Sunday, November 18, 2007

Review of "The Iron Puddler" by James J. Davis

This is the autobiography of James J. Davis, an iron bar maker (a puddler) who left the mill to go into politics, rising to represent Pennsylvania in the United State Senate from 1930 to 1945 after being U.S. Labor Secretary under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. He wrote his autobiography while Labor Secretary so it lacks insight into his subsequent Senate career. It still provides insights into the Pennsylvania politics, economy, and life during his times.

James Davis was an opponent of fancy words. He noted that working people were being hurt in courtrooms because they did not understand the questions from attorneys. After seeing that, he dedicated his life into turning complex words into simple ones. In this manner, he believed labor and management could speak to each other and understand each other. This was a philosophy he took from being Ellwood City Clerk to serving as US Labor Secretary.

Davis championed workers perhaps in part because he saw their exploitation. He himself was arrested, tried in a “kangaroo court”, and sentenced to a working camp where employers purchased prison labor.

As a Republican, he was not a fan of unions. He in fact became the leader of his local union by criticizing the previous union leaders for being what he called “slick talkers” who were calling for a strike that he opposed. He believed that higher wages could be negotiated by studying making work more efficient and approaching management with logic that justified higher wages.

As Labor Secretary, he was sickened by the deplorable conditions of immigration stations. Yet, no laws were being violated. His remedy, as he wrote, “it was only necessary to add sympathy and understanding to the enforcement of the law.” He was also a strong anti-communist, observing “I never knew a communist in my life that was a well man.”

Davis credits himself with saving management and employees millions of dollars by negotiating settlements as Labor Secretary that avoided strikes. His office settled 3,600 out of 4,000 labor disputes. Prior to that, 70% of such cases resulted in strikes. History may well question, though, if his was in fact tilted towards management that was the financial lifeblood of the Republican Party. One can conclude that James Davis seemed true to his anti-strike belief throughout his career. This was an era when the grievances of workers were vastly ignored, and Davis was part of the problem. For that, his beliefs, while sincere, were faulty and millions suffered from deplorable working conditions and low wages.