The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) endorsed the anti-union strategy in 1920…The employers agreed not to negotiate with unions, and to require that employees sign a pledge that they would not join a union. Some hardline employers refused to recognize or negotiate with union leaders, and some boycotted unionized vendors and refused to sell supplies to striking employees. In some highly unionized cities, NAM members would fund deputized armed “patrols.” While ostensibly charged with keeping the peace, these “imported thugs” were accused of intimidating striking workers and breaking up peaceful demonstrations by force. They would also pursue court-ordered injunctions against labor leaders…to prevent them from organizing protests…
…As a result, the American Plan drove down union membership by at least 25% between 1921 and 1923. From companies’ participation in the American Plan, as well as anti-union decisions from the Supreme Court of the United States, union membership fell from 5.1 million in 1920 to 3.6 million in 1929. American Plan
The success of the 1920s came crashing down in the 1930s with the Great Depression. Businesses could no longer afford to support NAM, and memberships dropped as much as 72% from its 1922 all-time high. Additionally, Americans no longer trusted business leaders, blaming them for the Crash, and union membership once again began to climb. Roosevelt was elected president, and by June, 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was passed as part of the New Deal.
The Act had two main sections (or “titles”). Title I was devoted to industrial recovery, authorizing the promulgation of industrial codes of fair competition, guaranteed trade union rights, permitted the regulation of working standards, and regulated the price of certain refined petroleum products and their transportation. Title II established the Public Works Administration, outlined the projects and funding opportunities it could engage in. Title II also provided funding for the Act. National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933
Although the NIRA would be declared unconstitutional in 1935, business leaders and NAM reacted strongly to the 1933 passage of the bill. To them, it represented everything they had been fighting against since NAMs inception, and Robert Lund, president of NAM, wrote an internal memo outlining next steps which would become the raison d’être for NAM through the 1930s and even beyond.
Four major tasks, therefore, now faced the NAM, he said. It must develop a legislative program to deal with problems arising from the NIRA. It must step up its efforts at consolidating manufacturers’ organizations. It must become the authority on business statistics. And finally:
“The problem of public relations must have an active consideration that the Association has never been able to give it. The public does not understand industry, largely because industry itself has made no real effort to tell its story; to show the people of this country that our high living standards have risen almost altogether from the civilization which industrial activity has set up. On the other hand, selfish groups, including labor, the socialistic-minded and the radical, have constantly and continuously misrepresented industry to the people, with the result that there is a general misinformation of our industrial economy, which is highly destructive in its effect.
The Association must have a more effective publicity staff than at present. The task of public relations, however, involves more than telling the public of the activities of the Association. Discretion and careful planning must be used in carrying it out and all channels through which the public may be reached must be used.” (Tedlow, Richard S. “The National Association of Manufacturers and Public Relations during the New Deal.” The Business History Review, vol. 50, no. 1, 1976, pp. 25–45. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3113573, p. 31)
The public relations blitz was unlike anything ever attempted by a lobbying/advocacy group up to that point. Rather than just advocating their view about American free enterprise, they conducted surveys with employees of their member companies in order to learn about opposing opinions, and therefore, how best to overcome the objections. NAM was going to sell its product instead of merely proclaiming it. As part of this new effort, they made extensive use of paid advertising in print media; instead of viewing the press as the enemy, they co-opted it:
Another departure from the old ways was the attitude toward the press. The new public relations program made extensive use of paid advertising, thus encouraging the allegiance of advertising men and newspapers alike. Perhaps because it was run by former newspaper men, the program did not try to lecture or threaten journalists but sought to work with and through them. (Tedlow, p. 33)
NAMs efforts weren’t limited to the print media. They also utilized radio programs; motion pictures; film strips; outdoor billboard advertisements; direct mail; displays for schools and plants; clip sheets for plant publications; and a speakers’ bureau. NAM no longer just sent out press releases. What they did provide to the print media, however, went beyond public relations and entered the realm of propaganda. They provided pre-formatted copy that newspapers could easily add to pages, and they offered newspapers the option of subscribing (for free) to a weekly economics column written by their “specialists”; even a daily cartoon was available.
