No-strike Pledge, World War II

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No-strike Pledge, World War II

United States 1941


The entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941 brought near-total unanimity among the varying factions of the American labor movement in their support of the war effort. The AFL and CIO, two of the country's largest and most influential unions, were bitter enemies before the war, with antagonism over such ideals as craft (skilled) versus industrial (semiskilled and unskilled) unionism. Although not without conflicts during the war, leaders from both unions joined together and promised "no-strike pledges" for the duration of hostilities.

Even though the country stood united against the Nazi regime in Germany and the Imperial Japanese government, the no-strike pledge complicated the lives of union workers. The initial shock of being attacked on U.S. territory by Japanese forces, along with early Allied military setbacks, helped to control any pre-existing tensions in the workplace. Beginning in 1943, however, as Allied forces gradually gained superiority in the war, disputes within labor, from the rank and file as well as from the leaders, became more apparent. Union leaders, especially within the AFL and CIO, were stuck in the middle, on the one hand as allies of the government and corporations, and on the other as representatives of their members.


  • 1921: Washington Disarmament Conference limits the tonnage of world navies.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1941: German troops march into the Balkans, conquering Yugoslavia and Greece. (Bulgaria and Romania, along with Hungary, are aligned with the Nazis.)
  • 1941: In a move that takes Stalin by surprise, Hitler sends his troops into the Soviet Union on 22 June. Like his hero Napoleon, Hitler believes that by stunning Russia with a lightning series of brilliant maneuvers, it is possible to gain a quick and relatively painless victory. Early successes seem to prove him right, and he is so confident of victory that he refuses to equip his soldiers with winter clothing.
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1941: The United States initiates the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb and signs the Lend-Lease Act, whereby it provides aid to Great Britain and, later, the Soviet Union.
  • 1941: Great films of the year include The Maltese Falcon, Sul-livan's Travels, Meet John Doe, How Green Was My Valley, and a work often cited as one of the greatest films of all time: Orson Welles's Citizen Kane.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1951: Introduction of color television.
  • 1956: First aerial testing of the hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll. The blast is so powerful—the equivalent of 10 million tons of TNT—that it actually results in the infusion of protons to atomic nuclei to create two new elements, einsteinium and fermium, which have atomic numbers of 99 and 100, respectively.

Event and Its Context

World War II had an immense and long-lasting impact upon the American labor movement. This was especially true with regard to the two largest unions: the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Membership Expansion and Limited Union Activities

For the American workforce, the Great Depression of the 1930s was an extremely tough time rife with high unemployment, low wages, and monetary deflation. By 1939 war in both Europe and Asia increased demand for American products and brought the United States out of the depression, resulting in a high demand for workers to fill new jobs. America's subsequent entrance into World War II resulted in a dramatic increase in union membership. By the end of World War II unions had nearly 15 million members combined, up from about 8.5 million members in 1940. However, during the war the activities of organized labor were dramatically curtailed by governmental restrictions and regulations.

With the dramatic increase in union membership came positives and negatives for both labor and management. On the positive side, the surge of new employees helped companies produce wartime products and increased membership helped unions strengthen their positions. On the negative side, wartime patriotism was sometimes dampened by the volatile nature of labor relations that resulted from excessive government control during the war. The elaborate mechanism established by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to control labor became a central point of aggravation for both unions and employees. In addition, many new employees had no training at working in factories and no experience at being members of organized labor. New employees often took their grievances directly to management without going through formal union grievance procedures. Often, new union members paid little attention to union affairs or to traditional work rules. New union members were often not good union "team players."


During the years prior to the United States' involvement in World War II, there were distinct hostilities between the AFL and the CIO. From its establishment in 1881, the AFL emphasized organization of skilled workers into craft unions (composed of a single occupation, skill, or trade, such as plumbers), as opposed to industrial unions (composed of all workers in a particular industry, such as automobile). It was a relatively conservative political force within the labor movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Over the years, radicals within the AFL had pressured the organization to expand its organizing efforts to the unskilled industrial sector. Lead by John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, these radicals took their demands to the 1935 AFL convention, where they formed the Committee of Industrial Organizations, the original CIO, within the AFL. A special organizing fund was established and AFL president William Green approved charters for the aluminum, cement, automobile, radio, rubber, and steel unions. The groups immediately launched organizing drives in the basic mass-production industries and assigned them to existing or new industrial unions. Their successes, especially in the automobile and steel industries, strengthened the prestige of the relatively new CIO to the point that it seriously challenged the AFL's leadership within organized labor.

