Defending the No-Strike Pledge: CIO Politics During World War II*
by Nelson Lichtenstein
During the Second World War the new industrial unions born in the mid-thirties achieved much that would characterize them in the postwar era. National trade-union membership increased from about 9 to 15 million while the CIO just about doubled in size as mass-production war industries expanded. Anti-union holdouts like Ford, Little Steel, and some meatpackers were brought under contract and collective bargaining was “routinized” under the aegis of a powerful War Labor Board. For the first time many union-management negotiations began to take place on an industrywide basis and “fringe” issues like vacation pay, shift bonuses, and pensions were put on the bargaining table.
Of course all this growth and consolidation took place under the most extraordinary circumstances. Depression-era levels of unemployment virtually evaporated as the economy was mobilized and then regimented as never before. The nation was at war, and all institutions in American society were expected, and if necessary compelled, to conform to a patriotic consensus. As its contribution to the war effort the CIO offered the government an “unconditional no-strike pledge” for the duration of the conflict. By exploring the ideology behind this industrial “burgfrieden,” this essay will try to show how the enforcement and defense of the pledge contributed to the general decline in political independence and militancy of the industrial unions and advanced a pattern of internal bureaucratization during and after the war.
An assessment of the impact of the wartime no-strike pledge can only be made in light of the CIO’s prewar character and potential. Something of a debate now swirls about this issue. Before the 1960s most American historians called industrial unions of the depression era militant and radical because of their use of the sit-down tactic, their mass activity, and the influence of Communists and Socialists within their ranks.1 In recent years, however, a number of commentators, including but not limited to the “New Left,” have called attention to the conservative origins of the CIO, or at least of its early leadership. Writers as different as Ronald Radosh and David Brody have emphasized the conservative trade-union program of CIO leaders like John L. Lewis, Philip Murray, and Sidney Hillman, all of whom consciously sought to channel working-class militancy into a stable and responsible unionism rooted in the AFL tradition.2
Both views shed light on the early industrial-union phenomenon, because like any social movement the CIO was not merely the product of the ideology of its leadership, but contained within its bounds a whole series of divergent social elements and political tendencies, some conscious about their political and economic goals, others inchoate and tentative.
After the great advances of 1937 the CIO did not immediately consolidate its power or bargaining relationships. The depression continued for almost four more years and the new unions were turned back at Ford and Little Steel. In this context trade unionists like Philip Murray could not fit their unions into the conservative mold they might have wished. Instead, mere survival put a premium upon local union initiative and rank-and-file activity. In the UAW, for example, forceful action by Detroit- and Flint-area secondary leaders helped preserve and extend the gains the union had won in 1937.3 And even in the tightly controlled and bureaucratically structured Steel Workers Organizing Committee, union leaders like Clinton Golden admitted that in this era a sort of guerrilla warfare was inevitable, even necessary, so long as a section of the industry resisted full recognition of the union.4
In the late 1930s the ultimate character of the new CIO was not foreordained. The industrial unions gave new power and clarity to working-class interests, yet at the same time the union apparatus and its bargaining relationship with individual business units served to rationalize social conflict and accommodate the government’s demand for order and the corporate drive for profits and efficiency. The steady pressure of the business system reinforced a pattern of bureaucratic timidity within the unions while the lingering depression, the healthy activism of the rank and file, the momentum of 1936 and 1937 were powerful countertendencies. It was only with the coming of the war that the drive for production and social order on the home front would immensely strengthen the tendency toward hierarchical control and dependence on the government within the new industrial unions.
When the question of American intervention arose in 1940, most CIO unionists—like American liberals generally—came to the conclusion that a military defense had to be built against German fascism. Unsure of the stability of their newly formed organizations and unwilling to break their alliance with the Roosevelt administration, most in the CIO also acquiesced in the shift of government energy from a faltering New Deal to a business-dominated war-production effort.
Few unionists could see any alternative to Roosevelt’s defense program. Although John L. Lewis realistically forecast the conservative economic and social consequences of total war, his attempt to project an isolationist defense against European Fascism seemed both politically naive and militarily impractical.5 Meanwhile the Communists moved from a policy of collective security to non-interventionism after the Stalin-Hitler pact and the dismemberment of Poland, but once Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 they demanded outright American belligerency. Finally, the idea of an opposition to the war on either pacifist or revolutionary grounds seemed virtually nonexistent—a situation in sharp contrast to the First World War, during which large sections of the working class had been influenced by such views.
