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The Growth and Limits of the Labor Movement in the Great Depression and World War II

Calliste Skouras

AP United States History

May 18, 2017
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At the onset of the Great Depression, a success in the near future for the American labor

movement seemed unlikely. The number of unionized workers had been on a decline since the early

1920s, and the weak, business-focused federal government under President Hoover was doing little in

the way of advocating for labor reforms1. Rather than improving labor conditions, unorganized

demonstrations and protests only added to the chaos and turmoil of the early 1930s2. Despite this, the

severe economic problems created during the Great Depression eventually did lead to many social

reforms, especially regarding labor - so much so that the 1930s was called Labor’s Great Upheaval. The

economic turmoil of the Great Depression and the economic boom of World War II brought about major

changes to labor laws in the United States by giving workers opportunities as well as offering protections

for them, both of which laid the foundations for the modern labor movement. At the same time,

workers faced legal and political challenges that hindered their ability to receive some of these new

opportunities and protections and slowed the growth of the labor movement.

Due to a growing focus on the struggles of workers during the Great Depression of the 1930s,

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal provided several new opportunities for the impoverished working class.

Because unemployment was soaring and workers had very few opportunities, the Great Depression

brought about a growing awareness of the plight of the working class, which made the federal

government realize the importance of providing job opportunities for workers. As Emerson Ross notes,

the prevailing concept in the 1920s that “unemployment was negligible, a personal matter, or a problem

to be met by local poor relief”3 was overcome by the new idea in which “​need for federal aid became

generally accepted”4 because of the economic turmoil. This shift in mindset led to the New Deal: a

1
"Labor Unions during the Great Depression and the New Deal," Library of Congress. Accessed November 10,
2016.
http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/depwwii/uni
ons/​.
2
​Eric Foner. Give Me Liberty!. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 792.
3
​Emerson Ross, "Unemployment Relief and Insurance." ​The American Economic Review​ 27, no. 1 (1937), ​113.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/1802392​.
4
Ibid.
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conglomeration of federal agencies, work programs, and new policies that played a major role in

creating new job opportunities for workers and was spearheaded by Roosevelt. Because FDR’s plan for

industrial recovery ​was to increase the buying power of workers - which would, therefore, increase

consumer demand for American products - the New Deal was largely focused on improving the lives of

workers and providing them with more job opportunities5. For this reason, it was a huge step forward in

workers’ rights. For example, in an attempt to better the economy by sending people to work, the New

Deal made various public works programs, such as the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress

Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. While they did not solve the economic depression,

these programs reduced unemployment and helped push the labor movement forward, since the

federal government was taking an initiative to employ its population. The Great Depression was, in fact,

an ultimate success for the labor movement because, by exposing the lack of opportunities for workers

during this hard economic time, it inspired a “new degree of social mindedness … which has set to work

new forces aiming to prevent and to mitigate the ills of future unemployment”6.

The economic boom brought about by World War II similarly pushed the labor movement

forward by providing workers with new opportunities through the increasing availability of jobs and the

growing popularity of unions. As American factories began wartime mobilization and started producing

supplies for the war effort, there was a huge increase in the availability of jobs in defense industries for

men, women, and racial minorities alike7. World War II also advanced the labor movement by offering

workers more opportunities to collectively bargain for their rights. To maintain peace in businesses that

were crucial to the war effort, the federal government forced the recognition of labor unions in most

defense industries, which allowed the union population to soar from under 3 million in 1933 to almost

5
​Daniel J. B. Mitchell. "Inflation, Unemployment, and the Wagner Act: A Critical Reappraisal." ​Stanford Law Review
38, no. 4 (1986): 1067. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1228576.
6
​John F Tinsley. "Depressions Past and Present." ​Bulletin of the Business Historical Society​ 7, no. 2 (1933), 6​.
www.jstor.org/stable/3110847​.
7
"Labor, the Depression, the New Deal, and WWII." Georgia State University Library. Accessed
November 6, 2016. ​http://research.library.gsu.edu/c.php?g=115684&p=752252​.
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15 million in 19458. Because World War II offered new opportunities for workers, the momentum of the

labor movement’s success during the New Deal continued throughout the early 1940s.

