(The following interview with former Michigan State University Professor and Labor Economist Jack Stieber--who died at the age of 91 in March 2011—about historic labor issues was previously published in the February 5, 1997 issue of the Aquarian/Downtown alternative weekly newspaper.)
Aquarian/Downtown: How did you come to get involved in the study of U.S. labor issues?
Stieber: When I went to college as an undergraduate at CCNY in New York City—it was the Depression in the 1930s and 25 percent or so unemployment—the only way in which young people could see to improve life was to work through labor unions. To help them in any way that we could in organizing. And the New Deal came in about that time when Roosevelt was elected. And he, by getting the National Labor Relations Act passed, encouraged the organization of unions.
Most young people at that time were greatly interested in labor and it was a big issue. If you read the newspapers going back to those days my guess is that you’d almost every day read about organization. Steelworkers being organized. Automobile workers being organized. The internal battle between the A.F. of L. and the newly-organized C.I.O. under John L. Lewis. These were the kind of things that were very interesting. And young people were well aware of them and you were reading about them all the time. We didn’t have television or anything like that, where you would see these things. But those were major issues.
I majored in economics as an undergraduate, with an interest in unions, and took whatever courses there were. And after I graduated in 1940, I started to work in Washington, in what was then called the War Manpower Commission, because the war had already started in Europe. And my job was to make surveys of areas in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. And to estimate what would be the supply of labor needed in various kinds of industries and the available labor force. So that I sort of became a person who was identified as being specialized as an expert in that area.
In 1941 I was drafted and was in the Service for three-and-a-half years. And when I came out, I went to work in the Veterans Emergency Housing Program. It was then headed by Wilson Wyatt, the former mayor of Louisville. And he was already recognized as being presidential timber. The kind of guy that was always in the news and doing things. And I worked in the labor branch of that agency. And the job of the labor branch was to go out in the field when there were disputes between unions and companies and try to resolve them. I was sort of a research assistant in the office.
But there was a lot of competition to get supplies after the war. Our job in the housing agency was to get those supplies to be put into relatively low-cost housing. So that veterans would be able to buy a house for $10,000.
Aquarian/Downtown: Some kind of economic conversion?
Stieber: That’s right. Conversion at that time. But there was a big dispute between Wilson Wyatt and the administration. That instead of the raw materials for housing going into construction, it was going into race tracks and things like that. Where entrepreneurs were seeing a way to make a buck.
Aquarian/Downtown: Has the situation changed much in the ‘90s, in your view?
Stieber: Well, obviously, it still goes on. And politics is important in making these determinations. But the unions, by the end of the War in 1945, had grown very substantially. Because the War Labor Board was between unions and managements, so that there wouldn’t be strikes which would interfere with the war effort. And by that time, of course, there were two federations. John L. Lewis took the major industrial unions—like the steelworkers, the automobile workers, the textile workers, the chemical workers, the electrical workers, etc.—out of the A.F. of L.. It was then the American Federation of Labor on the one hand, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations on the other, which had the federation for the major unions organized in that field.
When the agency folded, I was looking for something to do. And at that time a number of universities established programs in labor and industrial relations. Cornell was the first program that was set up. Other programs were set up almost immediately thereafter. The University of Illinois started a program in industrial relations. The University of Minnesota started a program. And I applied to several of those and became a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.
A friend of mine was Otis Rubaker, who became the research director of the Steelworkers Union. And after I had been in Minnesota, he called me and said `How would you like to work for the Steelworkers Union?’
Well, I sort of felt that I had enough of academic life at that point and went down to Pittsburgh. And, after sitting around for a few hours, was ushered into the office of Philip Murray, who with his old Scottish accent, said `Young mon, I understand from Otis that you are a dedicated young mon who is interested in the union. And if you would like to work for us, why, we’d be glad to have you.’
So I then left Minnesota and moved down to Pittsburgh. And went to work for the Steelworkers Union. This was December, 1948. (end of part 1)