The Good War and the Workers: World War II Defense Contracts Raised Labor Standards. Government Could Use the Same Leverage in Peacetime

By Fraser, Steve | The American Prospect, October 2009 | Go to article overview

The Good War and the Workers: World War II Defense Contracts Raised Labor Standards. Government Could Use the Same Leverage in Peacetime


Fraser, Steve, The American Prospect


The era of Franklin D. Roosevelt transformed the power of workers to achieve a better life. The New Deal facilitated the mass organization of the industrial working class into militant unions and also relied on the state through measures such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and Social Security. But though the New Deal of the 1930s is often remembered as the zenith of progressivism, in many ways World War II marked the high point of this collaboration. Ironically, the war's strengthened military-industrial complex also proved its undoing.

Deficit spending required by war mobilization rapidly produced full employment. The nation's gross national product soared from $91 billion in 1939 to $166 billion in 1945. The military and civilian sectors together saw the creation of 17 million new jobs, mainly high-wage positions in new industries powered by new plants, equipment, and technologies. It was the egalitarian nature and consequences of that growth, however, that was most striking. Progressive-minded public officials and representatives of the labor movement honeycombed newly created agencies charged with manpower mobilization and labor relations, price stabilization, and conversion to military production.

The National War Labor Board (NWLB), for example, consisted of equal numbers of representatives of labor, business, and the public. Because labor exercised substantial political muscle and because the public members of the board wanted to insure continuous production, the board usually supported unionization. In return for a "no strike" pledge from the labor movement for the duration of the war, the board established a principle of "maintenance of membership." Essentially this meant that the millions of new workers flooding into war industries would almost automatically become union members. It also encouraged new organizing efforts both in war industries and at firms producing civilian goods. Membership in trade unions grew from 9 million to 15 million by the end of the 1940s.

Organizers openly circulated membership cards on the factory floor during working hours and unions won nine out of 10 National Labor Relations Board elections. When Sewell Avery, the right-wing head of Montgomery Ward, refused to comply with NWLB rulings, he was hauled out of his office by uniformed soldiers. Rulings by the National Labor Relations Board, backed by Attorney General Francis Biddle, consistently found that corporations engaging in unfair labor practices were not eligible for government contracts.

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Spectacular union growth was decisive in eliminating the gross inequalities characteristic of the old order. Under the NWLB regime, regional wage differentials narrowed considerably, particularly in the South. Vacation pay and sick leave became commonplace. Grievance procedures and seniority rules mandated by the NWLB extended the rule of law to an industrial terrain once governed by the whims of management. Two million women joined the labor movement. In a landmark ruling against General Motors in 1942, the NWLB mandated equal pay for equal work. At least for some African Americans and white women, that principle became a reality.

All of this tended to compress the income hierarchy by raising up those at the bottom, making the decade of the 1940s the most economically egalitarian of the 20th century. The Fair Employment Practices Commission (created by FDR to ward off a threatened March on Washington in 1941 led by A. Phillip Randolph to demand war jobs for African Americans) outlawed discrimination in defense-industry hiring. Outside political pressure, plus the government's enhanced leverage as a dispenser of military contracts, meant that open racism would no longer be tolerated.

So when Gerald Tuttle, head of the Vultee Corporation who announced that "it is not the policy of this company to employ people not of the Caucasian race," or executives of North American Aviation, a major maker of warplanes, let it be known that the company's new plant in Fairfield, Kansas, would not employ Negroes, the government insisted that they change their policies or lose war production contracts. …

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