Union Development During WWII: Issues & Conflict

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  • 0:00 Impact of World War II
  • 0:55 Wage Freezes and…
  • 2:46 Maintenance of Memberships
  • 3:48 Organization of New Sectors
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Learn more about the powerful impact of World War II on organized labor, when membership reached its historical height in the U.S. Consider leverage of unions at the time and sectors in which they expanded.

Impact of World War II

Picture this: The country is going to war and the U.S. government needs to mobilize the workforce to address the many demands that war will place on its resources. Many industries will play a part in winning the war. People who were unemployed are either headed to war or needed in the workplace. Women and people of color were also needed as part of this effort in at least some of the roles where they had traditionally been excluded.

Where do labor unions fit in this scene? The government and employers recognized that unions were going to be needed in this huge endeavor. Tension with labor unions and workers could jeopardize the goals of the war effort. Employers were also faced with a powerful incentive to ensure smooth operations to keep production going. It was time for employers and the government to work closely with unions, and for unions to reciprocate.

Wage Freezes and Fringe Benefits

So, you might wonder what this type of partnership meant for worker's interests. Many large unions agreed not to strike, but they certainly wanted something in return to ensure they still made progress for their membership and upheld the quality of life for workers. In return for unions pledging to keep production going, the government was willing to find ways to address disputes through formal arbitration by the National War Labor Board.

You might expect wages would have risen a great deal during this period due to the demand for employees, but there was a big barrier to this. One of the jobs of the National War Labor Board was to keep wages in check to avoid inflation. If wages were allowed to grow rapidly, prices would also grow rapidly and this was not desirable for the country as a whole.

Since employers were not allowed to entice workers with higher and higher wages, they began to offer new types of benefits, including paid time off, health care insurance, and pensions. When you're offered a full-time job in today's society, the benefits package you receive has its roots in this time period of wage freezes and the addition of fringe benefits to bridge the gap when higher salaries were not an option. So, while unions were not necessarily in a position to achieve significant gains in salary during wartime, the National War Labor Board helped to facilitate other gains to avoid striking by the unions.

As time went on, some workers felt that the National War Labor Board wasn't holding up its end of the bargain in addressing grievances or ensuring good working conditions. As a result, not all union-represented workers would stand by their pledge not to strike, such as the 500,000 coal miners who went on strike in protest of major safety concerns and low wages. Other workers suppressed their dissatisfaction until the war was over, striking almost as soon as victory was at hand.

Maintenance of Membership

The war saw a huge increase in union membership. One of the reasons was fairly straightforward. If you wanted to work at a company with a recognized union, you were required to pay union dues, joining the union when you started your new job. This rule by the National War Labor Board was known as maintenance of membership.

Why would the government be interested to help unions grow their membership? Think about the issue from both the point of view of the union and the point of view of the government. Without the ability to strike, unions were concerned employers would take the opportunity to push them out of workplaces. Unions would be in a weak position without the power to stop production and force employers to respond to their terms. They would only agree to a no-strike pledge if they were assured they would not be wiped out by employers.

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