A majority of the AFL unions did challenge the CIO's organizing efforts. Because of continuing disagreements over this type of organizing, the AFL suspended 10 national unions of the CIO in 1936. As a result, the CIO broke off from the AFL and formed its own labor federation in 1938, changing its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In reaction, AFL president Green declared, "We will fight against a movement [the CIO] which has vowed to destroy us and wipe us off the face of the earth." With the war approaching, great rivalry was ever present between these two powerful unions.

Roosevelt Deals with Unions

Before the United States entered World War II, the CIO supported government defense efforts because it offered a concrete chance for its members to benefit from substantial wage increases and other worker benefits that were essential for the welfare of its members. The AFL was the more pacifistic of the two unions, wanting the United States to remain strictly neutral with regard to the war in Europe. It supported providing aid to free labor groups in Europe and assisting England and its allies as long as it did not jeopardize the country's position of neutrality. However, as the United States moved toward war in 1941, the Roosevelt administration became anxious about the volatility of labor unions and placed heavy pressure on union leaders to prevent disruption of war production.

At the same time, many workers and union activists viewed the war buildup as an opportunity to win as many concessions as possible from management. Throughout 1941 the determination of unions to expand their respective organizations and to improve wages triggered hundreds of strikes. Led by the CIO, whose members constituted 70 percent of the total number of strikers, 2.36 million workers conducted work stoppages that year. Around 4,200 strikes represented one of the highest annual strike counts in American history. The huge 1941 strike wave featured a conflict at the North American Aviation plant in Inglewood, California, which threatened to slow down President Roosevelt's defense efforts.

A walkout by 4,000 workers occurred in June 1941 at the North American Aviation plant. It was the largest strike in California since the maritime general strike of 1934. The workers did not resort to a sit-down strike because the Supreme Court had earlier declared such actions illegal; instead, they organized a mass picket line that surrounded the factory. With the approval of the Roosevelt administration, military troops broke up the mass picket lines around the plant and imposed martial law in the surrounding area. In breaking up the strike with troops and threatening strikers with induction into the army, Roosevelt sent a strong message to AFL and CIO leaders that their organizations were at risk if they allowed disruption of his war programs.

Even though the government prevented and eliminated many strikes in the several years before the war, key gains in 1940 and 1941 laid the foundation for better wage rates, equitable disciplinary procedures, better work rules, guidelines for promotions, and seniority that, in all, made for stronger and better contracts on the side of labor. One radical organizer declared that "the worst evil—the total submissiveness of worker to boss" had been eliminated.

Entering the War

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 brought together government, labor, and management in a common cause. To defeat the Axis powers, the United States would have to mount a massive war production program. President Roosevelt called labor and business leaders to a White House conference to study the new wartime problems in order to "reach a unanimous agreement to prevent the interruption of production." In an attempt to establish a basis for wartime labor-management cooperation and to assure the greatest possible production, the AFL and CIO outlined a program that was subsequently accepted by President Roosevelt. It was agreed that:

  • There would be no strikes or lockouts in defense industries.
  • A National War Labor Board would be established by the president to peacefully settle all labor-management controversies and grievances.
  • The president would appoint members of the board.

On 24 December 1941 President Roosevelt announced a no-strike pledge by the AFL and CIO that would last for the duration of the war. The AFL and the CIO gave the country a "no strike" promise to which most workers faithfully adhered. Some strikes did, of course, occur, but only a very small number of working hours between 1941 and 1944 were lost because of strikes.

One of the sacrifices made by most unions led by the AFL and the CIO was to pledge to forego strikes throughout the war. Philip Murray, who had succeeded Lewis as CIO president, said in September 1944 that "on the 17th day of December, 1941, ten days after our country had become involved in the war . . . without formal request upon the part of the President of the United States, we all voluntarily agreed to give our Commander-in-Chief, and through him to the people of our country our No Strike commitment."

The no-strike pledge was a voluntary agreement made by AFL and CIO leaders to forego work stoppages for the duration of the war. The unions gained immediate approval from the public and support from the government. However, veteran unionists and social militants argued that for labor organizations to give up the right to strike was to deny them the ability to negotiate in good faith with employers that could be backed up with the threat of strike if their demands were not met. One such critic, Mechanics Educational Society of America President Matthew Smith, said of the no-strike policy, "The AFL and CIO did not sell out their membership, they gave them away."

