Labor, World War II

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In the eight years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American labor movement had experienced the greatest growth and most dramatic changes in its history. The number of workers in trade unions had increased from under three million at the beginning of 1933 to over ten million by the end of 1941. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had come into existence, initially as a split from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1935, to organize unskilled and semi-skilled workers in mass production industries on an industrywide basis—mobilizing hundreds of thousands in steel, autos, electrical appliances, meat-packing, and other basic industries.

In the mainstream American labor movement, the CIO had also represented a new kind of unionism previously associated with radicalism in the form of socialism and communism. In this "social unionism," labor unions actively involved themselves in politics—supporting public housing and health care, social welfare programs for those unable to work, and anti-Fascist foreign policy initiatives, along with more traditional labor legislation.

labor's contribution

From 1939 to 1941, labor was marked by conflicts. Communists joined with CIO president John L. Lewis and non-Communist anti-interventionists in the CIO to oppose U.S. involvement in the war, whereas socialists like Walter Reuther of the UAW supported the Roosevelt administration's "arsenal for democracy" policy of providing aid for England. On the homefront, the African-American socialist A. Philip Randolph pushed the Roosevelt administration into banning discrimination in the rapidly expanding defense plants by threatening a march on Washington in 1941. In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the labor movement united in its support for the war.

Following Pearl Harbor, the Roosevelt administration established a War Labor Board (WLB) with broad powers. AFL and CIO unions agreed to a "no-strike pledge" for the duration of the war, compulsory arbitration to settle differences between labor and management, a wage-freeze policy connected to the administration's price-freeze policy, and a "maintenance of membership" policy, which in effect compelled employers and workers to accept union representation in exchange for war production contracts and jobs. By the war's end, union membership had grown to 14.7 million, five times what it had been at the beginning of the Roosevelt administration.

During the war, workers engaged in "wildcat strikes" (strikes without union approval). A major coal strike by the United Mine Workers in 1943 led Congress to pass the War Labor Disputes Act, known as the Smith-Connally Act. This act was the first federal anti-strike legislation in United States history and a precursor of the postwar Taft-Hartley Act. Despite these upsets, the labor movement's contribution to the war effort was enormous.

First, as President Roosevelt stated often, the most important battle for Americans was the "battle of production," and the United States was, by 1944, outproducing all of its Axis enemies and providing vital military supplies and foodstuffs to Great Britain and its Soviet and Chinese allies, who were tying down the great bulk of German and Japanese ground troops in Europe and Asia. The labor movement, particularly the industrial unions of the CIO, also made possible the mobilization of over eight million new female workers, and the shift of existing female workers from service jobs to basic industry. Overall, the percentage of women in the labor force grew from 25 percent to 36 percent during the war and only the Soviet Union surpassed the United States in its effective mobilization of female labor for the war effort. The role of the CIO unions, particularly the United Electrical Workers, led by leftists, in raising the issue of equal pay for equal work for women and in pressing for policies to reduce the income gap between men and women were precursors of later campaigns for women's rights, including the availability of daycare facilities.

Beginning with President Roosevelt's Executive Order banning discrimination in the war production industries and establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee (1941), black workers became a more important part of the industrial labor force than ever before. Although the military remained segregated, the integration of work in the factories—a difficult process that sometimes inspired wildcat "hate strikes" by white workers and led directly to a major race riot in Detroit in 1943—was also essential to winning the "battle of production" and the war itself.

labor and politics

Politically, labor contributed to the egalitarian and democratic ideology with which the war was fought. This ideology was symbolized by the poster for Franklin Roosevelt's 1944 reelection campaign by the artist Ben Shahn. The poster showed black and white war production workers united in solidarity and friendship, and its caption, "After the war, full employment," summed up the ideal that the labor movement strove for as a postwar program. President Roosevelt paid lip service to this program when he campaigned in 1944 for a "second bill of rights"—economic and social rights like the right to a job, housing, education, and health care—to supplement the original Bill of Rights. The press dubbed this program the Economic Bill of Rights, and both supporters and opponents saw it as the center of the New Deal's postwar agenda.

Politically, though, the labor movement experienced both gains and losses. The CIO had created a Political Action Committee which scored impressive gains in the 1944 primary and general elections, forcing Martin Dies, the leader of the House Un-American Activities Committee, into political retirement and helping to elect Roosevelt and many pro-labor New Deal candidates


Without the gains in organization and confidence that American workers experienced in the 1930s, organized labor's huge contribution to the nation's World War II victory would have been more difficult to imagine. The war to a great extent muted the conflict between capital and labor over the nation's future, of which the New Deal was at the center. During the war both liberal labor and conservative pro-business forces had made large gains—the former from the increase in membership, the latter through the vast increase in corporate profits that the industrial expansion had produced. Although the domestic political effects of the development of the Cold War (1946–1991) limited labor's growth and reversed some of its gains from the 1930s and 1940s, the union movement held onto many of those gains in urban industrial states until the 1980s. In the process, the labor movement—even though it was challenged by the anti-union provisions of the Taft-Hartley Law (1947) and drained of much of its militancy by purges against Communists and other radicals—still contributed to the huge increase in the American people's standard of living in the postwar era.


Fraser, Steve. Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Harris, William H. The Harder We Run: Black Workers Since the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. Labor's War at Home: The CIO in WWII. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.

Milkman, Ruth. Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation During WWII. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Norman Markowitz

See also:Economy, World War II; Financing, World War II; Propaganda, War; Rosie the Riveter; Women, Employment of.

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Labor, World War II

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