The political and economic symbol of union cooperation with the war effort was an unconditional no-strike pledge, formally ratified by both CIO and AFL officials in a White House conference shortly after Pearl Harbor. The decision to sheath the strike weapon was made without any reciprocal agreement by the government on wartime wage, price, or production policies. Instead the adminstration set up a tripartite War Labor Board composed of representatives of labor, management, and the public. The board was empowered to arbitrate most union-management disputes, but its policies were to be guided almost entirely by decisions made in the executive branch alone.6
During most of the war CIO leaders were the foremost defenders of the no-strike pledge in the labor movement. Most of the industrial-union federation’s leading officers—men like Sidney Hillman, James Carey, Walter Reuther, and Philip Murray—were political liberals and close allies and supporters of President Roosevelt. Because they held military success as the first essential step in a larger program of social reconstruction at home and abroad, they thought it both politically wise and socially progressive to accept wartime sacrifices and limit normal trade-union activity in the interests of a speedy victory. Since they had faith in the progressive character of the war, they thought it could not but have progressive consequences at home, regardless of the immediate demands the government made upon the union.7 In this light many in the CIO, including but not limited to those influenced by the Communists, proposed that the unions be transformed into agencies of production for the duration. Lee Pressman, CIO general counsel, told the War Labor Board that the steelworkers’ union wished to “forget their trade unionism as usual.” Instead the USW was “anxious not to continue the presentation of the same grievances that it has in the past . . . but [is] anxious to turn the entire machinery, to turn all the energy of the union and of the members toward increasing production.”8
Government policymakers recognized that such an orientation imposed a dangerous burden on the industrial unions. The traditional web of loyalties which bound workers to their unions might unravel when labor ceased to exercise the strike weapon, grievances went unresolved, and wages were held in check by government fiat. Industrial-union leaders worried that the surge of brand-new war workers would prove extremely difficult to organize under these conditions. In the spring of 1942 a few important CIO locals had already begun to disintegrate, while serious dues-collection difficulties were encountered in steel, textiles, and aircraft.9
In this potential crisis the government sought to strengthen the institutional power of the CIO’s politically cooperative leadership. In prewar years CIO leaders had unsuccessfully demanded union-shop contracts as a guarantee that hostile employers would not seek to weaken the new unions during periods of slack employment. Now the government’s WLB gave CIO unions a modified union shop—maintenance of membership—in order to assure membership stability and a steady dues flow during the difficult war years. The WLB’s policy solved the chronic financial problems of many CIO unions, assured their steady wartime growth, and made cooperative union leaders somewhat “independent” of rank-and-file pressure.10
The no-strike pledge also seemed a necessary prerequisite to labor’s bid to shape and help administer the wartime economy and lay plans for a liberal postwar order. Like the right-wing socialists and New Republic progressives of the First World War, CIO leaders hoped that the collectivist tendencies inherent in the mobilization of the society for total war might provide the opportunity to restructure industry on a basis in which labor could have a real say. In 1941 Roosevelt appointed Sidney Hillman codirector of the Office of Production Management, and for a time it looked as if the CIO vice-president might play the same influential role in America’s domestic high command that the British Labour Party’s Ernest Bevin played in Churchill’s War Cabinet.11 Meanwhile the CIO advocated a thorough reorganization of the production setup through the formation of a series of industry councils in which representatives of management, labor and government would jointly participate in the administration of each war industry. Walter Reuther’s famous proposal to convert Detroit automobile factories to the production of 500 planes a day would have demanded a massive rationalization of the entire industry. In the process his automobile-industry council would have ignored corporate boundaries, markets, and profits as it presided over the conscription of machine tools, working space and manpower where and when needed.12
Labor’s hopes for a progressive administration of the war economy were soon dashed. With Republicans Henry Stimson at the head of the War Department and Frank Knox at the head of the Navy, and dollar-a-year business executives flooding the new defense agencies, Roosevelt had already committed his administration to a mobilization effort designed to conciliate the business community and eschew new social initiatives. As FDR himself later put it, Dr. New Deal had been replaced by Dr. Win-the-War. CIO plans for a reorganization of production based on the industry-council model were flatly turned down where they were not ignored. And by the spring of 1942 Sidney Hillman was eased out of a top policymaking role and most defense agencies were staffed with only token labor representatives.13 Of course these setbacks disappointed CIO officials, but such reverses did little to shake their faith in FDR personally or in their allegiance to the war effort. Instead the CIO characteristically blamed “defeatist” and “reactionary” elements in the Congress and the war-production agencies and reaffirmed its commitment to the no-strike pledge.14
An alternate perspective to the ambitious if thwarted plans of the CIO can be found among those unionists who took a more parochial view of the role a labor leader should play in the wartime mobilization. These unionists generally came out of an older AFL tradition and were less politically linked to the Roosevelt administration and rather less concerned with using the wartime experience as a platform for social reform. John L. Lewis is the penultimate example of this type. He was uncommitted to Roosevelt’s stewardship of the economy and unwilling to long subordinate immediate trade-union interests to the government’s demand for continuous production and stable industrial relations. When in 1943 he concluded that the government had taken advantage of labor’s no-strike pledge to impose a rigid wage formula on the unions, he did not hesitate to defy the WLB and lead the UMW in four nationwide strikes.15 Ironically it was the very backward-looking and socially unimaginative business unionism of figures like Lewis which led some conservative unionists to defend bread-and-butter labor standards in a more consistent fashion than the liberal patriots of the industrial-union federation.
A 1942 contest between the UAW and the International Association of Machinists provides a graphic example of this wartime phenomenon. Under the prodding of Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen and at the request of the government, the UAW agreed to relinquish certain types of overtime pay in the interests of a general “Victory Through Equality of Sacrifice” program. UAW organizers thought this plan would help organize new war workers through its patriotic appeal.16 For example, they told southern California aircraft workers: “The best way [you] can speed up war production, and contribute even more to the war effort, is to join the CIO, which has made this business of winning the war its main objective.”17
In contrast the machinists’ union emphasized wages and hours and the maintenance of overtime pay standards. The IAM attacked the UAW: “Can the CIO’s masterminds tell you why they know what’s good for the worker better than he knows himself? . . . The CIO sacrifices workers’ pay, workers’ overtime as the CIO’s contribution to the war effort. Big of them, huh?”18 In a series of 1942 NLRB elections the IAM decisively defeated the UAW on this issue. UAW and CIO leaders who had pitched their election campaigns on an exclusively patriotic level were stunned. In defeat they quickly appealed to the WLB and the Administration, not to restore overtime pay, but to force the IAM and the rest of the AFL to give it up as well. This FDR soon did by issuing a special executive order on the problem.19
This incident points to an important aspect of working-class consciousness during the war. Most workers were patriotic and backed the war effort, but they resisted the consequences of the wartime regimentation and mobilization, especially if it entailed the sacrifice of prewar conquests their unions had made in the late thirties. Many war workers retained an aggressive distrust of big business and their own plant management, even in the first intensely patriotic months of the war. Many thought their employers would try to use the wartime emergency as an occasion to weaken their unions and roll back labor standards.20 In short they did not believe or, more important, act as if the war had suspended class conflict.
In any work situation conflicts inevitably arise between workers and their supervisors over working conditions, individual wage rates, promotions and transfers. In prewar years the strike weapon often backstopped local grievance procedures and provided an incentive for management to resolve grievances at the lowest possible level. But with the adoption of the no-strike pledge this incentive evaporated and grievances left unresolved were dumped into the lap of a distant and cumbersome War Labor Board. Local unions found themselves “plagued by a malady of unsettled grievances” which undermined the solidarity and effectiveness of the union.21 The Wage Earner, organ of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, summed up the local union’s dilemma:
Workers may remain loyal to their unions even when no wage increases can be obtained. . . . But if the union loses its capacity to represent its members effectively when they get into trouble with the management, it has lost its primary reason for being.22
Many local leaders—the stewards, committeemen, and officers who represented the backbone of an industrial union—now faced an excruciating dilemma. They could enforce CIO national policy, defend the no-strike pledge, and watch the power of their locals disintegrate as management prerogatives grew and rank-and-file respect and loyalty for the union declined. In the process they might easily find themselves turned out of office by a sullen membership.