It must be noted, however, that Smith was the only union official who did not publicly support the no-strike pledge. Also union leaders, although unwilling to publicly acknowledge such a fact, were willing to sacrifice labor's basic rights and just demands in support of the war. Third, although labor gave up many of its basic rights, management was not forbidden to secure war profits from their newly found war businesses. During the war the slogan "equality of sacrifice" was used to convince labor that it needed to sacrifice its peacetime union conditions and wage standards for the sake of the war. Capitalists, at the same time, agreed to restrictions on their right to produce civilian goods while expanding war production at "guaranteed" profits—a no-lose situation. However, many companies declined the guaranteed profits during the war and turned over profits to the government.

Other critics wondered why—in light of the seeming lack of power of organized labor with respect to resolving employer-employee disputes—independent workers would join unions or current union members would continue to pay their dues. Thousands of patriotic workers who in theory agreed with the no-strike pledge became resentful when they found that in specific cases involving their own wages or work rules, their own unions could not support their legitimate needs and goals. This was borne out when workers found that their union could function as a disciplinary agent (involving severe union sanctions) against its own members for those who did go out on strike in violation of the no-strike pledge.

With the U.S. entry into the war, CIO President Murray stated that its five million members were ready to defend the country against the "outrageous aggression" of Hitler and Japanese imperialism. Murray stated, "Everyone who works for a living has burned into his very soul the full appreciation of what this war is about." Like the AFL, the CIO acted to discipline militant workers' struggles within its ranks in exchange for increased membership and recognition. In turn, Roosevelt pressured steel and other major U.S. industries during the war to permit the unionization of their work forces. The war itself acted as the major disciplining force for the U.S. working class by sending off young, potentially militant U.S. workers to fight overseas. The government also encouraged industry, generating an output rise of nearly 90 percent between 1941 and 1945 and making possible such achievements as the production of 300,000 airplanes, 71,000 naval vessels, 45,000,000 tons of merchant shipping, 2,700,000 machine guns, 2,500,000 trucks, and 86,000 tanks.

Union Security

Unfortunately, some employers perceived the no-strike pledge as an opportunity to reduce (and sometimes eliminate) the gains of the labor movement. The no-strike pledge created a crisis for AFL and CIO union leaders. They were afraid that no workers would voluntarily belong to a union that was unwilling to fight for its members. Before the war, grievances had been settled by direct methods. With a no-strike pledge in place, however, management had less incentive to make concessions on labor issues. The case of the United Electrical Workers local at Walker-Turner in New Jersey illustrates the problem. After Hitler's invasion of Russia in June 1941, saving the Soviet Union from Hitler's advancing armies was more important, in the eyes of some political groups, than fighting for the interests of American workers. Thus, leadership of the Walker-Turner local had abandoned efforts to improve wages or fight management on other issues. By late 1941 the local had lost 25 percent of its members and most of the remaining members were delinquent in their dues.

The no-strike pledge thus threatened to undermine worker support for the CIO and the AFL and to erode the unions' ability to collect membership dues. To enforce a no-strike policy, the Roosevelt administration was forced to offer the unions some substitute way that could be represented as a court of appeals for workers' grievances. The National War Labor Board (NWLB) was thus established on 12 January 1942 as a way to resolve war industry disagreements. The tripartite agency had 12 members, four each from (as it was called) "Big Business," "Big Labor," and "Big Government." It originally incorporated labor leaders George Meany and George M. Harrison from the AFL, and Philip Murray and Thomas Kennedy from the CIO.

The cooperation of the AFL and CIO with the federal government increased during World War II. Union leaders traded a wartime no-strike pledge (sometimes ignored by workers) for the federal government's help in increasing the stability of union membership. One of the first acts of the NWLB was to devise a policy for "maintenance-of-membership" to give security to unions that had voluntarily relinquished their right to strike during the war. The maintenance-of-membership policy required that if a union had a contract with an employer, then all newly hired workers would automatically become dues-paying members after their first 15 days on the job. If they did not want to join, they had to declare that intention before the end of the 15-day period. If they did not exercise this option, the worker would be subject to discharge from employment. Employers hated this rule because they were forced to discharge employees. This policy helped to assure unions that their growth would not be stunted by their willingness to forego their right to strike.

With regard to labor disputes, workers often could only watch in frustration as an overworked NWLB slowly processed over 20,000 wage dispute cases. Workers facing harsh discipline or unfair work assignments often had to endure punishment or an unpleasant or dangerous job for months while their grievance was awaiting review. This condition was detrimental to some workers during the war. In general, the AFL, CIO, and other labor unions cooperated with the NWLB and enforced even unpopular rulings (even though they privately criticized government policy).

