The labor wars after the war

July 15, 2011

After the Second World War, U.S. workers launched the largest strike wave to date. Yet despite some economic gains, the strike wave ended with the imposition of strict anti-labor legislation that has crippled the labor movement to this day. Paul D’Amato looks at this crucial period in an article first published in the September 1990 edition of Socialist Worker.

IN THE 12 months following V-J (Victory over Japan) Day in August 1945 almost 5 million workers engaged in strike actions throughout the U.S. Virtually every sector of industry was hit--auto, oil steel, coal meatpacking, railroads, electrical transportation, communication and utilities--although not all simultaneously. The number of workdays lost to strikes exceeded the 1937 level by four times.

Leaders of both the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had collaborated with employers and the state during the war to put the brakes on the rank and file and beef up wartime production.

In spite of this, thousands of "quickie" wildcat strikes broke out during the war in defiance of the no-strike pledge--many over issues of discipline and work conditions.

After the war, union leaders were hoping to be able to strike a peaceful deal with the employers, getting wage increase and job guarantees in exchange for keeping tight reins on the rank and file.

Autoworkers during the 1945-46 strike against General Motors at the 36th Street plant in Wyoming, Mich.
Autoworkers during the 1945-46 strike against General Motors at the 36th Street plant in Wyoming, Mich.

"It's industrial peace for the post war period," proclaimed the CIO News on April 2, 1945. In the same month leaders of both union federation signed a "Charter of Industrial Peace" with the American Chamber of Commerce.

Four days after V-J Day, President Harry Truman ordered that wartime restrictions on strikes be continued in peacetime. AFL head William Green summed up the bureaucrats predisposition to avoid resistance when he said, "V-J Day will not mean an automatic ending of restraint on strikes."

But the union leaders' plans were upset by both the employers and their own rank and file.

The employers were preparing for an offensive. They had made massive profits during the war. Now they were demanding that Truman lift price controls and allow them to pass on wage increases to the consumer. In effect, they wanted to use inflation to erode wages and increase profits.

Before the ink was dried on the April "agreement," Chrysler's vice president announced that the Chamber of Commerce was launching a five-point campaign for the outlawing of strikes, guaranteed government protection of scabs and outlawing of the closed shop.

WORKERS WERE in no mood to acquiesce. A readiness to fight had been bred by accumulated bitterness over declining wages and working condition during the war.

While workers had raised their output per man-hour 26 percent during the war years, their average hourly wages had risen only six-tenths of 1 percent. Moreover , even before the war's end, a million men and women were tossed on the scrap heap. Two million more workers were laid off after V-J Day.

Even before the strikes began, thousands of workers were demonstrating throughout the country against the layoffs. In late August, 50,000 workers rallied in Madison Square Garden, 30,000 in San Francisco and 20,000 in Detroit.

Rank-and-file restlessness was expressed also among soldiers. At the end of 1945 and the beginning of 1946, "bring us home" demonstrations swept through the military still stranded overseas.

The mood of the rank and file was expressed sharply at a June 1945 United Auto Workers conference in Detroit that overwhelmingly called for the UAW Leadership to initiate a strike vote.

The conference called for 30 percent pay hikes and for 40 hours work at 48 hours pay as the initial steps toward the 30-hour workweek. The 113-day strike of 225,000 General Motors (GM) workers that began seven months later did not begin the strike wave, but it was the backbone of the movement.

The union leaders attempted various delaying action to put off strikes, but the tide of rank and file anger was too strong.

The upsurge began in September when 43,000 oil workers in 20 states walked off the job demanding 40 hours work for 52 hours pay (a 30 percent pay increase).

They were followed by 200,000 coal miners, 44,000 AFL lumber workers, 40,000 Bay Area machinists, 70,000 Midwest truckers and so on.

But these were only preliminary skirmishes. GM workers went out in November for a 30 percent wage increase , completely shutting down the largest corporation in the U.S.

A complete shutdown of the auto industry was prevented only by the policies of the UAW leadership, who decided to conduct a "one-at-a-time" strategy. The GM workers found themselves in the position, despite widespread public support and industry-wide solidarity, of holding the fort alone in a long, 113-day battle of attrition.

On January 21, 800,000 steelworkers joined the 1 million workers already on strike, beginning the larges single strike in U.S. history.

At the rank-and-file level, a tremendous feeling of solidarity and strength prevailed. They were several citywide general strikes and mass demonstrations in defense of strikers in this period. Workers formed mass pickets, ran soup kitchens and fought police and company goon, allowing few scabs to pass.

Unfortunately, the firmness and determination of striking workers were not matched by their leadership. The CIO leaders, so united in suppressing militancy during the war and promoting Roosevelt, had no unified, coordinated policy for victory.

