Woodrow Wilson's Presidency

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Explains Wilson’s interpretation of the role government played in the relationship between labor and business.

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Woodrow Wilson believed that government had an important role to play in maintaining a just balance between the power of business and labor. Wilson saw government as an honest broker, bringing disputants together rather than taking sides. Although sympathetic to the demands of labor unions, he believed that the law...

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Woodrow Wilson believed that government had an important role to play in maintaining a just balance between the power of business and labor. Wilson saw government as an honest broker, bringing disputants together rather than taking sides. Although sympathetic to the demands of labor unions, he believed that the law was a more effective means of protecting workers than union membership. To that end, he used the Department of Labor to mediate in the growing number of industrial disputes.

Unfortunately, this wasn't always an effective method of ensuring industrial peace. During the 1913 strike against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the management rejected the Labor Department's attempts to mediate in the dispute. Instead the company hired armed militiamen who descended upon the striking miners' camp, causing widespread death and destruction in what became known as the Ludlow Massacre. Eventually, President Wilson had to send in troops to end the dispute.

In emphasizing the importance of law over union membership as a way of improving workers' rights Wilson left his labor laws vulnerable to being struck down by the Supreme Court. This is precisely what happened to the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, which banned child labor. It was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the case of Hammer vs. Dagenhart (1918).

However, Wilson achieved some success in the passing of the Adamson Act of 1916, which established an eight-hour workday for railroad workers, with additional pay for overtime work. Even so, Wilson found it increasingly difficult to maintain the position of government as being an independent arbiter in labor disputes. That was all very well in theory, but in practice, it was virtually impossible to avoid taking sides.

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