Chapter IX 6 The General Staff
Once each year during the turbulent New Deal era, a small group of immensely powerful American millionaires gathered with great secrecy in Room 3115 at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. The group called itself the “Special Conference Committee.”
The cryptic inscription on the door of Room 31 15 at 30 Rockefeller Plaza— ‘Edward S. Cowdrick, Consultant in Industrial Relations”— offered no clue to the business that the Special Conference Committee conducted at this office. The Committee was not listed in the telephone directory; its name appeared on no letterheads; and all Committee minutes, records and communications were marked Strictly Confidential,
Edward S. Cowdrick, who was the secretary of the Special Conference Committee, never mentioned the Committee by name when corresponding with persons who were not among its members; he referred to the organization simply as “my associates” or “the group by which I am employed.”
The Special Conference Committee was composed of men whose names were legendary in industrial and financial circles throughout the world.
These were some of the men attending Committee meetings or participating in its general activities:
Walter S. Gifford: President of American Telephone and Telegraph Company
Lamont du Pont: President of E. I. du Pont de Nemours Company
Alfred P. Sloan, Jr.: President of the General Motors Corporation
Harry W. Anderson: Labor Relations Director of General Motors Corporation
Owen D. Young: Chairman of the Board of General Electric Company
Edward R. Stettinius, Jr.: Vice President of United States Steel Corporation
F. W. Abrams: President of Standard Oil Company of New Jersey
Cyrus S. Ching: Director of Industrial and Public Relations of United States Rubber Company
Edgar S. Bloom: President of Western Electric Company
Eugene G. Grace: President of Bethlehem Steel Company /. M. Larkin: Vice President of Bethlehem Steel Company
Frank A. Merrick: President of Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company
Harry E. Ward: President of Irving Trust Company
Northrop Holbrook: Vice President of Irving Trust Company
E. J. Thomas: General Superintendent of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company
The special interest groups represented in the Special Conference Committee were as follows:
Morgan Group: United States Steel Corporation (America’s largest industrial corporation); General Electric Company; American Telephone & Telegraph Company
Du Pont Group: General Motors Corporation (America’s 3rd largest industrial corporation); E. I. du Pont de Nemours Company (America’s 4th largest industrial corporation); United States Rubber Company
Rockefeller Group: Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (America’s 2nd largest industrial corporation)
Mellon Group: Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company
Chicago Group: International Harvester Company
Cleveland Group: Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company
The Special Conference Committee was the secret General Staff that planned the strategy and tactics, and directed the major campaigns of the incessant war being waged during the 1930s by American big business against organized labor and the New Deal.1
While the principals of the Special Conference Committee met only once a year, there were frequent interim meetings among their representatives and subordinates; and, in numerous memoranda, reports and other communications, Secretary Cowdrick kept leading Committee members constantly informed of all pertinent developments on the industrial front.
The first year of the New Deal was an especially busy one for the Committee. “In numbers of meetings,” J. M. Larkin, vice-president of Bethlehem Steel and chairman of the Special Conference Committee, reported early in 1934, “in variety and importance of subjects considered, and in the multiplicity of demands made upon its members by their companies and their industries, 1933 established an all-time high record.”
Expressing gratification with the Committee’s record during this troubled time, Larkin stated, “The companies which by their interest and support have maintained the Special Conference Committee . . . were in a position to call upon the experience and counsel of the Committee in grappling with the labor problems and perplexities growing out of the recovery program.”
However, added Larkin in his report, there were still vexing problems which remained to be solved. Outstanding among these was the fact that, “We are facing right now a drive against the open shop” . . .
During the initial stages of the Roosevelt Administration, the Special Conference Committee, by utilizing its vastly influential connections, was able to do much to shape government policy in various domestic affairs. When the U.S. Department of Commerce established a Business and Advisory Planning Council in August, 1933, Gerard Swope, president of General Electric, and Walter C. Teagle, president of Standard Oil of New Jersey— both of whose firms were represented in the Special Conference Committee—were named respectively chairman of the Council and chairman of the Council’s Industrial Relations Committee. Swope and Teagle thereupon appointed leading members of the Special Conference Committee to the Industrial Relations Committee and made Edward Cowdrick its secretary.
In a confidential letter to W. A. Griffin, president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, Cowdrick gave this explanation of the status of Special Conference Committee members on the government agency:
Each member is invited as an individual not as a representative of his company, and the name of the Special Conference Committee will not be used . . . The work of the new committee [the Industrial Relations Committee] will supplement and broaden— not supplant— that of the Special Conference Committee. Probably special meetings will not be needed since the necessary guidance for the Industrial Relation Committee’s work can be given at our regular sessions.
But as the pro-labor policies of the New Deal crystallized and the gap widened between the Roosevelt Administration and big business interests, it became increasingly clear to the Special Conference Committee that its members could not continue to operate with adequate effectiveness within the Government itself. What had now become essential, in the opinion of the Committee, was an all-out drive directed both against Roosevelt and the trade union movement . . .