The New Deal was also a major success for the labor movement because workers’ demands and

a change in the government’s mindset led the welfare-minded federal government to offer workers

unprecedented security and protection, through new laws and federal programs, which provided a legal

platform for workers’ rights. As the average standard of living was on a steep decline due to the

economic difficulties of the time, workers were especially inclined to demand federal involvement in

their lives to improve their conditions9. As the American economist Royal Meeker stated, “in the time of

... adversity the people have demanded Federal relief and Federal control of business enterprise”10 to

give them protections, which explains why an economic depression produced so many protections for

labor. Another reason why the Great Depression produced so many labor protections was because of

the federal government’s realization during this time that “security is a primary need both from the

emotional and economic standpoints”11. Because of this change in mindset, the federal government

made sure to provide methods to ensure st​ability and security among workers in order to increase their

confidence and help them escape poverty. Major federal protections established during the New Deal

because of these two factors included the Social Security Act of 1935, which protected retired and

unemployed citizens by offering economic aid, and the Wagner Act of the same year, which ​outlawed

“unfair labor practices” and legalized unions. The Wagner Act, sometimes called “Labor’s Magna Carta”12

, was a federal protection that forever changed labor, as it allowed the government to protect workers’

collective bargaining rights through a National Labor Regulations Board. These new protections

8
Eric Foner. Give Me Liberty!, 855.
9
"​ The Wagner Labor Disputes Act." ​Columbia Law Review​ 35, no. 7 (1935): 1098.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/1116341.
10
​Royal Meeker. "The Great American Adventure." ​The American Scholar​ 2, no. 4 (1933), 463.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/41203994​.
11
​Louis A Schwartz. "The Depression Stew" ​Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1931-1951)​ 24, no. 6 (1934),
1068. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1135838.
12
​Robert J Rosenthal. "Exclusions of Employees under the Taft-Hartley Act." ​Industrial and Labor Relations Review
4, no. 4 (1951): 556. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2518498.
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diminished the necessity for strikes and lessened resentment among laborers13. Other federal

protections of labor that emerged as a result of this economic turmoil included the Agricultural

Adjustment Act, which protected farmers from extremely low crop prices by paying them to plant less,

and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which created a minimum wage and maximum work hours14.

Because of workers’ demands and a change in the role of the federal government, both of which

stemmed from the Great Depression, the New Deal offered new protections for labor that forever

improved the lives of workers.

Mobilization for World War II also pushed the labor movement forward by providing workers

with more protections because of new compromises and new federal agencies, which offered workers

with long-lasting security. For example, to ensure that labor-management disputes did not hinder the

war effort, compromises between workers and management rather than strikes allowed workers to gain

more protections. In December of 1941, as the United States was preparing for its entry into war, FDR

called for a conference “t​o reach a unanimous agreement to prevent the interruption of production by

labor disputes during the period of the war”15. As a result of this conference, labor and management

reached an agreement that allowed the National War Labor Board to settle labor-management disputes,

as long as a “no-strike pledge” was instituted in defense industries. FDR’s conference shows how World

War II sparked a desire to reach compromises between labor and management, which, for the most

part, led to a larger recognition and protection of labor. Not only were compromises enacted, but the

federal government also began to enforce promises they had made in earlier years so that workers

would have no reason to be upset and cause chaos in defense industries. For example, the Wagner Act,

which had been taken lightly ​by many big businesses, was now being strictly enforced and protected by

