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Chapter 6: Eras of the New Frontier and the Great Society, 1961-1969



Before John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960 in a dramatically close election, he promised a "New Frontier" of domestic social and economic reform. As President he offered a wide agenda of legislative proposals to realize this goal. The major proposals included establishing a volunteer Peace Corps to assist underdeveloped countries, raising the minimum wage and broadening its coverage, raising Social Security benefits, providing medicare, providing federal aid to education, creating a federal department of urban affairs, and giving greater powers to the federal government to deal with economic recessions. The Congress and the country were not ready to adopt all of this program, however. The Peace Corps was established, Social Security benefits and the minimum wage were raised, and a historic housing law was enacted, but little else was enacted. Kennedy's term was tragically shortened by an assassin's bullet in November 1963.

Kennedy brought an eager and able throng of people anxious to serve under him. One of the most notable among them was Arthur J. Goldberg, special counsel to the AFL-CIO and considered the leading labor lawyer in the country. Kennedy named Goldberg to be his Secretary of Labor. Known as the "Davey Crockett of the New Frontier", Goldberg became involved in a wide range of social and cultural issues in the Kennedy Administration. He was instrumental in improving cultural life in the Capital and in beginning redevelopment of the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor from Capitol Hill to the White House. In the labor sphere, Goldberg concentrated on dealing with labor relations problems and on improving equal employment opportunities.

Early in his term Goldberg had to bring bad news on two fronts to the country: unemployment rose to 6.8 percent in January 1961; and, in March the "steel gap" closed and the Russians finally matched American steel production. Later in the year, however, the economy was in better shape. George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, said that under Goldberg's leadership the Department came closer to realizing its mission of promoting the welfare of working people "than it has at any time in my ... experience in Washington." Goldberg left the Department in September 1962 to become an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Collective bargaining was Secretary Goldberg's main interest and he actively made the "good offices" of the federal government available to help settle or prevent strikes. In February 1961 President Kennedy created an advisory committee on labor- management relations to help the Administration devise sound labor policies. While he was Secretary, Goldberg helped mediate many disputes, particularly in the defense-related aerospace industry and the crucial transportation industry (railroads, shipping and airlines). Much to the delight of the culturally- minded First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Goldberg settled a strike against the New York Metropolitan Opera in time to prevent a cancellation of the 1961-1962 season.

As the first Jewish Secretary of Labor, Goldberg was strongly conscious of the rights of minorities. He committed the Department to actively protecting the rights of blacks and others. He actively implemented Executive Order 10925 requiring the executive branch of the government to encourage equal employment opportunity for all. Within the Department, he took steps to abolish the segregation of facilities for black employees that until then was widespread in Washington's government offices. He instituted programs to promote better career opportunities for minority employees of the Department which his successors built upon. These programs became models for the rest of the government and for the private sector.

Another major area of concern and activity was employment and training. There was a widespread fear beginning in the 1950s that automation and other factors would rapidly eliminate low-skill jobs and create massive and permanent unemployment if nothing were done. Two new pieces of legislation gave the Department a special role in dealing with this problem: the Area Redevelopment Act of 1961 (ARA) and the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962 (MDTA). Under the ARA the Department provided retraining and allowances for unemployed workers in areas of serious unemployment, principally the Appalachian region. MDTA was a much broader law that gave the Department major responsibilities for identifying labor shortages, training the unemployed and the underemployed, and sponsoring a comprehensive program of research. It planted the seed of what grew into a large and complex employment and training program. Secretary Goldberg established in the Department an Office of Manpower, Automation, and Training (OMAT) to carry out responsibilities under both laws.

Amendments to the FLSA in 1961 raised the minimum wage by stages to $1.25 an hour. They also significantly broadened the scope of the law, adding 3.6 million additional workers, most of them in retail or service trades. This was the first major expansion of scope in the history of the FLSA.

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded the slain President Kennedy in November 1963. Johnson, a former Senate majority leader, immediately set about to enact the balance of Kennedy's New Frontier. He also added a few new measures and redesignated the whole package as the "Great Society." Legislatively, Johnson was quite successful. A historic Civil Rights Act, a multi- faceted "War on Poverty", medicare, and much more, were quickly enacted. Domestic success was marred, however, by civil disorders in the inner cities and a disastrous war in Vietnam. Johnson was reelected in 1964 but because of opposition to his war policies he did not seek reelection in 1968.

