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Labor Action, 31 January 1944


Victor H. Johnson

Why Shipyard Workers Strike

Case History of a Wildcat

(January 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 5, 31 January 1944, p. 3.
Reprinted from The Nation, 15 January 1944.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Once again “labor-management relations are worsening” between Local 16, Industrial Union of Marine & Shipbuilding Workers, CIO, and the Federal Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., in Port Newark, N.J. A strike situation is in the making at the yards of this subsidiary of United States Steel, one of the greatest beneficiaries of the war.

The heart of the new strike fever is among the wire brushers. Wire-brushing, a branch of the paint department of the shipyard, is a nasty, grilling, health-ruining job. The wire brushers get eighty-six and a half cents an hour as against $1.20 for painters. The wire brushers want a raise to $1.00 an hour. United States Steel, which is taking in war profits hand over fist, gives its accustomed answer to workers’ demands: “No!”

“I’m getting sick telling our boys to keep taking company guff and not to walk out. This is a strike situation but we’re pledged not to strike.” These words of one of the local’s leaders indicates the seriousness of the situation.

In the face of this latest development among shipyard workers, Labor Action reprints in part, from The Nation, the following Case History of a Shipyard “Wildcat”, written for The Nation by Victor H. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson was a first-class mechanic and ship committeeman in the yard described in his story. He has since shipped out as second assistant engineer on a merchant vessel. So this is a first-hand story right from where it happened.

Because Mr. Johnson’s account describes the basic situation of all American labor today, Labor Action comments in full in the separate article printed below.

The reading time is not five minutes. But this “case history” is well worth all the time it needs for careful reading – and we believe the same is true of our own comments. – The Editor

We set off on our junket to Washington with considerable hope. We were happy to have avoided for at least a week the shutdown of two of the biggest and fastest naval shipyards in the country. Labor’s no-strike pledge had been kept; through pleading and the faith of the men who side by side with us we had held 43,000 rebellious shipworkers on the job. What, in turn, would Washington do for us in the way of adjusting the grievances of those men and keeping production going?

The first telephone contact made by the two rank and file members of our delegation of five was with Dr. John Steelman, head of the United States Conciliation Service. Dr. Steelman is one of the most down-to-earth government men you could possibly talk to. What his influence and power are among the other government labor people, I don’t know. I suspect, though, that he is too straightforward and democratic to be popular with the red-tapers.

Dr. Steelman was already familiar with our case. After a few minutes of questions about details, he undertook to help get action. The mark of his sincerity was his giving us a definite time when he would have news; the mark of his democracy was the way he talked to us. “I know, Bud,” he would say. “You have to have something to take back to those guys.”

Dean Wayne Morse, one of the four members of the War Labor Board representing the public, was our next man. (We knew that the four labor members would go along with us; we expected the four employer members to stall; ultimately the decision would be up to the public members.) On the West Coast Dean Morse had a good reputation as a conciliator. In Washington he is known among union people as “the Dean” and they will tell you that he is a good man on vacations and sub-standard brackets but a tough adherent of the Little Steel formula.

“That’s a pretty big speed-up you have,” he said, apparently making comparisons with other yards. “The accident report shows it, too. And you were close enough to a strike – there seems no doubt about that. What do you think it would take to straighten out the situation?”

We left the Dean’s office with our case out of the files and with the conviction that he would live up to his promise to push it.

William Hammond Davis, chairman of the board, is the other extreme from Steelman and Morse. He is an old man – his white hair, his round, involved manner of speaking, his smug self-assurance are like those of an old-time mechanic who takes his superiority for granted and resents any innovations.

Neither the president of our union, a fairly able pinner-downer, nor the rank-and-filers accompanying him could pin this old patent lawyer down to a definite time of action. We felt discouraged when we left his office and feared that he would sabotage what Dean Morse and Dr. Steelman were trying to do. Meanwhile, the week our membership had given us to get results was sliding by. After two weeks our phone calls to Washington grew more frantic. The day shift going out wanted to know when we were going to get action. The night shift coming in asked the same question. The WLB’s regular answer was: “We’re working on it.”

