Labor and War

views updated Jun 27 2018

Labor and War. The relationship between the paid labor force (union and nonunion workers) and the government at war is twofold. First, any country engaged in hostilities needs the ability to employ an ever‐increasing proportion of the general population in both military service and defense industries. In the twentieth century, demands for wartime labor increased dramatically from earlier centuries. Labor shortages were among the greatest obstacles to steady production of armaments and war materiel and the mobilization of mass armies. Need for labor increased its value, necessitating serious consideration of workers' demands. As a result, the major wars of the twentieth century witnessed record levels of union growth and labor militancy. Such militancy was further spurred by inflation and food and housing shortages. At the same time, political pressure to produce materiel and to reduce social conflict provided the context for the suppression of civil liberties and the right to organize and collectively bargain with employers. Both world wars were followed by prolonged civil conflict, political repression—especially on the basis of class politics—and widespread antiunion sentiment. The Red Scare of 1919, McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the Cold War had detrimental effects on organized labor and workers' welfare in general, leading to antiunion activism, labor legislation that undermined union legitimacy, and declines in membership.

The Revolutionary War and the Civil War, while massive in their social impact, were little affected by battles over labor. In the both cases, domestic military conflict and its drain on labor power were confined to local areas, undercut by the widespread use of mercenaries in the Revolution and by military bounties and paid substitutes for those conscripted in the Civil War. In the Civil War, military forces in excess of 1 million men exacted far greater strain on the Southern economy than on the Northern. Wartime laborers seemed to acquire few gains from participation either as soldiers or as workers in defense industry. The production of armaments and supplies expanded, but the demands on the labor force were comparably light. Hundreds of thousands of workers volunteered or served as conscripts in the armed forces, but millions more were able to continue regular lives. Resistance to the draft in New York City, and in outlying regions such as the anthracite country of Pennsylvania, did have a class character, as workers were little able to afford the costs of substitutes, and draft quotas appeared to be rigged to weed out political rivals and labor militants. Some workers abandoned their occupations and fledgling unions to join the army as “Christian Soldiers” of the republic. Under the banner of free labor, Northern workingmen fought the Civil War as a crusade. Southern urban workingmen, far less organized or numerous, nonetheless went to battle, oftentimes to defend states' rights, or (some have argued) to prevent the use of slaves in industry.

Few labor unions survived the Civil War. What did remain was a loose confederation of local unions. Fearing prosecution for conspiracy and blacklisting in the workplace, workers often formed secret associations (such as the Molly Maguires) to elude political and economic repercussions; and they echoed fraternal and military orders in their organization. Such precautions were necessary, given the widespread use of troops in labor conflict. Yet the activists of the 1870s and 1880s often were veterans of the Civil War and members of the Grand Army of the Republic. By the 1880s, they publicly acknowledged both their veteran status and their status as “workingmen” in political campaigns. Much labor protest of the period was framed in the language of the citizen‐soldier, who had sacrificed his country and deserved his share of prosperity.

At the end of the century, the labor movement found its strongest expression in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a conservative trade union organization. Labor employed military metaphor to describe both conflict and solidarity, sharing much with the political language of the time. As a further consequence, the AFL shared republican suspicion of expansionism and contributed to the debate over U.S. entry into the Spanish‐American War. Small in scale and short in duration, that war required little additional armament production; volunteer soldiers provided its military labor force. Labor's gains and losses were few. Still, as the United States debated territorial acquisitions from Spain and its new status as a world power, the U.S. labor movement made itself heard in opposition to annexation of colonies.

European colonial expansion, an escalating arms race, and increasing ethnic and nationalist tensions laid the preconditions for World War I. The onset of war in Europe and later entry of the United States presented labor with its first major political crisis of the twentieth century. Labor leaders, socialist advocates, and rank‐and‐file unionists were deeply divided over the role the United States should play, their support for both military preparedness and the draft, and their response to the final Treaty of Versailles. While the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World opposed U.S. participation and its policy of military conscription, the AFL and the Railway Brotherhoods (which constituted the great bulk of organized labor) supported the Wilson administration's decisions. The AFL voluntarily offered a “no‐strike” pledge, and its leaders participated in many governmental bodies that regulated defense industries. Labor leaders sought to parlay bargaining power from the convergence of labor shortages and the new position of organized labor in government. Nearly 5 million soldiers, the majority draftees, entered the wartime army. Their absence created a great void in domestic industrial production and service. For the first time, large numbers of women workers replaced men in defense industries.

Wartime inflation and the context of fighting a “war for democracy” (and, by extension, for industrial democracy) encouraged the rapid growth of unions and labor militancy, even in such nonunion strongholds as mass production industries (textiles, steel, meatpacking) and clerical and service sectors (including police, telephone operators, and transport workers). Government administration of the railroads created the first Federal Mediation Board for labor disputes. Union membership was phenomenal, the numbers rising from 3 million (1916) to 5 million after the war. In 1919 huge strikes, such as those in the steel industry and meatpacking, mobilized 1 million workers to strike for better wages, working conditions, and the right to bargain collectively. A postwar Red Scare involving the imprisonment and deportation of radicals, the use of troops to suppress strikes, and the depression soon quelled labor militancy. The termination of wartime agencies also removed organized labor from government.

