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

CHAPTER FOUR
The Seattle Labor Market Experiment

F or a brief period during the First World War, the United States became the greatest shipbuilding nation on earth. After a faltering start, the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC), the construction arm of the U.S. Shipping Board, presided over a staggering expansion of American shipbuilding capacity. In April 1917, the United States had only sixty- one yards, thirty-seven for steel and twenty-four for wooden ships, with a combined total of 211 ways; by November 1918, there were 1,284 ways in American yards, "more than double the ways in the rest of the world." The Emergency Fleet Corporation both expanded existing shipyards and created immense new facilities. Hog Island, built during the war on the Delaware River mud flats south of Philadelphia, had fifty ways and was the largest shipyard in the world in 1918. This phenomenal increase in shipbuilding capacity naturally generated an immense demand for labor. At the time of the armistice, 380,000 workers were employed in American shipyards.1

The Department of Labor was extremely anxious to be seen to be of use to the shipbuilding program. Supplying the enormous labor requirements of the shipyards would justify both a rapid expansion of the USES and a request for large congressional appropriations. Edward N. Hurley, the chairman of the U.S. Shipping Board, and his advisers were very concerned about the supply of shipyard labor, and Hurley himself was, almost certainly, instrumental in securing the $825,000 from the President's National Security and Defense Fund for the expansion of the USES in late 1917.2 In the winter of 1917-18, the USES undertook two separate projects on behalf of the Shipping Board: the Shipyard Volunteer Campaign and the Seattle

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