National War Labor Board

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National War Labor Board

United States 1918-1919


With growing labor unrest and incidents of strikes increasing throughout the United States during World War I, government advisors and labor leaders insisted that President Woodrow Wilson create a more direct national labor policy. Wilson instructed the Department of Labor to formulate a policy to address the nation's growing labor concerns. William B. Wilson, secretary of labor, created a War Labor Conference Board (WLCB) composed of representatives from business and labor interest. The WLCB was to recommend to the Department of Labor specific labor policies. The WLCB recommended the creation of a federal agency to enforce federal labor policy and formulate recommendations. In April 1918, with these recommendations in hand, President Wilson created the National War Labor Board (NWLB). Throughout its short life, the NWLB insisted that all strikes and lockouts cease until the end of the war. In addition, the agency supported the principles of collective bargaining, an eight-hour work day, and equal pay for men and women as well as encouraging union growth. Although the federal government believed that the NWLB was an effective avenue by which to curb labor unrest, the end of the war and demobilization made the NWLB obsolete. Thus by 1919 the federal government dismantled the NWLB.


  • 1898: United States defeats Spain in the three-month Spanish American War. As a result, Cuba gains it independence, and the United States purchases Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.
  • 1903: Russia's Social Democratic Party splits into two factions: the moderate Mensheviks and the hard-line Bolsheviks. Despite their names, which in Russian mean "minority" and "majority," respectively, Mensheviks actually outnumber Bolsheviks.
  • 1910: Revolution breaks out in Mexico and will continue for the next seven years.
  • 1914: On 28 June in the town of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinates Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and wife Sophie. In the weeks that follow, Austria declares war on Serbia, and Germany on Russia and France, while Great Britain responds by declaring war on Germany. By the beginning of August, the lines are drawn, with the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, and Japan) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey).
  • 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme are waged on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.
  • 1918: The Bolsheviks execute Czar Nicholas II and his family.Soon civil war breaks out between the communists andtheir allies, known as the Reds, and their enemies, a col-lection of anticommunists ranging from democrats toczarists, who are known collectively as the Whites. InMarch, troops from the United States, Great Britain, andFrance intervene on the White side.
  • 1918: The Second Battle of the Marne in July and August isthe last major conflict on the Western Front. In Novem-ber, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, bringing an end to thewar.
  • 1918: Upheaval sweeps Germany, which for a few weeks inlate 1918 and early 1919 seems poised on the verge ofcommunist revolution—or at least a Russian-style com-munist coup d'etat. But reactionary forces have re-gained their strength, and the newly organized Freikorps (composed of unemployed soldiers) suppresses the re-volts. Even stronger than reaction or revolution, howev-er, is republican sentiment, which opens the way for thecreation of a democratic government based at Weimar.
  • 1918: Influenza, carried to the furthest corners by returningsoldiers, spreads throughout the globe. Over the nexttwo years, it will kill nearly 20 million people—morethan the war itself.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for pay-ments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germanybegins to climb.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Lo-carno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries be-tween France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.

Event and Its Context


The NWLB existed because of the unique circumstances of World War I and the growing influence of labor within the Wilson administration. Throughout the nineteenth century the federal government had a laissez-faire interest in labor relations. Before 1900, if government intervened in a dispute between labor and management, it was usually in support of management by helping to put down a strike. President Theodore Roosevelt deviated from this policy by intervening in the 1902 anthracite coal strike, which resulted in the miners and their union winning some concessions. His successor, President William Howard Taft, laid the foundation for the creation of the Department of Labor and the Commission on Industrial Relations. Even with limited attention directed toward labor by the executive branch during the Progressive Era, federal policymakers were still apathetic at best to the concerns and the demands of American workers. President Woodrow Wilson was the first president to appear concerned for the plight and the vote of American workers. To gain the support and appreciation of labor unions and the American Federation of Labor, President Wilson appointed William B. Wilson as the first secretary of labor. By appointing Wilson, who was a former official in the United Mine Workers, as secretary of labor, President Wilson gave labor its greatest voice in the federal government up to that point in time.

