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Humanitarian initiatives during the 1960's.

Humanitarian initiatives during the 1960's

When he was asked, shortly after the 1956 presidential campaign, to comment on the American political process, Adlai Stevenson demurred -- on the grounds that an egg (or an egghead, the erudite candidate added) is a poor jude of an eggbeater. He was not pressed further.

Although Cabinet service is a less harrowing experience, former Secretaries subpoenaed to testify regarding their tenures properly recognize relate restraints. The view from the front office is inevitably skewed. Its occupants play only a small part in the operations that 10,000 or 15,000 people in the Department carry on. And especially after 20 years, the realization sets in that memory serves more as a filter than a looking glass. This testimony will benefit from brevity.

The early and middle 1960's were unquestionably a gratifying, often exhilarating, time to be in the Department of Labor. A new President, John F. Kennedy, looking with youth's idealism at the stars of human purpose, charted a course for the nation that would be hard to hold. When totally senseless and inconceivable tragedy tore those hands from the tiller, casting a pall that never lifted, history's perhaps most skillful political navigator, Lyndon B. Johnson, kept that course and carried it forward. In 2 years, 1964 and 1965, more was done to reassert the country's authentic human values, as many of us see them today, than during any previous decade, with the possible exception of the 1930's.

Whatever is properly identified as the Labor Department's significance and character during the 1962-68 period is drawn from broader developments. The centered on the outlawing of two centuries of discrimination, bordering on bigotry, that had been based on race and gender. One critical expression of these biases had been in employment. The Departmenths performance would be properly measured by what was done or was not done to establish equal job opportunity. I remember our feeling at the time was more of frustration than satisfaction. Yet perhaps we went as far -- in adding the "affirmative action" requirement, for example -- as we could.

Establishing equal job opportunity became more than just a matter of enforcing new laws. It seemed fair to say in my 1968 Annual Report (perhaps one of the few in this series written by the person who signed it):

There emerged in the Department during this period...a sense of a dimension of the "welfare of phrase was adopted in 1913 as the Department's charge and charter. This is his or her welfare... not just as a wage earner but as a human being... (There was) new questioning of the extent to which the worker is correctly conceived of us being created to meet the needs of the enterprise and the system, and of the extent to which it is the others way around...It was the unifying and dignifying theme in the history of the Department of Labor, 1963 to 1968, that wage earners -- and those seeking that status -- are people. Not statistics. Not drones. Human beings -- for whom work ... constitutes one of the potential ultimate satisfactions.

If, in time's perspective, the reach of outs rhetoric appears to have exceeded the grasp of our achievements, this is whats we are looking for.

The 1963-68 period is commonly marked in the Department's history by the emergence of what was called, until the phrase became obsolete, a manpower program. Subsequent questioning of the effectiveness of that startup phrase of this program confirms its significance. Our satisfaction was not in providing employment or training for 3 million people -- which was too few -- but in getting it recognized that the working of the economy includes no dynamic that will assure a match between available jobs and people's competence to perform them. Two decades later, the country is still only edging towards the realization that achieving the national potential depends on a vastly enlarged and invigorated educational program, in which job and career training is a carefully articlulated piece -- and in my own view, on the development of a national service program, directed particularly at the needs of young people.

In a broader sense, whatever were the important elements of the Department's character then, as in any period, emerges from looking at what seeds were planted rather than from measuring the harvest of legislative accomplishment . It was a period when, despite the gains in 1964 and 1965, the country was trying beyond its achievements.

The Department provided a regiment for the "war on poverty." If this, too, stands out in time's perspective more for its aspirations than that, here again, the neutralizing of poverty requires giving all children, regardless of their roots and circumstances, the tools to make the highest and best use of what they have in them.

We tried in 1965 and 1966 to press the Congress to make substantial changes in the unemployment insurance system, which was then -- as it is today -- essentially the same as it had been for 30 years. The potential for tying this system into a retraining program for displaced workers is immense.

