FINLEY, IRA (1886-1981)
Oklahoma socialist and labor leader Ira Monroe Finley twice served in the state legislature and began one of the first organizations for the rights of the unemployed, the Veterans of Industry of America, during the Great Depression.
Born in Missouri on December 7, 1886, to Irish immigrant parents, Finley grew up in rural Arkansas and Texas. His father had been a successful farmer in Missouri, but the farm in Texas failed. After his father's death, Finley restored the family's fortunes, only to be ruined by the Panic of 1907.
The twenty-year-old Finley then moved to Oklahoma, where he engaged in sharecropping and construction work on the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad. After being laid off the railroad job, Finley became a socialist and soon involved himself in both the Oklahoma Socialist Party and the Oklahoma State Federation of Labor (OSFL). By 1917 he began organizing Oklahoma locals of the United Brotherhood of Railroad Maintenance of the Way Employees. Finley proved so effective that he received an offer from the union's national headquarters to serve as a full-time organizer.
Elected to the state legislature in 1922 as a Democrat and part of the Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League (FLRL) campaign, Finley grew disenchanted with the flrl's newly elected governor, John C. Walton, and voted to impeach him in November 1923. This was an act of courage on Finley's part, as the OSFL, which elected Finley president in June 1923, had originally organized the flrl and was dominated by ardent Walton supporters. His actions cost Finley the OSFL's top post in 1925.
He moved to Oklahoma City in the late 1920s and became prosperous in the road machinery sales and real estate businesses. But Finley's interest in politics and public service never died, and in 1930 he won the state House seat for Oklahoma City's Capital Hill district. William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray, elected governor in 1930, soon asked Finley to serve as director of Oklahoma's relief efforts. Finley modestly declined, suggesting instead that Murray select Dr. Charles Evans, former president of Oklahoma Normal School (now the University of Central Oklahoma). Murray agreed, on condition Evans seek Finley's advice and Finley direct relief efforts in Oklahoma County. Finley accepted.
During his tenure, Finley came to believe that a "Share the Work" program to redistribute wealth, enforced by state or federal law, was the only effective means to deal with the Depression. Finley shared this idea with other county relief directors, and the men established the Veterans of Industry of America (VIA) on September 28, 1932.
Finley personally rented the new organization's offices and paid for them out of his own pocket. VIA's first efforts involved lobbying for a state law that would tax businesses that made their employees work more than thirty hours a week. Finley also worked to set up local chapters throughout Oklahoma. By October 1933 VIA claimed 40,000 members, mostly unemployed workers and displaced farmers, but also casual workers and even some small businessmen. Separate locals for blacks existed in eastern Oklahoma. All the members carried blue membership cards inscribed with the VIA slogan written by Finley: "Poverty must be wiped out. No nation can call itself Christian or civilized that permits babes, little children and the aged to suffer for food, clothes and shelter."
VIA became an effective pressure group for the unemployed in Oklahoma. It proved especially effective along the Arkansas border, where small farmers and tenants joined VIA boycotts of "slave wage" agricultural employers. VIA members also joined picket lines to help striking union members and worked to discourage the unemployed from becoming strikebreakers.
The Veterans of Industry of America declined during World War II as defense industries created new jobs and reduced the number of unemployed. Finley, however, continued his involvement with Oklahoma labor and Democratic Party affairs until his death on May 4, 1981.
Nigel Anthony Sellars Christopher Newton University
Green, James R. Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895–1943. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
McGinnis, Patrick E. Oklahoma's Depression Radicals: Ira M. Finley and the Veterans of Industry of America. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1991.