Strike Wave: United States

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Strike Wave

United States 1945-1946


In 1945 and 1946 the largest strike wave in U.S. history occurred when two million workers walked off their jobs at different times during the year. In some cities the strikes even led to general strikes as workers protested for union recognition and wage and benefit increases. In Stamford, Connecticut, workers poured into the city on 3 January 1946 to show their support for strikers at the Yale and Towne metal works; the show of solidarity helped to force the company to enter into collective bargaining with International Association of Machinists. In Rochester, New York, municipal workers enlisted the help of approximately 35,000 members of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations for a general strike on 28 May 1946. The action forced the city of Rochester to meet most of the strikers' demands and prevented management from firing those who had gone out on strike. In the longest general strike, 100,000 workers in Oakland, California, essentially shut the city down from 2 to 5 December 1946. The success of these general strikes, combined with the thousands of other work stoppages in 1946, led to a backlash against labor that culminated in the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. Among its provisions was a ban on secondary or "sympathy" strikes that essentially outlawed general strikes.


  • 1926: Britain paralyzed by a general strike.
  • 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: The election of a leftist Popular Front government in Spain in February precipitates an uprising by rightists under the leadership of Francisco Franco. Over the next three years, war will rage between the Loyalists and Franco's Nationalists. The Spanish Civil War will prove to be a lightning rod for the world's tensions, with the Nazis and fascists supporting the Nationalists, and the Soviets the Loyalists.
  • 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.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1946: Three months after the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in London in January, the allbut-defunct League of Nations is officially dissolved.
  • 1946: At the Nuremberg trials, twelve Nazi leaders are sentenced to death, and seven others to prison.
  • 1946: Building of the first true electronic computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC).
  • 1951: Six western European nations form the European Coal and Steel Community, forerunner of the European Economic Community and the later European Union.
  • 1956: Elvis Presley appears on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town, where he performs "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender" before a mostly female audience. Nationwide, 54 million people watch the performance, setting a new record.
  • 1961: President Eisenhower steps down, warning of a "military-industrial complex" in his farewell speech, and 43year-old John F. Kennedy becomes the youngest elected president in U.S. history. Three months later, he launches an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

Event and Its Context

Labor had gained a great deal during World War II. In exchange for a "no-strike" pledge, every new worker hired into a union shop during the war had to join the union. The agreement boosted membership in the AFL and CIO unions to 15 million in 1945. After the war, however, wages fell behind price increases for most consumer goods. Between 1945 and 1946, inflation reached 16 percent while the wages of industrial workers increased by just 7 percent. In an attempt to avert a series of strikes over the wage issue, President Harry S Truman convened a labor-management conference in November 1945 to establish a framework for postwar collective bargaining. The conference failed to reach its goal, largely because of disagreements over labor's place in managerial affairs.

The UAW-GM Strike

Although many union leaders used their leverage primarily to bargain for improvements on wages and benefits, others sought to implement a broad range of policies through collective bargaining. One of the most influential leaders in the latter group was Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers union (UAW). A UAW vice president at the time of the war's conclusion, Reuther also headed the union's General Motors (GM) bargaining division. Reuther was therefore the union's leading negotiator at the first postwar bargaining talks with GM, which began in October 1945. After talks between the UAW and GM broke down, the union called a strike on 21 November 1945. The strike lasted 113 days—the longest of any of the big strikes of 1945 and 1946—and illuminated many of the fundamental issues of postwar labor relations.

In addition to asking GM for a 30 percent wage raise, Reuther's chief demand was that the company hold the line on the prices of its final product. Because GM was the largest and most profitable of the Big Three auto makers, Reuther believed that it could easily afford the wage hike without increasing the sticker price on its automobiles. As for the massive wage hike, it was necessary to counter wartime inflation, which had increased the cost of living by about one-third. Although GM was willing to discuss wages and benefits with the UAW, its leadership drew the line at allowing the union to look at its books or having input into managerial decisions. The real issue in the dispute, then, was whether or not a union would go beyond its established role in collective bargaining and gain a voice in decisions that previously had been made solely under the discretion of management.

In early December 1945 President Truman directed a special committee to look into the issues of the strike. The report, issued on 10 January 1946, seemed to support Reuther's argument that GM could afford a wage increase without passing the costs on to consumers, although it recommended a wage hike of just 19.5 cents per hour. The two parties continued to negotiate for another two months before finally agreeing to the board's recommended wage increase and some minor changes in the contract language. The strike, which ended on 15 March 1946, marked the last time that the UAW would try to gain a say in managerial affairs under its collective bargaining agreements. From 1946 onward the UAW and other unions would bargain over wages, benefits, work hours, and work conditions, but not about production decisions.