Or they could ignore and defy international policy and revert to what they called “prewar” methods—the slowdown, the work to rule, the wildcat strike—to resolve pressing shop-floor grievances. The tension inherent in this decision is captured in the minutes of a meeting between a UAW regional director and a Cleveland local president who had just led his union on a wildcat strike in defense of two members fired by the company.
UAW Regional Director Paul Miley: . . . I instructed you to get the plant back in operation. . . . Do you understand that the production of some four or five hundred aircraft engines has been lost already . . . doesn’t [that] affect your judgment in this case at all?
Local 91 President Lawrence Wilkey: I wouldn’t say, Paul, that it doesn’t affect my judgment, but I wasn’t elected by those people to win the war. I was elected to lead those people and to represent them. I have tried my best to abide by the Constitution [of the UAW] but at this time my conscience will not let me because of my duty to those people.23
By the middle years of the war a growing list of local union leaders began to follow Lawrence Wilkey’s example. These unauthorized strikes resembled the work stoppages which flared in the auto and rubber industries before the organization of the national CIO unions: uncoordinated except on the department or plantwide level, short in duration, led by a shifting and semispontaneous leadership. The strikes bypassed and ignored the international’s formal apparatus for the resolution of grievances because these procedures had proven themselves ineffective, in fact an obstacle, to the genuine defense of what many union activists considered an elementary trade-union presence in their shops and factories.24
Beginning in the spring of 1943, and coinciding with the nationwide coal strikes launched by John L. Lewis, a wave of wildcat strikes swept through Detroit, Akron, and the East Coast shipyards. The commissioner of labor statistics called the strike wave a “fundamental swell of industrial unrest.”25 In unionized industries like auto, steel, and rubber, the level of wildcats rose steadily until the end of the war.26
Faced with this challenge to industrial order and internal union discipline, top CIO officials renewed their commitment to the no-strike pledge. In this they were backed and prodded by the government, which now demanded “union responsibility.” The WLB threatened to withdraw or deny maintenance of membership and the dues checkoff to any union whose leadership led or condoned wartime work stoppages. In 1943, for example, the WLB denied Chrysler locals of the UAW maintenance of membership because the board felt local leaders had been insufficiently vigorous in their opposition to recent strikes.27 Later Richard Leonard, who headed the UAW’s Ford Department, reported to the union executive board that unless the union took a “constructive position” the labor board would deal harshly with the UAW in forthcoming Ford and Briggs decisions.28
Therefore, in early 1944, the UAW executive board decided to crack down hard on wildcat strikes. The union announced that henceforth wildcat strikers could no longer use local union grievance procedures to appeal company discipline. Local leaders who continued to defend these strikers would be suspended from office and their locals placed under an international administratorship.29 “The kid-glove tactics of yesterday have been discarded” reported Ford Facts, organ of the UAW’s giant local at the Rouge.30 During the remaining 19 months of the war hundreds of UAW members were fired or otherwise disciplined by the auto companies while their national officers stood aside. Several locals were taken over by the international and their leaders suspended from office.31 Much the same process was taking place in the rubber, steel, and shipbuilding internationals as well.32 Thus the WLB’s “union responsibility” doctrine encouraged union officials to discipline rank-and-file militants and reshape their unions in a more conservative pattern.
Top leaders of the CIO were not unaware of the internal problems created by the no-strike pledge, and they felt a certain anguish in their new role as government-backed disciplinarians of their rank and file. Yet they felt they had little choice: “We may have to take it on the chin here and there for a time,” admitted R. J. Thomas, president of the UAW, but he thought only a policy of self-restraint could avoid a union-smashing assault from the right.33 Since these unionists feared to mobilize the economic and social power of their own membership to stem the conservative drift in wartime domestic politics, they relied ever more heavily upon FDR and his administration as a bulwark against the right. Hence in 1943 the CIO stood as the staunchest defender of the WLB in its fight with John L. Lewis because most industrial-union officials feared, with good reason, that if Lewis won a stunning victory over the government board, then the strike weapon would become legitimate once again and rank-and-file agitation for unionwide work stoppages would increase.34 Already in May 1943 the national mine strikes during that month had touched off massive wildcats in Detroit and Akron.
