Episode 5 – Strike Wave

"To The Best of My Ability" Podcast Series

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About the Episode

In the weeks and months after the end of WWII, Americans working in industries across the country began to walk off the job in protest of poor wages and unsafe working conditions. After upholding a no-strike pledge during the war, many workers expected a return to regular hours, pay, and benefits that existed before the start of the war, but industries - including petroleum, coal mining, automobiles, and public utilities - failed to returning working conditions to the expected status quo, in spite of rising profits. With the end of the wartime no-strike pledge, workers expressed their frustration through a series of strikes that came to involve over 5 million Americans from the end of 1945 and into 1946. 

This week’s episode, written and hosted by the Museum’s Dr. Kristen Burton, explores the causes behind the massive strike wave of 1945-1946, including a few of the leaders who sought to secure higher pay and better working conditions for American laborers. Such leaders featured in this episode include Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). These men, among several other union leaders, helped elevate the demands made by millions of American workers. However, the strike wave had unforeseen repercussions. As workers in several industries did win gains as a result of going on strike, the widespread wave of labor strike turned political and public opinion against labor unions. Culminating in the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 - vetoed by President Truman, but overridden by Congress - the power of labor unions was permanently limited and the act opened the door to restrictive “right to work” laws. 

New episodes are released every other Friday. Catch up on all episodes of “To the Best of My Ability” and be sure to leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • U.S. Labor Unions
  • Postwar labor strikes
  • The Havaco No. 9 Mining Disaster
  • United Auto Workers (UAW) and United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)
  • Union leaders Walter Reuther, John L. Lewis, Lillian Hatcher, and Caroline Davis
  • Taft-Hartley Act
  • Right to Work laws

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Featured Historian

Dr. Rob Citino

Dr. Rob Citino is Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum. Citino is an award-winning military historian and scholar who has published 10 books including The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943, Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942, and The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich and numerous articles covering World War II and 20th century military history.

View More from Dr. Rob Citino 

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"To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family.

Transcript

Archival Audio - “We served on the front line”

[Anonymous worker speaking]

Like the rest of us, I blew my top too. I’ll never forget V-J Day as long as I live, and I’ll never forget the day after either. Almost overnight, take home pay shrank from 30 to 50 percent. How could we manage now? From our ranks rose one common cry: “defeat the cut!” We waited. We plead. We negotiated and re-negotiated. We cooled off until we were frostbitten. I suppose the $52 billion the companies stored up during the war made them indifferent to this spot we were in. Finally, it became terribly clear. There was nothing left to do but go out on strike. And strike we did. Just about the biggest, deepest, up and down, wide and across strike America ever saw.  

Dr. Kristen Burton
Throughout WWII, industries met President Roosevelt’s call to build the arsenal of democracy, but industrialists were not alone. Union leaders and members, too, stepped up by taking a no-strike pledge that lasted throughout the war. By promising to withhold labor’s greatest act of leverage, workers faced the hazards of factory floors for longer hours all to contribute to the broader war effort. With the end of WWII, the no-strike pledge also came to an end, and the frustrations that had been building over the four years of war-time production quickly came to a head.

On the heels of Japan’s surrender in September 1945, thousands of workers went on strike, including 43,000 petroleum workers and 200,000 coal miners. The following month, thousands more including lumber workers and teamsters joined in their own strikes. By November 1945, the United Auto Workers called a general strike against General Motors, prompting almost 250,000 workers to walk off the job. What was the beginning of a nationwide strike wave only continued to grow into 1946. By its end, over 5 million Americans would participate, making it the largest and longest labor dispute in US history. Union leaders, including Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis, demanded higher pay and safer conditions for the workers they represented, and the strikes did lead to important union wins. However, the scale of the strikes and power wielded by labor unions in 1945-1946 had unforeseen consequences that signalled the beginning of the end of labor unions as a force of contention in the post-war United States. 

Archival Audio - Truman Taking the Oath of Office

“I Harry S. Truman do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.”

Dr. Kristen Burton
You’re listening to “To the Best of My Ability: The Postwar Years” from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. This is episode 5, “Strike Wave.” I’m your host, Dr. Kristen Burton. This week, millions of Americans joined together in a series of strikes that spread across the United States from 1945 to 1946. Affecting almost every major industry, from public utilities to automobiles, over 5 million American workers walked off the job in protest of shrinking pay, as well as unsafe conditions. 

