Labor Comes Into its Own

Edmund F. Wehrle

The labor policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt forever transformed the lives of this country's working men and women. Long before the 1930s, American workers had talked optimistically about creating an "industrial democracy" in which employees had some measure of direct influence over their workplace. For many workers-especially industrial workers-the New Deal offered a foundation on which to build such a new reality. No longer were labor issues to be decided solely between employers and employees (a situation in which employers generally held the upper hand). The New Deal promised a state-mediated system in which the rights of working people were protected and weighed against the needs of other groups in society.
In the new atmosphere of labor friendly government policies, the nature of trade unions changed forever, as an immense drive to organize less skilled industrial workers into unions swept across the country. The gains made during the 1930s were solidified during World War II, opening the door to the modern era in which labor, management, and the state all contribute to determining the conditions under which people work. Today, in an era of painful "downsizing," battles over the minimum wage, and job insecurity, the concept of industrial democracy and the memory of a mass movement of workers may again be relevant.

Forward "Industrial Democracy"?
In order to appreciate the changes of the 1930s, it is important to understand the labor conditions of the previous decade: the 1920s. As is the case today, labor's political power was then on the wane, and workers in many large industries-especially industrial workers-remained unorganized. In lieu of independent unions, some employers offered "company unions," providing workers with the guise of organization but always under the watchful eye of employers. Larger companies might offer their employees limited "welfare capitalism" benefits, which at their best included unemployment and disability insurance. Employers saw these programs as part of an "American Plan" in which benevolent employers led grateful workers into prosperity. This was their version of "industrial democracy."
But soon a crisis appeared that revealed the full, glaring inadequacies of the "American Plan." The Great Depression rapidly brought American industry to its knees. By 1932, twelve million Americans were out of work. Everywhere relief sources went dry. As conditions worsened, some of the unemployed began to look to radical solutions, such as communism and socialism. Most, however, chose to wait, hoping that the newly elected Democratic administration would offer some relief.

Once in office, Roosevelt moved quickly to address the enormous need for the "three R's": relief, recovery, and reform. His first response to the industrial crisis-the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933-seemed to favor business more than labor. The act offered competing businesses the opportunity to meet together and set codes of conduct designed to eliminate excessive competition. Essentially, FDR was letting industry create monopolies. But hidden in the NIRA was a valuable opportunity for labor. Section 7a of the act dictated that every industrywide code must allow workers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively.

Workers embraced section 7a as they had no other piece of legislation in American history. United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis boldly told miners, "President Roosevelt wants you to join a union." Roosevelt, who had endorsed no such mass movement, watched in amazement as record numbers of workers signed up. Nowhere was the organizational drive more successful than in Lewis's own union, the United Mine Workers, long involved in bloody confrontations between miners and mine owners. In a few short months following the passage of the NIRA, Lewis and his followers swept through previously unorganized territories to organize hundreds of thousands of miners. By the end of 1933, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the nation's umbrella organization of labor unions, had added more than a half million members.

From NIRA to NLRB
But workers soon learned that section 7a would not alone usher in a new era of industrial democracy. Although the law gave workers the right to organize, it provided little in the way of enforcement. Workers responded with anger and occasional violence when employers proved slow to recognize their collective bargaining rights. In 1934, more than a million and a half American workers went on strike, including San Francisco longshoremen who brought commerce at the city's waterfront to a standstill that summer. When police attempted to intervene, open fighting led to the deaths of two strikers. Several weeks later in Minneapolis, striking teamsters clashed with police; again, two strikers were killed, and scores of others injured.
By the end of 1934, few on either side-business or labor-remained content with the NIRA. When the Supreme Court in 1935 declared the NIRA unconstitutional, Roosevelt complained publicly about the Court's "horse and buggy" approach to modern legislation, but acknowledged privately that the NIRA was ineffective. Nevertheless, the President now recognized labor as an effective constituency for the Democratic party, and as a central ingredient in reforming the nation's economic system.

Even before the Supreme Court's decision on the NIRA, Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York had proposed legislation to strengthen the role of the federal government in protecting workers and mediating labor disputes. At first, Roosevelt shied away from Wagner's bill, but when the NIRA fell, he turned enthusiastically to the new proposal. The Wagner bill would create a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) with full powers to investigate and punish lawbreakers. It prohibited employers from engaging in "unfair labor practices," while empowering the NLRB both to oversee employee elections to choose unions and to make sure that employers negotiated solely with unions properly elected by workers. Business solidly opposed Wagner's proposal, but with Roosevelt behind it, the National Labor Relations Act became law in the summer of 1935.

