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This Day in Labor History: January 21, 1941

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On January 21, 1941, workers at the Allis-Chalmers engine and turbine company plant in West Allis, Wisconsin, outside of Milwaukee, walked off the job in protest over the employers firing six unionized workers. This event, happening as the U.S. was preparing to enter World War II later that year, would go far to demonstrate the working relationship between the Roosevelt administration and the CIO and in particular, the rising influence of Sidney Hillman as labor’s voice within the administration.

The CIO’s successes in the late 1930s caused political problems for the Roosevelt administration, in that unions, and especially large strikes were not popular with wide swathes of the American public, including many Democrats. Moreover, a lot of the CIO drives were taking place at plants that were going to be key for building national defense, which worried policymakers, especially as those employers were as murderously anti-union as anyone else. Conservatives in Congress routinely attacked the CIO and striking defense plants gave them a powerful weapon in their class war against the poor.

In response, the Roosevelt administration, rejecting both conservatives and its own officials such as Henry Stimson who sought harsh anti-labor measures, looked for a policy to smooth over relations with workers while also keeping production lines humming along. So Roosevelt turned to a rising ally in the labor movement: Sidney Hillman. Hillman was born into a Jewish family in Lithuania in 1887. He was training to be a rabbi, but fell in with political radicals, joined the Bund, and fled Tsarist anti-radical oppression in 1906, coming to the United States. He was 19 years old. The next year, he arrived in the United States and moved to Chicago. He found work in the garment industry, which was dominated by women. It would be the last manual job he would ever hold.

In 1910, Hillman helped lead a strike of 45,000 garment workers against not only their employers but the conservative AFL-affiliated United Garment Workers, which the workers split from when it tried to settle the strike without granting the workers’ demands. Out of this came the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. Hillman, who had briefly moved to New York to work with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and who was not enjoying his new job, came back to Chicago to head the ACWU, where he became of labor’s most progressive leaders, even as his union remained small. He became a great admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the New Deal. Supporting the mass organizing of the industrial shopfloor that the AFL continued to resist, Hillman became one of the founding leaders of the CIO. He helped Robert Wagner write the National Labor Relations Act and worked very closely with Frances Perkins to lobby congressional support for the Fair Labor Standards Act.

When Roosevelt turned to Hillman, he gave him a level of power never before seen with an American labor leader in the halls of government. He named Hillman associate director of the Office of Production Management. He immediately worked to smooth things over to everyone’s benefit. Hillman talked to his friends in the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and got SWOC to call off a strike at Bethlehem Steel before a collective bargaining agreement was reached. The Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America did the same against a shipyard. The American Federation of Labor preemptively announced it would not strike against defense facilities. Hillman claimed to have mediated 247 labor disputes. And while one could argue that people like Hillman were selling out working class militancy, one could also argue that the position of organized labor in American life was so tenuous at this time that these meditations perhaps saved the movement from itself.

But Hillman’s power was pretty limited. It relied upon both union leaders voluntarily working with him and employers coming to reasonable agreements with their workers that included a recognized union. Lots of people on both sides of that divide were not willing to do so. Unions were not that centralized and plenty of locals struck against the wishes of top union leadership, including in SWOC, the UAW, and the Machinists. Moreover, many employers were furious at the sheer existence of unions.

One of those was Allis-Chalmers, the Wisconsin-based engine and turbine maker. It already had major defense contracts by 1941, at least $40 million in Navy orders. UAW Local 248 had slowly organized this plant through militant tactics and its leadership was closely associated with the communists. The union had won an National Labor Relations Board decision in 1938 that forced the company to accept the UAW as a collective bargaining agenda, but it at best went along with the letter of the law and certainly not the decision, seeking at all times to evict the union from its works. In January 1941, the company fired six union activists who were working to collect back dues from anti-union workers who had refused to pay up. It was clear this was a broader attack on the union. Local 248 head Harold Christoffel called his members out on strike. With the Supreme Court having ruled sit-down strikes illegal shortly before, this would be a battle on the streets. On January 21, 1941, the union shut down the plant and surrounded it with picket lines.

Hillman attempted to mediate this strike. He offered both sides what would be his and the government’s prime tactic in World War II–a maintenance of membership clause. This meant that any member of the union would be required to pay dues for the life of the contract and could not withdraw from the union. Essentially, this guaranteed financial and structural security for unions in exchange for labor peace and war production. The union was willing to talk and both sides came to a tentative agreement on February 14. But then management decided against it, thinking it was a step to their loathed closed shop. The strike raged on. On March 27, the Navy Department cabled both sides and demanded it end, which led to a pitched battle in front of the plant between workers who wanted to end the strike and the large majority who did not. This ultimatum infuriated the CIO, who wired back and asked what right it had to make such demands. The UAW national office reiterated its strong support of the strike at this point. Of course the New York Times blamed the communists. On March 30, the police, perhaps inspired by anti-union forces in the Roosevelt administration, sent an armored car through the gates to reopen the plant. This was a very bad idea. Three days of near rioting convinced the governor of Wisconsin to send out the National Guard to ensure that the plant remained closed and peace sustained. The strike finally ended on April 7 when the employers agreed to Hillman’s initial deal.

This and other strikes led Hillman to push for the system for tripartite mediation (labor, business, and “public,” i.e. government appointees) that the government would adopt in World War II. This would serve to provide unions some guarantees, mediate production, and forestall the anti-union legislation gaining steam in Congress. The AFL was far more open to this than the CIO, where Philip Murray didn’t think it was right that he would stop the building of his movement, even though he personally opposed defense industry strikes. But FDR got on board with the idea and Murray was not going to stand in the way of something Roosevelt supported. He acquiesced and Hillman continued as labor’s most powerful figure in the government through the war.

Material for this post was drawn from Nelson Lichtenstein’s Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II. Check it out.

This is the 345th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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