Home / General / This Day in Labor History: June 25, 1943

This Day in Labor History: June 25, 1943


On June 25, 1943, Congress overrode Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s veto of the Smith-Connally Act. Enacted after the United Mine Workers of America went on strike during World War II, the law allowed the president to take over industries involved in wartime production if the workers went on strike. It also barred unions from contributing to federal political campaigns. This was the first major anti-union law after the movement’s success in the 1930s, a preview of the anti-union mania that would hit the movement like a truck after World War II.

The entire idea of unions and striking was something that many Americans remained quite uncomfortable with, even after the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Unions were largely located in only a few places in the country, with large swaths of the country totally unorganized. Half of CIO workers were in five states. Many people associated unions with Jews, ethnics, radicals, civil rights, and all the other things they hated. Strikes seemed to attack the individualism at the core of American life. They weren’t just unpopular with elites and employers. Plenty of regular people looked upon unions with suspicion too, especially rural folks.

The United Mine Workers did not care about anything but their own rights. When the rest of the labor movement took a no-strike pledge for the war, the UMWA did not. John L. Lewis had come to despise Roosevelt, breaking with him before the 1940 elections and hoping to pull the entire CIO into his orbit. When the rest of the federation and almost all of the union workers rejected Lewis on this, he pulled his union out of the CIO entirely. That had the added impact of tying the rest of the federation even closer to the Democratic Party; because the UMWA had mostly funded the growth of the CIO, the mineworkers leaving threatened its financial future and becoming part of the Democratic Party was the only logical strategy to continue its growth, an effort led by the great Sidney Hillman.

In April 1943, Lewis, angry over the erosion of his workers real earnings during the war, as well as a continued lack of safety in the mines, led his union out on strike. The American public was furious. Coal was critical to the war in any number of industries. Lewis didn’t care about the war much anyway. He also was happy to throw anything in Roosevelt’s face. So when the coal companies ignored all of Lewis’ demands, he took his workers off the job. This of course threatened the war effort in a very real way. For Lewis, that didn’t much matter. For Roosevelt, this was all extremely frustrating. First, he didn’t really want to spend time on this. Second, the mine owners were terrible and he knew that. But when Lewis refused to allow the National War Labor Board to take the case, claiming it was anti-union, Roosevelt felt he had no choice but to nationalize the mines. That said, the miners did hold power here and eventually the NWLB did work out a decent deal.

But the backlash was huge and the anti-union forces in Congress were ready to strike back. Howard Smith of Virginia (a truly odious figure who later attempted to sabotage the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by including women in it, which he assumed was so ridiculous it would defeat the bill) and Tom Connally of Texas (also a truly odious figure who was most known for leading the fight to stop anti-lynching legislation) wrote this legislation.

The law itself was quite draconian. It not only discouraged strikes during the war but effectively made them illegal, Allowing the president to seize any factory he wanted in order to keep war production going was not an unreasonable position really given the context of the time, but it also really opened the door for abuse. The law also placed enormous fines on unions that did not give at least 30 days notice of a strike, which of course took away the functional power to strike since it would both allow the government to prepare and take away the surprise factor of a potential strike.

For FDR, this was just too much. He stated in his veto message that he supported a basic bill that would deal with strikes in wartime. But this was just union-busting. As he stated in his veto message:

 I doubt whether the public generally are familiar with these provisions. I doubt whether the Congress had the opportunity fully to appraise the effects of these provisions upon war production.

Section eight requires the representative of employees of a war contractor to give notice of a labor dispute which threatens seriously to interrupt war production to the Secretary of Labor, the National War Labor Board, and the National Labor Relations Board in order to give the employees the opportunity to express themselves by secret ballot whether they will permit such interruption of war production.

It would force a labor leader who is trying to prevent a strike in accordance with his no-strike pledge to give the notice which would cause the taking of a strike ballot and might actually precipitate a strike. In wartime we cannot sanction strikes with or without notice. Section eight further makes it mandatory that the National Labor Relations Board on the thirtieth day after the giving of the notice take a secret ballot among the employees in the “plants, mines, facilities, bargaining unit or bargaining units,” as the case may be, on the question of whether they will stop work. This requirement would open the whole controversy over “bargaining units,” a fruitful source of controversy and of bitter jurisdictional strife.

Section eight ignores completely labor’s “no-strike” pledge and provides in effect for strike notices and strike ballots. Far from discouraging strikes these provisions would stimulate labor unrest and give Government sanction to strike agitations.

The thirty days allowed before the strike vote is taken under Government auspices might well become a boiling period instead of a cooling period. The thought and energies of the workers would be diverted from war production to vote-getting.

The heads of our military, naval, and production agencies have testified that these provisions are likely to be subversive of the very purpose of the Bill- uninterrupted production.

Section nine of the bill prohibits for the period of the war political contributions by labor organizations. This provision obviously has no relevancy to a bill prohibiting strikes during the war in plants operated by the Government or to a “War Labor Disputes Act.” If there be merit in the prohibition, it should not be confined to wartime, and careful consideration should be given to the appropriateness of extending the prohibition to other non-profit organizations.

There should be no misunderstanding—I intend to use the powers of Government to prevent the interruption of war production by strikes. I shall approve legislation that will truly strengthen the hands of Government in dealing with such strikes, and will prevent the defiance of the National War Labor Board’s decisions.

I recommend that the Selective Service Act be amended so that persons may be inducted into non-combat military service up to the age of 65 years. This will enable us to induct into military service all persons who engage in strikes or stoppages or other interruptions of work in plants in the possession of the United States.

This direct approach is necessary to insure the continuity of war work. The only alternative would be to extend the principle of Selective Service and make it universal in character.

I recognize that this bill has an entirely praiseworthy purpose to insure full war production. But I am convinced that Section eight will produce strikes in vital war plants which otherwise would not occur. Therefore, I could not properly discharge the duties of my office if I were to approve S. 796.

Congress responded by overriding the veto, by 56-25 in the Senate and 244-108 in the House.

Now, FDR did in fact use Smith-Connally, but it ended up being ironic in one case and morally justified in the other. For the first: when the vile head of Montgomery Ward, Sewell Avery, refused to recognize his workers union and they struck in response, Roosevelt invoked Smith-Connolly against Montgomery Ward. The anti-union forces in Congress had not really anticipated the president using the law to help unions. But Avery was so loathsome and his actions so counter to everything the nation was doing in the war that the irony was mostly noted in a comical fashion than some outrage that the president would interfere with the prerogatives of capital. After all, the National War Labor Board was intended to interfere with both capital and labor.

The second case was when Philadelphia transit workers engaged in a hate strike to protest the hiring of Black drivers, which was a common reason for striking in the war. Roosevelt authorized Secretary of Defense Henry Stimson to have the military run the transit lines, which were very much connected to national defense because people needed to get to work.

Now, one thing the Philadelphia hate strike demonstrates is that strikes are not inherently good and neither is “worker power.” It depends on what you use it for and quite often, advocates of union democracy and direct action simply elide these facts. But however justified Roosevelt was in invoking Smith-Connally in these cases, the reality is that Congress was also ready to pass more robust and injurious anti-union legislation, which is what happened in 1947 when Congress responded to the 1946 strike wave by passing the Taft-Hartley Act, which basically made most of the tactics that allowed the growth of unions in the 1930s illegal. Harry Truman vetoed that. Congress then overrode the veto again. You don’t see a lot of veto overrides in American history, but both parties sure could come together to bust unions.

This is the 525th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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