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Farmworker Movement Documentation Project > COMMENTARY > THE INVALUABLE LEGACY OF WILLARD WIRTZ


By Dick Meister


By Dick Meister

Willard Wirtz, Secretary of Labor 1962-1969, JFK & LBJ Administrations

Never has there been a greater champion of U.S. workers than former Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, who died on April 24 at 98. Certainly in more than a half-century of covering labor, I’ve never met anyone more dedicated – or more effective – in winning and preserving vital protections for working people.

That was the lifelong task of Wirtz, who served as secretary under presidents Kennedy and Johnson from 1962 to 1969, a brilliant, charming Harvard Law School graduate who spent his life helping ordinary Americans, especially the poor.

Much can be said of Wirtz’ long and distinguished career in government and academia, and his work in government and private practice as a mediator and arbitrator who helped prevent or settle many strikes and resolve many other serious labor-management disputes.

Wirtz expanded the Labor Department’s job-training and education programs that were developed especially for the underemployed and undereducated and at-risk youth, increased unemployment assistance for those who lost jobs to foreign trade, created literacy programs for workers and sharply and publicly chastised construction unions for their bias against African-American workers.

Wirtz was also a leader in the passage of laws that prohibit discrimination against women and older workers in pay and otherwise. And he was one of the first to call for laws protecting workers with disabilities from discrimination.

Wirtz clearly was what current Labor Secretary Hilda Solis calls “President Johnson’s general in the war on poverty.”

Wirtz himself said of his time as secretary that “If there was a central unifying theme . . . It was in the insistence that wage earners – and those seeking that status – are people, human beings for whom ‘work,’ but not just ‘labor’ . . . constitutes one of the potential ultimate satisfactions.”

I particularly remember a trip Wirtz made to California in 1965 in response to grower requests for creation of an “emergency program” that would in effect restore the highly exploitative Bracero Program that for more than two decades had enabled growers to hire underpaid, overworked and generally mistreated poverty-stricken Mexicans.

The Braceros had to silently accept the rotten conditions or be sent back to Mexico to be replaced by other poverty-stricken Braceros. And domestic workers had to uncomplainingly accept the conditions or be replaced by Braceros – if they were even hired, Growers much preferred the necessarily compliant Mexicans.

Wirtz did his utmost to enlighten the general public about the abysmal conditions of those who harvest most of our fruits and vegetables. He took a whirlwind tour of California’s lush farmlands with a planeload of reporters in a battered DC3, popping up unannounced at farms to ask embarrassing questions and point to conditions that most newspaper readers and television viewers associated only with the dim past recorded by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Growers tried to limit his agenda to farms where they had hastily and improved conditions for a token number of workers. But Wirtz would not be denied.

By closely examining the true conditions of Mexican and domestic workers alike, Wirtz was hoping to show the rest of the country the need for major reforms that would promise decent pay and working conditions and deny growers their request for Mexican workers under an “emergency program.”

On the ground, he sped with a busload of reporters over dusty roads from one huge square patch of green and brown to another. We had a hard time keeping up with Wirtz, Neither his good humor nor his seemingly inexhaustible energy lessened as he put probing questions to men and women working in the fields.

At one stop in Southern California, for instance, he strode briskly down one long dirt row after another, a pipe gripped tightly in his teeth, shoes covered with dust, to greet workers as they stooped painfully, grasping the short-handled hoes used to weed and otherwise prepare the strawberry, sugar beet and lettuce crops for harvest.

“Wirtz is my name, good to see you” was a typical icebreaker – first voiced at 5:30 a.m. – only five hours after Wirtz had gone to bed.

At another stop, he walked away shuddering from the communal lavatory in the center of a circle of a ramshackle two- and three- room buildings overrun with barefoot children.

He greeted me, his face twisted in disgust.

“Did you see it?” he asked. “God!”

At yet another stop, Wirtz stood in the center of a field, surrounded by workers, looking out over tall rows of asparagus that covered the land in all directions.

“Where,” he asked the grower, “are the toilets?” The grower, genuinely incredulous that the question would even be asked, explained that “there are none.”

Elsewhere, Wirtz paid a surprise visit to a farm labor camp at breakfast time, finding conditions that “make me ashamed anything of this kind exists in this country. Looking at the food, I wonder how anyone can eat it!”