At the same time the CIO also linked itself more closely to the national Democratic Party through the formation, in July 1943, of the CIO Political Action Committee. The PAC was organized by top CIO officials to meet a dual threat. Its most publicized function was to counter the conservative drift in domestic politics symbolized by and in part culminating in the passage of the Smith-Connolly Act over FDR’s veto in June 1943. But an equally important purpose of the committee was to deflect and defeat a growing internal union demand for some form of independent political action in the 1944 elections. In Michigan a number of important UAW secondary leaders, led by Emil Mazey and Paul Silver, had revived the moribund state Labor Non-Partisan League and begun a remarkably successful agitation in favor of a CIO-based labor party. During the spring of 1943 they linked their break with Roosevelt and the Democratic Party to an attack upon the no-strike pledge and strong support of the mine strikers.35 At an important Michigan CIO convention in late June the radical Mazey forces joined with a more moderate group led by Victor Reuther and Gus Scholle to pass, over strong Communist and conservative opposition, a resolution endorsing a labor-based third party in the state.36
Meanwhile, on the East Coast, a section of the old social-democratic union leadership in retail trade and the garment and textile industries came to advocate more aggressive electoral tactics. As the ILGWU paper Justice editorialized, “The present Congress is the best argument for independent political action the country has had in years.”37 Led by David Dubinsky, these New York Social Democrats hoped to link up with the Michigan radicals and spread their American Labor Party to other industrial states. While neither Dubinsky nor the Reuther-Scholle group favored outright opposition to Roosevelt on the national level, they did support direct labor-party challenges to state and local Democratic machines, thereby undercutting FDR’s conservative base and forcing him (they hoped) to the left.38
“When the move to create an ultraliberal political party in the name of the workingman began to gather steam,” recalled then USW secretary-treasurer David J. McDonald in his autobiography, “Murray and Hillman decided that they should counter it with a specific, labor-oriented political-action organization that could function within the two-party system.”39 Under Hillman’s leadership the new PAC attacked the labor-party idea on the ground that it would “divide progressive forces.” Although the Political Action Committee was able to defeat some conservative Democrats in the 1944 primaries, the national PAC encouraged its state units not to challenge local Democratic parties, but to reach an accommodation with them in order to “weld the unity of all forces who support the Commander-in-Chief behind a single progressive win-the-war candidate for each office.”40
Where labor sentiment for an independent political voice remained strong and threatened to disrupt an alliance with the Democrats, Hillman mobilized PAC forces to defeat it. In New York, Hillman linked his once anti-Communist Amalgamated Clothing Workers with the Communist unions of the city to win control of the ALP from the Dubinsky Social Democrats and make the state labor party an uncritical adjunct of the Democratic Party there.41 In Michigan, where a viable Democratic Party hardly existed, the PAC successfully fought efforts by some UAW radicals to put the state Political Action Committee on record as supporting only those Democratic candidates pledged to a guaranteed annual income and other well-publicized CIO bargaining demands.42
Part of the reason for the wartime political timidity of the PAC was that in looking forward to the immediate postwar months CIO leaders like Philip Murray foresaw a 1920-style political reaction combined with a major postwar recession. In this context Murray hoped to avoid at almost any cost a potentially disastrous postwar strike wave after the fall of Japan. Murray’s CIO reconversion strategy forecast a new labor board which would impose a government-backed accommodation with industry along with a somewhat more liberal wage-price formula.43 As we shall see, the CIO’s neat corporativist blueprint for the postwar future ran into major opposition from the industrial-union rank and file, whose insistent demand for a restoration of the strike weapon forced a section of the CIO leadership to break with Murray’s cautious program.
Before turning to this new situation, one must take into account another ideological tendency, the Communists and their close followers, and examine their relationship to the defense of the no-strike pledge. Although their organizational influence was extensive, the main impact of the Communists stemmed less from the offices they held than from the ideology they advanced. They defended the no-strike pledge with passion and prided themselves on their support of Philip Murray and the official CIO line. Yet the Communist policy only coincidentally meshed with that of other CIO leaders. Murray and Thomas thought the best way to defend their unions was through a policy of close alliance with FDR and temporary appeasement of the resurgent right. Communist spokesmen urged the CIO to agree to all concessions demanded by the government, not so much as a tactical retreat, but as a progressive step in and of itself, one which mirrored on the home front the “Big Three Unity” forged by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Teheran conference.44
The persistent theme of the Communists during the war was the need for the unity of all “progressive win-the-war forces.” Yet the success of this new popular front would be possible only on a basis agreeable to conservative elements in the government and the military.45 Hence those in the CIO high command who were influenced by this ideology—men like Harry Bridges and Joseph Curran—initially supported the Army and Navy call for compulsory National Service Legislation even when Philip Murray opposed it as destructive of trade-union principles.46 And the New York and Detroit CIO councils, in which Communists held important posts, refused to help the CIO-authorized strikes of Montgomery Ward’s unionized employees even after Ward’s chairman Sewell Avery defied a WLB directive favorable to the retail clerks’ union.47
Ultra-conservative though it seemed to many, the appeal of this ideology during the war should not be underestimated. By giving the conflict an uncritically progressive quality, the Communists provided a rationale for those in the union movement who sought to reconcile the waning power of domestic labor-liberalism with their own radical and anti-capitalist sensibilities. Thus otherwise reactionary programs, like national service legislation, imposition of undemocratic forms of internal union discipline, or alliance with anti-labor big-city bosses, were justified as strengthening the “win-the-war” forces in the world battle against Fascism. The ultimate commitment of domestic Communist leaders, therefore, was less to the defense of the American working class in its day-to-day struggles than to the political/military success of the Russian regime and the new bureaucratic social system it represented.
Despite continued defense of the no-strike pledge by a coalition of Communist and non-Communist CIO leaders, pressure from below began to crack the strike prohibition in 1944 and 1945. In retail trade and in textiles, where the CIO had only secured a shaky foothold, low wages and employer violation of basic labor rights literally forced union leaders to authorize a series of strikes to prevent the imminent disintegration of their organizations.48 In the United Rubber Workers the big four Akron locals virtually seceded from the international as they struck repeatedly in the last year of the war.49 Debate on the no-strike pledge flared briefly in the Steelworkers and in the UE as well.50
But the movement against the pledge reached its climax in the million-and-a-quarter-strong auto union, where the growth of rank-and-file sentiment had an important influence on the postwar decision to strike GM and on Walter Reuther’s rise to the UAW presidency. Wildcat strikes led by UAW members were soon echoed by outright demands for repeal of the no-strike pledge itself. At the 1943 Michigan CIO convention, a resolution easily carried which called on the national CIO to rescind the pledge unless substantial changes were soon made in WLB wage policy. As we have seen, the state CIO, the most important of its kind in the industrial-union federation, also went on record in defense of the UMW strikes and in favor of some form of independent political action by the wartime labor movement.51 Support for these initiatives was led by a group of UAW secondary leaders who became convinced that abolition of the no-strike pledge was necessary to remobilize labor’s own forces both in their factories and in the larger political arena.
