Part 8

by Robin McMeeking

Truman and the Domestic Agenda

We left President Truman dealing with the Cold War. Lets see what else he had to contend with. Labor unions had gravitated to the Democratic Party right from the start. Before WW II favorable legislation helped the ranks of the unions to swell. The communist influence in some unions had led them to follow policies more related to the desires of the Soviet Union than to the U.S. or even the workers within those unions. Once the U.S. was fully engaged in the war as an ally of the U.S.SR, unions fully supported the war effort and the production of war material.

As the main industrial area not destroyed by the war, North America had been the “arsenal of democracy”. After the war the devastated industries of Europe and Asia needed to be rebuilt before they could begin to supply their goods again. This left the U.S. and Canada for some time as the primary source of rebuilding materials and finished goods for the world. How did our industry and unions respond? The following articles from Time magazine illustrate, this was a time of great opportunity for the unions.

Monday, Sep 24, 1945

In determined and confident tones, the powerful United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Implement Workers (C.I.O.) read out the declaration of war. Said the union: the auto industry must raise wages 30% to make up for the loss in take-home pay caused by the return of peace, i.e., the loss of eight hours of overtime when the week was cut from 48 to 40. The industry, said the union, must raise wages without raising auto prices, which have not yet been fixed.

If the pay raise is not granted, said the union, it would strike one automaker and close all his plants and keep them closed. The spectacle of those tight-shut, silent plants, said the union, should be a lesson to the rest of the industry.

First Assault. Which automobile company would be the target for this all-out assault? For a day, the union kept mum on its choice. Then wily, redheaded Walter Philip Reuther, U.A.W. Vice President announced the first objective: General Motors Corp.

The union had timed its stroke with the care of a general planning an invasion. It could hardly have picked a better time for itself, a worse one for G.M. Swamped by $2 billion in contract cancellations immediately after V-J day, G.M. had sweated and strained to reconvert its 102 plants all over the U.S. It had the biggest job of all U.S. industry; some 35% of the entire reconversion job of the nation. By working night & day, G.M. had cleared acres of tools from its plants, nearly completed installation of hundreds of miles of conveyors, set up dozens of assembly lines. Now the back-breaking job was almost done. The new lines were running in Detroit.

This week, from the spanking new assembly plant in Detroit, where only two months ago G.M. had been building tanks, the corporation rolled out a glistening new Cadillac. It was the first car G.M.’s production lines have turned out since February 1942. It looked much the same as the 1942 model, although G.M. bragged that its sleek body contained 63 improvements.

G.M. had planned to be ready soon to produce all of its cars. Pontiac was scheduled to start rolling off the lines in a week. Buick a week later, and Chevrolet and Oldsmobile in two weeks.

Reconversion had gone so well that G.M. had confidently set its production sights high. In the next year it had hoped to turn out from 1,328,000 to 1,770,000 cars, sell them at prices “somewhat” above those of 1942.

Monday, Oct. 01, 1945

In Port Arthur, Tex., pickets strode before a Texas Co. refinery carrying signs: “52 for 40 or Fight. This is a Walkout.” The slogan meant that C.I.O. oil workers wanted 52 hours’ pay for 40 hours’ work. The drive was on for labor’s first postwar objective: wartime wages at peacetime hours.

Strikes like Port Arthur’s hit oil plants in seven states through the South and Midwest. By week’s end 27,000 workers were out. Toledo went on self-imposed gasoline rationing, other communities considered similar steps; millions of gallons of gasoline and fuel oil for the Atlantic seaboard were choked off. At one time last week, 323,000 workers were idle, in strikes and shutdowns.

War Plans. C.I.O.’s United Automobile Workers, which had demanded a 30% wage increase and then authorized locals to take less, temporarily, petitioned NLRB for a strike vote in 96 plants of General Motors Corp. The Board forthwith scheduled the vote for Oct. 24. The strike, certain to be voted by U.A.W.’s membership, would take 325,000 workers off the job in the industry which is the spark plug of postwar prosperity.

