Friends of FMCS History

The history of negotiation, mediation and arbitration

The Remarkable John R. Steelman

Born in 1900 on a farm near Thornton, Arkansas, John Steelman, as a young man, spent time as a hobo riding the rails and working in western wheat fields, serving in the army during WWI, and working a variety of jobs. All the while, he saved money to attend college. He eventually earned a PhD, and began a career as an Alabama college professor in the early 1930s. When not teaching, Steelman researched racial violence and labor problems in the South. When his work came to Labor Secretary Perkins’ attention, she hired him as a USCS Conciliator, and when the longtime Director of USCS died, she appointed him Director in 1937.

As Director, he promoted the visibility of USCS by giving speeches, making friends in Congress and the White House, and personally mediating high profile disputes. He encouraged his Conciliators to promote the use of arbitration, and encouraged qualified Conciliators to arbitrate cases when appropriate. He created Technical Conciliators to handle cases involving time and motion engineering issues as they became more popular.

Steelman’s high level mediation as USCS Director placed him in frequent contact with the FDR White House, including contacts with the President. As a result after seven years as Director, President Truman offered Steelman a job in the White House, where he would remain until the Truman’s presidency ended in 1953. Steelman was the first person to hold the title of Assistant to the President, the position later called Chief of Staff. [1]

In the White House, Steelman, in addition to all his other duties, continued to handle high profile disputes, and in doing so, he upstages the Director of USCS and later the Director of FMCS, as well as the National Mediation Board on railway disputes. A dramatic example of Steelman’s work occurred during late 1945 and early 1946 a period when the U.S. experienced the most strikes in a year at any time before or since. As the last of those five million striking workers returned to work, a major railroad strike began. With the economy struggling to adjust to peace time, a national strike of all railways would have dramatically impacted the economy in just two days.

While Steelman mediated the dispute, President Truman call an emergency Saturday joint-session of Congress with the intention of announcing he would use unprecedented authority to draft the workers into the Army and nationalize the railroads. As the President was speaking, a House official rushed into the chamber and handed the President a message from Steelman reporting he had just mediated a settlement of the strike.

The mediation work Steelman performed while in the White House is minor compared to his role as Assistant to the President. One illustration of that role is captured in a Truman remark to Steelman during the President’s whistle stop reelection campaign . Truman told Steelman you take care of the White House business while Clark Clifford and I are out taking care of the Republicans.

At age 53, Steelman left the White House six months after Eisenhower’s election, having help with the transition, and rejecting the President’s offer to remain in the White House.

In 1999, Steelman died of natural cause at age 99 in his Florida home.

Steelman’s remarkable life and work is extensively documented in President Harry Truman Presidential Library.

[1] Photo: John Steelman (left), President Truman (right) aboard Presidential Yakut on Potomac River in early 1950s.

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