Labor, World War I

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World War I had a profound impact on American society, expanding the size, role, and power of the federal government and dramatically changing its relationship with both business and labor. Wartime expansion brought together government and corporate America as never before, planting the seeds for the massive bureaucratic state that would become the American political economy. Prior to the war, many Progressive reformers fought for a more active government and regulation of businesses to combat abuses in the workplace and problems associated with the rapidly growing cities. In the absence of the right to bargain collectively, workers struggled with low wages, long hours, unsafe working conditions, child labor, and other prolonged forms of exploitation. It would take a world war to bring about improvement for many working Americans. But although World War I brought gains for the national trade unions, and especially for the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) became a victim of wartime hysteria and antiradicalism.

war industries board

When the United States entered World War I, it became clear that it needed an organization to oversee the manufacturing and distribution of war products that were so desperately needed by both the American and Allied troops. By the summer of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson's administration had established the War Industries Board (WIB)—under the leadership of the Wall Street stock speculator Bernard M. Baruch—to serve as the center of industrial mobilization. WIB war contracts ensured a rapid increase in production by negotiating fair prices that guaranteed company profits. Government wartime agencies had unparalleled control over shipping and trade and virtually took over the operation of the nation's railroad, telephone, and telegraph systems. The Lever Act and the Fuel Control Act of 1917 gave President Wilson unmatched power over food production, commodity prices, raw materials, and the nation's fuel resources. These changes did not occur without the assistance of big business, and many corporate leaders became dollar-a-day men, heading up the some five thousand newly created federal agencies for the token payment of one dollar per day.

Government war contracts translated into business expansion, and over a million new laborers were needed for industry and agriculture. But massive military mobilization

coincided with the sudden waning of immigration, creating a critical labor shortage. The war also reignited longstanding domestic labor problems. With inflation rising and prices escalating, in 1917 workers demanded immediate changes through thousands of strikes, involving more than one million workers.

american federation of labor

Faced with labor unrest that drained the nation and disrupted production, President Wilson set up the National War Labor Board (NWLB) to address laborers' issues, stabilize the workforce, and arbitrate between labor and management. Labor attorney Frank Walsh steered the NWLB and proved to be sympathetic to the problems facing the American worker. Former president Howard H. Taft joined Walsh at the helm. Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, quickly allied trade unionism with support of the war and became a member of the NWLB. The AFL was a union of skilled workers with a membership of over two million in 1914. Unlike the IWW, which denounced the nation's capitalist economic system as oppressive and exploitative, AFL leaders believed that business unionism would bring about increased democracy and a redistribution of capital in the workplace.

Government regulation of the American labor force brought changes for most workers. Men deemed indispensable to the war economy received exemptions from the draft, and those who were ineligible for military service due to age or health continued in their positions; however, African Americans and women made inroads into jobs from which they had previously been excluded, and Mexican contract laborers were allowed to fill some positions. Improvements for workers included increased wages, reduced hours, and perhaps most significantly the NWLB supported workers' right to organize and bargain collectively with management. With war contracts in hand, the government also pressed for the eight-hour day, overtime pay, and enforcement of the federal ban on child labor. These changes brought about an expansion of union membership from 2.7 million in 1916 to over 5 million by 1920, over 3 million of whom were in the AFL.

industrial workers of the world

However, in the supercharged patriotic atmosphere of World War I, labor radicals came to be considered enemies of the state, and Justice Department officials pursued IWW leaders and dismantled the union. The Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the Wobblies) were a socialist union that developed in opposition to the AFL's restrictive focus on skilled workers to the exclusion of the unskilled. It was organized as an inclusive industrial union, accepting all workers regardless of skill level or trade. Unlike the AFL, the IWW denounced the ongoing conflict as a capitalist's war and continued its struggle to reform the nation's economy. Rising concerns over the IWW's wartime expansion, especially in jobs necessary to the war industry, led the U.S. government to take action—harassing, arresting, jailing, and at times deporting IWW leaders under a broad interpretation of the wartime Espionage Act. It was in this atmosphere that the U.S. government arrested and jailed IWW leaders and tried IWW President William Hay-wood under the Federal Espionage and Sedition Acts, after he called a strike in a war-sensitive industry. Hay-wood was convicted and sentenced to thirty years in prison but fled the county when he was released on bail. The antiradical frenzy continued into the postwar period, and the government's harassment and prosecution of IWW leaders seriously crippled membership in the Industrial Workers of the World.

postwar period

With the Armistice of November 11, 1918, the United States looked forward to a new and brighter future. The war had dramatically increased the federal government's regulatory role and gave it unprecedented power to over-see the economy. It also resulted in renewed corporate consolidation and a new collaboration between the government, business, and labor.

But the economic boom that had improved the lives of many American workers came to a sudden end with postwar inflation and rising unemployment, which coincided with the return of some four million soldiers, sailors, and marines. Within months of the end of World War I, canceled government contracts and renewed economic hardship led to relentless strikes as workers struggled to keep the gains they had made during the war. In 1919 alone, over 3,300 strikes involving more than four million workers shook the nation. The U.S. Labor Department reported strikes in twenty-four states. In 1919, an anti-Communist red scare and a national recession magnified the intensity of the postwar crisis. By the early 1920s, economic improvements and the celebratory mood of the Roaring Twenties gave the nation hope that the worst was behind it, but in 1929 the Great Depression began, putting an end to that hope.


Hawley, Ellis. The Great War and the Search for a Modern Order: A History of the American People and Their Institutions, 1917–1933, 2d edition. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

McCartin, Joseph A. Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912–1921. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Nancy Gentile Ford

See also:Economy, World War I; Financing, World War I; Ford, Henry; Women, Employment of.

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Labor, World War I

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