Archival Audio - Rail Strike Newsreel
[Reporter speaking] 

Frantic travelers jam the stations of the nation, as the long awaited railroad strike enters its first hours. Tickets no longer to be had. Weeks of negotiation proved fruitless, cutting off shipments of vital supplies and leaving thousands stranded in every part of the country. In Washington, storm center of the labor controversy, Colonel Monroe Johnson, Defense Transportation Chief, takes over the railroads with his group of assistants. While at the White House, A.F. Whitney and Alvin Lee Johnston arrive while last minute negotiations with the President’s mediators. Railroad management representatives also seek to avert the strike which costs the nation’s carriers $25 million daily in lost revenue. The wheels of the country’s railroads grind slowly to a halt, as 250,000 trainmen and engineers walk off the job. The nation’s main arteries of transportation are cut, and America’s march toward reconversion suffers another crippling setback. 

Dr. Kristen Burton
Labor unions and workers in the US had made gains in the decades prior to WWII. Through activism that pushed reform measures, industrial workers went into the war with protected rights, including the right to safe working conditions, regulated hours and pay, as well as the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Through organizations like the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, US workers felt by-and-large that they had a secure place within the US economic system. With post-war economic insecurity, coupled with the rising fear of communist infiltration, a backlash was growing to the power of labor unions. The massive wave of strikes that came after the war would give anti-labor politicians the opening they needed to weaken unions and place more control in the hands of those running industries over those who worked within them. 

Joining us this week is Dr. Rob Citino, Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian at the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum. 

Dr. Rob Citino

Labor did well in World War II. They organized millions of workers newly arrived in the factories. But Labor was also absolutely indispensable to the American victory. And essentially, they made themselves indispensable by agreeing not to use the strike weapon for the duration of the war. They signed on to the war effort as loyally as any other group of Americans. And if unions say, well, we're not going to strike, they really have kind of cut themselves off at the knees in terms of the kind of pressure they can bring to bear on management. So you might say, you know, our Military was responsible for winning the war, but our victory was also manufactured in the factories of America by union labor.

Dr. Kristen Burton

During WWII, union members agreed to take a pay cut as they offered more of their time and labor for less money to help industries meet wartime demands. As industries maneuvered postwar reconversion back to regular business, workers similarly sought a return to their normal pay, increased overtime, and other labor agreements that preceded the war. 

Unions were in a position of strength to make demands in 1945. Membership to labor unions more than doubled from 7 million in 1940 to 14.5 million by 1945. The workforce also became increasingly diverse with more women and people of color moving into full-time jobs. 

The United States emerged from WWII an economic and military superpower. In spite of this and the signs of what appeared to be economic prosperity on the horizon, millions of American workers instead began walking off jobs, forming picket lines, and fighting for fair wages. Many came to fear the possibility of another depression like the one that followed WWI. 

Demands came first from workers in the oil industry, and by the end of September, roughly 43,000 oil workers went on strike.  

Dr. Rob Citino

Well, the first big strike occurred among the oil workers less than a month after Japan surrendered. So here we are in September of 1945. You know, hours for oil workers had remained at their elevated wartime levels. You were forced to work overtime but without pay increases, and about 40,000, 45,000 oil workers across the country went on strike. You know, in October, President Truman took the drastic step of ordering the Navy to seize many of the refineries and to order the workers to return to work. But you know, the strike wave in late ‘45 and early ‘46 is absolute across the board, and the numbers, I think, tell the tale. So you have 175,000 electrical workers, 100,000 meatpackers, 750,000 steelworkers coast to coast, a sort of general strike involving all the industries in Rochester, in Pittsburgh, and in Oakland, California. But by far, the most dramatic events and the one that really called this whole strike wave into focus involved a friend, John Llewellyn Lewis, and the UMW, the United Mine Workers. He took 350,000 men out on strike. And shortly after that, the two largest railroad unions in America also went on strike. Those two groups together, that's UMW and railroad workers, it's about 700,000 Americans, 700,000 workers going on strike simultaneously. 

Dr. Kristen Burton

In November 1945, Walter Reuther, speaking on behalf of the United Auto Workers, issued a series of demands to General Motors, who he saw as taking increased control away from the workers. He denounced GM for maximizing profits through a program of “planned scarcity” that relied on new technology to reduce costs and drive up profits, all while cutting jobs. 