Public relations experts and specialists in the field of industrial relations were summoned for consultation. Detailed analyses of pending pro-labor legislation were prepared under Cowdrick’s supervision, and distributed for careful study among Committee members. At the suggestion of Cyrus Ching of United States Rubber, the Committee’s “informational service” was greatly expanded.2 Maintaining its policy of operating behind the scenes, and using the facilities of sympathetically inclined business organizations, the Committee initiated an elaborate propaganda campaign against trade unionism and for the maintenance of the open shop. In a memorandum commenting on the organizational cooperation the Committee was receiving in this campaign, Cowdrick noted:
I have had very useful contacts with individuals and organizations, including the National Association of Manufacturers, United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce and the Washington offices of some of the Special Conference Committee companies. For the most part I have dealt through these acquaintances rather than directly -with government officials, as it seemed to me best to avoid making myself too conspicuous or doing anything to give the impression I am lobbying.
The NAM and the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, stated Cowdrick in his memorandum, were being “extremely friendly and accommodating—which is not strange in view of the fact that most of the Special Conference Committee companies are heavy contributors to both organizations” . . .
The passage of the National Labor Relations Act, despite the intense efforts of the Committee to defeat the bill, created a host of new problems for the Committee. As the Committee’s annual report of 1936 stated, after reviewing the work of the Committee since its formation in 1919:
Of all these eighteen years, none has been more difficult than 1936 . . . the difficulties of labor administration were increased by continued governmental legislation and by the aggressive pressure of union leaders . . .
The Special Conference Committee was unusually active in 1936 . . .
The drastically changed situation necessitated the use of new anti-labor tactics. One such tactic recommended in Committee memoranda was that of enlisting the support of “community” and vigilante groups to back up the efforts of large corporations to maintain the open shop. In a memorandum commenting on the Goodyear Rubber Company’s use of this technique during a strike at Akron, Cowdrick wrote:
Sunday afternoon C. Nelson Sparks, a former Mayor of Akron, accepted leadership of a law and order league . . . He made a radio speech in which he warned outside agitators to leave town. In the meantime, fresh pressure is being brought to bear upon the Governor to send state troops to preserve order.
At the same time, the Special Conference Committee undertook an extensive study of various American fascist organizations, whose services might be employed in breaking strikes and carrying on other anti-labor activities. Among such groups discussed in Committee memoranda were the Constitutional Educational League, the Crusaders, the Sentinels of the Republic, and the Men of America.
On June 1, 1936, Cowdrick wrote H. W. Anderson, General Motors Labor Relations Director and assistant to William S. Knudsen, asking the GM executive for his opinion of the anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi Sentinels of the Republic. A few days later Anderson replied:
With reference to your letter of June 1 regarding the Sentinels of the Republic, I have never heard of the organization. Maybe you could use a little Black Legion down in your country. It might help.3
A further indication of the Committee’s interest in fascist anti-labour techniques was contained in a Committee memorandum drawn up by Cowdrick at the suggestion of A. H. Young, Vice President of U. S. Steel Corporation. The memorandum included a detailed analysis, for the consideration of Committee members, of an unusual piece of labor legislation. The labor legislation in question contained this clause:
The leader of the enterprise makes the decision for the employees and labourers in all matters concerning the enterprise … He is responsible for the well being of the employees and the labourers. The employees and the labourers owe him faithfulness according to the principles of the factory community.
In a letter to Cowdrick, A. H. Young explained that he had obtained this piece of legislation “from an officer of the German government.”
The law was Adolf Hitler’s Act for the Organization of National Labor.
But despite the elaborate schemings of the members of the Special Conference Committee, and notwithstanding their far-reaching influence and immense resources, they were unable to stem the tidal wave of trade unionism surging through America’s factories, mines and mills.
In the six months between March and September 1937, the CIO grew from 1,804,000 to 3,718,000 members. By the end of 1938, the total number of organized workers in the United States was at the all-time peak of 7,700,000.
“In a little more than a year’s existence,” wrote CIO editor Len de Caux in Union News Service early in 1938, “the CIO has put about $1,000,000,000 in increased annual wages in workers’ pay envelopes, through its organizing activities in the steel, auto, rubber and other previously unorganized mass-production industries— not to mention the resulting indirect benefits in other industries.”
Only one great industrial concern in America remained unorganized by labor. That concern was the Ford Motor Company.
1 The Special Conference Committee had been formed in 1919 during the period of industrial strife following World War I; but it was not until the advent of the New Deal era that the Committee began to function on a fulltime, systematically organized basis.
2 On August 7, 1947, Cyrus Ching was appointed by President Harry Truman to the post of Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, with the responsibility of acting as chief arbitrator in major disputes between labor and management.
3 The Black Legion was a secret terrorist society that operated in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana during the mid-1930s. Arson, bombing, torture and murder were among the Legion’s anti-labor techniques. For a detailed account of the Legion’s operations, see pages 204 ff.