Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, by the Assistant Chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs (Villard)

Mr. Larrabee telephoned from Akron to say that a reply had been received from the Firestone Plantations’ resident manager in Liberia, Mr. Seybold, as to the results of his discussion with President Barclay on the terms of the new labor law. The law had been signed by President Barclay on February 1 and was in effect.

Mr. Seybold had reported that President Barclay regarded the measure as an experimental one and that changes might be made in the future. He seemed determined, however, to keep the measure itself in force for at least a year. In this attitude President Barclay [Page 696] apparently believed that he had the support of President Roosevelt, who, in discussing the Atlantic Charter38 and its application to colored peoples, had said it was planned to establish minimum living standards everywhere after the war.

Mr. Seybold had protested that the provisions of the labor law conflicted with the agreement between the Firestone Company and the Liberian Government, which regulated the employment of labor on the rubber plantations. President Barclay had replied that conditions had changed since the signing of that agreement, and that to observe such conditions today would deprive Liberians of their constitutional rights.

It appeared that in the conversation between President Roosevelt and President Barclay, as reported by Mr. Seybold, President Roosevelt had mentioned the fact that he had discussed with Lord Swinton39 labor questions and taxes in the British African colonies. President Roosevelt had asked Lord Swinton what became of the taxes collected in the British colonies, to which Lord Swinton had made no answer.

Mr. Larrabee then went on to say that the Firestone Company was compelled to serve notice on the Liberian Government that it did not consider itself bound by the labor law and that it regarded the provisions thereof as a direct violation of the Firestone contract. Mr. Seybold was accordingly being instructed to inform President Barclay to this effect. It was fully realized by the company that this would mean a head-on collision and that serious trouble might ensue, but owing to the impossibility of producing rubber successfully under the conditions of the law the Firestone Company had no alternative.

I asked Mr. Larrabee what in particular the company objected to in the law. He replied that the Firestone interests had no objection to the wage provisions and were quite willing to adhere to any other fair standard of wages on the West African coast. However, it would be impossible to administer the plantations on the basis of a 48-hour week with time and a half for overtime. The company also felt that the reference to racial matters in section nine would make that portion of the, law impossible to observe. The company also felt that the law was unworkable because there was no provision for study or adjustment of disputes and no appeal except to a Liberian circuit court. Moreover, the labor judges to be set up under the provisions of the law would have the power to permit wholesale strikes in the event that the company did not abide by a decision of such a judge, and no appeal was possible in this case either. The law would [Page 697] be enforced by executive decree, rather than along constitutional lines.

I asked Mr. Larrabee if he would send us a copy of Mr. Seybold’s report, which he promised to do. He said that he would be glad to come to Washington to discuss the matter at any time, but in the meantime he felt that the Department should be aware of the stand which his company is taking and of the serious results which would probably ensue.

  1. Joint Declaration by President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill, August 14, 1941, Foreign Relations, 1941, vol. i, p. 367.
  2. British Minister Resident at Accra.