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War Industry at the Crossroads

ISSUE:  Summer 1942

Beginning a month or so after Pearl Harbor, newspapers all over the United States broke out into headlines about the coming labor shortage in the spring. A “jobless crisis” was predicted in the factories and on the farms. War plants, with foreseen shortage of ten million workers, removed the age limit and called on women and men hitherto considered unfit. The Gallup poll showed that most people were in favor of total mobilization. “Jobs Available but no Men to Meet Demands.”

Despite this outcry, discerning citizens noted the paradox of more than four million unemployed, of an increasing number of workers—over a million in January alone—displaced by the diversion of essential materials to war production, and of tens of thousands of workers barred from employment by racial and religious discrimination, Then why these headlines? Why talk of a labor draft? Simply because bottlenecks, as serious as those which stalled the effective mobilization of our productive facilities a year ago, have been impeding the mobilization of our manpower, Though we now have several millions of long-term unemployed and new millions of “priorities” unemployed, America’s war machine, as much as a year ago, faced labor shortages in certain categories of workers. With each passing month of war, as industry gears for full arms production, these shortages promise to grow more and more acute.

The headless hodge-podge of labor recruiting is perhaps the most important single cause of the demand for drafting workers. Early in 1940, when French and British war orders started to flood into the United States, the seriousness of the situation became apparent. Soon California aircraft companies advertised in New York papers offering skilled workmen long-term contracts, fantastic salaries, moving expenses and numerous other inducements to migrate. While the Western trek was underway, thousands of workers were moving from the Middle and Far West to the large industrial centers on the Atlantic seaboard, When the Martin bomber plant in Baltimore expanded, it attracted thousands of workers from the farthest reaches of the country, leaving untouched the tens of thousands of unemployed in and around Baltimore. This situation was paralleled in every production center of the country.

Last winter in Detroit, while factories were being retooled, many skilled workers were maintained on the payroll—idle though they were—lest they leave for other jobs. This hoarding applied not only to skilled technicians but to semi-skilled and to common labor as well. Throughout the country, labor raiding became commonplace, Salaries were spiraled recklessly to attract workers, and where this failed the workers were shanghaied. Labor itself was not blameless. Jurisdictional disputes frequently made it impossible to place unemployed CIO workers in shops organized by the AF of L. The converse was equally true. Another complicating factor was the attitude of anti-union employers. In one town where the shortage of labor was critical, a loafer round-up was ordered. The 1942 counterpart of General Crowder’s World War “Work-or-Fight” order was blazoned all over the country. During the spring hundreds of thousands of school and college students were registered by the U. S. Employment Service for work in office, farm and factory during summer vacation. At the same time hundreds of thousands of workers were being laid off as a result of reallocation of war materials.

This is the muddied background of America’s manpower problem. It is not, however, a new problem. Both England and Germany have been obliged to face it in the present war, and we ourselves faced it less than thirty years ago.


Long before we entered World War I, industry began to adapt itself to meet the growing needs of the Allies. Between 1914 and 1919 two million new workers were absorbed, over a million of them women who deserted homes and offices for jobs on farms and in factories. Industry had first started to feel the pinch as early as 1915. In the spring of that year labor scouts of northern and midwestern plants drew on the untapped supply of Negro workers in the South. Within three years, half a million Negroes had migrated northward. However in 1917 when immigration, one of the main sources of our labor supply, had been shut off, shortages again became acute. Mexican farm hands and laborers were drawn across the border. More Negroes were imported from the Bahamas. Women and children were recruited into a land corps to plant and harvest crops. And still there weren’t enough workers. With labor operating in a seller’s market, it wasn’t long before certain insidious practices which are common today were resorted to. Commenting on the gravity of the situation in his final report as Chairman Of the War Industries Board, Bernard Baruch said:

By the beginning of 1918, a large number of Government agencies and war contractors, competing against one another to attract laborers, advertising more and more favorable conditions and more and more favorable wages, was causing a turn-over and inefficiency which, in the face of a growing shortage, was a dangerous menace to the war program.

A score of agencies were set up to cope with labor scarcities and with the problems attendant upon migration and disputes.

Shortages were tackled first. The forerunners of today’s defense-training programs were instituted by private industry, by the U. S. Federal Board for Vocational Education, and by the Labor Division of the War Industries Board. Labor was brought indirectly into war industries by means of priorities in allocating materials—a method very similar to that used today. The Labor Division of WIB, the U. S. Bureau of Immigration, the U. S. Employment Service, and the Selective Service Administration were charged with the direct recruiting of labor, The Employment Service succeeded only partially in guiding labor migration and in controlling competitive advertising and bidding by employers. Likewise, attempts by these agencies to control the hiring and firing of war workers met with mediocre success,

The serious threat to the war program of labor turn-over and migration was tackled by the War Labor Policies Board, which was also directed to establish standardized wages and working conditions in various industries. No less than thirteen adjustment boards were set up to adjudicate the increasing number of factional disputes within labor groups and between labor and management. In retrospect it is difficult to say whether the situation got out of control because of, or in spite of this Topsy-like mushrooming of agencies. But shortages, turn-over, disputes, work stoppages and migration problems—in fact the whole sequence of war-labor problems—seemed to increase rather than decrease, Then came General Crowder’s famous “Work-or-Fight” order which augured a final governmental resolve to take the situation in hand. “Draft labor!” was first whispered, then spoken quite openly. But before any centralized controls could be set up the war suddenly ended.

