Labor Market Politics and the Great War: The Department of Labor, the States, and the First U.S. Employment Service, 1907-1933

By William J. Breen | Go to book overview

Introduction

B y the end of World War I, the first U.S. Employment Service (USES) had acquired far-reaching powers over the domestic labor market and controlled the distribution of unskilled labor to major war industries throughout the United States. Located within the Department of Labor, the USES had been little more than a paper organization before the United States entered the war. However, by mid-1918, in a labor market that had begun to register a serious labor shortage, the embryonic employment service was transformed into one of the major wartime administrative agencies of the federal government. Throughout 1918 the number of workers registering each month at USES offices climbed dramatically. In January only 82,353 registered; by November the figure had jumped to 744,712. This steep increase in registrations paralleled a similar increase in notifications from employers seeking labor. In January employers made notifications of only 80,002 vacancies; by November the figure was 1,724,943. Between January and November 1918, 3,675,858 workers registered at USES offices and employers made notifications of 7,895,675 vacancies. From the late spring of 1918, it was clear that the demand for labor was beginning to outstrip the supply. By midsummer, the American war effort faced a crisis in the labor market.1 The reponse of the Wilson administration to that emerging wartime crisis is the focus of this study.

In the United States, the prewar labor market was characterized by considerable unemployment and irregularity of employment, enormous labor turnover, significant geographical mobility of labor, and the presence of a "labor reserve" fed by internal migration and immigration. The bulk of the industrial labor force was composed of unskilled or semiskilled workers. A

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