Publishing Information

    Six Significant Strikes of 1941


    Joel Seidman sketches the course of six strikes which were front-page news in recent months, and states the issue he finds at the core of each.

  1. 1. Street Railways—More than 400,000 factory workers in Detroit walked, hitch-hiked, or drove their own cars to work on August 20, as a strike of AFL street car and motor coach operators shut down the municipally-owned transportation system. Many thousands of defense workers were among those unable to get to work on time on the four and one half days that the strike lasted.

    The cause? The established AFL affiliate on the street railways, alarmed at the inroads being made by a CIO union, demanded exclusive bargaining rights. The showdown came with the AFL's demand for sole right to use bulletin boards in car barns and bus terminals. The strike was finally settled by an agreement for election with the AFL union, if it won, gaining both its points.

    A battle in labor's continuing civil war, this strike was caused by AFL-CIO jockeying for control.

  2. 2. Shipbuilding—A National Defense Mediation Board panel recommended a "maintenance of membership" agreement at the Kearny, N. J. yards of the Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. Under this plan, union members would have to remain in good standing to keep their jobs, but non-members would not be obliged to join. A seventeen-day strike followed the company's rejection of the recommendation, until President Roosevelt, holding management to blame, commandeered the plant in late August.

    This strike revolved about the degree of union control.

  3. 3. Aircraft—On one earlier occasion, in June, the President used his emergency powers to seize a plant—North American Aviation at Inglewood, Calif. In this instance the President had held the striking union to blame. Government officials were antagonized because the strikers violated a pledge to remain at work while negotiations continued. National leaders of the United Automobile Workers (CIO) were incensed because the strike was called in violation of the union's constitution.

    In the background was the conflict between local UAW leaders believed to be members or fellow-travelers of the Communist Party, and the other forces within the union.

    A lack of discipline within the labor movement was primarily responsible for this strike.

  4. 4. Steel—Occupying a vital place in the defense program is the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, with its $1,500,000,000 of defense contracts. Bethlehem Steel, it will be remembered, was one of the companies involved in the bitter "Little Steel" strike of 1937. The company has maintained an Employees' Representation Plan since 1918 and has bitterly opposed recognition of any "outside" union. With the aid of the Johnstown Citizens Committee, which attracted nationwide attention, the company defeated the SWOC strike in that city in 1937.

    Two years later the National Labor Relations Board, with which SWOC had filed a complaint, held the Employees' Representation Plan to be company-dominated, and directed Bethlehem Steel to disestablish it at nine plants. The company failed to obey, the case was taken to the courts, and meanwhile the ERP continued to function, jealously watched by SWOC. Strike action by SWOC was precipitated at Bethlehem, Pa., in March 1941, when the ERP held an election for the choice of new collective bargaining representatives. The strike ended after five days with an agreement to await the end of the court case before selecting an exclusive bargaining agency; in the meantime SWOC was to enjoy equal privileges in the plant. At Johnstown, where SWOC also struck to prevent an election under the ERP, a settlement was reached embodying similar terms.

    In May the NLRB order disestablishing the ERP was sustained by the United States Court of Appeals. In the weeks that followed the NLRB ordered elections at various Bethlehem Steel plants, with SWOC winning the first polls taken.

    Continued company support of a company union, in violation of an NLRB order, was the principal strike cause.

  5. 5. Soft Coal—Four hundred thousand bituminous coal miners throughout the Appalachian fields stayed away from work during April while union officials and two groups of operators fought over the terms of a new contract. Central to the strike was the United Mine Workers' demand that the wage differential between northern and southern mines be eliminated. Instead of a daily wage rate of $6 in the north and $5.60 in the south the miners proposed that $7 be the basic wage rate in both sections.

    By mid-April a split in operators' ranks along sectional lines had occurred, with the northern operators willing to accept the union's terms and the southern operators bolting the conference to form a separate organization. After a month's stoppage of production, defense industry was feeling the pinch, and President Roosevelt brought about an agreement that work be resumed while negotiations continued. Early in June the National Defense Mediation Board recommended elimination of the wage differential, but it was another month before the southern operators and the union signed a contract embodying that clause, in time to avert another strike of the 150,000 southern miners. The northern operators earlier had signed a separate agreement with the union.

    The fundamental issue was the raising of southern wages to the northern level.

  6. 6. Naval Equipment—In comparison with the tremendous numbers involved in the bituminous coal strike the tie-up of the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company plant at Milwaukee, with its 7,800 workers, may seem small. Yet the stubborn strike, lasting from late January to early April, was one of the first directly to affect national defense production.

    The union, a local of the United Automobile Workers (CIO) had previously won recognition as exclusive bargaining agency in the plant. Accusing the company of "sniping" against its membership, it demanded a closed union shop. This the company refused to grant. The settlement that was finally achieved, following a formula proposed by OPM, called for the appointment of a referee to review cases of disciplining of employees by the company and likewise to pass on union complaints that the company had failed to discipline workers who attacked the union. Several months after work was resumed the parties agreed that workers could refrain from joining the union, but were to be subject to discipline, perhaps even discharge, for speech or action on company premises hostile to the CIO union.

    Degree of union control was the central issue.