Steel Seizure Controversy

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In the latter part of 1951, a dispute arose between the nation's steel companies and their employees over terms and conditions of employment. On December 18, the steelworkers union gave notice of intention to strike when existing agreements expired on December 31. On December 22, President harry s. truman referred the dispute to the federal Wage Stabilization Board and the strike was canceled. The Board's subsequent report produced no settlement. Early in April 1952, the United Steel Workers of America called a nationwide strike to begin April 9.

President Truman and his advisers feared that the interruption of production would jeopardize national defense, particularly in Korea. The President thus issued executive order 10340 to Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer, instructing him to take possession and operate the steel mills in the name of the United States government. Truman's authority to take such action was not granted specifically by the statute, and he cited none, although the Selective Service Act of 1948 and the Defense Production Act of 1950 authorized the seizure of industrial plants failing to give priority to defense orders. Although the taft-hartley act of 1947 had a procedure for injunctive relief in a strike situation affecting an entire industry, or imperiling the national health and safety, it did not contain seizure provisions. Truman preferred to act on the basis of what Department of Justice attorneys assured him was the inherent power in the office of the President, stemming from his authority as commander-in-chief and "in accordance with the Constitution and the laws of the United States."

The steel companies obeyed Secretary Sawyer's order under protest but brought suit to enjoin the seizure in the District Court for the District of Columbia. There Judge David Pine granted a preliminary injunction restraining the secretary from continuing the seizure. Pine's ruling on the merits and the stay of the injunction by the United States Court of Appeals compelled the Supreme Court to face the constitutional issue also, on final appeal.

(See youngstown steel and tube v. sawyer.)

Paul L. Murphy


Marcus, Maeva 1977 Truman and the Steel Seizure Case: The Limits of Presidential Power. New York: Columbia University Press.