Serving as Secretary of Labor through Johnson's whole term and the last part of Kennedy's was W. Willard Wirtz, initially appointed as Arthur Goldberg's Under Secretary. Wirtz became Secretary in September 1962. Before 1961 he had a distinguished career in the teaching and practice of law, particularly labor law, and in public service. He worked with and wrote speeches for Illinois governor and Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Unlike Goldberg, Wirtz did not play an active role in mediating labor disputes. Except in national emergencies, he left dispute settlement to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and other agencies. Wirtz focused on the need to assure full employment and equal opportunity to all workers. Using words that could be applied to his predecessors and successors, he described his term as Secretary in this way: "if there was a central unifying and dignifying 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."

During Secretary Wirtz's tenure an almost bewildering variety of programs took shape at the Department, both to further its historic mission of enhancing workers' "opportunities for profitable employment" and to help realize the social and economic goals of the Johnson Administration. These programs evolved from MDTA and ARA and their amendments and a number of other laws and programs. When Congress enacted President Johnson's "War on Poverty" it created a new agency that administered a number of anti-poverty programs, but some of these programs wound up in the Department. There were DOL education and training programs dealing with such groups as unemployed youths, high school drop-outs, older people and the hard-core unemployed. These programs included on-the-job training (OJT), institutional or class-room job-training programs, remedial education, special job-finding assistance, and counseling on personal problems and job-seeking.

To coordinate the Department's burgeoning training and education programs, in February 1963 Secretary Wirtz established the Manpower Administration (MA), headed initially by the Under Secretary. The MA included not only the Bureau of Employment Security and the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training but also the recently established OMAT. The MA also absorbed the most important of the job-related anti-poverty programs -- the Neighborhood Youth Corps (NYC).

The NYC was set up under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to help unemployed 14- to 21-year-old youths from poor families to gain work experience and earn income while completing high school. By the end of 1968 the program had helped over 1.5 million young people. The program had three main components: one for in-school youth; one for out-of-school, unemployed youth; and a summer component for both groups. The program was federally funded but it was administered by local non-profit sponsors such as public schools, hospitals and libraries. The enrollees largely performed public service jobs, working as aides in libraries, schools, museums and so on.

The NYC was redesignated the Bureau of Work Training Programs when a number of new programs were added. A Special Impact program created training and employment opportunities for people in very poor neighborhoods. New Careers trained poor persons of all ages at a pre-professional level in public service fields in which there was a shortage of qualified persons, such as in health, education and public safety. Operation Mainstream helped older people and workers with outdated skills by providing work experience on community projects that would improve the local environment. These projects were in areas with high unemployment or little industry. OJT under the MDTA sought to help the underprivileged by providing training in the workplace. It also offered basic education and assistance for those not prepared to benefit from OJT. A Concentrated Employment Program sought to make all the employment and training services in a given area available to those most in need. The Work Incentive Program (WIN), established in 1967, helped get able-bodied persons receiving assistance under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) off welfare rolls and onto payrolls by providing training and work experience and by helping them find permanent jobs.

There were other employment assistance programs outside of the Bureau of Work Training Programs. The Employment Service administered the institutional training program, supplementing it with remedial training and income allowances. In addition, the Service expanded its operations to help the underprivileged and shifted its focus from the needs of the employer to the needs of the job-seeker. The Department made special efforts to meet the employment and training needs of women, veterans and farm workers.

An Office of Manpower Policy, Evaluation, and Research supplanted OMAT in 1966. Its mission was to provide basic information for policy-makers. The Office developed plans for the Department's employment and training programs and assisted other government agencies and outside groups concerned with similar problems. It conducted research and developed demonstration projects for urban ghetto dwellers and other special groups. For example, it conducted a mobility demonstration project to study ways of helping unemployed workers move to areas where the job market was better. It constantly provided feedback to the whole employment and training program on how well or poorly goals were being met. It also assisted foreign countries in planning to deal with their employment and training problems.

Employment and training dominated during Secretary Wirtz's tenure, but there were other important activities. Equal opportunity was a major goal of the Department. Following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 an Office of Federal Contract Compliance was established to see that contractors were not discriminating against their employees. The Women's Bureau had worked hard to secure passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 which sought to assure that women workers would receive equal pay for the same work. In 1964 the Bracero program ended, thereby opening thousands of agricultural jobs for American workers, if they wanted them. Efforts by the Department to secure passage of a job safety and health law were unsuccessful but they laid the foundations for future legislative action.

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