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Missing In Action: Unions in World War II

by Arthur Herman

Unions have never behaved all that public-spiritedly. Only as single-minded employer-antagonists. Even during WWII. Why expect any more of them now? Posted 3.4.11.

Even World War Two couldn’t budge the organized labor unions into concessions with their corporate counterparties. There were no public employee unions then—only unions to deal with private companies. The AFL, CIO, United Auto Workers, and United Mine Workers viewed the war as an opportunity to build power. As Tom Di Lorenzo, a hard nosed UAW boss, told the Washington Post in 1943, “Our policy is not to win the war at any cost.”

Organized labor was New Deal Washington’s favorite child when the National Labor Relations Act enshrined collective bargaining and the idea of the “closed shop” in 1935. Because the buildup for war in late 1940 and 1941 brought more jobs, higher wages, and growing union membership, the unions, it was thought, would pitch in along with the rest of the nation to avoid production-slowing strikes–especially in vital defense industries. They thought wrong. Union leaders such as UMW’s John L Lewis, CIO’s Philip Murray, and UAW’s Walter Reuther weren’t men to let a war go to waste as a platform for showing muscle. In the spring of 1941, a wave of strikes began to sweep American defense plants–one of the most bitter in Wisconsin, at the Allis-Chalmers plant manufacturing turbine engines for navy destroyers. More than 3,500 strikes took place through 1941, cutting defense production by 25 percent.

Most of these strikes were not over wages or working conditions, which were certainly demanding, with round the clock shifts and overtime. Most were over the relatively minor issue of “union maintenance,” or which workers would be assigned to what unions as new plants opened and old plants turned over its work force to admit, for instance, African Americans, whom many unions like the Boilermakers Union in the California shipyards tried to exclude. The unions’ most bitter foes were neither employers or the Axis but each other, as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the more radical Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) competed fiercely for membership.

The Allis-Chalmers strike only ended after the federal government threatened to seize the facility. Organized by CIO officials, the Communist-dominated union was suspected of deliberately slowing the Allies in their fight against Hitler, Stalin’s ally. When Hitler attacked the USSR in June 1941 it was hoped that the CIO strikes would fade away. They didn’t. The first week of December 1941 the government faced a major strike at the North American aircraft plant in San Diego–a CIO stronghold. A nation-wide railway strike was set for Sunday, December 7, but Pearl Harbor intervened.

Despite a much-ballyhooed no-strike pledge signed after Pearl Harbor, strikes and work stoppages continued throughout the war–with a shutdown at one facility forcing work to stop at another. In some cases such as the North American strike, workers defied their union leadership and stayed on the job. But the record is very clear. The number of strikes soared from 22 in January 1942, just a month after Pearl Harbor, to more than 220 by July. Strikes jumped even higher in 1943, the year of Kasserine Pass, the invasion of Italy, Ploesti, and Tarawa—from 4.1 million labor days lost to 13.5 million.

The unions finally overreached themselves in May 1943, when the United Mine Workers went off the job for three days. Furious, Roosevelt ordered the army to seize the mines and threatened to withdraw the miners’ draft deferments. The miners went back to work, but Congress had had enough, and in June passed the Smith-Connally bill which didn’t actually ban strikes, but required a sixty-day notice beforehand. Roosevelt vetoed the bill; it took the Senate exactly eleven minutes to override him.

Smith-Connally proved that America was fed up with labor’s refusal to give an inch in the midst of a national crisis. But the strikes didn’t end. In December, the Army had to seize the railroads for three weeks to forestall a nation-wide strike. In the course of the war, the US Army would seize a total of sixty-seven defense facilities for inadequate production, each time due to labor unrest.

Even in 1944, the last full year of the war, the numbers didn’t improve. There were no fewer than 4950 work stoppages costing 8.7 million labor days—enough to build two thousand B-17's. The week before D-Day, twenty-eight factories were on strike in Detroit alone.

Yet despite the federal government’s frustrations, private business’s instinct was to give in to unions, if only to prevent the shutdown of vital industries. Union membership actually grew during the war, to more than a quarter of the nation’s workforce by war’s end. Industrialists like Henry Kaiser became renowned for their good relations with unions, throwing in health and pension benefits to avoid the constraints of wartime wage controls–which Congress made even more attractive in 1943 by making the employer contributions tax exempt.

Despite passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which reined in some of organized labor’s power, employers like Big Auto and Big Steel were loath to antagonize their new labor “partners.” No one wanted to put the post-war economic boom at risk. So year after year, every negotiation with organized labor meant more and more wage and benefit concessions–even as those industries became less and less globally competitive.

The wartime concessions to unions had only set the stage for a later more serious economic crisis. America’s Arsenal of Democracy was poised to become the Rust Belt.

If unions were arrogant and blind to the long term consequences of their actions during World War II, don’t expect them to exhibit greater public-spiritedness today. Entities do tend to serve themselves.

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