Early in the war, President Wilson intervened in a series of strikes that threatened wartime production. He then decided to create a more direct national labor policy. Wilson issued an executive order in January of 1918 to create the War Labor Administration, which was to be headed by Secretary Wilson. President Wilson gave the War Labor Administration the power to reorganize existing labor agencies. Soon after its creation the War Labor Administration created the War Labor Conference Board (WLCB), which would be responsible for establishing an all-encompassing labor agency to recommend and support federal labor policy. William Howard Taft and Frank P. Walsh, a successful and influential labor attorney, cochaired the WLCB. The members of the board were split evenly between promanagement and prolabor interests. Although the members came from different perspectives concerning labor disputes, all of the members of the board agreed that an end to the labor strife would be best for the country during wartime. From January to March 1918, the WLCB formulated labor policies and submitted a report of those recommendations to President Wilson. By April, Wilson publicly supported those polices and reassembled the WLCB and its members into a new agency known as the National War Labor Board (NWLB).

Principles, Policies, and Framework

The WLCB report that was submitted to Wilson would be the foundation of the labor policy that the NWLB would spearhead. The NWLB rallied around one guiding principle: no strikes or lockouts during the war. The NWLB would also agree to support eight measures to quell labor tensions. The measures included collective bargaining; support of the status quo within the workplace with regard to open shop; protective labor laws; union shops; equal pay for men and women; eight-hour work-days where proscribed by law (they were open to negotiation in other places); measures that delayed or reduced production; and a program to allow the war industries to have access to skilled workers in high demand. The NWLB also would also take into consideration preexisting labor and wage conditions when formulating policies concerning wages, hours, and conditions. Finally, the NWLB supported the principle of a "living wage." Although both labor and management were represented on the NWLB, labor made tremendous gains through these measures, whereas business interests were not equally represented through policy or action. All agreed that these policies would help to settle the labor unrest. Even though the NWLB supported all these progressive labor policies, it was still only a voluntary association with no legal authority within the private sector. When confronted with a strike or a lockout, the NWLB procedure was to send investigators to research the incident and eventually hold hearings to determine a decision. If both sides agreed to meet with the NWLB, then it could bind both parties to its decision. If the NWLB could not get both sides to agree to meet, then it would publish its decision and hope that popular opinion would persuade both sides to agree to a settlement.

Investigations and Rulings

In April 1918 a conflict involving the Commercial Telegraphers Union of America (CTUA) became the first real case to be addressed by the NWLB. The president of the Western Union Company fired 800 employees who had joined the CTUA. The CTUA mobilized for a strike before the NWLB stepped in to avert a shutdown of the nation's communication systems. Management at Western Union decided not to work with the NWLB, and in fact the president of the company, Newcomb Carlton, even rejected the moderate voices on the board. Partly because of Carlton's intransigence, Taft, who represented the probusiness members of the board, decided to side with Walsh and recommend a reinstatement of the fired employees. Carlton chose not to adhere to the board's recommendations. In response, President Wilson nationalized the telegraph lines, giving legitimacy to the new agency and symbolically demonstrating to employers that the administration would punish companies that refused to cooperate with the NWLB.

Another important decision by the NWLB was in response to a strike by machinists in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. On 23 May 1918, 3,000 machinists went on strike in response to employers' use of semiskilled workers in skilled positions. The strikers believed that dependence on unskilled and semiskilled labor kept wages down. The NWLB immediately investigated and soon concluded that workers in Waynesboro deserved a minimum wage set at 40 cents an hour. This was an important decision because it cemented support for the idea of a "living wage" within the federal government.

At the same time as the Waynesboro decision, the NWLB handed down another important ruling. This time machinists with the Worthington Pump Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, demanded that their job classifications be protected from their employer who chose not to recognize certain skills associated with specific positions. Industry utilized this tactic to keep skilled wages down. The NWLB found in favor of the local union and sent federal agents to classify jobs at the plant.

In these early decisions, the NWLB recognized the grievances of labor over management. In fact, issues such as job classification and a "living wage" had been confined previously to workers and their unions, but as the NWLB favored these policies, these issues found more legitimacy outside the labor movement.