Some of these individuals were Socialists, others were influenced by the Trotskyists, some were members of the Anti-Marxist Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. But most who came to oppose the pledge did not do so out of a conscious commitment to radical politics, but rather because their day-to-day experience convinced them of the destructive impact it was having on their locals and their international.52 They were especially alarmed when the UAW officers used “strikebreaking” tactics to crack down on wildcat strikes. As Chicago’s Buick Local Six put it, “The gap between the rank and file and their elected leaders will grow so wide that our whole structure will collapse. Vote against the no-strike pledge and save your union.”53
This movement soon had an important impact on the internal politics of the auto union itself. Until 1944 all of the top leaders of the UAW were firm supporters of the pledge, but Walter Reuther favored a somewhat more vigorous opposition to other restrictions and demands the government made upon the union. Therefore Reuther opposed government-sponsored incentive-pay schemes in UAW-organized factories and sharply criticized the War Labor Board and other federal agencies.54 Despite Reuther’s growing popularity on these issues, he did not associate himself with the movement for outright repeal of the pledge, and in 1944 he backed the efforts of the UAW executive board to discipline wildcat strikers.55
This proved a near fatal mistake. Since most of the opposition to the pledge came from those who normally supported the UAW vice-president, Reuther began to lose his internal union strength as the movement against the pledge picked up steam. At the 1944 UAW convention Reuther tried to straddle the issue with an ungainly compromise, keeping the no-strike pledge in some factories, ending it in others. The idea pleased no one. Outright opponents of the no-strike pledge, now organized into an independent Rank and File Caucus, demanded and won a unionwide referendum on the issue and fielded candidates for union office against both Reuther and his factional rival, Richard Frankensteen. Reuther’s caucus strength now began to disintegrate, and for the first time he lost a convention vote to Frankensteen. Reuther retained his union vice-presidency only by winning the second-ballot contest against another less-prominent opponent.56
Reuther’s close call at the 1944 UAW convention proved a turning point in his wartime career. Thereafter Reuther sought an accommodation with the militant and rebellious sentiment growing in the ranks, if only to retain his own power in the UAW. In early 1945 Reuther urged that the CIO withdraw from the WLB until that government agency was reorganized and adopted a more liberal wage policy.57 A couple of months later he reversed his position on enforcement of the pledge and insisted that the UAW executive board not impose the usual disciplinary measures against the two Detroit locals then on strike.58 With the fall of Germany those who had long fought for an end to the pledge now insisted upon an immediate industry-wide strike vote to back CIO demands for an end to government wage ceilings. Alone among prominent members of the UAW leadership, Reuther backed this proposal.59 By shifting to the left, Reuther was rapidly winning back the support he had lost the year before.
With the end of the war against Japan, the rash of unauthorized strikes in the UAW, which reached epidemic and uncontrollable proportions, threatened to disrupt Philip Murray’s plan to forge a new postwar wage-price formula in return for a promise of renewed labor peace and cooperation. Therefore R. J. Thomas and UAW Secretary-Treasurer George Addes opposed any new initiatives on the part of the auto workers until Murray and the national CIO had had time to work out a comprehensive program at a government-sponsored labor-management conference in November 1945.60
Of course the problem was that in the absence of a patriotic wartime ideology order in the UAW could not be restored by appeals to follow national CIO policy. R. J. Thomas declared the situation “chaotic” as local after local struck to reassert its power in the shops.61 In this crisis Reuther came forward with his proposal for an early company-wide strike against General Motors, a proposal which provides a classic example of the characterization C. Wright Mills once gave to the labor leader as a “manager of discontent.”62
Reuther’s GM strike plan would harness the restlessness of the auto workers, restore legitimacy to top union authority, and advance his own fortunes in the internal union scramble for office. The GM strike demand—for a 30 percent wage boost without an increase in the price of cars—was but a militant restatement of then current, but soon to be abandoned, CIO postwar wage policy. Yet the idea excited union ranks because it was demanded directly of the corporation and backed by union strike power, rather than offered up to a government agency for tripartite negotiation.63 At the same time the strike had its conservative side as well. It offered a new rationale for ending wildcat strikes at GM competitors, which were now to be kept at full production in keeping with the “one at a time” strike strategy. In fact “company security” clauses were soon negotiated with Ford and Chrysler which gave plant management their broad powers to discipline those who pulled unauthorized strikes.64
Reuther’s plan for and conduct of the GM strike climaxed his accommodation to the radical forces within his union which the wildcat-strike movement and campaign against the no-strike pledge had set in motion. Reuther won the UAW presidency in 1946 by winning the wartime militants back into his caucus.65
Ironically, Reuther’s aggressive GM strike policy indirectly aided the more timid leaders of other CIO unions. Without the auto strike Philip Murray might have been able for a time to reach the bureaucratic accommodation with government and industry for which he had long planned. But the GM strike made such an immediate postwar agreement difficult and helped precipitate the general 1946 strike wave—the largest since 1919.66 In turn this massive work stoppage restored to conservative or mainstream leaders of the CIO a good deal of the prestige and publicity which they had lost during the era of wartime cooperation with the government and enforcement of the no-strike pledge.
In conclusion, one can make three observations about the experience of workers and their unions during the war. The first is that despite the maintenance of a patriotic consensus unparalleled in American history, many war workers still felt use of the strike weapon vital to the defense of those standards by which they measured their dignity and power in the shops. The wildcat strikes themselves were not designed to slow overall war production, but they were nevertheless explosive social phenomena because they challenged the wartime industrial-relations “system” and cut across the formal ideology of labor-management cooperation and common purpose. In the act of striking, war workers put their evaluation on the conduct of the home front. They measured concrete shop-floor reality against official propaganda and found the latter inadequate. Hence the implicit threat these strikes posed and the determined opposition they evoked from the government and union leaders.
A second point follows from the first. The call for political conformity in the new industrial unions had been present from the founding of the CIO in the mid-thirties. But the campaign to really enforce internal political discipline began not with the anti-Communist purges of the early Cold War, but under the aegis of the wartime mobilization. The political and institutional requirements of the War Labor Board were no less exacting than those of the Taft-Hartley Act five years later. In this context the Cold War crackdown on Communists in the unions represented not so much a break with a wartime popular front as a continuation of an era during which the society has been organized and regimented in the interests of a military-minded foreign policy. An important domestic requirement of this war economy has been a policy of essential cooperation from the labor movement. During the war the Communists defended this drive for political conformity; in 1948 and 1949 they were its victims.