Reuther, who had long been an advocate for the “democratization of industry,” called for a 30% hourly wage increase and demanded GM include workers in determining the price of its cars. When General Motors claimed they could not afford such an increase, Reuther called GM’s bluff stating, “Let’s see your books to see why you can’t.” GM quickly declined the request, in turn calling Reuther un-American and a socialist. After GM’s refusal, Reuther led 320,000 autoworkers into what became the longest GM strike in history, lasting a total of 113 days. 

The strike wave showed no signs of slowing down; in January 1946 over a million laborers who worked in electric, meatpacking, and steel manufacturing all went on strike. 

Dr. Rob Citino

Well, I think that the big strike wave of 1945 and 1946—and especially these kinds of general strikes that were called in places like Rochester and Pittsburgh and Oakland—I think they proved that the US Labor Union was alive and well after four years of loyal support to the war effort, that with the end of the war, it was time once again for Labor to take care of its own. Its members had made sacrifices during the war by refusing to strike and promising not to strike for higher wages and better conditions in the interests of turning out as many bombers, tanks, and planes as you possibly could. And there were real achievements of the strike wave. In November, the UAW, the United Auto Workers, went on strike against General Motors, a long strike, nearly four months’ worth—113 days I think is the official count—with Walter Reuther leading 320,00 workers off the job. You know, he won his membership, a seventeen and a half percent pay increase, one that, you know, just about made up for those two years of inflation, you might say, or the erosion of wages. So there are some real achievements. Labor still had a great deal of muscle in the American system at the time. 

Dr. Kristen Burton

Many of the strikes that occurred in the wave of 1945-1946 centered on depressed wages and cut hours. Others focused more on the safety of the workplace. For industries such as railroads or coal mining, safety was paramount, as working conditions were inherently dangerous, and accidents were regular occurrences. From 1940-1945, over 40 mining disasters occurred, killing almost 900 miners in that time. Labor unions in these industries sought not only to protect workers’ pay, but also the safety of their lives.  

Dr. Rob Citino

All industrial work is inherently dangerous. If you ever step foot on a factory floor, you better be wearing steel-toed boots, and a hard hat is probably not a bad idea either, and you better have your wits about you. Any factory worker will tell you that. But I don't think there's anything more dangerous than mining either then or now or 200 years ago. It really is still a dangerous occupation. In January 1946, there was an explosion in the Havaco Number 9 mine near Welch, West Virginia. It's probably a natural gas explosion. That's what usually explodes deep in a mine. It killed 14 miners immediately and badly injured many dozens more. In the aftermath and the investigations after the explosion, investigations that predictably were fought tooth and nail by the company, numerous safety violations were in evidence. Workers were being given almost impossible quotas, and so they were working faster than safety permitted. The briefings weren't done correctly deep in the mine. It was one thing after the other. But that disaster just crystallized sentiment, first of all, within the labor community, that workers’ lives weren't being valued. 

Dr. Kristen Burton

President of the United Mine Workers of America, John Llewellyn Lewis, took on a leading role in speaking for miners and mining communities. Lewis, who had helped found the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935, was a stalwart leader of the labor movement, known for his powerful speeches and bold demands. 

Lewis was never one to shy away from labor strikes. Even during WWII, Lewis and the UMWA went on regular strikes, foregoing the no-strike pledge taken by workers across several other industries. On April 1, 1946, the United Mine Workers joined the growing wave, as 400,000 coal miners went on strike for safer conditions, as well as increased health benefits, and higher pay. 

Archival Audio - John L. Lewis addresses Congress of Industrial Organizations

[Lewis speaking]: Is it any wonder there are lamentations in the mining towns of this country? Is it any wonder there is a spirited rebellion against this condition manifested now by the memorial services and the prayers to high heaven going up from every mining community? Is it any wonder that the widows in the mining camps now are reluctant to see their men go to the mines next week when the memorial period is over? Consider the families. 

Dr. Kristen Burton

Truman saw the railroad and coal mine strikes as particularly dangerous to the recovering post-war economy. In response, he called on the government to seize control of the railways and coal mines, and for the US Army to act as strikebreakers. The movement of resources via railcars, fueled by burning coal, was essential to ensure postwar recovery. Truman told Congress that, if the railroad strike was allowed to continue, “The disaster will spare no one. It will bear equally upon businessmen, workers, farmers and upon every citizen of the United States. Food, raw materials, fuel, shipping, housing, the public health, the public safety—all will be dangerously affected. Hundreds of thousands of liberated people of Europe and Asia will die who could be saved if the railroads were not now tied up.”