Sometimes when we’d call around three o’clock to try to get news for both shifts, we’d be told that Mr. Davis was out of own or “not in.” The men standing around the phone would crack: “Suppose we go out of town, too?”

* * *

Two months of the WLB’s “working on it” produced no results, as far as the men in the yards could see. Even sober old-time trade unionists, who knew that a strike would cost us public support and perhaps bring organizational disaster, spoke bitterly of “teaching that War Labor Board crowd a lesson.” Spontaneous work stoppages, slowdowns, sitdowns multiplied. Union officials had a busy time nipping departmental demonstrations in the bud and keeping resentment from crystallizing into a general walkout. We tried to prevent news of the trouble from reaching the public; and so did the company, apparently.

Finally we got a sitdown that we couldn’t keep from the public or from the WLB. The hookers-on in the steelyard and plateshop sat down and refused to budge. The company tried to break it up by sending the men home. They went home, to return the next day and sit down again. After vain pleading by local union officials, John Green, national president of the Shipyard Workers, flew to the yards from Washington. It was a sad sight, the old leader of the Shipyard Workers standing on a flat-car, his gray head bare, valiantly trying to uphold the CIO’s no-strike pledge. He was not met with boos and catcalls – just a respectful, deadly silence. The men were still sitting when he left the yard forlornly.

Ruling from Washington

The next week the Shipbuilding Commission issued a directive covering, with the exception of reclassifications, all the points at issue in our proposed contract. (On that one point the commission ruled that more time was needed to study other scales in the industry.) The union immediately put out a leaflet hailing a great labor victory. The men in the yards were led to believe they had really won. However, when we checked up on what had actually been granted, we found, in highlight, this: the union had obtained

  1. a company check-off of dues under the maintenance-of-membership clause;
  2. the right of shop stewards to operate on company time and property so long as they didn’t interfere with production;
  3. the right to use company bulletin boards for union notices.

These were all excellent gains for the union as an organization. On the demands affecting the rank and file, the following rulings were handed down:

  1. One week’s vacation was allowed for one year’s service, provided that the employee had been employed in the yards before July 1, 1942. (This clause almost completely shut out the workers in one of the two yards from a vacation, inasmuch as the yard didn’t open for production until after July 1, 1942.)
  2. Two weeks’ vacation for five years’ service, effective in 1944. (In other words, men with five years’ service were promised a vacation after July 1, 1944.)
  3. Sick leave was denied.
  4. Hospitalization and a liberalized insurance clause were denied.
  5. Retroactivity on classifications was given to us at the start of a paragraph but was taken away at the bottom by a clause leaving final discretionary power with the Shipbuilding Commission. (The union leaflet published only the first part of the paragraph.)

With production up five times over that of peacetime, with costs of living up but wages held down by the WLB, it would seem that the shipyard operators would have jumped at such mild terms as Washington proposed. But, the operators didn’t jump. They appealed from the order, hitting chiefly at vacations on the ground that they were in reality “a wage raise.”

The Lid Blows

Again our case went back to the WLB. Again the strike fever in the yard mounted, with little stoppages, numerous slowdowns. After another month of waiting, the yard “blew.” Thirteen thousand men hit the bricks over the pleas of union officials and shop stewards. We were on a big-time wildcat strike. It tore and screeched over the radio; it tangled claws on editorial pages. And it shook Mr. Davis up in Washington.

President John Green of the Shipyard Workers was ordered by Davis to intervene, on the tacit understanding that the WLB would act when production was resumed. Being somewhat wise in the ways of John Green and knowing his desire to protect the check-off already granted, we started the back-to-work movement even before he arrived. It was better to get the men back at work at the peak of their wildcat strength than to have the strike broken slowly by the union, Green, WLB pressure and the draft board. And, as we foresaw, Davis did act. The point is, he could have done it months before, without being forced at the point of a strike.

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