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Sylvia Merrill

American Labor in the Last World War

Workers Met High Living Cost
with Great Wave of Strikes

(23 February 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 8, 23 February 1942, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(This is the second in a series of articles on American labor during the last war. The first article, published last week, described how the workers’ cost of living rose above their wages levels. This second article describes the series of strikes resulting from that situation. – Editor)

The working class in the last war did no take the disparity between wages and cost of living lying down. They couldn’t afford to, and the only way they could keep their heads above water was by striking.

In 1913–14 and the first half of 1915 the country was in one of its periodic depressions. By the middle of 1915 the country became one of the chief producers of munitions, foodstuffs and other war needs. As the war wheels began to turn, the labor movement entered a period of organization and strikes. Just as today, labor knew that if it did not get something out of all the profits being made, it would be out in the cold.

During 1915–16, there were 4,924 strikes involving 2,000,000 workers. Of these strikes, 1,386 were for wage increases and 129 against wage cuts. A great many were for union recognition.

The railroad workers were carrying on a struggle for the eight-hour day and time and a half for overtime. Over 35,000 railroad workers on 52 lines got together and in the midst of the war boom, August 1916, decided that it was now or never.

The Big Four announced that unless a settlement was reached the railroad workers would strike. They knew they were a vital cog in the machine, and so did the government. While the companies refused to come to an agreement with the unions, President Wilson asked Congress to enact an eight-hour-day law for the railroads. Congress did so two days before the strike deadline.

Machinists’ Strike

As a result of a strike of munitions workers led by the International Association of Machinists in Bridgeport, Conn., which spread to several munitions centers in other states, 60,000 machinists in the East won the eight-hour day and a forty-eight-hour week.

In 1916, the New York longshoremen struck for a signed contract and payment of double time for handling war munitions and explosives.

The garment workers in New York, Philadelphia and Boston struck and won union shop agreements.

Many of labor’s demands, like the eight-hour day and time and a half, seem rather modest to us today. But if labor isn’t on guard during this war we may have to fight for these demands all over again. It is well to remember that it is due to these pioneering efforts of the labor movement that we enjoy many advantages now.

And labor still has a struggle for one important demand that also caused many strikes in the last war – the fight for the closed shop. In order to understand labor during the last war, it is necessary to note the heroic struggles fought by the much maligned and persecuted International Workers of the World (IWW) [sic!]. Since the rise of the CIO we have come to accept the principle of industrial unionism as a necessity in the labor movement. But in the last war, the craft-conscious AFL won many demands for the highly skilled workers while the laborers in the steel mills, lumber camps, textile mills, etc. went unorganized and underpaid. The IWW fought valiantly and uncompromisingly for the interests of these workers, the most exploited sections of the American working class, most of whom today are organized by the CIO.

IWW Pressure

The pressure of the IWW on the AFL bureaucracy played a big role. In its tireless efforts to organize the American working class, the IWW was a thorn in the side of the AFL leaders who might otherwise have been all too ready to slide along. Testimony of the role played by the AFL bureaucracy is to be found in the American Labor Year Book of 1919–1920.

“Authority and responsibility within the American labor movement have to a very great degree passed over from the executive offices of the AFL to the meetings and local councils of the rank and file. We have international unions stronger in numbers and in financial showing than ever before, and we see the AFL gathering in hundreds of thousands of new members, with scarcely an effort as compared with the days before Europe went to war. But the initiative and the power of action on the industrial battlefield had slipped from the national leaders’ hands.”

Prior to the declaration of war, defense labor boards had been set up to deal with the numerous strikes. Many AFL officials sat on these boards. But they had less effect on the rank and file than the government hoped. The worker had to live and in the words of an old labor song he couldn’t say, “Please, Mr. Boss, a little raise; the cost of living is going up.” He had to say, “Strike, strike, strike, not please, Mr. Boss.” The National Industrial Conference Board, an employers’ research agency, found that in the first seven months of war (between April 6 and October 6, 1917) there were 3,000 strikes. In 1918 there were 3,353 strikes involving 240,000 workers.

This bosses’ agency stated that “... demands for higher wages were the most frequent cause for strikes. Increased cost of living ... readily accounted for this.”

However, while in the April to October 1917 period 455 strikes were for wage increases exclusively, 230 strikes were for higher wages plus closed shop conditions. Of the latter, 208 ended in compromise, the wage demand being granted, but not the closed shop.

While the government and industry were debating proposals for no more strikes for the duration of the war, open shop, compulsory arbitration boards whose “decisions must bind all parties to the dispute,” the workers were “debating” on the picket line.

There was the lumber workers’ strike in the Pacific Northwest. Copper miners struck in Arizona, marine workers in Puget Sound and the Chicago stockyards went out.

More boards were set up. But none of them stemmed the tide. The class struggle could be arbitrated no more in time of war than in time of peace. Labor felt its might and knew its importance.

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