Summer 2013 Newsletter

With record youth unemployment, Germany and France have announced a plan to invest billions in education, training, and jobs. They call it the “New Deal for Europe.” Ironically, the U.S., home of the original New Deal, remains mired in recession, worsened daily by “sequestration.” Some 26 million Americans are without full-time work. Half of those unemployed are under the age of 34.  Meanwhile, our nation’s infrastructure is crumbing; post offices are being sold; labor unions are under attack. If ever there were a time for a New New Deal, it’s now.

By teaching about the New Deal, The Living New Deal is showing the way to the kind of economic recovery we need now—one that nurtures communities and builds the foundation for the future. Please make a tax-deductible donation today.  Thank you.

In this Issue:


America’s Infrastructure Gets a D+

Cumberland, Maryland

WPA workers constructing a sidewalk, 1937
Cumberland, Maryland

If there ever was a time to invest in a New New Deal, this is it. Our airports, roads, bridges, dams, parks, schools, and water lines are falling apart. The American Society of Civil Engineers annually issues a report card on the condition of our nation’s infrastructure. This year the nation’s engineers gave America a D+.

They estimate it will take $3.6 trillion for America to rebuild. Meanwhile, 26 million Americans who would like a full-time job can’t find one. During the Great Depression, Americans invested in work and construction programs that built much of the infrastructure we depend on today. Now America’s infrastructure investment barely makes the grade:

Aviation: “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that the national cost of airport congestion and delays was almost $22 billion in 2012.” Grade: D

Skagit River, Washington

Recent bridge collapse on I-5
Skagit River, Washington

Bridges: “…one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient…” Grade: C+

Dams: “The number of deficient dams is estimated at more than 4,000, which includes 2,000 deficient high-hazard dams.” Grade: D

Drinking Water: “There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States.” Grade: D

Levees: “Many levees were originally used to protect farmland from flooding and now are increasingly protecting developed communities. The reliability of these levees is unknown in many cases, and public safety remains at risk from these aging structures.” Grade: D-

Parks and Recreation: Park and recreation “activities contribute $646 billion to the nation’s economy, supporting 6.1 million jobs. Yet states and localities struggle to provide these benefits amid flat and declining budgets.” Grade: C-

Roads: “Forty-two percent of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually.” Grade: D

Schools: “Public school enrollment is projected to gradually increase through 2019, yet state and local school construction funding continues to decline.” Grade: D

Susan Ives contributed to this article.

Brent McKee is a Living New Deal Research Associate (the first, in fact!) and core member of the LND team. He lives in West Virginia

A New Deal for Europe

After months of negotiations, EU finance ministers have endorsed a New Deal for Europe.

A New Deal for Europe
After months of negotiations, EU finance ministers have endorsed a New Deal for Europe.

After months of negotiations, Germany and France have just announced a major initiative to address Europe’s soaring youth unemployment. They’ve named the effort the “New Deal for Europe,” after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Great Depression recovery plan.

Under the plan, billions in loans from the European Investment Bank would be used for education, on-the-job training, and job placement. Companies that create jobs would qualify for loans and tax credits.

The New Deal for Europe comes amid fears of a lost generation as youth unemployment has topped 50 percent in several countries across Europe. In Spain and Greece, almost two out of three young people are unemployed.  A report by the International Labor Organization crisis refers to them as a “Generation at Risk.”

As in the U.S., a debate has raged in the EU over imposing tough austerity measures versus stimulus programs that would revive struggling economies but add to public deficits.

During the Great Depression unemployed youth had an active and compassionate advocate in the White House. “I live in real terror when I think we may be losing a generation,” Eleanor Roosevelt said in 1934. “We have got to bring these young people into the active life of the community and make them feel that they are necessary.” To that end, the New Deal created programs such as the CCC and National Youth Administration. Europe, as well as the U.S., would do well to study the success of those programs lest they, too, have a lost generation and the calamitous consequences of that loss.

Gray Brechin contributed to this article.

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

For Sale: America’s Historic Post Offices

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office
Berkeley, California

 

Despite growing public protest, the U.S. Postal Service is moving apace to sell the public’s historic post offices. Last month, the Postal Service added four more post offices on the National Register of Historic Places to its “For Sale” list: California’s La Jolla Wall Street Post Office, built in 1935; New York City’s Old Chelsea Station on West 18th Street, and the Bronx General Post Office on the Grand Concourse, both built in 1937; and the Berkeley Downtown Post Office, which, in spite of a year long campaign to keep the century-old building in the public domain, was recently slated for sale.

