Established on April 18, 1942, the Negro Manpower Service of the War Manpower Commission (WMC) led the federal initiative to ensure the efficient utilization of African American workers during World War II. By the spring of 1942, the level of unemployment in America began a rapid decline. The massive production increase in support of the Allied war effort, combined with the millions of American men who joined the military, not only ended unemployment but resulted in labor shortages, particularly in defense industries. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the WMC under the chairmanship of Indiana Democrat Paul McNutt.
The WMC regulated manpower in areas that suffered from acute labor shortages, established policies to maximize labor utilization, and assisted private industries in finding workers. It determined when workers were allowed to change jobs and, in collaboration with the Selective Service, granted deferments to men employed in vital military production. The WMC's Negro Manpower Service was created to ensure that industries did not discriminate against African American job applicants and that black workers were treated fairly.
The WMC was often at odds with the War Production Board (WPB), which was controlled by “dollar-a-year” men, executives on loan to the federal government from private corporations for the duration of the war. The WPB resisted WMC efforts to implement Executive Order 8802 and end racial discrimination in defense industries. The WPB's willingness to tolerate violations of the president's fair employment mandate reflected the attitudes of many employers who failed to comply with Executive Order 8802 and only hired black workers when particularly dire labor shortages left them no other choice.
While the WMC had little power to enforce equal treatment of African American workers, on occasion it was successful. In 1944, for example, the WMC, in cooperation with the President's Committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC), ordered the Philadelphia Transportation Company to promote eight African Americans to streetcar drivers. When the company complied, the white workers belonging to the Transit Workers' Union protested and launched a strike that shut down the entire public transportation system. The strike stopped production in Philadelphia's many war-related factories because workers were unable to get to work. When the war effort was affected, the federal government dispatched 8,000 troops to break the strike and enforce the WMC and FEPC's dictates. Subsequently, more defense industry positions were available to the city's large African American population.
War Manpower Commission, Negro Manpower Service