In Detroit, where the battle lines were being drawn, the number of idle workers went up to more than 86,000 when a Chrysler Corp. Dodge truck plant shut down, laying off 2,200; 800 others for whom there was work found pickets on duty when they arrived at the plant. The 800 did not work. Neither did 50,000 workers shut out of Ford plants because of a continuing strike—which defied even U.A.W. settlement efforts—at the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Co.

Patrols & Skirmishes. On the nationwide front there were patrol actions and skirmishes:

  • In Pittsburgh, 2,200 C.I.O. steelworkers went out at the Pressed Steel Car Co., demanding $2 a day more.
  • In the Pacific Northwest a strike of 60,000 lumberworkers was called by an A.F. of L. union which was demanding a minimum hourly wage of $1.10.
  • In Newark, a strike by the Retail Clerks International Protective Association, A.F. of L., resulted in the closing of 242 Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.[A&P] stores throughout northern New Jersey and Staten Island.
  • In Lancaster, Pa., broad-shouldered cops shouldered strikers out of the way when the Conestoga Transportation Co. tried to put trolleys back on the streets in an attempt to end a three-week-old walkout.
  • In Manhattan this week 15,000 elevator operators and service employes struck, tying up midcity skyscrapers, including the 102-story Empire State Building; more stood ready to tie up many another building.

The Unprepared. It had long been plain that labor, freed of its wartime no-strike pledge, had also cut loose from the Little Steel formula, was ready to move swiftly and decisively to keep its wartime wage rate. It was also plain that Washington was completely unprepared to meet the shock.

Not until last week did Harry Truman get around to his promised reorganization of the Government’s labor functions. Then, with the battle well under way, he incorporated the War Labor Board, the U.S. Employment Service and the War Manpower Commission into Secretary Lew Schwellenbach’s reviving Labor Department. In turn, Schwellenbach announced the appointment of handsome, wavy-haired Edgar L. Warren, who had been chairman of the regional labor board in Chicago, to head a revitalized U.S. Conciliation Service. Chief Conciliator Warren dispatched 20 of his 250 conciliators to Detroit to try to thrash things out.

The plan was to make the Conciliation Service the heart of the Labor Department, instead of merely a certifying agency for the War Labor Board, as in the past. The first result: WLB, now hanging in midair, lost its chairman, Dr. George W. Taylor, and another public member. Snapped the New York Times: “The board now exists without real powers or prestige … [its] continued wraithlike existence . . . merely serves to confuse thinking and to clutter up the road . . . [Congress] should end the legal life of the War Labor Board now by an immediate repeal of the Smith-Connally ‘Anti-Strike’ Act.”

The big hope of the Administration, as Lew Schwellenbach tried to pull his Labor Department together, rested on the labor-management conference due to convene in Washington Nov. 5. Politicos devoutly hoped that the big confab might have a formula for peace before the entire automobile industry could be struck. But it looked as though Harry Truman was operating on a split-second timetable. His luck would have to be good to head off a complete shutdown in Detroit.

Monday Oct 08, 1945

Across the U.S., from Montauk Point to Malibu Beach, the tide of labor unrest seethed angrily. In oil, automobiles, coal, lumber, textiles and many another industry, there were strikes, shutdowns, and threats of strikes. At one time last week 420,000 workers were idle. While many an industrial plant ran at less than full power because it could not staff its machinery, the first blows of violence rose ominously.

In Washington, where the Administration was frantically trying to catch up with the facts of peacetime life, worried Labor Secretary Lew Schwellenbach reflected the Government’s confusion. To labor and management representatives from the strike-ridden oil industry he said: “The Government, representing 30,000,000 people, and particularly representing the young men we have overseas, is here begging and pleading with you that you get together.” The Government, with the war over, was reluctant to exercise its only positive power—seizure and operation of struck plants. Thus Lew Schwellenbach was left with the slender tools of conciliation and persuasion; at week’s end the tools were not doing the job. Labor troubles were breaking down the industrial machine more ominously than they had done since the sitdown strikes of 1937.