A decade of depression coincided with the resurrection of the labor movement during the 1930s. By the end of the decade, organized labor had the nominal support of the new National Labor Relations Board, millions of new union members, and considerable influence in Democratic Party politics. When the United States started to rearm and mobilize its army in 1940 in response to fascism in Europe and the expansion of Japan in Asia, the labor movement was in the best bargaining position in its history.

During World War II, the massive efforts of the United States in war production and the addition of over 16 million men and women to the armed forces led to an unprecedented drain on labor power and to new government intervention in employment. Several agencies were created to facilitate and regulate hiring (the War Manpower Commission and the U.S. Employment Agency), to set production goals (the War Production Board), and to intervene in labor relations (the War Labor Board). In each, leaders from organized labor played a major role. Wartime policy sought to prevent the pirating of skilled labor in vital defense industries—shipbuilding, aircraft, and armaments. At the same time, political pressure—from both labor and civil rights organizations—strove to maintain labor standards (wages and hours) during the war, and to make some inroads against race and sex discrimination (Executive Order 8802 established the Committee on Fair Employment Practices).

Organized labor, in the form of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the AFL offered the cooperation and support of unions, an offer that culminated in the CIO's no‐strike pledge. In return, major industrial unions received guarantees on wages and union membership. Dues were no longer collected individually but through the “dues check‐off” from paychecks in unionized firms. Unions pushed for—and often received—the guarantee that the job, if not the worker, would remain unionized. High demand for labor, guaranteed profits in defense industries, and the War Labor Board's favorable policies resulted in a membership increase of nearly 50 percent, from 9 million to 14.5 million.

Yet workers in defense industries were not entirely cooperative. Wartime inflation, increased pressures in production industry, tight control of the workplace, and the no‐strike pledge opened the door to “wildcat” strikes (work stoppages unsanctioned by unions). Further complications arose with the increase in the paid labor force of African American and Latino workers and women as well. Minority workers occasionally met with conflict, and in certain factories, white workers conducted hate strikes. Women workers were trained but not always placed in defense production jobs. When they arrived on the shop floor, veteran workingmen, who viewed women as temporary replacements at best, were sometimes hostile. Both during and after the war, mass production in steel, mining, aircraft, and other defense industries was the target of a new, broad‐based militancy. Mobilization reached its peak after the war, in 1946, when the greatest number of workers in U.S. history went on strike.

In the postwar world, the United States entered into a long‐standing conflict with the Soviet Union, a Cold War fought in economic, ideological, even military terms. Though the two nations never fought one another on the battlefield, each was involved in small “hot” wars—especially in regions recently emerged from colonialism. Domestically, these developments found expression in McCarthyism, and organized labor was one of its targets. At the same time, the escalating arms race between the United States and the USSR led to an expansion of defense industries and a continued high wage economy in this highly unionized sector. The labor movement supported U.S. foreign policy and the military interventions around the globe that came under the rubric of “containment.” Unions on the home front even voluntarily purged members who refused to sign anti‐Communist affidavits required by the Taft‐Hartley labor law.

The Vietnam War, the major military action stemming from containment policy, lost the long‐standing support of mainstream labor. Initial union support for U.S. intervention in Vietnam was followed, in the late sixties and seventies, by individual and later organizational opposition to the war. The United Auto Workers were among the first publicly to oppose U.S. policy under the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Newspapers reported confrontations between “hard‐hat workers” and war protesters, yet the actual stance of workers and their union organizations was far more complex. Working‐class disillusionment with U.S. foreign policy, and, in particular, the growing belief in unequal sacrifice—“a rich man's war and a poor man's fight”—led to growing opposition to the war.

Overall, the contemporary labor movement has followed an increasingly autonomous path in foreign policy. In one prominent case, labor joined in domestic opposition to U.S. military aid to governments in Central American conflicts. Though such efforts express an incipient internationalism, organized labor remains primarily a national movement, combining a strong voice for workers' rights with working‐class patriotism, and a history of labor militancy with an equally militant history of working‐class support for the nation in time of war.
[See also Agriculture and War; Class and War; Industry and War; Vietnam Antiwar Movement; War: Effects of War on the Economy.]


Alexander M. Bing , Wartime Strikes and Their Adjustment, 1921.
Joel Seidman , American Labor from Defense to Reconversion, 1953.
David Montgomery , Beyond Equality, 1967.
Ronald Radosh , American Labor and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1969.
Frank Grubbs , Gompers and the Great War, 1982.
Nelson Lichtenstein , Labor's War at Home, 1983.
Ruth Milkman , Gender at Work, 1986.
Philip Foner , U.S. Labor and the Vietnam War, 1989.
Peter Levy , The New Left and Labor in the 1960s, 1994.

Elizabeth Faue