13
​"The Wagner Labor Disputes Act." Columbia Law Review 35, no. 7 (1935): 1100.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/1116341.
14
​“Wages-Hours Law is in Force Today; Hailded by Andrews." New York Times, October 24, 1938.
http://search.proquest.com/docview/102394075/pageviewPDF/ED​993FB808114046PQ /1?accountid=36338.
15
​Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Statement on a Conference on Wartime Labor Policy.," December 11, 1941. Online by
Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, ​The American Presidency Project​.
http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=16059​.
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the federal government, which allowed the union population to soar during this time. ​Secondly, World

War II inspired more protections for the labor movement because new federal agencies, such as the

NWLB, sprang up to regulate labor during the war and p​ermanently increased the role of the national

government. For example, the War Production Board, which dealt with labor standards, labor supply,

and labor relations, among other things, regulated labor in defense-industries as a way of protecting the

workers and ensuring that they were at least somewhat satisfied with their conditions. Similarly, the

Committee on Fair Employment Practices prohibited discrimination against workers “because of race,

creed, color, or national origin”, which protected all minority workers across the country and also

provided the roots for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s16. For the first time, arguably since

Reconstruction, the federal government was creating agencies to address issues regarding racial

inequality. Not only did World War II bring the United States out of the Great Depression, which, by

itself, improved the conditions faced by American workers, but it also led to many new and lasting

protections for laborers.

Although the Great Depression and World War II were enormous steps forward for the labor

movement, both eras were accompanied by setbacks due to legal and political challenges from

traditional and conservative voices. For example, while laborers in the 1930s experienced a huge

expansion of their rights and better economic conditions from Roosevelt’s policies, the president faced

many setbacks that limited the extent of these policies, and workers still had to fight to get these rights

granted to them. Roosevelt faced many conservative critiques from those who believed that the New

Deal was an unconstitutional expansion of federal government control. As one of these conservative

critics, Hugh Johnson, wrote, the New Deal “destroys local self-government” and is “one of the most

powerful, far-reaching, vicious and subversive departures in our recent history”17. Facing challenges like

16
​Schedler, Carl R. "The Work of Labor Boards and Agencies in Wartime." Law and Contemporary Problems 9, no. 3
(1942): 414. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1189511.
17
​Hugh Johnson. "Vested Interests in Government Spending." ​Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science​ 17,
no. 4 (1938): 76. ​www.jstor.org/stable/1172353​.
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these, Roosevelt was forced to limit the extent and reach of his policies, in order for him to still retain

some support. Roosevelt also faced challenges from a conservative Supreme Court, which invalidated

some of FDR’s New Deal laws and prevented these laws from pushing the labor movement forward. For

example, in 1935, in ​Schechter Poultry Company v. US​, the Court invalidated the National Recovery Act

and, one year later, in ​US v. Butler, ​the Agricultural Adjustment Act was ruled unconstitutional. These

two court cases limited the federal regulation of industry, which decreased both protections and

opportunities for workers who could have benefitted further from FDR’s New Deal. To circumvent these

challenges to his laws, he attempted to add more liberal justices to the Supreme Court to change the

balance of power so that other crucial parts of his New Deal, such as the Social Security Act and the

Wagner Act, wouldn’t be overturned. While Congress did not allow this to pass, the court-packing

scheme showed FDR’s discontent with the legal obstacles he faced from a conservative Supreme Court

that disagreed with his policies. Despite the failure of the court-packing scheme, the Supreme Court

gradually changed its mindset and soon became more accepting of federal government regulations,

which was seen when it upheld the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act18. Because of some

opposition from the general public and the Supreme Court to New Deal policies, not all of workers’

rights were achieved solely by the federal government’s desire to protect laborers. Instead, collective

bargaining rights, minimum wage, and other rights were usually gained through striking. The mid-1930s

witnessed a huge upsurge in strikes, with its pinnacle being in 193419. While many strikes were

suppressed, several of them, such as the United Automobile Workers Union (UAW) strike from 1936 to

1937, were successful in changing workers’ condition. The strike established collective bargaining rights

in the plant, solidified the UAW, popularized the sit-down strike, and inspired many other unhappy

