A blue Christ­mas for fed­eral work­ers

Salaries were so low that work­ers could not pay for the gro­ceries

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Thomas V. DiBacco Thomas V. DiBacco is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump ap­pears to be an Ebenezer Scrooge when it comes to his plans for fed­eral work­ers. He wants to in­sti­tute a hir­ing freeze, fire poor per­form­ers and hit their pock­et­books by end­ing au­to­matic raises and curb­ing gen­er­ous pen­sions. A cen­tury ago fed­eral work­ers had no such sugar-plums to be taken away — or even vi­sions of them. Press re­ports start­ing in mid-De­cem­ber in 1916 stressed that many fed­eral work­ers were akin to the Cratchit fam­ily in Charles Dick­ens’ “A Christ­mas Carol”: “In many cases,” read one news­pa­per ac­count, “these em­ploy­ees hes­i­tated to ac­cept char­ity be­cause they were work­ing, but their real con­di­tion was called to the at­ten­tion of union of­fi­cials by friends.”

The newly-formed Fed­eral Em­ploy­ees Union noted that salaries were so low “that they would not per­mit of any en­joy­ment on Christ­mas.” Ma­jor in­fla­tion in food prices as a re­sult of prepa­ra­tion in the event of Amer­ica’s en­try into World War I added to the salary squeeze.

To sup­port that view, the press de­lin­eated ac­counts of char­ity to fed­eral work­ers. In one in­stance, Santa Claus was pre­dicted to come early, with au­to­mo­biles get­ting filled with food and good­ies for the fam­i­lies of fed­eral work­ers in need of aid. In an­other ac­count, em­ploy­ees of the In­te­rior De­part­ment raised $27 for an ill jan­i­tor strug­gling to sup­port his eight chil­dren.

Con­trast that sce­nario with the White House cel­e­bra­tion planned by Pres­i­dent and Mrs. Woodrow Wil­son re­plete with a “huge fir tree” with elec­tric lights and “quan­ti­ties of toys” for the lit­tle rel­a­tives and their in­vited friends.

There was a planned Christ­mas stock­ing of sorts for the work­ers. The press re­ported that low­paid work­ers had “the knowl­edge that Congress is pre­par­ing to grant them a sub­stan­tial in­crease in com­pen­sa­tion.” Un­der the con­gres­sional pro­posal, em­ploy­ees earn­ing less than $1,200 a year would get a 10 per­cent in­crease, those be­tween $1,200 and $1,800 a five per­cent raise. The av­er­age an­nual salary was about $948, no mat­ter that the Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics cal­cu­lated that $1,082.80 was the least pos­si­ble in­come to live de­cently in Wash­ing­ton.

The in­crease seemed a done deal in Congress, and fed­eral work­ers were gen­er­at­ing over 100,000 sig­na­tures from cit­i­zens from every state on a pe­ti­tion urg­ing Pres­i­dent Wil­son to agree to the mea­sure. The pe­ti­tion­ers hoped to get a half-mil­lion sig­na­tures but fell far short of their goal.

Un­for­tu­nately, the good tid­ings for the raise didn’t emerge into leg­is­la­tion by Dec. 25. And the pro­posal went into hi­ber­na­tion af­ter the hol­i­days. Page-af­ter-page in news­pa­pers re­counted nu­mer­ous other mat­ters for Congress in the new year un­til Jan, 24, 1917: a front-page story in the Wash­ing­ton Herald, this time with a cap­i­tal-let­ter head­line that cov­ered five col­umns. At last, a pay raise, with the Se­nate, af­ter a bit­ter de­bate, pass­ing a bill by a vote of 37 to 26, pro­vid­ing a pay hike but much less than pro­posed. Em­ploy­ees earn­ing $480 or less per year would re­ceive a 15 per­cent raise, those be­tween $480 and $1,000 a ten per­cent in­crease. About 200,000 work­ers would be af­fected.

The mea­sure was des­tined to go to a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee, but no­body was re­ally happy. The deficit hawks called the mea­sure an “ex­trav­a­gance” and a test ques­tion: “...if Congress grants these in­creases un­der this bill it will grant sim­i­lar in­creases to em­ploy­ees cov­ered in other ap­pro­pri­a­tion bills, like the post of­fice bill, the agri­cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion bill and oth­ers.” Then there was the $300 mil­lion deficit that loomed by the end of the fis­cal year, and the view that “once you have raised salaries, ...you can never re­duce them again.”

Sen. Reed Smoot. Repub­li­can from Utah, was cred­ited with get­ting it through the cham­ber. “Par­si­mony is not econ­omy,” said Smoot. “I be­lieve in econ­omy in govern­ment ex­pen­di­tures, but it is a mighty poor pol­icy to be­gin the con­ser­va­tion with em­ploy­ees who re­ceive less than enough to live on.”

“Hor­i­zon­tal in­creases are not wise as a gen­eral thing,” con­tended an­other sup­porter, “but we have the high cost of liv­ing now. The un­der­paid clerks need help.”

For­tu­nately for fed­eral work­ers, the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee re­stored the pay hike to the orig­i­nal pro­posal of 10 per­cent for salaries less than a $1,200, five per­cent for pay be­tween $1,200 and $1 800.

There was only one bah-hum­bug part of the fi­nal res­o­lu­tion.

The in­crease, be­gin­ning on July 1, 1917, was to be in ef­fect for only one year.


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