Our efforts to stop the slow murder that was going on in the uranium mines were at least partly successful, and the President's "Mission Safety" program to reduce injuries to Federal employees made significant gains. However, efforts to get a national occupational health and safety program enacted fell short. Our succesors did what we were not able to.

I suspect that one of the Department's major contributions during the 1960's was in the area of Federal employment relationships. At the President's instruction in 1967, an interagency committee -- chaired by the Secretary of Labor, directed in large measure by the Assistant Secretary for Labor-Management Relations, and assisted immeasurably by a distinguished panel of experts from outside the Government -- prepared a report recommending the establishment of a new system for handling collective bargaining and grievance adjustments within the Government. The report -- published, but not formally transmitted -- would constitute much of the basis for Title VII of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

It has been interesting to watch from the sidelines the evolving appraisal of the "humanitarian" initiatives the Government -- and the country -- took in the 1960's. They are sometimes judged by standards that question the acdvisability of large governmtal expenditures and of reducing unemployment at the risk of increasing the threat of inflation. As of 1968, unemployment stood at 3.3 percent, exactly half of what it had in 1960; annual inflation had average, over those 8 years, 2.2 percent; the national debt stood in 1986 at $669.8 billion, a fraction of its current level. No one in the Department of Labor would claim the slightest credit for this record. It suggests broadly the context in which these programs developed.

Even briefest appraisal of what happened during the 1960's would be critically incomplete without recognition of the key role that organized labor was playing then in the country's affairs. This is sometimes recalled in terms of the freqeunt recurrence during that period of industry-wide collective bargaining controversies that seemed to threaten the entire economy. That problem has been outgrown. it was more importants that the AFL-CIO supported every human welfare initiative taken by the administration -- involving civil rights, civil liberties, education, housing, the fight against poverty -- and represented the political swing force on many of them.

The national momemtum from which the Department had drawn much of its strength was lost late in the decade. I suppose the bitterness of divided feelings about Vietnam was primarily responsible. We learned that any government agency's effectiveness in shaping policy is largely a function of forces that it can control only in very slight measure.

It is harder, perhaps impossible, to appraise the Department's performance during that period on the operational fronts which cover 95 percent or so of its job. These are in large measure the responsibility, as a practical matter, of career personnel. The Department has always been the beneficiary of a tradition of proud and competent civil servants.

We did try to improve the effectiveness of what is essentially a two-government system: one professional (and relatively permanent), the other political (and temporary). new political officers get little real feel the first year or two of the workings of a career staff. We had the advantages of having only three Secretaries of Labor during the 16-year period between 1952 and 1968 and of having an unsual continuity among subcabinet officers during most of the 1960's.

The 1968 annual report details the effort that were made to increase the effectiveness of the two-government system. They were concentrated on improving the channels of communications, especially those that ought to carry ideas up the line as well as down. we didn't get very far. Our conclusion that "the Department's effectiveness would be doubled if its prose were cut in half" stopped just shorts of indicating how this would be accomplished.

We tried to develop, under the leadership of an extraordinary Assistant Secretary for Administration, a "modern management system" that would permit objective measurements of work performance. Considering this particularly important in the two-government system, we encountered the related difficulty that "such a system is resisted by political executives as another restraint on their instinct for management and by those down the line as a checkup on their performance." The 1968 report concluded evasively that "quite a lot of progress in this direction leaves a good deal more required."

A special effort to make service in the Department attractive to competent young people reflected the expressed view that "the single most ominous long-range problem in Government administration is (how) to attract top-flight college graduates in substantial numbers." I guess, in retrospect, that this is less a matter of departmental administration than of how overall Government policies consist with youth's impossible dreams.

I haven't mentioned one highlight of being in the Department in the 1960's. It meant our hosting its Fiftieth Anniversary. That was a proud occasion. So, half again more, of the Seventy-Fifth.

"... more was done to reassert the country's human values..."

"...carry ideas up the line as well as down."

Willard Wirtz serves as Secretary of Labor during 1962-69.

PHOTO: W. Willard Wirtz
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Author:Wirtz, Willard
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Feb 1, 1988
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