Finally, the experience of American industrial unions during World War II stands as an important stage in the transition of the new unions from the aggressive and turbulent 1930s to the relative quiescence of the postwar years. The wartime routinization and expansion of collective bargaining was in one sense a step forward for the unions, but it took place under circumstances which put a premium upon internal union discipline and a penalty upon self-activity and militancy. Authority in the large industrial unions moved continually upward under these conditions as labor officials looked to Washington to set the guidelines for war and postwar economic and political policy.
*Reprinted from Vol. 9, Nos. 4–5 (July–October 1975).
1. James O. Morris, Conflict Within the AFL (Ithaca, 1958), pp. 171–290; Bernard Karsh and Philips L. Garman, “The Impact of the Political Left,” in Milton Derber and Edwin Young, eds., Labor and the New Deal (Madison, 1957), pp. 79–119; and Thomas R. Brooks, Toil and Trouble: A History of American Labor (New York, 1964), pp. 172–173; Richard A. Lester, As Unions Mature (Princeton, 1958), pp. 21–34.
2. See for example David Brody, “The Emergence of Mass Production Unionism,” in John Braeman, Change and Continuity in Twentieth Century America (Columbus, 1964), pp. 221–262; Ronald Radosh, “The Corporate Ideology of American Labor Leaders from Gompers to Hillman,” in James Weinstein and David Eakins, eds., For A New America: Essays in History and Politics From “Studies on the Left,” 1959–1967 (New York, 1970), pp. 125–151; also Lorin Lee Carey, “Institutionalized Conservatism in the Early C.I.O.: Adolph Germer, a Test Case,” Labor History 13 (Summer 1972): 475–504.
3. Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years (Boston, 1969), pp. 559–563; Clayton W. Fountain, Union Guy (New York, 1949), pp. 101–103; Joseph Ferris Oral History, Archives of Labor History, Wayne State University, pp. 25–30.
4. Harold Ruttenberg and Clinton Golden, Dynamics of Industrial Democracy (New York, 1942), pp. 48–57.
5. “Report of President John L. Lewis to 1939 CIO Convention,” in Proceedings of the Second Constitutional Convention of the CIO (San Francisco, Oct. 10–13, 1939), pp. 6, 79, 80–81, 106–107; Saul Alinsky, John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography (New York, 1949), pp. 161–191; see also Lewis’s speech endorsing Wendell Willkie in UMW Journal, Nov. 1, 1940.
6. Joel Seidman, American Labor From Defense to Reconversion (Chicago, 1952), pp. 80–81; William H. Davis and Elbert D. Thomas, “Memorandum Report of the Deliberations of the War Labor Conference Convened by the President in the City of Washington, December 17, 1941,” Official File 4684, Roosevelt Papers, Hyde Park.
7. See for example Philip Murray’s famous speech “Work, Work, Work, Produce, Produce, Produce” in CIO News, March 9, 1942; also see the CIO’s justification for wartime sacrifice in CIO News, March 30, 1942.
8. Bethlehem Steel et al., War Labor Reports 1 (July 16, 1942): 397–398.
9. Philip Murray to Wayne Coy, March 6, 1942, Box 18, Coy papers, FDR Library, Hyde Park; United Steelworkers, Proceedings of the First Constitutional Convention, May 1942, pp. 41, 48, 81; see also Walker-Turner Company, War Labor Reports 1 (April 10, 1942): 108–109; Marshall Field and Co., War Labor Reports 1 (Feb. 25, 1942): 47–53; Transcript, National War Labor Board, March 26, 1942.
10. Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, War Labor Reports 1 (April 25, 1942): 141–143.
11. Matthew Josephson, Sidney Hillman, Statesman of American Labor (Garden City, 1952), pp. 506–508, 529–534.
12. For surveys of Reuther’s plan and its demise see George R. Clark, “Strange Story of the Reuther Plan,” Harpers, May 1942, pp. 645–654; Eliot Janeway, The Struggle for Survival (New York, 1951), pp. 221–225; Walter P. Reuther, “500 Planes a Day—A Program for the Utilization of the Automobile Industry for Mass Production of Defense Planes,” in Walter P. Reuther, Selected Papers (New York, 1961), pp. 1–12. For industry resistance to the introduction of the plan see Barton Bernstein, “The Automobile Industry and the Coming of the Second World War,” in Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 47 (June 1966): 24–33; Paul A. C. Koistinen, “The Hammer and Sword, Labor and the Military During World War II,” unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of California at Berkeley, 1964, pp. 602–606.
13. For narratives of the conservative drift in the administration of the war economy see Janeway, Struggle for Survival, pp. 125–185; and Bruce Catton, War Lords of Washington (New York, 1948), passim; recent studies include Koistinen, “Mobilizing the World War II Economy: Labor and the Industrial-Military Alliance,” Pacific Historical Review 42 (Nov. 1973): 443–478; and Richard Polenberg, War and Society (New York, 1972), pp. 5–36, 73–98.
14. For example see CIO News, July 3, 10, 1943, for reaction to the passage of the Smith-Connally Act over Roosevelt’s veto.
15. Lewis justified his strikes on the ground that the government had violated its “agreement” with labor to maintain wages at a constant relationship with rising prices. He therefore considered his no-strike pledge null and void. UMW Journal, February 15, 1943. For a full account of Lewis’s fight with the government see Nelson Lichtenstein, “Industrial Unionism Under the No-Strike Pledge: A Study of the CIO During the Second World War,” unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of California at Berkeley, 1974, pp. 448–521.
16. Proceedings UAW War Emergency Conference, April 7 and 8, 1942, Detroit, pp. 6–10, 34–37.
17. Radio script, Los Angeles CIO Council, April 7, 1942, Box A7–32, John Brophy Collection, Catholic University.
18. As quoted from IAM Aircraftsman in Curtiss edition, American Aircraft Builder (UAW-CIO), July 24, 1942, in OF 142 Roosevelt papers.
19. CIO News July 27, 1942; WLB Transcript, July 24, 1942, pp. 437–440; Proceedings UAW Convention, Aug. 3–9, 1942, pp. 86–111, passim; George Addes circular letter to UAW locals, Sept. 11, 1942, copy of executive order attached, Box 27, Addes Papers, ALHWSU.
