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date: 24 February 2021

Fechner, Robertfree

(22 March 1876–31 December 1939)
  • Edward J. Roach

Fechner, Robert (22 March 1876–31 December 1939), labor union and New Deal official, was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the son of Charles Robert Fechner, a carriage trimmer, and Virginia Roberts Fechner. Fechner grew up in the Georgia towns of Macon and Griffin. He briefly attended the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, but he left school at the age of sixteen and apprenticed himself in the Augusta shops of the Georgia Railroad as a machinist. His training as a machinist lasted until 1896.

At the start of the Spanish-American War in the spring of 1898, Fechner enlisted as a private in Company E of the Second Georgia Volunteer Infantry. The Second Georgia trained for an invasion of Havana. However, with the capture of Santiago in July 1898 and the end of the war in August, Fechner's division never left the United States. Instead, it spent time in Huntsville, Alabama, before returning to Atlanta for deactivation that November. During 1898 Fechner also joined the International Association of Machinists (IAM).

Aside from serving in the Georgia State Guard, Fechner spent much of his early twenties working in Central and South America on coffee plantations, in mines, and at metal smelters as a journeyman, or boomer, machinist. Young machinists commonly traveled between employers to gain experience with the machining requirements of different industries.

In 1902 Fechner married Clare L. Dickey, the daughter of the railroad executive John Franklin Dickey. The Fechners had no children.

After his travels as a boomer machinist, Fechner returned to the United States in 1905 and took a job as a machinist for the Central of Georgia Railroad in Savannah. An active member of the International Association of Machinists in Georgia, he was elected general chairman of IAM District 49 in 1908. He also served as the secretary treasurer of the Georgia Federation of Labor from 1910 to 1916. Fechner became prominent within the IAM and in 1914 was elected to its executive board. He and his wife subsequently moved to Wollaston, Massachusetts, near Boston. Fechner became an IAM general vice president in 1925 and retained this position until his death, taking a leave of absence from 1933 to 1939. During his years as a union officer, Fechner became an adept negotiator, working to settle disputes across North America, including a machinists' strike against the Boston and Maine Railroad in 1917.

In March 1933 the newly inaugurated president Franklin Roosevelt announced that a conservation work program would be an important aspect of the poverty relief programs of his New Deal. This proposal aroused the ire of organized labor. President William Green of the American Federation of Labor asserted that the projected pay of $1 per day for conservation workers would depress the pay of workers in general. Green also opposed the program's proposed quasi-military camp structure. To placate labor, Roosevelt nominated Fechner as the new agency's director. Roosevelt, while assistant secretary of the navy from 1913 to 1921, had negotiated with Fechner and the IAM during World War I and knew of Fechner's work to end the Boston and Maine strike. Fechner had also been instrumental in obtaining the IAM's endorsement of Roosevelt during the 1932 presidential campaign.

Fechner's blue-collar background set him apart from Harry Hopkins, Rexford Tugwell, Harold Ickes, and other prominent New Deal officials. Fechner, though he lectured on labor relations at several northeastern universities in the 1920s and 1930s, had much less formal education than most other New Deal leaders. Called a “potato bug among dragonflies” by Time magazine in 1939, Fechner agreed, stating that “most of my clerks are better educated than I am” (“National Affairs,” Time, 6 Feb. 1936, p. 12). Fechner worked long hours and eschewed the social limelight. Studying the effects of industry on human relations and labor-management relations were among his favorite leisure activities. Fechner, a Democrat, was a member of several fraternal societies, including the Masons, Eagles, and Elks.

As director of Emergency Conservation Work (renamed the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937), Fechner gained a reputation for ably administering an independent agency in which Roosevelt had great personal interest. That agency worked closely with an advisory council representing four departments: War, which operated most camps; Labor, which selected enrollees; and Agriculture and Interior, which administered projects. Under Fechner's leadership, the people who served in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—nearly 2.5 million—built national, state, and local parks, fought soil erosion, and battled insects and fires in national parks and forests. All the workers were men; most were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, and most earned $30 per month. They were required to send $22 to $25 of their monthly earnings to dependents at home. Approximately two hundred volunteers lived in a typical camp; enrollees served for renewable six-month terms.

Although the CCC was one of the most popular New Deal agencies (the 1936 Republican presidential candidate, Alfred Landon, endorsed making the CCC a permanent government bureau), its director was not immune to controversy. Civil rights leaders criticized the limited enrollment and leadership opportunities available to blacks in an officially color-blind agency. Fechner's union informally excluded nonwhites until 1948. Fechner, citing a lack of support among local residents for the establishment of camps of African-American CCC enrollees in rural areas, was reluctant to enroll blacks in the CCC, to pressure state and local relief officials to accept the placement of African-American CCC camps, or to allow black officers to command African-American camps. As a result the CCC placed many of its African-American camps on military bases; only two camps ever received black officers.

Fechner also aroused the umbrage of educators, who wanted CCC camps to provide enrollees, many of whom had never graduated from high school, with greater educational opportunities. While Fechner allowed camps to provide educational programs and ensured that the staff of each camp included an education coordinator, he insisted that the CCC was a relief program where educational opportunities were incidental to its main purpose. Though many CCC enrollees took advantage of the classes offered in camps and earned high school diplomas or learned new skills, they did so voluntarily and on their own time after a day's work. Meanwhile military leaders disliked Fechner's opposition to providing enrollees with military training. After Fechner's death, the CCC provided its enrollees some noncombatant training.

Fechner died in Washington, D.C. He was succeeded as CCC director by his assistant, James J. McEntee. Fechner was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Fechner's hard work and leadership were key to creating and maintaining the public image of one of the most popular and geographically dispersed New Deal programs. A Washington Post editorial on Fechner's death further noted that the CCC had “become a symbol of human reclamation,” “rescuing … young men from blind alleys and giving them opportunities they could not have otherwise enjoyed” (1 Jan. 1940). From state parks in West Virginia and shelterbelts in the Midwest to forests in Alaska, the works of Fechner and the CCC became important parts of the landscape of the United States.


Fechner left no collection of personal papers. Official papers from his service as CCC director are in Record Group 35 at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. Several letters are in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y. The papers of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) are in the Pullen Library of Georgia State University in Atlanta, though most of the collection's materials postdate 1935. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin has an extensive collection, mostly on microfilm, of IAMAW records from 1920 to 1974.

John Salmond, The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933–1942: A New Deal Case Study (1967), examines Fechner's administration of the agency. John Saalberg, “Roosevelt, Fechner and the CCC—A Study in Executive Leadership” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell Univ., 1962), is similar to Salmond's study. Mark Perlman, The Machinists: A New Study in American Trade Unionism (1961), is a history of the IAM to the 1950s. David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (1987), provides a history of organized labor and develops the role of the IAM in the labor movement of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Period issues of the IAM's Machinist's Monthly Journal provide context for Fechner's years as a union official, including Arthur E. Holder, “Summary Record of 63d Congress: Measures of Interest to Labor Enacted,” 27, no. 4 (Apr. 1915): 329–30; Robert Hunter, “The Perils Confronting Labor,” 22, no. 3 (Mar. 1910): 228–33; and Fechner's own short columns in the journal's “On the Firing Line” section (see, e.g., pages 1124–5 of the Dec. 1915 issue). Obituaries are in the New York Times, 1 Jan. 1940, and the Washington Post, 1 Jan. 1940.