Roosevelt used troops against 1941 strikes
(Books of the Month column)
Below are excerpts from Labor's Giant Step by Art Preis, one of Pathfinder's Books of the Month for May. Written by a participant in the explosive labor struggles and political battles of the 1930s, it tells the story of how the industrial unions were built and how they became the vanguard of a mass social movement that began to transform U.S. society.
The excerpt below, entitled "Roosevelt—open strikebreaker," tells the story of how during two strikes in 1941 U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic "friend of labor," initiated his administration's direct strike-breaking program. The first was the 75-day strike by members of United Auto Workers Local 248 against the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company plant in West Allis, Wisconsin. The second was at strike at the North American Aviation plant in Inglewood, California.
The author refers to several top union officials: United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) Phillip Murray, and Amalgamated Clothing Workers president Sidney Hillman. Copyright © 1964 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission.
BY ART PREIS
Now faced with opposition from the top CIO and UAW leaders as well as the strikers, the administration officials beat a retreat and denied they had issued any ultimatum to the strikers. They then asserted that "the original strike vote had been obtained by fraudulent means." The March 30 New York Times reported, however, that "more than 5,000 UAW workers…voted today at a mass meeting to persist with their strike at the Allis-Chalmers Company plant, hooting down appeals of government officials…." There evidently was no fraud about the workers' desire to continue the strike.
Inspired by the Roosevelt administration's strikebreaking intervention, the local police on March 31 made a violent assault on the Allis-Chalmers picket line. For the first time in American labor history an armored car manned by police firing tear gas bombs through slits in the steel plates smashed through a picket line of 3,000 workers. Many were sickened and injured, but the line closed up and picketing went on.
In the meantime state militia had been sent to the scene. The workers, however, could not be driven back to work at bayonet point. After three days Governor Heil withdrew his troops and ordered the plant shut.
On April 7, after 75 days, the union voted to end the strike when the company agreed to accept the terms the union would have settled for at the beginning. The agreement provided a "maintenance of membership" clause—a watered-down version of the union shop—which guaranteed the membership status as of the time of signing the contract.
Just two months later Roosevelt moved into the most open and violent phase of his anti-strike program. This was his use of federal troops to smash the picket lines of peaceful strikers at the North American Aviation plant in Inglewood, California.
Looking back, it seems incredible that the workers had not struck long before.…
North American's minimum wage was 40 cents an hour, ten cents less than an unskilled laborer's relief wage on WPA. It was far below the subsistence standard of living computed by government agencies and lower than the average of all Southern California aircraft plants.
When the company finally agreed to open negotiations on April 16, the workers asked for a 75-cent hourly minimum and ten cents an hour more for all workers. In 1940, even before receiving huge government war orders, the company had made a net profit of $855 for every worker in its employ. But when the union made its wage demand, North American's President J.H. Kindleberger scoffed: "I don't have to pay any more to my workers because most of them are young kids who spend their money on a flivver and a gal."
After being stalled for five weeks with this kind of talk, the union membership on May 23 voted for strike. The issue then went to the National Defense Mediation Board. The workers stayed on the job 13 days past their strike deadline. When it became clear that the NDMB intended to stall indefinitely, the 12,000 North American workers struck on June 5.
The NDMB turned the case over to the White House. Roosevelt acted with dispatch. He ordered the workers to end their strike and announced he was sending U.S. troops to be on hand Monday morning, June 9, to open the plant in the interests of the "national emergency." Why he did not order the company to pay decent wages as a means of ending this "threat" to the "national emergency" the President did not say.
Roosevelt acted with confidence because he felt he had the backing of high CIO and UAW officials. In speaking of those who were at the President's side when he signed the order for the troops to smash the strike, Roosevelt's secretary Stephen Early, spoke of "Mr. Hillman and the others." Hillman—that was a name to conjure with. It was a "Labor" seal of approval.
After the strike was broken, at a meeting of 250 CIO executives in Washington on July 7, Lewis denounced Hillman as a "traitor" who was "standing at Roosevelt's elbow when he signed the order to send troops to stab labor in the back.…"
On the very day the strike was called, the UAW international union officials dispatched Richard Frankensteen to the strike scene. That same night, without consulting the strike committee, he broadcast a denunciation of the strike over a national radio hookup.…
[On June 9] the embittered workers massed at the plant. There to meet them was the first large contingent of what was to grow by nightfall into an army of 3,500 federal troops. Thus, the United States government waged its first military engagement of World War II on American soil against American workers resisting hunger wages.