Big Labor Matured with World War II Generation

By Goode, Stephen | Insight on the News, May 6, 1996 | Go to article overview

Big Labor Matured with World War II Generation


Goode, Stephen, Insight on the News


The close, often cozy but sometimes rocky relationship between the Democratic Party and labor, which lasted for decades, was born and given form during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in the thirties and forties.

"Roosevelt and the people around him built the New Deal by bringing together a diverse group of interests, including labor, urban workers and white Southern farmers." says Peter Rachleff, a professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and a specialist in U.S. labor history The wily and politically astute FDR saw the labor unions and their leaders as a natural part of the coalition that elected him to an unprecedented four terms.

Organized labor prospered as a political power, reaching the peak of its prestige and strength in the fifties and sixties, despite infiltration by communists, often in leadership roles, and widespread corruption among union leaders. But, like all political coalitions, Roosevelt's union of diverse interests withered; labor lost the intimate nexus it once enjoyed with the Democrats and unions themselves diminished in size and power.

"Labor was only one part of Roosevelt's coalition," Rachleff explains. FDR's supporters also included blacks, poor whites, Catholics and others of diverging interests held together only by their devotion to the New Deal. Inevitably they went their separate ways as time passed and concerns changed, according to Rachleff. Nonetheless, the relationship between the Democrats and labor was potent while it lasted and influenced American history profoundly for good and bad.

What the New Deal provided was an atmosphere in which labor unions could prosper at a time when many employers were adamantly antiunion. The president approved of and often encouraged the unionization of major industries such as steel and automobile manufacture. What the Roosevelt administration received in return was support from unions such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, though some unions, such as the American Federation of Labor, or AFL, remained neutral.

Central to this pro-labor climate was the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, created in 1935 and invested with the power to issue "cease-and-desist" orders to employers the board believed guilty of using unfair labor practices in interstate commerce. Unfair labor practices included things such as discrimination against union members in employment and advancement. The board also frowned upon employers who interfered with union organizing. Like many New Deal agencies, the NLRB was staffed mostly by radicals (sometimes communists) attracted to Washington during a time of reform and rapid social and political change.

Unions thrived. Membership, which was 2.1 million in 1932 rocketed to 9 million by 1940. And the number of union members increased further during World War II when the War Production Board, another creation of the Roosevelt administration, demanded that employers accept unions or face loss of their government contracts. Unions, in turn, promised not to stage strikes or hold up production.

Some employers resisted. Montgomery Ward Chairman Sewell Avery said no to unionization. Roosevelt sent troops to take possession of the company's Chicago headquarters and Avery, who refused to leave his office, was carried out in his chair by soldiers who deposited him on the sidewalk, where he was photographed by the press. Avery's "lesson was not lost on the nation's employers," one labor historian has written.

So intimate had the relationship between organized labor and Roosevelt become by 1944 that the CIO played an important part in FDR's selection of Harry S Truman as his running mate that year. Angry Republicans charged that Roosevelt's campaign managers were under his orders to "clear it with Sidney," meaning that any Democratic Party campaign policy had to have the approval of Sidney Hillman, president of the Clothing Workers Union, who had raised the then-enormous sum of $70,000 for the Roosevelt campaign. …

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