20. A May 1942 survey by the government found a diffuse but nevertheless real political and economic disaffection among factory workers in Detroit and Pittsburgh. According to the political criteria of the survey, less than half of the war workers in the two cities were rated as wholeheartedly behind the production effort. Office of Facts and Figures, “Labor Morale in Detroit and Pittsburgh: Survey of Intelligence Materials No. 22” (marked secret), May 6, 1942, in Entry 35, Record Group 202, National Archives. See also “What’s Itching Labor?,” Fortune 26 (Nov. 1942): 101–236.
21. Ford Facts (UAW Local 600), Feb. 15, 1943.
22. Wage Earner, May 28, 1943.
23. “Meeting of the International Executive Board, UAW-CIO, for the Purpose of Requiring Officers of Local 91 to Show Cause Why They Should Not Comply with the Provisions of Article 12 of the Constitution,” Cleveland, July 17, 1944, pp. 16–18, Box 3. UAW Executive Board Collection, ALHWSU.
24. For contrasting descriptions of the wartime wildcat strike phenomenon, see Rosa Lee Swafford, Wartime Record of Strikes and Lockouts, 1940–1945, 79th Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Document No. 136 (Washington, D.C., 1946), pp. 1–37, passim; Jerome F. Scott and George C. Homans, “Reflections on Wildcat Strikes,” American Sociological Review 12 (June 1947): 278–287; and Lichtenstein, “Industrial Unionism Under the No-Strike Pledge,” pp. 326–367, 596–641.
25. Memorandum, Isidor Lubin to Harry Hopkins, May 27, 1943, in President’s Personal File, Box 145, Roosevelt Papers.
26. Swafford, Wartime Record, pp. 3–4.
27. Chrysler Corporation, War Labor Board Reports 10 (Aug. 27, 1943), pp. 553–555; War Labor Board Hearing Transcript, July 28, 1943, pp. 25–29.
28. UAW Executive Board Minutes, Feb. 7–16, 1944, pp. 83–84, Box 3, Thomas Papers, ALHWSU.
29. United Auto Worker, March 1, 1944.
30. Ford Facts, April 1, 1944. The local’s leadership made this remark after the UAW executive board had used its new powers to allow Ford management to discipline 126 unionists who had participated in a recent wildcat strike at the Rouge.
31. Detroit Free Press, May 22, 25, 27, 1944; Labor Action, June 5, Aug. 28, 1944, UAW Executive Board Minutes, Aug. 1, 1944, Box 5, UAW Executive Board Collection, ALHWSU.
32. In the United Rubber Workers the WLB and the Army worked closely with the URW national leadership to try to break the wildcat strike tradition in the “Big Four” Akron locals. See Proceedings, Eighth Convention, United Rubber Workers of America, Toronto, Sept. 20–24, 1943, p. 58; Harold S. Roberts, The Rubber Workers (New York, 1944), pp. 362–364; Big Four Rubber Companies, War Labor Board Reports 8 (May 21, 1943): 594–598; U.S. Rubber Company, War Labor Board Reports 21 (Jan. 16, 1945): 182–183; United Rubber Worker, Feb., March 1944, July 1945.
In the United Steelworkers the Pittsburgh bureaucracy already held more institutional power than their counterparts in Detroit or Akron, but wildcat strikes were still a problem which required stepped-up measures of control from the national union leadership. See Memorandum, Lee Pressman to Van Bittner, January 18, 1943, Entry 406, RG 202, NA; Pressman to Murray, June 21, 1944; Murray to William H. Davis (chairman WLB), Sept. 28, 1943; Clinton Golden to Daniel P. Sheehan, Staff Representative, Oct. 18, 1944; David J. McDonald to Murray, May 28, 1943; and “Work Stoppages and Slowdowns,” Report of Policy Committee Meeting, Feb. 11, 1944, all in Box A4–6, Murray Papers, Catholic University.
For brief accounts of WLB discipline in the International Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America see Victor H. Johnson, “Case History of a Shipbuilding ‘Wildcat,’” Nation, Jan. 15, 1944; New England Shipbuilding Corporation file, Case No. 25–175-D, Entry 53, RG 202, NA.
33. United Auto Worker, June 1, 1944; for similar comments by Philip Murray see Proceedings . . . USW, May 9–13, 1944, p. 135.
34. Of course Lewis stood as an alternative leadership to the existing CIO hierarchy and posed for a time as a threat to internal CIO stability. See Malcolm Ross and Richard Deverall to Harold Ickes, “CIO-AFL-RR Strategy on Wage and Price Policy and Its Relation to the John L. Lewis Situation,” May 11, 1943, vol. 2, p. 270, Deverall Notebooks, Catholic University; CIO News, May 24, 1943.
35. Deverall to Clarence Glick, “A Summary: The Michigan CIO Council Convention, Detroit, Michigan, 28 June to 3 July,” July 7, 1943, vol. 1, p. 483, Deverall Notebooks.
36. Proceedings 1943 Michigan CIO Convention, pp. 169–214.
37. Justice, July 1, 1943.
38. Deverall to Glick, June 24, 1943, vol. 2, p. 53; New York Times, May 23, 24, 1943; United Auto Worker (Local 174 edition), July 1, 1943. Dubinsky demonstrated the ALP’s newfound independence from the Democrats when in 1942 his party ran a gubernatorial candidate opposed to a Roosevelt-backed Democrat for the first time. See Robert C. Carter, “Pressure from the Left: The American Labor Party, 1936–1954,” unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Syracuse University, 1965, p. 158.
39. David J. McDonald, Union Man (New York, 1969), p. 169. Aero Notes, organ of UAW Local 365 on Long Island, commented upon the formation of the PAC from the point of view of those who favored a third party: “One is startled by the CIO Executive Board attempting to knock off in its infancy a regenerative spontaneous movement for labor action instituted by the rank and file. Murray and Hillman would rather substitute an impotent program for political action than have a genuine independent mass movement because they fear that they will be unable to control the direction of this movement.” Aero Notes, Oct. 6, 1943.
