Home / General / This Day in Labor History: March 20, 1956

This Day in Labor History: March 20, 1956

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On March 20, 1956, workers at Westinghouse ended their strike after 156 days on the picket lines. This was a key moment in the battle over worker militancy that unions had largely already lost. Largely about production decisions over efficiency, the deeper issue was whether unions would agree to long-term contracts that would take away the ability to strike. Doing so did provide a large amount of money for now upwardly mobile workers. But it came at the cost of union militancy and the age of business unionism began.

The electrical industry had a significant history of unionism by the 1950s, but it was one about internal divisions. The United Electrical Workers were one of the CIO’s most important unions in the late 1930s and 1940s. It was also the largest union to be controlled by communists. So although it hurt the CIO very badly to do this, when the anti-communist hysteria of the postwar world came to the labor movement, it kicked UE out of the federation and charted the International Union of Electrical Workers to replace it. That means that there were internal battles between the unions over who would represent them. There were of course many incentives for workers to choose the IUE. But a lot of workers respected the hell out of the democratic socialism of the UE (one of the few big unions to really have a democratic structure) and all the union had done for them. So rather than focusing on fighting the big companies like Westinghouse, the unions were in a civil war in the industry. Not great for the workers.

Westinghouse took advantage of this internal civil war by attempting to gain more control over the work process. It decided on a big efficiency drive that included time management studies. Workers had revolted against Frederick Winslow Taylor’s stop-clock methods for a very long time by now, but had mostly lost the battle, which is why the great factory scene that opens Chaplin’s Modern Times was so effective. However, such aggressive behavior from management could still anger workers.

The most angry workers were were in IUE Local 601, located in Pittsburgh. Management claimed it had done similar studies before. The workers claimed that management could not measure workers who had no incentive pay for working harder. Management most certainly was not interested in expanding incentive pay. So those workers went on strike earlier in 1955. They were on strike for about six weeks when IUE president James Carey and Westinghouse president Robert Blasier agreed to roll this over into the general contract negotiations that were already going on. But they got nowhere then either. So the entirety of IUE’s Westinghouse workers walked off the job on October 17, 1955. That was 50,000 workers at a major defense contractor. UE still represented some workers in Westinghouse plants. So it went on strike too, also demanding that some fired workers be rehired.

For the IUE, this was about job security. The increased measurement of workers for efficiency meant a way for companies to eliminate positions, lay off workers, and force the remaining workers to labor harder. This was not in the interest of the workers or the union officials, who would of course lose membership and their attached dues if this happened. For Westinghouse, this, like so many of the labor actions of the 1950s, was about management retaining control over the shop floor. This was after all the era in which union power was at its greatest and the one place that managers were determined to stop any further advances was control over the shop. The United Auto Workers had caved on this with the 1950 Treaty of Detroit that provided a five-year contract in exchange for lots of money but also the end of union claims they should influence managerial decisions. However, other unions kept up this fight and it would soon contribute to the epic 1959 United Steel Workers of America strike.

Now, the IUE had made certain guarantees in a five-year contract it had recently negotiated with Westinghouse’s chief rival, General Electric. But see, the IUE was also not furious with GE for its management practices. So when Westinghouse asked for the same deal, the union told them to stick it. Westinghouse claimed it was because Carey was trying to obtain greater power over his union. But the real issue was the time studies. Westinghouse refused to submit these to arbitration, whereas the IUE demanded it do so.

Westinghouse did finally get its 5-year contract after several months of the strike. That was big because without the ability to strike during the length of the contract, it took worker militancy off the table. Understand that when unions were at their peak in power, short contracts gave them the opportunity to keep pressing the issue through direct action. Now they could not. This was central to the entire Treaty of Detroit. Like GM or any number of other companies by 1956, Westinghouse could now make managerial decisions without having to worry about the possibility of a strike until 1961. But the company did not get the whole hog ability to control the shop floor as it had desired.

Carey came out of the strike claiming a huge victory. Well, maybe. Certainly the IUE won money for its members. It got some pension increases too. But that was about it. This was not a strike or agreement that at all challenged American capitalism. That was also part of the Treaty of Detroit mentality. In the end, the long term contract backed with serious wage hikes proved to be a short-term victory for organized labor. But it also exacerbated a new atmosphere within organized labor. With the strike off the table, the era of business unionism entered its peak period. That was fine I guess so long as the company continued to bargain in good faith. But once companies moved into a new period of unionbusting in the 1980s, unions were caught completely off guard and had no stomach for the kind of militant organizing it would take to revive the labor movement. After all, militancy isn’t a switch you can turn on. It requires the buy-in from workers with real risks to their jobs and livelihoods. Moreover, UE came out of its own side of the strike with basically the exact same deal as IUE.

Perhaps a different union model, such as that of UE, might have led to a different result. But not only can’t we know, it’s also a bit hard to imagine how any single union could turn the tide of the entire labor movement in an era of both growing conservatism and rising prosperity. All we can say is that the long-term cost to organized labor for the short-term gains in wages and benefits was quite real and we still feel the effects today.

This is the 431st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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