NWLB and Worker Organizing

Although the NWLB had a direct impact on federal labor policy during the war, it also enjoyed an indirect impact on worker activism and organizing. One of the first NWLB cases in this arena was its decision against General Electric. The Pittsfield Metal Trades Council brought this case to the attention of the board. Workers for General Electric in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, went on strike to protest the use of "yellow-dog contracts." Before hiring workers, employers would force them to sign these contracts, which forbade them from joining a union during their tenure with the company. Earlier in 1917, the Supreme Court had handed down the decision in Hitchman Coal and Coke Company v. Mitchell et al., which recognized the constitutionality of the yellow-dog contracts. The NWLB decided to suspend the use of these contracts for the duration of the war, not only for the workers in Pittsfield, but for also for similar incidents that came before the board. Not only did the NWLB strike down the yellow-dog contracts, but it also supported the peaceful participation of workers in strikes and banned the use of the military draft to intimidate union members or potential union members. Because the NWLB supported the rights of unions and of organizing, the board had significant influence over the increase of union activity and activism throughout the war. Membership in unions increased throughout the board's tenure, as did strikes and grievances filed with the board itself. NWLB actions led workers to believe that the federal government was supportive of their rights and grievances within the work place. Many employers, on the other hand, believed that labor unions used the NWLB as a tool to promote their own agendas.

In other cases the NWLB facilitated labor organizing. The NWLB organized war industry workers into committees for the purpose of collective bargaining. Previously, shop committees had been exclusive to a certain skill, thus several committees could exist within a single factory. By introducing one overall committee to negotiate collectively with a single employer, the NWLB united workers who previously had been divided within the workplace. Union members dominated these committees. Typically, if nonunion representatives were elected to a committee, they soon became members. Unions used these shop committees to push union issues and bring them to the attention of the employers. They also used their position and influence in the shop committees to promote union membership and activities. Shops that the NWLB helped to organize constituted over 45 percent of the cases brought before the board.

Not only did the NWLB shop committees help to organize different skilled workers within a single workplace, but they also helped to organize skilled and unskilled workers. Usually when skilled union members initiated a strike, the strikers approached the NWLB to ask for intervention. The board would then organize a shop committee made up of a handful of skilled workers. The skilled workers rose to prominence within the shop committee, and eventually they would organize unskilled labor under them. Thus the ranks of union membership rose as a direct consequence of NWLB action.

The NWLB and African American Workers

African American workers did not gain the same influence within federal labor policy as did their white counterparts. Walsh wanted to hire an African American representative to address cases involving African American workers, but the other members of the board did not agree with this approach. Instead, Walsh hired many white liberals to staff the NWLB. Many of those he hired had had previous success in organizing interracial unions in the Midwest. Walsh hoped that these agents would be successful in organizing both black and white workers in the South. This southern strategy was not popular with southern white politicians who complained about the influence of the NWLB on African Americans in the South. For example, Sidney Catts, then governor of Florida, compared federal labor agents to "carpetbaggers" who had in some views incited otherwise content southern blacks.

No case illuminates the relationship the of NWLB with African American workers better than that of the New Orleans Streetcar Drivers and Mechanics. The NWLB decided to establish a 42-cent minimum wage for all workers in the company. Local politicians and white union leaders demanded that the NWLB reconsider, because with such a high minimum wage, there would be more pay parity between black and white workers within the company, and blacks within the company would make more than whites in other industries in the city. To maintain the "Jim Crow" system in the South, the streetcar owners believed they would have to increase the pay of whites within the company and thus pay for it through higher ticket prices. Taft favored lowering the minimum wage to maintain racial hegemony within the city. Walsh caved in and the board recommended only a 38-cent minimum wage. Although the NWLB offered a glimmer of hope to African Americans that the federal government was interested in their grievances, nothing tangible materialized by way of policy for black workers.