Vital Spot. In dealing personally with the oil strike, Lew Schwellenbach was trying to meet the most immediate of many dangers. Already, 35,000 refinery workers were out in seven states; another 250,000 threatened to walk out. Gasoline supplies were running low in many states.

The Army & Navy warned that fuel shortages would interfere with demobilization. Said Lew Schwellenbach: “The very mechanics of operation of our economy are being threatened.”

Vital Threat. In Detroit, the wildcat strike at the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Co. still kept 50,000 Ford workers from their jobs. One night last week the United Automobile Workers’ President R. J. Thomas begged and pleaded with the un-ruly strikers to go back to work. They drowned him out with boos. The Kelsey-Hayes workers had taken matters into their own hands; neither Thomas nor, apparently, any other top U.A.W. official could get them back.

And Detroit’s worst problem lay ahead. Last week the National Labor Relations Board set strike votes for Oct. 24 and Oct. 25 for 325,000 General Motors employes and 120,000 workers in Chrysler plants. Next, a similar voting date would be set for the 200,000 employes of the Ford Co. The union strategy, if its demands are not met: to strike one company at a time, let the others stay in operation, thus knock off the ‘opposition one at a time.

Monday, Oct. 22, 1945

[Vice President] Henry Agard Wallace spoke casually. Labor, he said, in an extemporaneous radio speech, should get half or more of the 30% pay increases it demands; if necessary, prices should be increased. This, the Secretary of Commerce theorized, would advance the U.S. cost of living by only 3 or 4%. Anyway, he was more afraid of deflation than inflation.

Was bareheaded Henry Wallace announcing Government policy, or was he talking through his hair? Only a few days before, Harry Truman had reiterated his unchanging opposition to wage increases affecting prices; those who fear higher prices remembered it with comfort.

But others remembered that Wallace and Labor Secretary Schwellenbach have recently been in frequent consultation over the forthcoming labor-management conference, beginning on Nov. 5. Had Henry Wallace deliberately tossed up a debatable idea to test public reaction?

Whatever the answer, peace was not likely to descend suddenly on the troubled U.S. industrial front. Beyond wages, there were other reasons for striking. One of them had tied up 242 ships in New York’s harbor, another had closed nearly half the nation’s bituminous coal mines, and a third was still stirring up bitter battles in Hollywood.

The Road? The plain citizen watched these and other uproars on the labor scene with helpless anger and dismay. Was this the road to reconversion, 60,000,000 jobs and all the other fine promises of peace?

Labor’s attitude seemed to be: “The public be damned; let’s get ours.” Management, long since disarmed in labor strife, stood by, waiting for Government to do something. Government was almost as helpless; it had no firm policy and no means of stopping strikes, except plant seizures; it would lose even that inconclusive weapon six months after the official end of World War II was proclaimed.

This week the public was still taking it—and not liking it. Long accustomed to labor’s getting its own way, it waited for the Government to add up the bill and present the check. Not so the soldier. Angered before by strikes in wartime, he boiled over again at the longshoremen’s strike, which was slowing down his return home. This week the New York Times printed soldiers’ bitter letters on Page One. Typical excerpt:

“If labor unions believe they are doing something for their cause they are certainly mistaken. . . . They are losing a prestige among 6,000,000 troops which took years to build up.”

Monday, Nov. 05, 1945

New York’s LaGuardia Airport had the kind of strike that makes the bystanding public tear its hair out by handfuls.

Maintenance workers walked out of American Airlines hangars, set up picket lines, had a brief clash with police, soon were joined by sympathy strikers in the American Airlines shops in Chicago and Detroit. For a full day American Airlines had to abandon its 24 flights in & out of Chicago and 22 other flights in & out of Detroit.

