The Supreme Court and the ‘Sick Chickens’ case
In Brooklyn, a borough of New York City, four brothers ran a small but profitable poultry business, the Schechter Poultry Corporation. In 1933, along with other poultry firms in New York, they signed a NRA code agreeing to the NRA rules of fair prices, fair wages and fair competition.
In 1935 the Schechter brothers broke one of the codes by selling a batch of diseased chickens that were not fit for human consumption. The NRA took them to court where they were found guilty of breaking a NRA code. The brothers appealed against the verdict and the Supreme Court heard their appeal.
The Supreme Court declared that the NRA had no right to meddle in the New York poultry trade. The judges said it was a matter for the New York State Government to investigate the matter. The Schechter brothers were acquitted and the code they signed was declared illegal.
The case of the ‘sick chickens’ destroyed the NRA. When the Supreme Court declared that the poultry code was illegal, all similar codes automatically became illegal. Overnight the NRA had to scrap 750 of its codes.
In all, the Supreme Court tried 16 cases concerning the ‘alphabet agencies’ of the New Deal. In 11 of these cases the judges declared that President Roosevelt, Congress and the NRA had acted against the country’s constitution. They said that Roosevelt had misused his power of the federal Government; and that the latter was responsible only for national affairs affecting all states. The state Government was responsible for all other affairs.
Roosevelt was furious with such decisions. He believed his agencies were dealing with national matters affecting all states. But the Court would not change its mind, so Roosevelt was powerless to stop the nine judges from wrecking his New Deal programme.
Name: Work Progress Administration (WPA)
Aim: To set people to work on carefully chosen jobs that would be valuable to the community
The WPA was set up to aid the unskilled. It soon became the country’s biggest employer, 2 million people each year. By 1937, 11,000 schools and other public buildings had been built; to the 43,000 miles road were laid many large scale projects such as the cutting of the Lincoln Tunnel connecting Manhattan to New Jersey and the building of Fort Knox in Kentucky were undertaken.
But construction work was not the only kind provided by the WPA. Unemployed writers were set to produce guidebooks to the country’s various states and cities. Artists were employed to paint murals on the walls of post offices and other public buildings. Actors were formed into groups and sent to tour the country and perform their plays. Thousands of students were found part-time jobs so that they would be able to continue with their studies. Photographers were employed to make a photographic record of the Depression years.
Altogether, between 1935 and 1914, the WPA gave employment to 2 million Americans a year. The wages and self-respect gained were equally valuable. Critics of the WPA projects said the work was of dubious value and there was little involved. The WPA only employed people for a year. It did not employ anyone who could find work elsewhere.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed 20% of America’s labour force
WPA also built or improved 2,500 hospitals, 5,000 schools, 1,000 airfields and 13,000 playgrounds
LaGuardia Airport, New York
Excavations in Georgia
San Francisco’s Aquatic Park
Key West, Florida
Excavations in New Mexico
“WPA workers built LaGuardia Airport in New York and the elaborate municipal recreation centre in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park; salvaged the riverfront in St Louis; sealed thousands of abandoned coal mines in Kentucky and West Virginia to prevent the seepage of sulphuric acid into the creeks and rivers; excavated Indian mounds in Georgia and New Mexico; took over the entire municipal function of the bankrupt and desolated city of Key West, Florida.”
End of the 100 days
On 16 June the special session of Congress came to an end. The 100 days were over. Throughout the country, the impact of the New Deal was felt directly by millions. For some it meant a job or relief or farm benefits. The money that people earned was spent so bringing back life to the nation’s trade and business. More customers appeared in the shops and sales of food and clothing, especially, began to rise. As people started to buy again, shopkeepers, farmers and manufacturers began to benefit from the money the Government was spending on providing work for the unemployed. Roosevelt described this process as ‘priming the pump’ – the money the Federal Government was spending was like a fuel, flowing into the nation’s economic machinery and starting it moving again.
Between 1933 and 1934:
National income rose by 23%
Unemployment dropped by 2 million
Factory wages rose.
The popularity of the New Deal also had a personal dimension. Millions of Americans felt that Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor truly cared about them and that they understood their problems. He was the first American President who spoke to the dispossessed, the have-nots in society and they wrote thousands of letters to the White House to recount their personal troubles and to express gratitude. Many ordinary people saw FDR as their saviour. Roosevelt once said that everyone was against him except the electorate. After 2 years in office Roosevelt had won remarkable backing, which became evident in the 1934 Congressional election. The Democrats received a 2/3 majority in the Senate and over ¾ of the House of Representatives. Most of the newly elected Democrat senators and representatives were strong backers of the New Deal, if anything they sought more radical measures.
There was an admission that things were starting to change. Walter Lippmann, a leading journalist, wrote shortly afterwards:
“In the 100 days from March to June we became an organised nation confident of our power to…control our own destiny.”
Buy by 1935, Roosevelt’s New Deal was running into serious difficulties:
Congressional elections of 1934 had returned a more radical House of Representatives that demanded new initiatives. Roosevelt was politically astute enough to see the need to steal the thunder from radicals. He did not want millions of voters moving away from mainstream politics.
Trade unions were organising strikes.
Roosevelt was becoming increasingly frustrated with the wealthy and big business that opposed him more and more. He believed that he was elected to save big business but felt let down with its lack of support.
The Supreme Court was declaring the FDR had acted illegally in setting up the New Deal agencies. It was overruling much of the legislation.
Roosevelt’s plan to solve these problems was to begin all over again, to produce a renewed flood of legislation that was more varied and extensive. He sought to retain the initiative, as Congress may be too radical! He was preparing to do battle with the Supreme Court that he saw as increasingly out of touch and conservative.