Women in the Wartime Workplace

During wartime, women workers joined the workforces more than ever before. A large number of women entered the war industries. Labor unions reacted negatively to this because many employers hired women at a lower salary than men, thus unions and male workers feared that women in the workplace would drive them from their jobs. The NWLB reacted to this fear by supporting the policy of equal pay for men and women performing the same task. The board believed that if men and women received the same pay, then employers would be discouraged from hiring women over men in the workplace. At a time when women did not enjoy suffrage in the national political culture, they participated actively in shop committee elections. In fact, many agents noted that it was not unusual for women to vote in larger numbers than men in workplace elections. This newfound political agency was also evident in work-places in which women were not allowed to vote. In those cases women demanded that the NWLB nominate women as representatives on the shop committees.

The NWLB employed many women who wanted to move beyond the issue of voting within the workplace and demanded that the board address issues of equality on the job. Not only did these women demand equal pay, but they also demanded proportional representation on the committees that negotiated collective bargaining. Although the sense of organizing and activism transcended gender, women made superficial gains within the board itself. Throughout most of its existence female labor activists demanded that the president name at least two women to the NWLB. Both President Wilson and Walsh rebuffed these efforts by claiming that the board was qualified to address the concerns of women in the workplace. Activists engaged in a long hard struggle to convince the NWLB to establish a policy whereby women would be represented on shop committees in positions traditionally held by men.

The Continuing Impact

During its existence, the NWLB settled only 72 of the 847 cases that it heard. With the Armistice of 1918, business leaders quickly began to clamor for the end of the NWLB. They believed that the board incited labor agitation, which business leaders were willing to address as part of the war measure but not as a precedent for postwar labor relations. Walsh and his assistant, Basil Manly, tried feverishly to create some kind of policy that would allow for a transition of the board into postwar America. Their recommendations to maintain some spirit of the board after the war met with deadlock. Taft and probusiness interests did not want the board extended and quickly rallied to put an end to the board altogether. Discouraged, Walsh resigned as cochair. Manly replaced him in that position, and the board decided to stop hearing cases by the end of 1918. In December 1918 the board voted to disband.

The NWLB had a great impact during its time as well as after. Throughout its tenure, membership in unions increased with a simultaneous sharp increase in the frequency of strikes. In fact, the NWLB had encouraged labor activism. Ninety percent of the complaints filed with the board came from workers. As a result of the influence of the NWLB, relations between the government, workers, and big business would never be the same. This wartime style of mediation had a lasting effect on the nature of mediation in American labor.

Key Players

Manly, Basil (1886-1950): Manly was an assistant and close advisor to Frank P. Walsh, cochair of the NWLB. Walsh and Manly worked closely on NWLB policies. When Walsh resigned his position with the NWLB late in its tenure, Manly replaced him as cochairman.

Taft, William Howard (1857-1930): Taft served one term as president before Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson appointed him cochair of the NWLB along with Frank P. Walsh.

Walsh, Frank P. (1864-1939): Walsh was a lawyer and labor advocate. President Wilson appointed Walsh chairman of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations during his first term. When Wilson created the NWLB, he appointed Walsh cochair along with former president William Howard Taft.

Wilson, Woodrow (1856-1924): Wilson was president of the United States during World War I. To combat the possibility of disruptions in wartime production, Wilson created the NWLB to solve labor disputes during the war.

See also: Department of Labor; Jim Crow Segregation and Labor.



Conner, Valerie Jean. The National War Labor Board:Stability, Social Justice, and the Voluntary State in World War I. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Gitlow, Abraham L. Wage Determination Under National Boards. New York: Prentice Hall, 1953.

McCartin, Joseph A. "An American Feeling: Workers, Managers, and the Struggle over Industrial Democracy during the World War I Era." In Industrial Democracy in America: The Ambiguous Promise, edited by Nelson Lichtenstein and Howell John Harris. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

——. 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.


McCartin, Joseph A. "Abortive Reconstruction: Federal War Labor Policies, Union Organization, and the Politics or Race, 1917-1920." Journal of Policy History 9 (spring 1997): 155-183.

——. "Using the Gun Act: Federal Regulation and the Politics of the Strike Threat during World War I." Labor History 33 (fall 1992): 519-528.

—Robert Cassanello

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