Wildcat Strikes

U.S. workers experienced the realities of state-enforced war rationing, severity of discipline, and obligatory military service. Because of this, they sometimes took advantage of the industrial expansion during this period. Despite the no-strike pledges, workers oftentimes used "wildcat strikes" as their frustration mounted with high inflation, low wages, and uncomfortable and sometimes hazardous working conditions. (A wildcat strike is a sudden strike not authorized by the strikers' labor union.)

There were numerous wildcat strikes outside of, and often against, the leadership of both the AFL and the CIO. Some wildcat strikes threatened to paralyze essential industries such as transportation. In 1942 there were only 2,970 work stoppages involving 840,000 workers, down drastically from the 4,200 strikes involving 2.36 million workers in 1941. By 1943 the number of strikes rose to over 3,700, with 1.98 million workers participating, and another 2 million workers engaged in some 5,000 strikes in 1944. A total of 3.5 million workers struck in 1945. In total, some 14,000 strikes and around 8.32 million workers (about a fourth of the workforce) struck during the four war years.

When it could, the federal government cooperated with the AFL and CIO with negotiated reforms such as increased pay and better benefits taken from businesses' war profits. In spite of such balancing efforts, during the war U.S. business experienced record profits, much to the frustration of labor. In reality, the federal government used its power to crush the more militant union actions as well as the wider wildcat workers' movement because such actions and movements were seen as threatening the war effort. The employer was obviously more protected than the employee.

After the War

The final victory over the Japanese in the Pacific ended the no-strike pledge. The labor movement hoped to continue the economic and political power that it had gained over the past several years. Returning veterans and those who had remained on the home front to work long, exhausting hours to produce what the soldiers needed to win the war, all hoped for better times after living through the Great Depression and then World War II. In reality, industrial workers became frustrated over the lack of organized labor's progress during the war and fearful that another depression would happen after the war. They unleashed their pent-up frustrations from the war years in a wave of postwar work stoppages. During the six-month period after 1 September 1945, more workers went out on strike for longer periods than ever before (or since) in American history.

At the end of 1945, the U.S. labor movement was composed of 14.5 million members, estimated at 35.8 percent of the (nonagricultural) civilian labor force. The AFL claimed over 10 million members, and the CIO, the smaller of the two unions, had 4.5 million members. Although rough times seemed to lie ahead, especially without the comfort of the no-strike pledge, the labor movement, spearheaded by the AFL and the CIO, realized hard-won gains by a vigorous and imaginative labor movement in the ensuing years.

Key Players

Green, William (1873-1952): Green became a member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) in 1890 and moved quickly to a leadership position. From 1910 to 1913 Green served two terms as a Democrat in the Ohio State Senate, where he secured passage of the Ohio Workmen's Compensation Law and other labor measures. In 1913 Green was appointed to the Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and in 1924 he succeeded Samuel Gompers as AFL president, a position he held until his death. He was a member of several federal government bodies, including the Labor Advisory Council of the National Recovery Administration in 1935-1937, and he also served on the governing board of the International Labor Organization.

Lewis, John L. (1880-1969): Lewis settled in Panama, Illinois, in 1906. He served, successively, as president of the Panama local of the United Mine Workers of America, lobbyist for the UMW, organizer for the AFL, and vice president of the UMW. In 1920 Lewis was elected president of the UMW, a post he held until 1960, when he retired and was named president emeritus. In 1935 Lewis was one of the labor leaders who formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Three years later he became the first president of the newly independent CIO. Lewis resigned in 1940, withdrew his union from the CIO in 1942, led it back into the AFL in 1946, and withdrew it again in 1947.

Murray, Philip (1886-1952): Murray was an American labor leader who advocated moderate reform policies and avoided radicalism. In 1920 Murray became international vice president of the United Mine Workers, and in 1935, when the Committee for Industrial Organization was formed within the AFL, he was named to head the organizing committee of the steelworkers. This committee led to the formation of the United Steelworkers of America in 1940. He was elected its first president and in the same year succeeded labor leader John L. Lewis as president of the CIO.

Roosevelt, Franklin D. (1882-1945): Roosevelt was the 32nd president of the United States, serving from 1933 to his death in 1945. Roosevelt guided the United States through the Great Depression (which lasted from the end of 1929 to the early 1940s) and initiated a series of "New Deal" programs to help bring the country back to prosperity and through World War II.

See also: American Federation of Labor; CIO Expelled from AFL; Committee for Industrial Organization; Congress of Industrial Organizations; Strike Wave, United States.



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—William Arthur Atkins