The National War Labor Board: History & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

The National War Labor Board was a body formed to resolve disputes in labor during wartime production, specifically during WWI and WWII. Learn about its important role and accomplishments in this lesson.

Complaints and Resolutions

Have you ever had a rough patch at work or a problem with your boss? Did you seek a resolution? Worker complaints are about as common as mosquito bites and cause productivity to suffer. During both World Wars, it was absolutely vital that productivity remained as high as possible in war industries. Workers, who, in many cases belonged to unions, were constantly in their own wars with ownership over their conditions. To alleviate this, the National War Labor Board was created and charged with the task of managing employee/employer disputes during both World Wars. In this lesson, let's explore the history of this important body, its role in both wars, and what the board successfully accomplished.

A Brief History of Labor

To know the importance of the National War Labor Board, you must first know a little about labor relations in the early 1900s. For years, industrial and factory workers were exposed to very dangerous conditions. Dismemberment, injury, and death were common occurrences. Additionally, pay was low, hours long, and even children were forced to work. Think about that next time you have to stay late.

Working conditions were less than stellar in the early 20th century
working conditions

The rise of worker unions as early as the 1700s sought to change these conditions via worker's rights, but were met with mixed results. In the 1800s, both strikes and the violent tactics used to end them, were common. Needless to say, the worker-management relationship was tenuous, just like it might be at times with your supervisor.

Strikes were common; so was violence to end them
Strike and Violence

Such a relationship continued into the early 1900s. With the onset of WWI in 1914, America traded with both enemy and ally. Industry owners, as they had in the past, wanted to make as much money as possible. This meant keeping factories as productive as possible and pushing workers to the brink.

Incarnations of the Board

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, productivity was more important than ever. Our troops now 'over there' needed supplies and weapons. The government needed factories to produce these at a record pace.

Now, recall what you read about the many strikes and the resulting violence above. Do you think these would be bad for factories making wartime materials? The government had the same realization and knew they would need to intervene to prevent strikes.

In March 1918, the National War Labor Board was created by President Woodrow Wilson. Former President William Howard Taft was the chairman of the first National War Labor Board. Other members included union leaders, such as Francis Walsh from the United Mine Workers, and industry leaders, such as Loyall A. Osborne, Vice President of Westinghouse. These were big names of both union and industry.

William Howard Taft, former executive and member of the first National War Labor Board
William Howard Taft

The board played a significant role in preventing labor unrest during the war thus keeping productivity high, and it was disbanded in 1919. More on their successes later.

In 1942, the U.S. was once again embroiled in conflict with WWII. President Franklin D. Roosevelt reactivated the board for generally the same reasons. Wartime production was vital to supporting American and Allied troops. In World War II, it was even more important since fighting took place both in the Pacific and European theaters. The composition of the board was very similar to what it had been in the past.

Additionally, the U.S. was coming off the Great Depression, one of the worst economic crises in history. Many people, who had not worked in some time, were rushed into factories producing for the war in large numbers. The government's fear was that so many people now working might lead to an increased chance of labor unrest.

Countless workers toiled in WWII
Workers

Hopefully, you noticed that the need for the board was similar in both cases. The importance of wartime production cannot be stressed enough.

Success: Accomplishments of the Board

Given the need to create the National War Labor Board in both wars, you might be wondering what they accomplished.

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