Like many other endangered post offices, these buildings contain unique New Deal artworks.

During the 1930s the federal government put thousands to work building the nation’s postal system.  In big cities and small towns alike, New Deal post offices are among the most artful, architecturally distinguished, and beloved buildings.

The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

The Bronx Post Office
The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

“Apparently the country is done with that kind of idealism,” notes Gray Brechin, geographer and Living New Deal Project scholar, “Rather than building beautiful public places, the federal government is selling them off.”

Buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are afforded some protection—their exterior must be preserved. But once sold the buildings are often gutted. In at least one case, a 1937 post office in Virginia Beach, Virginia was demolished to make way for a Walgreen’s pharmacy.

The National Historic Preservation Act ensures public access to public artwork, but when post offices are sold the murals and sculptures often are removed to storage. Even when the art remains in place, it’s up to the new owners whether the public may view it.

The Postal Service financial crisis started in 2006 when Congress required the Postal Service to pre-pay 75 years of workers’ benefits within ten years. Although many blame email for the Postal Service’s demise, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 is responsible for $4 out of every $5 in Postal Service debt—more than $15 billion in 2012. In response, the Postal Service is cutting services and selling many of its most valuable properties.

CB Richard Ellis, a giant commercial real estate firm, holds the exclusive contract to sell postal properties worth billions. CB Richard Ellis’ chairman is Richard Blum, a University of California Regent and the husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein. So far, the press has shown no interest in investigating how that contract was awarded, nor its terms.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced legislation to repeal the law responsible for the Postal Service’s death spiral. The bill recently passed the Senate but the other has yet to be voted on in the House.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Historic Post Office to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places of 2012.

Read Francis O’Connor’s open letter about post office art »

For a list of endangered post offices go to:  http://www.savethepostoffice.com

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

“We Patch Anything”: WPA Sewing Rooms in Fort Worth, Texas

Women at work in a WPA sewing room.

WPA Sewing Room
Women at work in a WPA sewing room.

For most people, the name WPA brings to mind images of men laboring on highway projects and building parks and schools, but during the Depression, women, too, were heads of households and in need of employment.  Work programs for women were first established in 1933 through the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and later came under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Some women were placed in clerical jobs or worked as librarians, others went to work canning, gardening, and sewing. Nationally, some 7 percent of WPA workers were women engaged in sewing projects. Sewing rooms could be found in rural areas and large cities alike.

In Fort Worth, Texas, for example, the first sewing room opened in 1935. Later, separate sewing rooms were created for white and African American women. Job training was provided. Illiterate women received basic educational instruction. Starting pay was $35 a month for 140 hours work. The federal government paid for salaries, with the city and county paying a percentage of expenses. All the items produced stayed in Tarrant County.

Fort Worth, Texas A WPA Sewing Room operated here from 1939-1941.

The Parker-Browne Company Building
Fort Worth, Texas
A WPA Sewing Room operated here from 1939-1941.

The Fort Worth seamstresses took great pride in their work, proclaiming that the initials “WPA” stood for “We Patch Anything.” They repaired used clothing and created new garments, for which each woman was responsible from beginning to end. Each item included a WPA label with the inscription “Not to be sold.” The finished items were sent to the surplus commodities depot to be distributed to needy individuals—sometimes the women themselves—on the order of city and county welfare workers.

The worker’s average output was two and a half garments a day (not including trim), and included men’s trousers, boys’ coveralls, baby clothes, and diapers. So as not to stigmatize those who were issued WPA clothing, great care was taken to create unique designs. A special department altered stock patterns. The local newspaper noted that one pattern could be used for fifty dresses, yet no two would look alike.

By 1940, Fort Worth’s sewing rooms employed 650 women ranging in age from 35 to 64. The work month had been shortened to 130 hours but pay had increased to $46.80. The sewing rooms in Fort Worth reportedly produced 2,341,369 garments and 130,408 household articles.

As the United States geared up for World War II, many women found better paying jobs in the defense industries. The WPA sewing rooms were disbanded in 1941, ending a successful and popular program that gave women not only the means to provide for themselves and their families, but also skills, camaraderie, and a sense of self worth.

Susan Allen Kline is an independent historian who specializes in the preparation of nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. She is a Living New Deal research associate based in Fort Worth, Texas.

