The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

60 years ago:
U.S. strike wave

Jun 12, 2006

Sixty years ago, at the end of May 1946, four hundred thousand miners won a two-month strike, part of the largest strike wave in U.S. history. The miners’ determination overcame not only what their bosses had tried to do, but what the president of the U.S. threatened to do. They won a pay increase and also, for the first time, a health and welfare fund.

The miners were part of a wave of strikes that included steel workers, auto workers, oil workers and truck drivers, among others. Altogether, more than four million workers were on strike during 1946. They were striking over serious problems faced by the entire working class.

Perhaps those who experienced or knew about the strike waves of the 1930s thought that the organizations of the new unions had solved the problem of unemployment. But even before World War II began, employment levels were not back to the levels of the 1920s. And when war production slowed as the war was ending, the bosses began laying off hundreds of thousands. By August of 1945, a million workers had been laid off. With the return of soldiers from overseas, the bosses tried to pit worker against worker in competition over fewer jobs.

When World War II began, President Roosevelt demanded a no-strike pledge from labor, using the excuse of the war to help the bosses’ profits. Roosevelt also instituted a wage freeze in 1942. The next year Congress passed the Smith-Connally Act, making a strike during the war punishable by a large fine and imprisonment.

Workers back at home were experiencing rising prices, stagnant wages, intense pressure to produce, and rationing of meat and sugar and gas. Gross wages rose only because so much overtime was demanded for the war.

Most top union leaders supported Roosevelt’s “no-strike” pledge. But there were plenty of “unauthorized” strikes during the war in various industries – more strikes than ever before or since, even if most of them were small, short-lived wildcats.

In the early 1940s, miners faced food costs that had doubled in mining towns. Between 1941 and 1943, there had been an estimated 240,000 injuries or deaths among miners on their already dangerous jobs. When the bosses refused wage increases, miners walked off the job. Roosevelt threatened to send in the army. The head of the miners union, John L. Lewis, repeated the miners’ defiant phrase: “You can’t dig coal with bayonets.” It took the miners four strikes during 1943 to win an increase in pay.

Some CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) union leaders attacked the miners for standing up for themselves during wartime. The president of the UAW (United Auto Workers), R. J. Thomas, and the vice president, Walter Reuther, came out against the miners’ strike, although auto worker militants pushed to strike in support of the United Mine Workers. The leaders of the electrical workers union, from the American Communist Party, supported the no-strike pledge and even demanded their work force increase productivity for the war effort by 15%.

The conditions that led the miners to strike in 1943 led millions more to strike when the war ended. The federal Reconversion Advisory Board looked into the question of raising wages. The board reported that corporations could afford wage increases of 24% without losing their levels of profits.

But the new president, Harry Truman, opposed the board’s recommendation. When oil workers struck for better pay, Truman took up where Roosevelt had left off. He ordered the U.S. navy to seize the struck oil refineries.

Still, strikes in auto and steel gained some wage increases at a time when the average for production workers in steel was $1.29 per hour. On February 18, 1946, steelworkers won an 18½¢ per hour increase from U.S. Steel. On March 4, striking rubber workers won an 18¢ per hour increase from Goodyear, Firestone, and other rubber companies. On March 15, striking UAW workers gained 18½¢ per hour plus paid vacations.

For the miners, the 1946 strike not only meant a much-needed wage increase, but also health coverage. At the end of the strike the coal operators agreed to put 25 million dollars a year into the miners’ benefit fund.

The vast movement of 1946 showed what workers could gain when mobilized across a range of sectors. And that broad movement certainly threw back some of the bosses’ plans to eliminate jobs. But the 1946 mobilization was the high point for organized labor in this country. And it revealed the problem that was never resolved: the whole working class needed jobs with better pay and benefits. But only labor already organized in unions was called to strike for better pay and benefits.

The strategy of U.S. labor leaders was to take workers out on strike only industry by industry or even company by company. They never proposed to spread strikes from one sector to another. They didn’t include the rest of the working class, those not yet organized in unions, when they made demands for better pay and benefits.

The fact that so many workers from so many different industries were fighting at the same time may have hidden the divisions that existed in 1946. But the subsequent 60 years have shown the limits of this piecemeal strategy. A strategy that allows gains for some workers puts them in competition with lower paid workers. Only the bosses win in such a situation.

Workers always have to fight the bosses and the government to gain anything. We need a new struggle for jobs with decent wages and benefits – one that recognizes our common interests as members of one single class, facing the same problems, with the same needs. And we need to push our struggles beyond the artificial barriers that divide the working class.