If the Chicago and Detroit workers knew what they were striking about, they knew more than the public. Newsmen, trying to thread through a tangled skein of fact, discovered that four unions claimed jurisdiction over the mechanics, that three had invoked a National Mediation Board election, the other an NMB mediator. Almost lost in the tangle was a rejected company wage offer which would hardly remind most onlookers of the sweatshop—as much pay for a peacetime 40-hour week as for a wartime 48-hour week, plus an average increase of about 10% to boot.

Other labor developments:

  • In a long and indignant letter to the United Steelworkers, Vice President John Stephens of the U.S. Steel Corp. turned down the union’s demand for a $2-a-day increase, claiming that the company was already selling many products below cost, that it was “sheer nonsense” to suggest that the company could absorb a higher wage level without raising prices. Thereupon the Steelworkers’ Philip Murray accused the steel industry of “arrogance,” called for a strike vote among 640,000 employes of 766 companies.
  • Auto workers voted for strikes by 6-to-1 at General Motors and 8-to-1 at (Chrysler in elections required by the Smith-Connally Act.
  • James C. Petrillo, ingenious czar of the American Federation of Musicians, outdid himself in a new dispute with the radio networks: when stations broadcast a musical program over regular channels and FM at the same time, he ruled they will have to hire a second orchestra to stand by.
  • Trainmen on Chicago’s elevated lines, piqued because the company sent out retroactive pay rise checks to its white-collar workers before getting round to them, snarled traffic all afternoon with a work stoppage which was called as “proof our union will preserve its dignity.”
  • At Des Moines’ Iowa Packing Co., one H. Shapiro, a veteran who wanted to return as an 83[cent]an-hour sausage stuffer instead of going back to his job as a 74[cent]an-hour check sealer, provided a test case for his union. After a four-day strike of 1,000 workers, the union won its demand that returning servicemen receive all promotions granted to colleagues in their absence.

Monday, Nov. 12, 1945

Labor got a sharp slap across the face last week. Andrew Jackson Higgins, New Orleans’ big, bluff shipbuilder, announced that he would close down his three plants, sell them to the highest bidder, and farm out his fat $40,000,000 peacetime contracts to other manufacturers. Reason: labor strife that never seemed to end.

“Then,” said Andy Higgins menacingly, “I’m going to crusade. I’m going to crusade to see that men who want to work can get it without paying tribute to any one.” Andy’s plants were already shut — by a strike. His labor troubles with 33 of A.F. of L.’s Metal Workers’ Unions were twelve months old. They were complicated by jurisdictional trouble with C.I.O.’s Marine and Shipbuilding Workers’ Union. Only a few hours before his shattering announcement, Andy Higgins had said he would sign a contract with whichever union won an NLRB election. (Insiders said C.I.O. would have won.) What had kept Andy from signing earlier with A.F. of L. was a clause providing that all returning servicemen must join the union.

During the war, because of his activity in behalf of Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection, Andy Higgins had earned a public reputation as a businessman New Dealer. He had helped organize the “Businessmen for Roosevelt” in the 1944 campaign. But Andy Higgins had always been a rough & ready entrepreneur; he damned bureaucrats of all kinds—Government and labor.

There are more, but I think you get the idea. Economic prosperity was slow to return. Labor, therefore Democrats, got much of the blame. In the midterm elections of 1946 Republicans got control of the House and Senate for the first time since 1928. During his 1948 campaign for reelection Truman referred to this 80th Congress as a do-nothing Congress.

However, in reality, the 80th Congress was highly accomplished, bearing legislative responsibility for the following:

  • Congressional approval of the 22nd Amendment limiting the president to two terms;

  • Passage of the Taft-Hartley Act that allowed states to adopt “right-to-work” rules, drove communists out of the labor movement, and generally established balance between labor and business in labor law;

  • Passage of a major tax cut;

  • Pressuring Truman into ending wartime economic regimentation;

  • Enactment of the National Security Act of 1947, which established the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council and National Security Advisor, and the Central Intelligence Agency;

  • Approval of the Marshall Plan and aid to Greece and Turkey, the starting point of the policy of containment.

