National War Labor Board, World War I
NATIONAL WAR LABOR BOARD, WORLD WAR I
NATIONAL WAR LABOR BOARD, WORLD WAR I (NWLB) was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson on 8 April 1918 to adjudicate labor disputes. Its members had already served in Washington, D.C., on the War Labor Conference Board, convened on 28 January 1918 by the secretary of labor to devise a national labor program. They included five labor representatives from the American Federation of Labor, five employer representatives from the National Industrial Conference Board, and two public representatives, the labor lawyer Frank P. Walsh and former Republican president William Howard Taft, who acted as cochairs.
Until its demise on 31 May 1919, the board ruled on 1,245 cases. Almost 90 percent of them sprang from worker complaints, and five skilled trades accounted for 45 percent. Of the cases, 591 were dismissed, 315 were referred to other federal labor agencies, and 520 resulted in formal awards or findings. In reaching their decisions the board was aided by an office and investigative staff of 250 people. Approximately 700,000 workers in 1,000 establishments were directly affected.
NWLB judgments were informed by principles that aimed to balance labor agitation for change with employer support for the status quo, yet its judgments generally favored labor's position. According to board policy, workers had the right to organize and bargain collectively and could not be dismissed for "legitimate trade union activities" so long as they rejected "coercive measures" in recruitment and bargaining. The eight-hour day was upheld where currently mandated by law, though otherwise it was open to negotiation. Wages and hours were set with regard to "conditions prevailing in the localities involved" rather than a national standard. Women hired during the war were to receive equal pay for equal work, and all workers had a right to "a living wage" sufficient to guarantee "the subsistence of the worker and his family in health and reasonable comfort."
As a voluntary agency without legal authority, the NWLB could never be certain how employers and employees would react to its judgments. Wartime public opinion provided crucial leverage, at least before the armistice on 11 November 1918, but Wilson's active support was also significant. On 16 July 1918, for example, the president signed a joint congressional resolution to nationalize the Western Union Company after executives rejected attempts at unionization. On 13 September 1918 he successfully threatened ten thousand striking machinists in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with loss of draft exemptions for war production unless they complied with board orders to return to work.
Employees gained more than employers from NWLB rulings. The board's commitment to labor's right to organize stirred workers' hopes and sparked dramatic increases in union membership, both in industries where unions were represented before the war and in those where they had been excluded. Workers were also gratified by NWLB calls for higher minimum wages, for displacement of individual employee contracts by collective bargaining, and for shop committees elected under board supervision. The NWLB's effectiveness weakened dramatically in 1919, but the prolabor actions it took during its thirteen-month tenure were without precedent in the history of federal labor policy.
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. The NWLB in a social setting.