LABOR IN WARTIME

Organized labor repeatedly described World War II as a crusade for freedom that would expand economic and political democracy at home and abroad and win for unions a major voice in politics and industrial management. During the war, labor entered a three-sided arrangement with government and business that allowed union membership to soar to unprecedented levels. In order to secure industrial peace and stabilize war production, the federal government forced reluctant employers to recognize unions. In 1944, when Montgomery Ward, the large mail-order company, defied a pro-union order, the army seized its headquarters and physically evicted its president. For their part, union leaders agreed not to strike and conceded employers’ right to “managerial prerogatives” and a “fair profit.” Despite the gains produced by labor militancy during the 1930s, unions only became firmly established in many sectors of the economy during World War II.

Table 22.1 LABOR UNION MEMBERSHIP

Year

Number of Members

1933

2,857,000

1934

3,728,000

1935

3,753,000

1936

4,107,000

1937

5,780,000

1938

8,265,000

1939

8,980,000

1040

8,944,000

1941

10,489,000

1942

10,762,000

1943

13,642,000

1944

14,621,000

1945

14,796,000

By 1945, union membership stood at nearly 15 million, one-third of the non-farm labor force and the highest proportion in American history. But if labor became a partner in government, it was very much a junior partner. The decline of the New Deal, already evident in the late 1930s, proceeded during the war. Congress continued to be dominated by a conservative alliance of Republicans and southern Democrats. They left intact core New Deal programs like Social Security but eliminated agencies thought to be controlled by leftists, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, National Youth Administration, and Works Progress Administration. Congress rejected Roosevelt’s call for a cap on personal incomes and set taxes on corporate profits at a level far lower than FDR requested. Despite the “no-strike” pledge, 1943 and 1944 witnessed numerous brief walkouts in which workers protested the increasing speed of assembly-line production and the disparity between wages frozen by government order and expanding corporate profits.

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