The Steelworkers' Strike

In total, 25 percent of union members went out on strike in 1946. In addition to the GM strike, among the most significant actions were strikes by 200,000 electrical workers, 260,000 meat packers, and 750,000 steelworkers. Under the leadership of Philip Murray, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) had gone out on strike on 21 January 1946 to secure higher wages. Unlike Reuther, however, Murray did not view collective bargaining as a vehicle for achieving broader social or economic gains for America as a whole. When the USWA received an offer of an 18.5 cents per hour increase in wages, Murray accepted the offer and ended the USWA strike on 15 February 1946. Just days after the settlement the steel industry received permission from the Office of Price Administration (OPA)—a federal agency set up during World War II to set prices and stop wartime inflation—to increase the price of steel by more than five dollars a ton. The price increase seemed to justify Reuther's argument that corporations would pass the wage costs to consumers and thereby fuel inflation. Reuther was also disillusioned by Murray's refusal to speak out against the steel industry's action. Reuther also realized that the USWA's settlement left the UAW in a vulnerable bargaining position, as its strike had lasted almost three months by the time the USWA settled.

The GM and steel industry strikes illuminated the crucial issue of the postwar labor movement: Should unions attempt to gain a voice in management, or should they be limited to bargaining over wages and benefits during contract talks? Reuther, who viewed the labor movement as a vehicle for social and economic change, fell into the first category. Murray, who held a bread-and-butter vision of unionism, was skeptical of such far-reaching plans. In the end Murray's vision would predominate in postwar collective bargaining.

The General Strikes

The automobile and steel industry strikes of 1945 and 1946 were only two of the largest strikes in the immediate postwar era. The period also witnessed several citywide general strikes in 1946, beginning with Stamford, Connecticut, during the first week of January 1946. Workers at the city's Yale and Towne company had joined the International Association of Machinists (IAM) during the war, and the company was determined to oust the union as soon as possible. When contract talks opened in March 1945, Yale and Towne's management demanded an end to the closed shop, or one in which all workers were compelled to join the union. The company also rejected the IAM's request for a 30 percent wage increase; instead, Yale and Towne offered no wage increase at all.

After several months of negotiation, the IAM finally called for a strike, which began on 7 November 1945. The next day strikers prevented Yale and Towne's president, W. Gibson Carey, from entering the factory. After the Stamford Police declined to intervene in several more confrontations, Carey asked the governor of Connecticut to send in a state police force. The arrival of the state police in late December 1945 resulted in a new round of confrontations and the arrest of some strikers and their supporters. To protest against the violence and detentions, the IAM called for a citywide demonstration in Stamford on 3 January 1946. An estimated 10,000 people took part in the protest, which brought the city to a standstill. It also brought Yale and Towne to the bargaining table with a proposed wage increase, the first one the company had offered in the negotiations. Talks dragged on for several more weeks until state and federal mediators forged an agreement between the IAM and Yale and Towne on 5 April. The IAM declared the final contract a victory over the company, as it followed most of the union's recommendations on wages, benefits, and grievance procedures.

The 28 May 1946 general strike in Rochester, New York, began as a protest by municipal workers against the policies of City Manager Louis V. Cartwright, whom they charged with antiunionism. On 15 May, Cartwright had fired 489 municipal employees who had tried to unionize. He subsequently fired 61 city truck drivers who walked off the job to protest the initial firings. After 5,000 demonstrators streamed into Rochester on 23 May in support of the workers, Cartwright agreed to rehire all of those who had been dismissed. His continued refusal to concede union recognition, however, prompted the strike's leaders to call for a citywide strike by Rochester's 35,000 AFLCIO members. As in Stamford, the 28 May 1946 general strike in Rochester shut down the city and immediately brought in state mediators to resolve the crisis. After one day of talks, Rochester's city officials finally agreed to grant union recognition to its municipal employees and to rehire all of the striking workers.

The largest of the general strikes occurred in Oakland, California, between 2 and 5 December 1946. The action began when department store workers called a strike in November 1946. The Teamsters union immediately declared that none of their members would deliver goods to any department store under a strike. On 2 December 1946 strikers confronted nonunion trucks that were headed to Hastings department store in downtown Oakland and stopped the shipment. In response, about 250 Oakland police officers arrived to help the nonunion trucks through the picket lines. The participation of the police in breaking the strike outraged many Oakland workers, who immediately began walking off the job throughout the city. By the end of the day, strike supporters had convinced most stores to close down; bars that remained open were asked only to serve beer instead of liquor. As the general strike gained momentum, about 100,000 Oakland workers participated by leaving their jobs, manning picket lines, and self-policing the strike zone.

The virtual takeover of Oakland by striking workers demonstrated the power of working-class solidarity. Yet the grass-roots nature of the Oakland strike worried some union leaders, who feared that their ability to direct the strike had been lost. On 5 December 1946 the AFL Central Labor Council of Oakland called for an end to the general strike in return for an agreement by the city's police department not to send guards to protect nonunion trucks. The announcement quickly sapped the drive of the strikers, and they slowly began to trickle back to work. Although the incident did not achieve many tangible gains for Oakland's workers, it did give momentum to the election of four prolabor candidates to the City Council in the next municipal elections.