NAMs message was unambiguous.
The central theme of NAM public relations material was that industry’s managers were the true leaders of the nation. The public interest, and especially the workingman’s interest, was safe in their hands. Business was on trial. False leaders were attempting to usurp its rightful place. (Tedlow, p. 34)
It was also a message that was being heard; “In fact, as NAM prepared to escalate its propaganda effort in 1937, it already had documented the extensive press receptivity to such materials the year before: the “Six Star” column [the weekly economics column] and Uncle Abner reached a combined ‘322 papers daily with a circulation of more than 5 million,’ it said.” (St. John III, Burton. Journalism Studies. Jun2010, Vol. 11 Issue 3, p377-392)
The efforts to make NAM part of the news began to pay dividends too. In 1937, NAM planned another survey of workers, and the new survey, in and of itself, became news. In the Sunday, September 12, 1937 New York Times, an article by Charles Egan appeared in the Business section:
A nation-wide survey to discover what workers below the rank of foreman think of employment conditions, wages and general treatment received by them from industry is to be launched this week by the National Association of Manufacturers…The project is part of an expanded educational campaign inaugurated last Spring following a survey through which the association learned that 66.7 per cent of the public held an unfavorable attitude toward industry, that nearly 45 per cent believed manufacturers had been remiss in relieving unemployment, more than 86 per cent felt American industry had failed in its social and economic responsibilities and that, even among those expressing a favorable opinion, only 6 per cent thought industry was being handicapped by Government interference and labor unrest. …Practically all the activities are aimed at advancing the points that industry is employing more people now than in 1929; that machines create, rather than reduce, employment; that manufacturers have shouldered more than their share of responsibilities both economic and social; and that governmental interference has been a decided handicap to progressive improvement in business and employment. (Egan, Charles, New York Times, 12 September 1937, p. 108)
Without access to the NAM archives, it is impossible to tell if this is one of NAMs pre-formatted stories, but that is part of the ploy. It is indistinguishable from any of the other copy on the page, and a casual reader would presume that the writer is a NYT journalist. In fact, between 1937 and 1939 in the New York Times alone, more than 50 articles appeared that featured NAM or NAM-related rhetoric (St. John III).
While NAM might call its efforts “educational,” the Senate Lafollette Committee for Civil Liberties had a different perspective (bolding mine).
Unnerved by the impact of the depression, apprehensive of the growing strength of labor, enraged at critics of the failures of business and rejecting almost in toto the devices of the new administration in Washington to find solutions to the problems it inherited in 1933, the leaders of the association resorted to “education,” just as they had done in 1903-08, and 1919-21 under the guise of the “industrial conservation movement.” They asked not what the weaknesses and abuses of the economic structure had been, and how they could be corrected, but instead paid millions to tell the public that nothing was wrong and that grave dangers lurked in the proposed remedies. In addition to this broad political objective, the association considered its propaganda material an effective weapon in its fight against labor unions. (Tedlow, p. 43)
Lest there be any doubt, NAM is proud of their use of PR/propaganda in the 1930s. From their website:
In the 1930s, the NAM launched its first public relations campaign for the “dissemination of sound American doctrines to the public.” Over a 13-year period, the NAM spent more than $15 million to inform the public about the vital role manufacturing plays in the U.S. economy. These efforts included movie shorts, leaflets, radio speeches, films for schools and a daily NAM column that appeared in 260 newspapers nationwide. History of the NAM
The methods and tactics pioneered by NAM are used by many organizations today, and NAM itself continues its efforts on behalf of its membership. The NAM website is thorough, far-reaching, and user-friendly; there’s even an advocacy app available to download. The positions and policies for which they advocated in the 1930s have become a central and unchanging part of the Republican ideology; in 2018, a Business Insider article said, “The National Association of Manufacturers is quickly becoming a behemoth in the US capital, receiving unfettered access to the White House and top lawmakers on Capitol Hill.” (The manufacturing industry suddenly has unfettered access to the White House under Trump, and it’s making a killing) One almost wishes Robert Lund had never heard about the relatively new profession of public relations before he wrote that internal memo in 1933.
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