WASHINGTON – It was a corporate double-cross, 50 years ago this month, that produced one of President John F. Kennedy’s most famous lines.
The Democrat, after just a year in office, was concerned about potentially rising inflation. His administration set an informal but well-publicized target of having wage increases and price hikes match productivity increases. Meanwhile, Steelworkers’ bargaining over a contract with the nation’s steel companies was getting nowhere.
The administration intervened. It didn’t want a rerun of the 4-month steel strike of 1959 under GOP President Eisenhower. Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg, a longtime union counsel, mediated the talks. The two sides reached agreement on March 31.
The pact, with ten of the nation’s 11 steel companies, called for an increase in fringe benefits worth 10 cents an hour in 1962, but no wage hikes that year. Then-AFL-CIO President George Meany said that in the pact, the union “settled on a wage increase figure somewhat less than the Steelworkers thought they would get.”
Kennedy praised the contract as “obviously non-inflationary” and said both the USW and the steel firms showed “industrial statesmanship of the highest order.” The agreement also implicitly said the companies would not raise prices, as that would be inflationary.
But on April 10, Roger Blough, CEO of U.S. Steel, the largest of the firms, with 25% of the market, met Kennedy in the Oval Office and told him the company was immediately raising prices by $6 a ton – and that other steel companies would follow. Six did. The 3.5% hike enraged the president. What he said in public was biting – but he was even more caustic in private.
In an April 11, 1962 press conference, Kennedy called the price hikes “a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest.” He criticized “a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility.” The execs had “utter contempt” for the U.S., Kennedy said.
In private, Kennedy added: “My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it until now.” The line quickly became public.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., then a White House staffer, wrote in his later book A Thousand Days that Kennedy, to his staff, called the steel firm leaders “bastards.” Meany said Kennedy used that epithet for them in a phone call to him, too.
The contract with USW stood and the union wisely stayed silent. Meanwhile, two big firms, Inland and Kaiser, refused to follow U.S. Steel’s lead. The Kennedy Defense Department, run by former auto executive Robert McNamara, let it be known it planned
to shift a submarine construction contract to a smaller steel firm that also refused to raise prices. The other firms that followed U.S. Steel, led by Bethlehem, retreated.
By April 13, even Blough had caved in. The GOP screamed; the firms stewed.