Backlash Against Labor

As in the period after World War I, the labor unrest of 1945 and 1946 had a significant impact on the nation's political life.In the midst of the largest strike wave in American history, Republican candidates in the fall 1946 elections seized upon the issue as proof of a radical influence on the nation's unions and their members. The red-baiting tactic—a precursor to more extreme attacks on the left—later became commonplace during the cold war as some Republicans linked liberalism to communism. The Republicans were so successful in their campaign that they took control of both houses of Congress in 1946 by reminding voters that the turmoil of the postwar period had occurred under Democratic control.

Some Democrats also adopted a more hostile tone toward labor. This group included President Truman, who had asked Congress for the power to draft into the armed services all striking workers of the Railway Brotherhoods who refused to go back to work in May 1946. Truman had also alienated many labor supporters by sending in federal agents to take over mining operations during a United Mine Workers (UMW) strike in March 1946. Subsequent negotiations helped the UMW to gain pensions and a health-care fund paid out of royalties collected on each ton of coal produced.

The most enduring political change wrought by the 1945-1946 strikes was the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Sponsored by isolationist and antilabor senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, the law essentially outlawed boycotts or sympathy strikes and made general strikes illegal. The law also forced labor unions to oust any leader who would not take an anti-Communist pledge, permitted states to pass "open shop" legislation, and authorized federal injunctions against strikes that affected public health and safety. Designed to prevent the events of 1946 from ever happening again, the Taft-Hartley Act was denounced by many labor leaders as a "slave labor law." Supporters of the act countered that the law merely adjusted the balance between labor and management, which had been off course since the New Deal.

The political fallout from the 1945-1946 strikes also spelled the end of the New Deal as Democrats lost control of Congress in 1946. After Congress stripped the OPA of most of its price-setting powers, President Truman vetoed the legislation, effectively killing the agency. He later passed a limited version of an OPA, but by the end of 1946 almost all of the price controls had been removed. Labor supporters had slightly better luck in gaining passage of the Full Employment Act of 1946, which committed the federal government to ensuring maximum employment even though it failed to mandate specific measures to achieve that goal. The Full Employment Act was one of the few prolabor pieces of legislation that emerged from Truman's administration. As a result, Truman, who lost much of labor's support after his threat to draft strikers in March 1946, barely retained enough union support to gain reelection as president in 1948.

Union officials also had problems adjusting to the postwar framework of labor relations. In some cases they found it difficult to get their members back to work. They also faced a host of unauthorized work stoppages, or "wildcat" strikes, that demonstrated the tenuous hold that the unions maintained over the workplace after World War II. Unions in other cities were also torn apart by the choices they were forced to make. After the Taft-Hartley Act's ban on Communists in the labor movement went into effect, many unions lost some of their most capable leaders.

As in the era after World War I, strikers in the post-World War II period were immediately confronted with a backlash against labor. In both instances workers and their unions were labeled as radicals and local and state police forces were called in to prevent violence. Both periods also gave way to a more conservative political era in which state and federal governments passed antiunion legislation. The crucial difference between the two eras of labor unrest, however, is that unions did not collapse under the weight of official repression or employer violence after World War II. By 1946 most employers had made at least a grudging peace with organized labor, even if they disagreed with the ambitious goals of labor leaders such as Walter Reuther.

Key Players

Murray, Philip (1886-1952): Vice president of the UnitedSteelworkers (USWA) of America from 1920 to 1940, Murray helped found the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in 1936 and served as its chairman. He was elected president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1940 and held the position through the postwar strikes. At the time of the 1946 steel strike, the USWA had about 750,000 members.

Reuther, Walter Philip (1907-1970): As the UAW's vice president during the 1945-1946 GM strike, Reuther provided leadership to the striking workers. Although GM refused to meet Reuther's demands to grant wage increases without raising the cost of their products, the strike made him into a national spokesman on labor issues. Elected president of the UAW in 1946, Reuther held the position until his death in 1970.

Taft, Robert A. (1889-1953): In a lengthy political career, Taft served in the Ohio State Legislature for several terms and represented Ohio in the U.S. Senate beginning in 1936. One of the most stubborn opponents of the New Deal, Taft was also an isolationist who opposed America's entry into World War II and its international engagements afterwards. Taft lent his name to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which outlawed general strikes and secondary boycotts and allowed companies to sue unions for breach of contract.

Truman, Harry S (1884-1972): After assuming the presidency from Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, Truman faced the demands of concluding World War II while preparing for reconversion. His decision to allow the Office of Price Administration to lapse in 1946 riled many workers who feared the effects of postwar inflation, and his intervention in the GM and steel strikes of 1945 and 1946 raised complaints on both sides of the bargaining table.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Congress of Industrial Organizations; Taft-Hartley Act; United Steelworkers of America.



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—Timothy G. Borden