgetown University and the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, which collects and preserves the records of New York City unions.
Dr. Bernhardt is head of the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University.