In almost every international union the leaders proceeded to make settlement without consideration for other unions still on strike.

Truman, the Democratic "friend of labor," sided with the employers. He wrote after the war, "It was clear to me that the time had come for action on the part of the government."

He first called workers to return to work and await the results of fact-finding boards (which made recommendation that fell somewhere between the workers' demands and the employers' offers). Where this strategy to end strikes failed, Truman used his wartime powers to seize workplaces and order workers back to work.

He ended the strike by oil workers (which had spearheaded the strike wave) by threatening to use the Navy to seize struck refineries.

Truman commandeered the railroad in May 1946 to head off a coming strike. When railroad workers nevertheless engaged in a spontaneous strike that tied up the railroads from coast to coast, Truman forced an end to the strike by threatening to draft strikers into the army.

But the miners were Truman's biggest challenge. Despite his push for a "draft-strikers" bill, and nominal government control of the mines (consisting of the same mine operators with the American flag flying over the mines), miners walked off their jobs in May for higher wages and a health and welfare fund and won.

When miners struck again six months later for wage against to keep pace with inflation, Truman struck back with bigger guns. Federal Judge Alan Goldsborough slapped a contempt charge on Lewis for calling a strike against the government.

The injunction ordered Lewis to withdraw the strike call and imposed a $3.5 million fine on the union. To avert bankruptcy, Lewis called off the strike.

The union leadership supported Truman's fact-finding boards, seeking the earliest possible moment to end the strikes even if it meant wage settlements that left workers below pre-war levels. Instead of standing together in solidarity against Truman and the employers, AFL and CIO leaders settled separately, leaving workers in different industries to fight it out from a weakened position.

DURING THE two years after the war, Congress was inundated with proposals restricting organized labor.

In June 1947, what became known as the Taft-Harley Act was carried through Congress.

Taft-Hartley banned the closed shop, secondary boycotts and solidarity strikes, and banned strikes altogether for government employees.

The act prevented unions from making campaign contributions to political candidates. It imposed the 60-day cooling off period" (with the possibility of tacking on another 80 days if necessary), and it compelled trade union officials to sign a "loyalty oath" that they were not members of the Communist Party or any organization advocating he overthrow of the government.

Taft-Hartley also strengthened the National Labor Relations Board's (NLRB) role in mediating between labor and capital. Any union that refused to take the oath could be denied recognition by the NLRB.

Truman's strikebreaking role had damaged his image among workers. His conduct during the strikes produced a clamor among workers for the creation of a labor party. Only the resistance of the union leadership and the Communist Party prevented it from coming to fruition.

In a cynical bid to ensure the labor vote in the 1948 election, Truman agreed to use this presidential veto against Taft-Hartley. He vetoed it, however, with full knowledge that Congress would override his veto. A majority of Democrats in both the House and the Senate voted for Taft-Hartley.

Thousands of resolutions poured in to union headquarters demanding action against Taft-Hartley. While union leaders made promises to launch a campaign against this outrageous act, very little was done to mobilize the ranks for a fight.

Quite the contrary, when a Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., motorcade of about 1,000 AFL and CIO union militants descended on Washington and marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, the action was opposed by both AFL and CIO leaders as "unnecessary."

A number of strikes broke out in defiance of Taft-Hartley, against NLRB cooperation and against the "loyalty oath." But within two years every international union except the United Mine Workers and the Typographical Union was to capitulate to Taft-Hartley.

The inertia of the union officialdom was not altogether out of the blue. Even before Taft-Hartley, some union leaders were proposing, in order to reassure employers, that the unions themselves help draft laws regulating unions.

A meeting of AFL lobbyists in February 1947 tipped off the press that they were read to make "concessions" and were "ready to accept some milder restrictions." Truman hailed what he called a pattern of "voluntary surrender" on the part of some union leaders.

Thus, while workers were willing to fight, and had proven their abilities admirably, the leadership effectively acquiesced to the straight jacketing of the labor movement.

John L. Lewis, whose UMW withdrew from the AFL in disgust for labor's capitulation to Taft-Hartley, didn't mince words when he scolded AFL leaders who "run like cravens before the Taft-Hartley law." He described the labor movement as "lions led by asses." Yet for all of Lewis' rhetoric, he did not mobilize his membership to fight the leadership.

When Truman ran for re-election n 1948, the union leaders swung behind him. "Labor did it" were Truman's first words after he heard of his election victory. But his promise to repeal Taft-Hartley was soon forgotten, as was labor's promise to mount a campaign against it.

This article originally appeared in the in September 1990 issue of Socialist Worker.

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