The Great Strike Wave of 1946
[The 1946 coal strike] is the most momentous event in the country's peacetime history."
- Evansville Courier, 1946
When most people think of labor unrest in America they think of the 1930's, or the various major strikes of the 19th Century. The fact is that no year, before or since, saw so many strikes, and such a large percentage of people on strike, or so many industries effected by strikes, as 1946.
Never before had labor unions flexed so much muscle.
But that success also sowed the seeds of labor's long-term downfall.
Picketers (and dog) in jail during Rochester General Strike
The root of the labor conflict of 1946 was the no-strike pledge that so many labor unions took during WWII. This caused a build-up of labor disputes that was bound to explode once the war had ended. In addition, union membership literally doubled, from 7.2 million in 1940 to 14.5 million at war's end.
That's not to say that there weren't strikes during WWII. It only means there were very localized strikes. Almost none of the wartime strikes were over wages. The overwhelming number was over disciplinary and management issues.
These flash strikes were almost never individually serious, but their cumulative total was. If walkouts continue at the present rate, labor will hang up a new record in 1944 of 5,200 strikes in one year. (During the six-year period between 1927 and 1932, inclusive, the total number of strikes was 4,520, but only one-third the number of people working now were employed then.) This means that work stoppages, despite labor's no-strike pledge for the duration, are occurring more frequently now than at any time during the past 25 years.
But what occurred during the war was nothing compared to what happened when the war ended.
In 1937 there were 4,740 strikes involving 1,861,000 workers for over 28 million days, by 1945 there were 4,750 strikes involving 3,470,000 workers for 38 million days, and in 1946 there were 4,985 strikes involving 4,600,000 workers for 116 million days. The US strike wave of 1945-1946 is one of the great episodes in working class history...
The strikes began almost the moment that the bombs stopped dropping on Japan. In September 1945, 43,000 petroleum workers and 200,000 coal workers struck. In October 44,000 lumber workers, 70,000 teamsters, and 40,000 machinists joined them.
Then in November 1945, the UAW called its first major strike against GM since the company was unionized in 1937. Nearly a quarter of a million men walked out.
This was only a taste compared to what would happen in January.
To see original news reels about the strikes, click here.
We are all leaders
In Stamford, Conneticut, the Yale & Towne lock company withdrew recognition of the International Association of Machinists. The official strike began on November 7, 1945, accompanied by arrests and clashes on the picket line.
The union-busting effort was extremely unpopular. On January 3, 1946 a general strike was called.
Workers all over Stampford reported to their jobs. But instead of going to work, they marched downtown to a mass rally. Many merchants closed their shops for the day. Others put signs in their windows announcing support for the strikers. Ten thousand people, accompanied by a band from the musicians union, paraded in front of the town hall, shouting slogans of support for Yale & Towne workers... Downtown Stampford's theatres, stores and streetcars closed down, while workers from industries in surrounding cities took the day off and sent contingents to the mass rally.
One prominent slogan on placards at the rally read: `We will not go back to the old days'.
The strike got increasingly violent until the factory was shut down in in March. By early April Yale and Towne caved in, accepting the union and a 30% pay raise.
Mounted police clear strikers from the street at Westinghouse strike
174,000 electrical workers, 300,000 meatpackers, and 3/4 of a million steelworkers went on strike in January 1946.
The 1946 steelworker strike was the first major steel strike since the bloody and disastrous steel strike of 1919. The two strikes were a study in contrast. In 1919 the police, militia, and company thugs were unleashed on the strikers in brutal fashion. The 1946 strike was peaceful and President Truman even put pressure on the companies to settle.
In the end the steel companies folded.
A protracted transport strike in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, led to a three day general strike in February. Pittsburgh saw a general strike in September to force the release of union leader, George Mueller, from prison.
In Rochester a general strike occurred because the Republican-dominated city council was attempting to bust unions that worked for the city.
But the most dramatic strikes haven't been mentioned yet.
Battle of the Titans
It's possible that no union leader was more powerful and more respected than John L. Lewis.
Lewis worked as a miner as a teenager in the 1890's. In 1911 he began organizing for the United Mine Workers full time and became the UMW's acting president in 1919, a position he would hold until 1960.
