In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the American economy was struggling to gain its footing. The stock market crash of 1929 and the thousands of banks that failed in the subsequent panic had taken the life savings of millions of Americans and left businesses without enough funds to pay workers. Unemployment rates skyrocketed in the four years after the crash, reaching an all-time high of 24.9 percent in the winter of 1933.
Working quickly to arrest the downward plunge of the economy, President Franklin Roosevelt proposed the institution of a handful of federal programs designed to provide “relief, recovery, and reform” for the American people. Collectively referred to as the New Deal, these programs offered public work projects, employment opportunities and financial reforms to help citizens and businesses rebuild what they had lost. Roosevelt strongly believed that the government needed to step in and take control of the crumbling economy; the capitalist approach so far hadn’t been effective on its own.
One of the acts passed into law was the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, or NIRA. NIRA authorized the creation of the National Recovery Administration, which allowed industry leaders to get together and create codes to promote fair competition. The codes would then be approved and instituted by President Roosevelt and enforced by the federal government. By ensuring fair wages, regulating prices, and providing for decent hours and working conditions for employees, lawmakers hoped the increase in productivity and profit would help build up the economy. More money in people’s pockets meant more purchasing, more spending and more money flowing.
What this meant practically was that large businesses and corporations would be working together to build a new set of guidelines that they would be legally obligated to follow, codes that were implemented and signed into law by the president personally. While the goal, ostensibly, was to establish practices that would increase wages and keep profits high through greater productivity, essentially these corporations now had the ability to enact any law they wished, including ones that would drive their competitors out of business.
Enter the Schechter Brothers
Joseph, Martin, Alex and Aaron Schechter were Hungarian Jewish immigrants who had built their company, Schechter Poultry Corporation, from the ground up upon their arrival in New York City in the early 1900s. Their wholesale business was in a middleman position in the poultry industry. They mass-purchased large amounts of live poultry, butchered the birds at their Brooklyn location, and sold them to local butchers. The Schechter brothers adhered strictly to rigorous kashrus standards and were trusted by local Jewish butchers as a reliable source of kosher poultry.
In her book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, author Amity Shlaes outlines the Schechters’ story, from their humble immigrant beginnings to their case against the government. Shlaes describes them as stereotypical Jewish immigrants—Old World garb, broken English, unfamiliar with the legalities of the United States of America; she writes that they were “in America, but not yet entirely of America.” In her story, the Schechter brothers are the poor, unsuspecting victims of an unfair and overreaching liberal government.
The truth is very different, and much more interesting. In reality, the Schechter Poultry Corporation grossed over $1 million annually. It was one of the largest firms in the borough’s poultry industry, and the largest kosher slaughterhouse in Brooklyn. It was in direct competition with three other major poultry corporations whose unions represented the rest of Brooklyn’s hundreds of slaughterhouses, and which would use any tactic necessary to gain as much control of the poultry market as they could. The Schechters were often a target of these underhanded and illegal tactics as the unions kept trying to get them to fold their business into the others’.