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Sylvia Merrill

American Labor in the Last World War

War Labor Boards Couldn’t Prevent Wave of Strikes

(9 March 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 10, 9 March 1942, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

When America entered the First World War, the government did not try to prohibit strikes, as the British did. It profited from the British experience, which showed that rather than stopping strikes, the anti-strike legislation gave added importance to those strikes that took place.

America’s policy was to recognize that unions did exist and to attempt to buy them off by including labor representatives in the war councils. But this step could not silence the rank and file, which felt the pressure of the-rising cost of living.

Even before the U.S. was officially at war, Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, was appointed to the advisory commission of the Council of National Defense, when it was first organized in October 1916.

The appointment was viewed openly as a bridle on labor. All the dollar-a-year men were open in their contempt of the labor representatives and cynically termed Gompers’ appointment as a “sagacious example.” Similarly, when the War Industries Board was organized in July 1917 and Hugh Frayne, organizer for the AFL, was appointed to a post on that board, G.B. Clarkson, who was associated with the Council of National Defense, said that, “strictly speaking, Frayne was not on the board to represent labor, hut to manage it ...” This was particularly meaningful with reference to that board, on which sat the best representatives of American industry, like Rockefeller, Guggenheim, etc.

Critical of Gompers

Despite this attitude on the part of industry, Gompers sought to rally American labor for the impending war. For this purpose he called a conference of the executive council of the AFL which claimed to speak for millions of Americans. But the conference declaration which supported the war did not go unchallenged. Criticism of the resolution was widespread. This critical response on the part of the ranks of labor corroborated a conviction on the part of the government and industrial circles that labor was not enthusiastically behind the war.

The Council for National Defense, in April 1917, immediately upon the declaration of war, called upon labor and employers to maintain the status quo. This was asking the impossible, since prices were soaring and wages had to be brought up to meet them. It became evident that labor intended to try to make wages meet the rise in the cost of living regardless of the positions held by their “representatives,” which buckled under as each crucial issue arose.

The first contest came over the closed shop. Gompers and Secretary of War Baker had reached an agreement in June 1917 for the supply of skilled labor to the building of cantonments. The legal expert of the Council for National Defense discovered that the contract contained the possibility of a closed shop interpretation. This was an impossible situation! And of course, Gompers, whose consent was sought for the inclusion of an open shop clause, swallowed hard, registered his protest and then gave in.

The governmental departments soon discovered that, “Gompers, having had his say, which had been written into the record, became amenable to the appeals of reasonable men.”

The War Labor Board was created, remained the chief mediation body by proclamation in April 1918 and to the end of the war.

Causes of Strikes

The original commission appointed by President Wilson to investigate the causes for the strikes had recommended “the elimination to the utmost practical extent of all profiteering during the period of the war as a prerequisite to the best morale in industry.” But the War Conference Board in its report did not mention this profit-elimination phase of the report. It did, however, recommend the adoption of a fixed minimum wage. The WCB made several other proposals: (1) give workers right, to organize in trade unions and bargain collectively; (2) give employers the right to organize and bargain collectively (as if they needed permission!); (3) employers were not to discharge workers for membership in trade unions or for LEGITIMATE trade union activity. (Who was to define “legitimate” they did not say.) But the fourth point virtually nullified points one and three. The board in one breath (points one and three) granted labor the right to organize for collective bargaining and then in point four prohibited workers from urging other workers to join their union.

On the basis of these findings the permanent war board was born. It was a foregone conclusion that on the basis of such a policy it would conduct itself as it did.

All of the boards, no matter what their “front,” and some of them had liberals and labor people on them to make them more palatable to labor, had one purpose: to keep labor in its place. This meant no strikes, no organizing of labor during the war, maintenance of the status quo – or freezing of wages, compulsory arbitration or the “cooling off” period, and all the reactionary measures we hear spoken of today.

In the next article we will deal with the employers’ open shop offensive after the peace of 1918, which sought to take advantage of Gompers’ attitude of “going along” with the government during the war. We will see that labor erred in not fighting harder and in not understanding that the repressive measures of the war would be turned into open warfare against labor in an effort to break the backbone of the trade union and socialist movements that arose from the slaughter of 1914–18.

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