40. Joseph Gaer, The First Round: The Story of the CIO-PAC (New York, 1944), p. 60. A generally sympathetic account of the PAC, which nevertheless reaches some of the same conclusions put forward here, is found in James C. Foster’s new book The Union Politic: The CIO Political Action Committee (Columbia, Mo., 1975), pp. 3–48, passim.
41. Josephson, Sidney Hillman, pp. 600–602; Labor Action, Feb. 14, 1944. In Minnesota much the same process took place when PAC officials forced merger of the radical Farmer-Labor Party there with the Hubert Humphrey-led Democrats. Foster, Union Politic, pp. 34, 41.
42. Labor Action, May 8, 1944.
43. In March 1945 Murray signed a “Labor-Management Charter” with William Green of the AFL and Eric Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The charter was important not for what it said, which consisted of a list of often irreconcilable platitudes hailing the virtues of unfettered free enterprise and the rights of labor, but as an indication by union leaders that they hoped to cooperate with the liberal wing of American capitalism in stabilizing postwar labor relations roughly upon the basis established during the war. In August 1945, Green, Murray, and Johnson reached an interim agreement granting labor an immediate 10 percent wage increase in return for a continued no-strike pledge and a new government labor board. Murray hoped a more substantial wage-price formula could be worked out at the President’s Labor-Management Conference in November. Chester Wright’s Labor Letter, March 31, July 21, 1945; PM, March 29, 1945; see also Barton Bernstein, “The Truman Administration and Its Reconversion Wage Policy,” Labor History 6 (Fall 1965): 214–231.
44. See for example the remarks of Nat Ganley, CP leader in the UAW, in Proceedings of the 1943 Michigan CIO Council, 1943, p. 68; and Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History (New York, 1957), p. 427.
45. The leadership of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, strongly influenced by the Communists, advanced this point of view in their official “Officer’s Report to the Convention.” Admitting that Roosevelt had not done all the labor movement might have wished, the UE nevertheless declared the “more imminent the destruction of Fascism the more daring will be the moves by anti-democratic forces to create suspicion against the administration.” The UE leadership called for criminal indictments against those “undermining . . . Administration win-the-war policies.” These elements included not only the right-wing Republican Press, but also John L. Lewis and others who favored wartime strikes. Proceedings 1943 UE Convention, pp. 63–65, 81.
46. Koistinen, “Hammer and Sword,” pp. 483–485.
47. Labor Action, Jan. 1, 8, 1945; Wage Earner, Feb. 2, 1945; Daily Worker, Dec. 24, 1944; see also Aaron Levenson, Labor Today and Tomorrow (New York, 1945), pp. 160–169.
48. PM, Feb. 16, 21, 1945; Textile Labor, March 1945; Labor Action, March 26, 1945.
49. United Rubber Worker, May, June, July 1945; New York Times, July 6, 13, 1945. Labor Action, July 2, 9, 16, 1945.
50. Proceedings 1944 USW Convention, pp. 130–137; Proceedings 1944 UE Convention, pp. 65–77.
51. Proceedings 1943 Michigan CIO Council, pp. 128–140 passim.
52. Irving Howe and B. J. Widick, The UAW and Walter Reuther (New York, 1949), pp. 120–125; Proceedings 1944 UAW Convention, pp. 147–225, 447–464.
53. The Hi-Flyer (UAW Local 6), Nov. 1944.
54. The incentive-pay issue illustrates the extent to which Reuther was willing to disagree with his factional rivals in the UAW, but still not go so far as his more militant supporters would have wished. For more on this issue see Lichtenstein, “Industrial Unionism Under the No-Strike Pledge,” pp. 392–429.
55. UAW Executive Board Minutes, Aug. 1, 1944, Box 5, UAW Executive Board Collection, ALHWSU.
56. Proceedings 1944 UAW Convention, pp. 147–225, 468–469, passim. Many left-wing Reutherites supported the Rank and File Caucus program and criticized the GM director’s equivocation on the no-strike pledge issue. Jack Conway Oral History, pp. 14–16, ALHWSU.
57. UAW Executive Board Minutes, Jan. 26, 1945, Box 23, Addes Papers, ALHWSU.
58. UAW Executive Board Minutes, March 5–8, 1945, Box 23, Addes Papers.
59. Wage Earner, June 22, 1945.
60. UAW Executive Board Minutes, Sept. 10–18,1945, p. 46, Box 4, Thomas Papers, ALHWSU; United Auto Worker, Sept. 1, 1945.
61. UAW Executive Board Minutes, Sept. 10–18, 1945, p. 46.
62. Ibid., pp. 47–48; the Mills quote is from his New Men of Power (New York, 1948), p. 9.
63. For accounts of the strike see Howe and Widick, UAW and Walter Reuther, pp. 126–148; Barton Bernstein, “Walter Reuther and the General Motors Strike of 1945–6,” Michigan History 49 (Sept. 1965): 260–277; Victor Reuther’s critical comments on Murray’s reconversion wage strategy are found in V. Reuther, “Look Forward Labor,” Common Sense (Dec. 1945), p. 8.
64. Wage Earner, Dec. 7, 1945; New York Times, Jan. 27, 1946; for left-wing criticism of these company security clauses see Labor Action, Dec. 17, 24, 1945, and The Militant, Jan. 12, March 23, 1946.
65. This statement is based upon an analysis and inspection of the voting lists in the 1944 and 1946 UAW conventions. Of the 70 largest locals in the union, about three-quarters of those who had voted against the no-strike pledge in 1944 cast most of their ballots in favor of Reuther’s presidential bid in 1946. Conversely, about three-quarters of those locals which had backed the no-strike pledge in 1944 voted for Thomas in 1946.
66. The unorthodox character of the GM strike demands alarmed leaders of the steel industry who insisted that a wage settlement with the USW allow ample room for an increase in the price of steel. By late January 1946 they actually welcomed a steel strike as a means of putting pressure of the Office of Price Administration to raise its price ceilings. Bernstein, “The Truman Administration and the Steel Strike of 1946,” Journal of American History 52 (March 1966): 791–803.