Lewis' rule in the UMW could be described as despotic. However, he commanded fierce loyalty throughout both the leadership and the ranks. Lewis left no doubt that his loyalty lied with the miners. He called for strikes during both WWI and WWII, leaving the pro-labor President Roosevelt with no choice but to use the military to seize the mines. Lewis was unapologetic.
In April 1946, Lewis called out a strike for 350,000 miners, joining the hundreds of thousands already on strike. In May, railroad workers joined the coal miners, threatening to bring the entire nation to a halt.
President Harry Truman decided that the unions had gone too far, and after the railroad workers rejected a settlement, he seized control of the railroads. Despite the government takeover, the workers continued with their strike plans. As a result, on May 24, 1946, Truman issued an ultimatum declaring that the government would operate the railroads and use the army as strikebreakers. When the deadline passed, Truman went before Congress to seek the power to deny seniority rights to strikers and to draft strikers into the armed forces. Just as Truman reached the climax of his speech, he received a note saying that the strike was “settled on the terms proposed by the President.”
Click on this link to see the news broadcast about the railroad strike.
The railroad strike was over and the coal strike ended just days later, but the wave of strikes was far from over.
In September the longshoremen on the west coast went out on strike.
In southern Canada, a bitter steelworkers strike spilled over the border, causing sympathy strikes at Firestone and Goodyear.
The year of strikes had one more chapter to write, and it was probably the most dramatic and unexpected of them all. It's catalyst was when the city council of Oakland made the poor decision to intervene in a modest strike against a downtown department store.
It was in the heart of downtown Oakland, at 7 a.m. on a rainy December day a half-century ago.
Dozens of strikers, picket signs held high, were gathered outside the Kahn's and Hastings department stores on Broadway on that wet, chilly morning in 1946. Suddenly, some 200 Oakland and Berkeley police, many in riot gear, swept down the street. They roughly pushed aside pickets and pedestrians alike as they cleared the street and the surrounding eight square blocks. They set up machine guns across from Kahn's while tow trucks moved in to snatch away any cars parked in the area.
It was a complete over-reaction and was sure to antagonize, and in 1946 that was something you didn't want to do.
The witnesses, that is, truck drivers, bus and streetcar operators and passengers, got off their vehicles and did not return. The city filled with workers, they milled about in the city's core for several hours and then organised themselves.
By nightfall the strikers had instructed all stores except pharmacies and food markets to shut down, Bars were allowed to stay open, but they could serve only beer and had to put their juke boxes out on the sidewalk to play at full volume and no charge.
By Tuesday morning they had cordoned off the central city and were directing traffic. Anyone could leave, but only those with passports (union cards) could get in.
On the second day of this general strike the union members marched to city hall and demanded the resignation of the mayor and city council. The Sailor's Union at the Oakland Army Base walked off the job. In all 130,000 workers had walked off the job, in a city of about 200,000. Nearby cities of Emeryville, Piedmont, Alameda, San Leandro, and Berkeley also experienced walk-outs.
The workers were in complete control, yet there was little sign of actual union leadership anywhere. It seems the general strike had not only caught the mayor of Oakland off-guard, but the local union leaders as well.
"These finky gazoonies who call themselves city fathers have been taking lessons from Hitler and Stalin. They don't believe in the kind of unions that are free to strike."
- Harry Lundeberg, Sailor's Union representative
The strike ended 54 hours old at 11 a.m. on December 5. The AFL decided to end the general strike with nothing more than a promise by the city council to never use scabs again. The AFL forgot to negotiate anything for the female clerks striking at Kahn's and Hastings Department Stores. The AFL leadership had sold them out.
In the aftermath every incumbent official in the major Oakland Teamsters Local 70 was voted out of office. The AFL put up challenging candidates to the city council in the next election and won four of the five open seats.
Conservatives were livid at the amount of disruptions from the strikes. There were several other reasons for the Republican win in 1946 elections, including a recession and the fact that Truman wasn't as popular as FDR, but the strikes just added to that list.
The GOP gained 55 seats and regained control of the House for the first time since Hoover was still president.
The Republican Party immediately went after the base of the Democratic Party - labor unions. In 1947 they passed the Taft-Hartley Act. It prohibited jurisdictional strikes, secondary boycotts and "common situs" picketing, closed shops, and monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns.
Congress overrode Truman's veto on June 23. The law became known as the "slave-labor bill" in union circles.