Wirtz returned from California determined to greatly limit, if not halt, the flow of Mexican workers that growers hired in lieu of improving conditions to attract domestic workers.

As Wirtz and others predicted, curtailing grower use of Mexican workers forced growers to improve conditions in order to attract more domestic workers. The improvements were generally short-lived, however, as growers turned to the masses of undocumented Mexicans for workers.

Yet thanks in large part to Willard Wirtz, the country had seen clearly the great need to improve the conditions of some of our most necessary but most exploited workers. That helped lay the groundwork for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and others who are continuing the struggle today for decent farm labor conditions.

That’s but a small part of the invaluable legacy of Willard Wirtz, who helped guarantee decent conditions to millions of working people in a wide variety of fields.

What’s not generally known is Wirtz’ role in desegregating the Labor Department staff. As former Labor Department Director of Information John Leslie notes, at the time that Wirtz became Labor Secretary in 1962, the only African Americans on the staff were messengers and drivers. Leslie recalls that “Bill decided to send a message by starting in the deep South . . .We went to Atlanta and called all the regional directors together . . . and immediately drew agitated opposition.

“Every excuse not to hire blacks in professional positions was given – history, local custom, no qualified Blacks, employee relations ” and more, including an assertion that “our female staff won’t go to the bathroom with Blacks “… Bill quietly answered, ‘Then they will be mighty uncomfortable by the end of the day.'”

Despite the objections of his regional directors, Wirtz prevailed. The Labor Department staffs were integrated, in the South and elsewhere.

We shouldn’t forget, either, Wirtz’ courageous stand against the Vietnam War, including the bombing of North Vietnam ordered by his boss, President Lyndon Johnson. That drew a demand from Johnson in 1968 that Wirtz resign. But two days later, Johnson relented, fearing that Wirtz’ resignation would embarrass him and hurt Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic presidential nominee. Wirtz stayed on, but didn’t mute his opposition to the war.

Willard Wirtz & Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis 2009


Among his other considerable talents, former Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz was one of the country’s foremost collectors of malaprops. His collection, naturally, was studded with gems from Washington, that font of bureaucratese and other language butchery.

Wirtz, for instance, told of a Labor Department official who insisted that “it’s just a matter of whose ox is being goosed.” And there was:

A newspaperman who ‘d “been keeping my ear to the grindstone.”

A bureaucrat who was certain that “we’ve got to do something to get a toe hold in the public eye.”

A politician who demanded that “we hitch up our trousers and throw down the gauntlets.”

A corporate official who wanted to know “if you’ve got any plans underfoot.”

Another official who warned that “if this keeps up, we’ll all go down the drain in a steamroller,” One official was concerned that “we’re being sold down the drain.”

But not to worry, said an optimistic official, “We can get this country out of the eight ball.”

“It may not work,” said a high union official, “but let’s take a flying gambit at it.” An Agriculture Department official insisted that “we have to deal with the whole gambit of this affair.”

And that wasn’t the half of it. Consider these gems, also uttered by labor and management leaders and, of course, bureaucrats:

“That kind of business gets my dandruff up.”

“When I smell a rat, I nip it in the bud.”

“That idea doesn’t have a Chinaman’s chance in hell.”

“Let’s don’t go off the deep end of the reservation.”

“If we try this we’re likely to have a bear by the horns.”

“Somebody’s going to think there’s dirty work behind the crossroads.”

“Let’s grasp this nettle by the horns.”

“Somebody’s likely to rear up on his back.”

Wirtz himself was no slouch at malaprops. For example, there was his, “We’ve got to be careful about getting too many cooks in the soup.”

But few men, the secretary included, are likely to top the explanation of an unsuccessful candidate for the Maryland Legislature that Wirtz recalled.

“I think I deserved to win,” he told a gathering of his supporters after his defeat. “I went to every cranny and crook in this district.”


Past Labor Secretaries: (l-r) William Brock, W.J. Usery, Jr., Peter Brennan, James Hodgson, Raymond Donavan, Ann McLauglin, George Schultz, Ray Marshall, Willard Wirtz, John Dunlop


No Secretary of Labor was more helpful to farm workers than Willard Wirtz, who served during the height of the UFW’s drive for union contracts. Wirtz , an appointee of pro-labor Democratic presidents, openly supported farm workers, and workers generally. But many of his predecessors – appointees of anti-labor Republicans – did very little to help workers and much that harmed them.

