December 27 1943 Greatest Generation … well mostly

“We’re all in this together” … unless of course you were in the union


One of the greatest myths ever perpetrated about the greatest generation is that everybody was in it together for the win during World War 2.  Winning a war is a lot more than just having men in uniform. They need the tanks and planes and ships that will be powerful enough to knock the enemy out of the fight. Someone has to stay behind and build all of those things and on the whole, they did what needed to be done. But the illusion of a united nation falls away in the glare of recorded history. While many were willing to contribute to the cause, there were just as many who saw the opportunity to gain higher wages through the threat of collective bargaining.

1943 was particularly bad. Despite a “no-strike” agreement that the CIO had reached with most industries during the lead up to the war, everyone from dockworkers to steelworkers pressured their companies with outages and strikes all during the first few years of the war. The number of strikes climbed from 22 in January 1942, just a month after Pearl Harbor, to more than 220 by July. Strikes in 1943 jumped even higher, the year of Kasserine Pass, the invasion of Italy, Ploesti, and Tarawa—from 4.1 million labor days lost to 13.5 million.

Things came to the first head in May of 1943 when the United Mine Workers went off the job for three days. This strike quickly effected every industry that needed energy and coal for raw materials such as steel. Roosevelt was furious and quickly invoked an executive order which nationalized the coal mines. He sent the army in to seize the mines and threatened to revoke the draft deferments for every single miner on strike. The miners went back to work, but Congress had had enough, and in June passed the Smith-Connally bill. Although it did not actually ban strikes, it required a sixty-day notice beforehand. Roosevelt predictably vetoed the bill; it took the Senate exactly eleven minutes to override the veto.

Smith-Connally proved that America was tired of labor’s refusal to give an inch in the midst of a national crisis. But the strikes didn’t end.

On December 27 1943, the railroad “brothers” were poised to shut down the nation’s railroad system.

This critical transportation system was working overtime to move men and materials to the embarkation points that send them to the fighting men in the Atlantic and Pacific. Food, medical supplies, ammunition and so many other items would have been disrupted at the very time that they were needed most. The planners knew that a June 1944 invasion of Western Europe was critical in the plans to defeat Nazi Germany.


Once again Roosevelt used an Executive Order (# 9412).  “Railroad strikes by three Brotherhoods have been ordered for next Thursday,” Roosevelt said in a statement.  “The Government will expect every railroad man to continue at his post of duty.  The major military offensives now planned must not be delayed by the interruption of vital transportation facilities.  If any employees of the railroads now strike, they will be striking against the Government of the United States.”


With that order, the Army seized the railroads for three weeks to forestall a nation-wide strike. During the war, the US Army would seize a total of sixty-seven defense facilities for inadequate production, each time due to labor unrest.

During 1944, the last full year of the war, the numbers increased again. There were close to 5000 work stoppages costing 8.7 million labor days—enough to build two thousand B-17’s. The week before D-Day, twenty-eight factories were on strike in Detroit alone.

There truly was a greatest generation which consisted of the many fine men and women who chose to do everything in their power to defeat the Axis powers. The families at home that supported them and critical workers all played their role. I am always surprised when people want to lump everyone in that generation together. Organized Labor was certainly far from great for anyone involved.

The AFL, CIO, United Auto Workers, and United Mine Workers viewed the war as an opportunity to build power and increase their membership. As Tom Di Lorenzo, a hardnosed UAW boss, told the Washington Post in 1943, “Our policy is not to win the war at any cost.” He wasn’t alone.

All of the union leaders expressed their disdain for the men dying by their callous use of strikes and threats of strikes. That alone separates them from the greatest generation and my hope is they are paying an eternal price

Union membership peaked in the post war era. However pro-business conservatives gained control of Congress in 1946, and in 1947 passed the Taft-Hartley Act, drafted by Senator Robert A. Taft. President Truman vetoed it but the Conservative coalition overrode the veto. The new law (still in effect today) banned union contributions to political candidates, restricted the power of unions to call strikes that “threatened national security,” and forced the expulsion of Communist union leaders. The unions campaigned for years to repeal the law but failed. During the late 1950s, the Landrum Griffith Act of 1949 passed in the wake of Congressional investigations of corruption and undemocratic internal politics in the Teamsters and other unions.

The percentage of workers belonging to a union (or “density”) in the United States peaked in 1954 at almost 35% and the total number of union members peaked in 1979 at an estimated 21.0 million. Membership has declined since (currently 14.8 million and 12% of the labor force). Private sector union membership then began a steady decline that has resulted in only 7% of the private sector being unionized. The membership of public sector unions has grown steadily and now exceeds now 37%.


Thanks to all who served and all who paid the price of freedom. No thanks to all those who used this great challenge to line their union leader’s pockets.




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