Abroad, news of the strikes raised concerns that much-needed goods would no longer flow freely from the US to parts of Europe, or other regions rebuilding from the war. The longer the strike wave lasted, and the larger it seemed to grow, the pressure not only built upon those withholding the unions’ demands; pressure began to fall increasingly on the unions themselves. 

Archival Audio - Newsreel, “U.S. Strike, A World Starves”

[British reporter speaking]

In America, strikes dominate the front page from New York to San Francisco. To the United States in the past month, labor disputes have brought transport to a standstill in half a dozen cities. They have held up shipping, they have closed down the mines. Thousands of workers produce nothing. They leave the production belt to the picket line. A Republican-controlled House of Representatives has declared that it means to put labor in its place. Labor has chosen this moment to fight back. 

The rights and wrongs of these disputes are not out of hand, but we are most vitally concerned with their consequences. Consider what they are: to Britain, a warning of a cut in our already ludicrous bacon ration. To Europe, a threat to the wheat supplies, without which millions may die miserably from lack of food. To America, also the return of gangsterdom and violence.

[Crowd shouts.]

Dr. Kristen Burton

As unions went on strike for better pay and working conditions, women and black laborers also took up the mantle to fight for their continued place in the workforce. Between 1940 and 1945, the number of women in the workplace grew by 50%, and by 1945, women made up over 35% of the civilian labor force. For some women, WWII provided an opportunity that they did not want to lose. 

Women like Caroline Davis sought leadership roles within the unions. She became the first woman to win election as president of a local UAW chapter. Under her leadership, Davis helped around 200,000 women in UAW obtain contract provisions protecting equal pay for equal work, as well as maternity leave and promotion opportunities. 

Along with Caroline Davis, Lillian Hatcher gained prominence in local UAW chapters, but as a black woman, Hatcher sought to protect workers’ rights in ways that included race, as well as gender. After seeing other black women get passed over for promotion, she joined the UAW and the Double Victory Club to advocate for equal rights in war industries. In 1944, she was elected to the executive board of her local UAW chapter, and she became the first black woman to serve as an international representative of the UAW. 

Black women and men worked within unions to help protect and advance social and economic equality for black workers. Select unions in the US had long embraced integration, using solidarity as a means to protect workers’ rights. These unions became known as “left-led unions,” and these organizations attacked racial inequality while issuing their demands for secure pay and safe workplaces. This left-leaning identity ultimately worked to undercut much of these unions’ efforts. Post-war economic anxieties, coupled with the emerging Red Scare, opened these unions up to attacks of having communist sympathies. 

Dr. Rob Citino

Remember Joe McCarthy wasn't a senator yet during this great strike wave of ’45 and ’46 that we're talking about. But I think we can say that the fear these strikes engendered in the minds of many Americans, you know, that the country was falling apart, or that the working classes were rising up in some kind of revolution, or that they were being led astray by evil communist agents who had infiltrated the labor movement, which was the accusation you heard all the time, I think those fears helped McCarthy get elected senator in 1946. And so in a sense, you know, Tail Gunner Joe, as his supporters like to call him—it's a little unclear just how many times he'd been a tail gunner in a bomber in World War II. But Tail Gunner Joe is the first wave of the backlash against the strike movement. You know, it'll take him a while to learn how to get national attention. It won't be until 1950 that he suddenly announces to the American people he has a list of Communist Party members and a spy ring in the State Department. But I think his career is inconceivable without the unsettled conditions in the US in the immediate postwar years. And that strike wave is a big part. 

Dr. Kristen Burton

As 1946 progressed, the numerous strikes eventually began to reach agreements with industry leaders. Several unions won higher wages and protected hours for their members. For some, the concessions did not meet the full demands, as in the case of the UAW strike. Reuther, who had called for a 30% wage increase, was instead left with only 17.5%. This decreased amount likely resulted from agreements made in the United Steelworkers and United Electrical Workers strikes, which both agreed to a 17.5% raise in wages. 

As negotiations in the mine strike gained little ground between Lewis and the owners of the mines, Truman took over the negotiations. In May - after 59 days of the strike - Lewis signed a contract with the federal government, giving the government control over the mines. Many of the workers' demands were met in this agreement, but in November 1946, Lewis attempted to once again lead a strike when he claimed the government was not following through on the agreement. A federal judge fined the union $3.5 million as a result. Lewis himself received a $10,000 fine for violating the anti-strike injunction. The Supreme Court later lowered the union fine to $700,000, and helped dissuade from a second major coal strike in 1946. 