I’ll let Wikepedia pick it up from there:

As he readied for the approaching 1948 election, Truman made clear his identity as a Democrat in the New Deal tradition, advocating national health insurance, the repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, and an aggressive civil rights program. Taken together, it all constituted a broad legislative agenda that came to be called the “Fair Deal”.

Truman’s proposals made for potent campaign rhetoric, but were not well received by Congress, even after Democratic gains in the 1948 election. Only one of the major Fair Deal bills, the Housing Act of 1949, was ever enacted.

Steel and coal strikes

In response to a labor/management impasse arising from bitter disagreements over wage and price controls, Truman instructed his Secretary of Commerce, Charles W. Sawyer, to take control of a number of the nation’s steel mills in April 1952. Truman cited his authority as Commander in Chief and the need to maintain an uninterrupted supply of steel for munitions to be used in the war in Korea. The Supreme Court found Truman’s actions unconstitutional, however, and reversed the order in a major separation-of-powers decision, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer. The 6–3 decision, which held that Truman’s assertion of authority was too vague and was not rooted in any legislative action by Congress, was delivered by a Court composed entirely of Justices appointed by either Truman or Roosevelt. The high court’s reversal of Truman’s order was one of the notable defeats of his presidency. After coal miners went on strike in the spring of 1946, Truman threatened to draft the miners into the Army if they didn’t return to work, or use members of the Army to replace the workers.

Civil Rights

A 1947 report by the Truman administration titled To Secure These Rights presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms. In February 1948, the president submitted a civil rights agenda to Congress that proposed creating several federal offices devoted to issues such as voting rights and fair employment practices. This provoked a storm of criticism from Southern Democrats in the run up to the national nominating convention, but Truman refused to compromise, saying: “My forebears were Confederates. . . . But my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten.” In retirement however, Truman was less progressive on the issue. He described the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches as silly, stating that the marches would not “accomplish a darned thing”.

Instead of addressing civil rights on a case by case need, Truman wanted to address civil rights on a national level. Truman made three executive orders that eventually became a structure for future civil rights legislation. The first executive order, Executive Order 9981 in 1948, created a Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity to make report on racial policies in the armed services. The Executive Order did not specifically address or even mention racial segregation, as Truman “wanted to give the least offence to voters who supported segregation.” Nonetheless, it was a milestone on a long road to desegregation of the Armed Forces. Under the pressure of manpower shortages during the Korean War, Army units became racially integrated.

The second, also in 1948, made it illegal to discriminate against persons applying for Civil Service positions based on race. The third executive order, in 1951, established Committee on Government Contract Compliance (CGCC). This committee ensured that defense contractors to the armed forces could not discriminate against a person on account of race.

From we see that civil rights issues began to dominate politics for the next 20 years, particularly in the south. Civil rights, or more properly, segregation, had been the glue that held southern politicians firmly in the Democratic Party since the Civil War. The glue was starting to fail.

In the decades that followed Reconstruction the Democratic Party experienced change and evolution regarding its official views on a number of issues including Civil Rights and Integration. Southern Democrats had begun to feel extremely uncomfortable in the party that they viewed as having become far too liberal. In 1947 President Harry S. Truman gave a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that called for the federal government to be the vigilant protector of the civil rights of all Americans. Truman repeated the phrase “all Americans” leaving no doubt that he meant African Americans should be among those who were guaranteed equality of opportunity. This speech was anathema to the southern Democrats who were staunch supporters of Segregation and the preservation of “white power”.

…As many had feared, a majority of southern delegates, including all 22 members of the Mississippi delegation and 13 from Alabama, walked out of the convention and formed their own party—the States’ Rights Democratic Party. The Dixiecrats, as they were also known, held a one-day convention on July 17, 1948, in Birmingham, Alabama, in which they nominated South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond for president and chose Mississippi governor Fielding L. Wright as their vice-presidential candidate.