Federal Appeals Court Restricts Workers’ Rights

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One of the pillars of the New Deal, the National Labor Relations Act (aka the Wagner Act) gave American workers the right to organize in most workplaces. Prior to 1935 employers had free rein to prevent workers from forming unions. Bitterly opposed by the Republican Party and Big Business, the new law set off an explosion of unionization in the 1930s and 40s that, in turn, formed the basis for the postwar prosperity of working families—also known as the Great American Middle Class.

Under the NLRA it became illegal for an employer to punish organizers for trying to form a union (though they often do).  In unionized workplaces, the law requires employers and unions to bargain in good faith (though they often do not). Yet, while workers have these rights under the NLRA, under a recent court ruling, they don’t have the right to be informed of them.

Recently, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals knocked down an attempt by the National Labor Relations Board to rectify a long-standing loophole in the original law. The Board had issued a new ruling that would require employees’ rights to be posted in the workplace, just as minimum wage, health, and safety rules must be posted.

The court, considered the most important in the country after the Supreme Court because it decides cases on government policy and regulation, thought otherwise. Bowing to powerful interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, it overturned the Board’s ruling.  Apparently such posters would interfere with the smooth operation of business.

The court’s stance is no surprise, given that its judges are largely holdovers of the Bush Administration. Thanks to Republicans obstructing President Obama’s judicial appointments in the U.S. Senate, only one new judge has been approved to serve on the D.C. Court despite several vacancies.

This is just the latest in a series of attacks on the NLRA going back to the Reagan Administration. Conservative appointments and court rulings have hamstrung the NLRB, which itself is weakened from vacancies, further undermining the labor movement. Presently, the Board does not even have a quorum because of Republican and business opposition, and a failed effort by Obama to do an end-run around the Senate by making recess appointments.

Download NLRA Employee Rights PDF

Richard Walker is the director of the Living New Deal.

Plummer Park Landmark Remains at Risk [UPDATE]

[UPDATE] The City Council of West Hollywood, on Dec. 2 voted 3-2 to immediately  demolish the Great Hall/Long Hall at Plummer Park. Community activists are scrambling to stop this, but fear that the minute the final vote is taken the wreaking ball will roll in on the morning of January 22, and demolish West Hollywood’s only WPA structure.

They are working to hire an attorney and must raise $15,000 by January 30. Contact [email protected] for more information.

West Hollywood, California

Plummer Park Community Clubhouse
West Hollywood, California

The City Council in West Hollywood, California is pushing an ill-conceived plan to demolish the Plummer Park Community Clubhouse, built by the WPA in 1938. It is the only WPA building remaining in West Hollywood.

Preservationists nominated the building for the National Register of Historic Places, but the Council opposed the nomination. One councilmember went so far as to say they should tear the building down right away.

Preservationists rushed to get the issue on the agenda of the California Historic Resources Commission. On May 1, the commission voted unanimously to approve the 75-year-old structure to the National Register of Historic Places.  However, the City Council can take a vote of “overriding consideration” and move forward with demolition.

It’s highly unusual for a city to oppose a National Register nomination, but the Council is pushing a controversial plan to overhaul Plummer Park that calls for an underground parking garage where the historic clubhouse stands. The Living New Deal and National New Deal Preservation Association sent letters protesting the plan.

The Plummer Park Community Clubhouse, originally called the Great Hall-Long Hall buildings, was intended to be the centerpiece of the park. Edward C.M. Brett, who was chief architect of Los Angeles County for three decades, designed the Spanish Colonial Revival structure. It has a long, north-facing courtyard and three distinct parts: a Great Hall, a Long Hall, and a small east wing that houses the building’s utilities and restrooms.

Meetings to incorporate the city were held here in 1984. The building also is considered historic as the meeting place for ACT UP, which pushed for government action on AIDS.

The City’s plans to raze the clubhouse have been stalled by cuts to redevelopment funds and community opposition. Though the building is now vacant and unused, it stands as a reminder of a time when the federal government supported infrastructure and employment projects, and reflects the concern government once had for the cultural and recreational needs of local communities.


Take Action

To object to the plan to demolish the Plummer Park Community Clubhouse, contact Mayor Abbe Land and the City Council.

8300 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90069

(323) 848-6460

Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.

Shovel Ready: Archeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America

Little known in the story of the New Deal is how the federal government, in the midst of the Great Depression, supported archaeological projects across the country. It is yet another example of New Deal initiatives on behalf of public education in its broadest dimensions…. read more

When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy

President Franklin Roosevelt once remarked to his Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., “One hundred years from now my administration will be known for its art, not for its relief.” … read more