Labor unions emerged from the strike wave having made a number of gains, but they also unknowingly overplayed their hand as public and political opinion turned decidedly against unions and the ongoing strikes as a form of bargaining. 

Dr. Rob Citino

Well, I think you have to say that the strike wave for all its real achievements, and higher wages, and some shorter working hours, and better working conditions, a flexing of Labor's muscle and reminding Americans that organized labor was still on the scene—you know, for all those achievements, the strike wave was not a winner politically with the majority of the American people.

The Taft-Hartley Act was a reflection of a belief on the part of most Americans that Labor had overreached, that it wasn't working in the interests of the common good but only in the interests of its own membership. And so Taft-Hartley tried to limit the power of the Labor Unions restricting what they could and could not do. So you can't do secondary boycotts in support of another union. You have no beef with your company, but you're going on strike to help somebody else’s strike. You couldn't go out on solidarity or political strikes called to protest a political issue or specific candidate. You know, if Schmidt gets elected senator, we're walking—not allowed to do that. Your strikes have to be legitimately bargaining with the company, something that the company can actually do something about. Taft-Hartley outlawed closed shops, that is union-only. You had to be a member of the union in order to work there. Now, many, if not most of these provisions, have since been watered down one way or the other. Certainly, if the workers on a company voted, a majority of them, you could have a closed shop, and that happened over and over again. Eventually, that clause was read out of Taft-Hartley. But Taft-Hartley is still on the books. And I think it's still there as an implied threat to organized labor that if things ever, so to say, get out of hand, as they did in 1945 and 1946, organized labor can expect some pushback.

Dr. Kristen Burton

In direct response to the strike wave of 1945-1946, the Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation that effectively tied the hands of many labor unions. Through Taft-Hartley, unions had to give 80 days’ notice before undertaking a strike. The Act also responded to the coal miners’ strike by giving the President the power to intervene in strikes, or even potential strikes, if they were deemed a possible national emergency. In addition, Taft-Hartley included requirements that union leaders file affidavits with the US Department of Labor declaring their loyalty to the United States and that they were not supporters of, or held any memberships to, communist organizations. 

Taft-Hartley ushered in the beginning of a new approach to labor laws in the US, allowing individual states to outlaw union security provisions, and opening the door to new “right-to-work” laws that became increasingly common in the following decades. In the South, right-to-work laws became a way for segregated industries to maintain white supremacy in the Jim Crow labor markets by suppressing wages and opportunities for black workers. 

Taft-Hartley moved easily through Congress, but Truman - who traditionally supported labor unions - vetoed the bill. However, Congress successfully overrode Truman’s veto, and on June 23, 1947, Taft-Hartley became law and the new guiding force in US labor relations, despite deep concerns from union leaders like Walter Reuther.

Archival Audio - Walter Reuther speaking against the Taft-Hartley act

[Walter Reuther]: The Taft-Hartley Act will fail to achieve industrial stability because it is a negative approach to problems that require positive solutions. In a free society, labor capital peace is possible only if workers can achieve economic security and social justice for themselves and their families. 

During the war, Congress appropriated $400 billion for battleships, bombers to blow up homes and destroy life. We call upon Congress to show the same vision and the same courage to appropriate money to make life better. To give our children decent homes, to give them a good educational opportunity. Medical care. To give our old people security in their old age. And when we call upon Congress to appropriate money to help people, they don’t give us billions as they did in war, but they get out the congressional eyedropper, and give us a couple of drops. We believe that a country that has the power and the strength to spend billions to destroy life, ought to have the courage and the strength to do the same thing to make life better.  

Dr. Kristen Burton

In our next episode, “No Specific and Tangible Evidence,” Japanese military and political leaders face justice for war crimes in a separate series of trials held across the Pacific theater. Unlike the Nuremberg Trials, however, the Tokyo Trials became shrouded in obscurity and fell under scrutiny as the Emperor of Japan managed to elude charges through agreements made with General Douglas MacArthur.

From The National WWII Museum, this is “To the Best of My Ability. This episode was written by me, Dr. Kristen Burton. Media production manager Jeremy Burson did the sound mixing. Archival audio is courtesy of the Screen Gems Collection at the Harry S. Truman Library, Critical Past, and the Universal Newsreels collection held by the National Archives. 

If you like this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, which helps others to find the series. "To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series of programs commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family.