Among the multiple crises that continue to plague the United States is the crisis of labor and management, recently having garnered renewed attention due to a series of strikes and other labor actions. In January, 1,400 warehouse workers and drivers represented by Teamsters Local 202 brought Hunts Point Produce Market, a market that provides approximately a quarter of all of New York City’s fresh produce, to a temporarily standstill, after the union and management failed to come to an agreement. The first strike action taken by market workers in 35 years, the strike garnered national attention with the United Federation of Teachers, the New York State Nurses Association, and the United Auto Workers all expressing their support. Meanwhile, a bitter battle to form the first Amazon union in the United States has prompted speculation of a coming expansion in labor power to a degree not seen in decades. Speaking at a rally of dozens of workers at a union hall in Birmingham last week, Senator Bernie Sanders told workers, “What you’re doing is for workers across the country. They know if you succeed here, it will spread all over the country.”
This episode takes listeners on a journey back in time to a similar moment during World War II when strikes and labor agitation abounded, threatening to bring a halt to the country’s war-time production. Rather than union leaders or shop stewards, Ronald Schatz, focuses his attention on the National War Labor Board. Recruited by the government to help resolve union-management conflicts during World War II, many of the labor board vets went on to have long and illustrious careers negotiating conflicts in a wide-range of sectors from the steel industry to public sector unionism. Some were recruited to mitigate unrest on college and university campuses in response to student unrest. While not a traditional labor history, the history of the labor board vets is one worth paying attention to both for what it tells us about past efforts to arbitrate labor-management conflicts, and what could be deployed again to address present and future conflicts.
Check out the episode here!
Ronald W. Schatz is Professor of History at Wesleyan University and the author of The Electrical Workers: A History of Labor at General Electric and Westinghouse, 1923-60 and The Labor Board Crew: Remaking Worker-Employer Relations from Pearl Harbor to the Reagan Era.