18
​William F Shughart. "Bending before the Storm: The U.S. Supreme Court in Economic Crisis, 1935–1937." T​ he
Independent Review​ 9, no. 1 (2004): 55-83. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24562728.
19
"Labor, the Depression, the New Deal, and WWII." Georgia State University Library. Accessed November 6, 2016.
http://research.library.gsu.edu/c.php?g=115684&p=752252​.
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American workers to go on strike to fight for their rights20. While strikes such as this one expanded

workers’ opportunities, these opportunities did not come without a fight. Similarly to the Great

Depression, while World War II saw the spread of unions and the government’s desire to settle labor

disputes, due to a nationwide wave of conservatism, foreign turmoil, and economic focus, the decline of

the New Deal was already well underway as its programs that helped the labor movement were

eliminated. Because of the booming economy from wartime mobilization, there was less of a focus on

restructuring and welfare, which contributed to a surge in Republican ideology. Also, white Southern

democrats who had previously supported the New Deal were increasingly afraid of federal government

intervention in the South regarding black civil rights, and began to oppose New Deal policies. Other

obstacles to the growth of the labor movement during and directly after World War II was the

conservative Congress largely made up of southern Democrats and northern Republicans which

continued to eliminate agencies that were seen as too much government intervention and pass laws to

restrict this. For example, while President Truman tried to promote his “Fair Deal” policy, which included

raising minimum wage and continuing the New Deal, Congress rejected it. Also, in 1947, Congress

passed the Taft-Hartley Act over Truman’s veto, which amended and reversed the progress brought

about by the Wagner Act21 and made it much harder to form unions22. This led to a decline in union

membership and removed restrictions on employers, therefore harming the working conditions of

laborers23. Another reason why World War II led to limitations in the labor movement was because,

while FDR’s presidency tried to help labor, “the whole trust of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration's

massive intervention in the depression-ridden economy was designed to preserve, not change,

20
​Lynch, Timothy P. ""Sit Down! Sit Down!": Songs of the General Motors Strike, 1936-1937." Michigan Historical
Review 22, no. 2 (1996): 1-17. ​http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tvnsp.7.
21
"AFL Musters Corps of Lobbyists to Fight Taft-Hartley Labor Act." The Wall Street Journal, January 5, 1949.
http://search.proquest.com/docview/131796736?accountid=36338.
22
​"New Labor Act." The Washington Post, June 24, 1947.
http://search.proquest.com/docview/151956940?accountid=36338.
23
​Jack Barbash. "The Labor Movement after World War II." ​Monthly Labor Review​ 99, no. 11 (1976): 34.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/41840086.
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American corporate capitalism” 24. The large corporations that sprung up ignored many regulations and

standards for labor and were able to get away with it because of their importance to the American

defense industry. Similarly, many factory owners took advantage of the no-strike pledge of

defense-industries during the war by imposing harsh conditions on workers and attempting to

circumvent the regulations of federal agencies that tried to protect workers’ rights. Largely due to

conservative pushbacks against new forms of federal intervention, the labor movement faced many

struggles in the Great Depression and World War II.

The Great Depression and World War II were two crucial events in United States history that

provided the modern foundations for the labor movement today by giving the federal government an

unprecedented role in the workplace. While many New Deal efforts to increase the rights of laborers

were reversed during and after World War II, most core elements of labor protection were left intact. At

the same time, the 1930s and 1940s marked the beginnings of a growing conservative opposition to too

much federal labor protection, which, to this day, has a significant voice in politics. The successes and

the obstacles faced by the labor movement during the Great Depression and World War II truly made

these two decades an incredibly important and transformative time for the labor movement.

24
​Paul A. C. Koistinen. "Mobilizing the World War II Economy: Labor and the Industrial-Military Alliance." ​Pacific
Historical Review​ 42, no. 4 (1973): 444. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3638133.
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