Wirtz was succeeded in 1969 by George Schultz, who left after only a year. He was appointed by Republican Richard Nixon, who publicly condemned the UFW’s grape boycott and brushed off the union’s demand that farm workers be granted the rights and protections of the National Labor Relations Act.

After Schultz came another anti-labor Nixonian, James Hodgson, who served three relatively quiet years from 1970 to 1973. Also serving three years was Hodgson’s successor, Peter Brennan. Despite his construction union background, Brennan did little to help workers. He served under Nixon and Nixon’s Republican successor, Gerald Ford.

President Ford broke the anti-labor pattern by appointing highly regarded Harvard economist John Dunlop as secretary in 1975. Rather than hamper unions, Dunlop tried diligently to bring labor and management closer together. But he quit after less than a year because of interference from the White House, which invariably sided with management and opposed concessions to labor.

Despite President Ford’s interference with Dunlop’s approach, he appointed another advocate of closer labor-management relations to succeed Dunlop – – William Usery, who was head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which plays a major role in settling key labor-management disputes.

Usery, however, was secretary for only about a year, between 1976 and 1977. He left after Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president. True to his pro-labor stance, Carter named an outstanding union supporter, Ray Marshall, to replace Usery. Marshall served until 1981, drawing praise from union leaders for his strong support of labor rights.

Carter’s successor, Republican Ronald Reagan, was one of the most anti-union presidents ever. During his time in office, between 1981 and 1989, he was at least as dismissive of farm workers’ demands for union rights as his Republican predecessors. Reagan was an outspoken enemy of the UFW, despite his background as president of the Screen Actors union. Reagan demonstrated his animosity by gleefully plopping boycotted grapes into his mouth as he stood on stage during political campaign rallies.

Reagan’s Secretaries of Labor shared his distaste for union organizers in agriculture and everywhere else. First came Ray Donovan, 1981 to 1985, who sharply reversed the pro-labor direction the Labor Department had taken during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Donovan, a New Jersey contractor, resigned after he was indicted on charges of grand larceny and fraud. He was found not guilty after an eight-month trial, but never returned to the Labor Department.

Labor didn’t get any breaks from Donovan’s successor, William Brock, ’85 to ’87. As a member of Congress from Tennessee, he had cast 107 of what the AFL-CIO termed anti-labor “bad” votes” and only 17 “right votes.”

As secretary, Brock was no less anti-labor. He was especially neglectful of the urgent need of farm workers for much improved working conditions – for such simple amenities as fresh drinking water, toilets and hand-washing facilities.

In seeking congressional confirmation as secretary, Brock promised to seriously consider implementing regulations requiring growers to provide sanitary facilities. After his confirmation, however, he decided to defer action another 18 months in favor of encouraging states to adopt regulations. A federal court of appeals said that was obviously a stalling tactic that amounted to “disgraceful . . . legal neglect.”

Brock was followed as secretary by three women, all as anti-labor as the Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who appointed them. The first, Reagan appointee Ann McLoughlin, who served from 1987 to 1989, agreed that American workers badly needed on-the-job education and benefits, but said government shouldn’t provide them. McLaughlin’s immediate successor, Elizabeth Dole, was secretary from ’89 to ’90, Her successor, Lynn Martin, served until 1993.

Like McLaughlin, Dole and Martin believed the federal government should do little itself to help workers – even the farm workers who are among the most necessary yet most exploited and needy workers.

I covered those Secretaries of Labor and all the other secretaries who served between 1962 and 1993 as a newspaper, radio and television reporter and columnist. Willard Wirtz stood out to me then, and stands out now, as almost in a class by himself, as one of the best friends farm workers – all workers – have ever had. – Dick Meister

Dick Meister / San Francisco-based Columnist


Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who’s covered labor and politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. He can be reached through his website,


© 2004–2012 Si Se Puede Press

Primary source accounts: photographs, oral histories, videos, essays and historical documents from the United Farm Worker Delano Grape Strikers and the UFW Volunteers who worked with Cesar Chavez to build his farmworker movement.

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