The Emergence of the CIO
The Roosevelt era labor reforms brought a new urgency to an old concern of American labor: organizing industrial workers. Traditionally, the bulk of the AFL's members had come from the more skilled craft and construction trades. Meanwhile large blocks of industrial workers, most notably steel and auto workers, remained unorganized. Seeking to take advantage of the favorable conditions created by Roosevelt, a militant group within the AFL was eager to launch a drive to organize industrial workers. The leaders of this group were John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. The majority of the AFL's leadership, however, remained fixed in a craft union mentality and resisted any such change.
At the annual AFL convention in the fall of 1935, Lewis and Hillman insisted that Roosevelt's policies had created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand organized labor well beyond its traditional borders. The AFL leadership, however, was still having none of it. At one point, a frustrated Lewis actually punched the president of the Carpenters' Union, William Hutcheson. Forced to move ahead alone, Lewis, Hillman and like-minded unionists met later that year and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), which became the Congress for Industrial Organizations when it formally left the AFL in 1936.

The CIO quickly stacked up a number of impressive victories. In 1936, it organized rubber workers into the United Rubber Workers CIO. Devoted to confrontation, Lewis and the CIO then organized sit-down strikes in the auto industry, where striking workers actually occupied auto plants until management agreed to recognize their union as the official bargaining agent. For six weeks, members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) occupied a General Motors Plant in Flint, Michigan. Finally, in February of 1937, the sit-down strikers marched victoriously out of the plant when General Motors agreed to recognize the UAW. Intimidated by the power of the CIO, the several large steel companies that were collectively known as Big Steel surrendered to the CIO without a fight later that year.

The Last Hurrah for Labor Reform
Despite the great gains made by the CIO, the political winds began to shift against labor by 1938. Congressional elections that year saw a conservative resurgence replete with promises to stem the tide of industrial upheaval. But 1938 did see one more great stride for labor-the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)-aimed at providing some measure of security for unorganized workers. The FLSA established minimum wages and maximum hours for most areas of employment.
By 1939, the forces of reaction were hard at work against labor and Roosevelt. Conservatives demanded revision of the Wagner Act to take into account unfair labor practices on the part of unions as well as employers. The emerging international crisis, however, staved off their counteroffensive and allowed labor to consolidate and build on its gains during the war years.

Even before Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt was eager to mobilize the nation for a possible war. As the defense budget soared, millions of industrial jobs opened up in military-related areas. In the intense atmosphere of mobilization, the CIO was able to crack two prominent holdouts to unionism. The smaller steel manufacturers, collectively known as Little Steel, recognized the CIO's Steel Workers Organization Committee in early 1941. Later that year, antiunion automaker Henry Ford succumbed and agreed to hold a May election, which the UAW easily won.

Workers at War: "No Strike"
The war years themselves presented both challenges and opportunities for labor. Recognizing that winning the war was the essential issue, both the CIO and AFL offered "no strike" pledges for the duration of the emergency. In return, Roosevelt offered them a unique "maintenance of membership" arrangement in which all new employees of essential industries automatically became union members. Under these circumstances, labor leaders were expected to regulate the actions of their members and make sure that workers functioned as effective components of the war effort. Ostensibly to keep prices under control, workers were promised raises only at the rate of inflation.
For some workers, the process was frustrating-working long hours, watching corporate profits soar, and receiving what they considered only a nominal portion of the wartime prosperity. At times, "wildcat," or illegal, strikes violating contracts broke out. Under such circumstances, labor unions were expected to discipline recalcitrant workers.

Some historians have argued that the wartime arrangements between business and labor imprisoned workers in a new model whereby unions became another arm of management. Far from helping workers achieve a new "industrial democracy," labor unions-these historians argue-accepted a junior membership in a corporate arrangement led by business and government elites. But while only mining leader John L. Lewis struck against employers during the war, even supposed "conservative" labor leaders pressed hard behind the scenes for their constituencies, and often won valuable "fringe benefit" concessions, such as health insurance and pensions. Although concerned primarily with the war, Roosevelt was generally patient with labor demands and encouraged union growth as central to his plan to increase the purchasing power of the average person, and thus strengthen the economy.

The New Deal and World War II era clearly introduced the state as a major participant in industrial relations. With the government actively involved, unions grew, wages increased, and working conditions improved. But was this the freedom that workers desired when they spoke of "industrial democracy"? For some, labor had sacrificed its independence and become a cog in a larger machine operated by alien interests. But for the average worker, the New Deal offered a much needed stability and security by guaranteeing and protecting the collective bargaining process. As one worker explained the changes and their effect on his coworkers, "Before, they were submissive. Today they are men."

Edmund F. Wehrle is a Ph.D. candidate in American History at the University of Maryland at College Park, specializing in the New Deal and postwar periods. He is a former fellow at the George Meany Memorial Archive.