Army, Navy, and other governmental experts were determined never to be caught short again. This had been a war to end all wars, but just in case the nation had to be mobilized again, they set out to prevent a recurrence of these industrial-labor headaches. Following the passage of the National Defense Act of 1920, the Army set up its present planning branch, the Army and Navy Munitions Board and the Army Industrial College. During the next decade Army officers studied the problems of war materials, civilian and military production, transportation facilities, and manpower needs. The result of their research was a series of industrial mobilization plans, the first published in 1931, with revised editions in 1933, 1936, and 1939. The World War experience had burned deeply; but—viewed in the light of this past year and a half—not deeply enough.


After Hitler marched on Poland in 1939, French and British war orders began to pour into this country. Like legendary warriors bred from dragons’ teeth, boomtowns sprang from the earth. Industry mushroomed. Workers —hundreds of thousands of them—were on the move. The anabasis of 1917 with all its problems—this time increased by a hundredfold—was on us again. Although “total war” was a popular cliche, its true meaning escaped us until Pearl Harbor and the reverses in the Pacific pried us loose from a defense psychology, The creation of the War Production Board With its Chairman, Donald M. Nelson, empowered to mobilize fully our industrial resources was the first step toward putting us on a true war footing. The next step— that of mobilizing our manpower—was yet to come.

The production program for 1942, as reported early in the year, called for upwards of sixty thousand planes, fifty thousand tanks, twenty thousand anti-aircraft guns, more than one ship a day, several million rifles, and vast quantities of other equipment. If we are to take the war to the enemy wherever he may be, even this program must be stepped up. The goals for 1943 already are set at one hundred and twenty-five thousand planes, seventy-five thousand tanks, thirty-five thousand anti-aircraft guns, ten million tons of shipping —and with good reason. By the end of 1942 the Army will have expanded to almost four million men, It will reach six and a half million next year, and ten million if the war continues. To service these forces, war production will require fifteen million workers by the end of this year, and twentytwo million twelve months later, Simultaneously, agriculture must maintain practically all of its present quota of workers for the duration, for we are the granary as well as the arsenal of democracy,

We now have in the war industries eight and a half million men. This time next year we shall need seventeen and a half million, and in 1944 twenty-four million. Where are these additional fifteen and a half million men to come from? Between four and five millions will come from the young people just starting to work and from the older and physically handicapped men and women returning to the labor market. Some—possibly a million and a half—will come from the unemployed, which still number three million five hundred thousand. Adding these somewhat liberal estimates, we have only between five and a half and six and a half million people to fill fifteen and a half million jobs in the war industries.

So at long last we come to the true implications of total war: the fullest use of every individual and every machine. If the truth of this situation hasn’t sunk home already, it will begin to do so next year when six million workers will have been taken out of civilian industry, with more to come later. Happily, the stark need for soldiers, workers, and war materials has already had an effect upon the production machinery of the country. All three elements have come from the large consumer-goods industries producing automobiles, refrigerators, office equipment, rubber shoes, and overcoats. More will come from the gadget trades producing cosmetics and candy, toys and handbags, dishes and sporting goods. And even with this substantial diversion of manpower to war use, we shall still lack many millions necessary to gear the war program into a victory program. So—as happened in democratic England where over four million women are now engaged in war work and in Nazi Germany, despite the dogma of Kinder, Kuche and Kirche - we shall turn to our largest single labor reservoir, sixteen and a half million potentially employable women. As in other figures presented here, estimates vary as to the number of women actuallv available either for war work or for civilian jobs. No estimates to date suggest that this reservoir will yield all the workers needed to maintain our war program on the 1942 and 1943 schedule. Only when an effective cease-and-desist order has been issued to make many millions in racial and religious minority groups available for war service will our total manpower needs he met. The task of estimating these needs, whether in terms of the millions just cited or in terms of specific categories of workers is relatively simple. Experts in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Selective Service System, the WPA, and other governmental agencies have been working on that job for over a year. In specific categories they foresee a need for fifty-one tool designers, twenty-five tool makers, twenty-two machine machinists, seven ship carpenters, and four airplane riveters to every one employed now.

But the problem of translating our total manpower needs into an action program is quite another matter. Such a program calls for the allocation of men and women in war industries and the armed forces, for the training of special categories of workers, for the power to transfer them to areas and industries of greatest need, for control over hiring, firing, disputes and related matters. Anticipating the war-labor chaos of twenty-five years ago, the government, at the outset of the National Defense Program, established a number of separate agencies to recruit the needed manpower. Gathering righting men was delegated to the Selective Service System under Brigadier General Lewis B. Hershey. While this operation was conducted under a compulsory “draft,” the Navy and Marine Corps continued to draw men by voluntary enlistment and from the lists of draft registrants. Other agencies concerned with the placement of labor are the U. S. Civil Service Commission, which recruits governmental employees, and the U. S. Employment Service, whose one thousand five hundred field offices place people in industry and agriculture.

War-training programs in industry, along with vocational, “refresher” and other technical courses for in- and out-of-school youth were assigned until recently to the Labor Division of the War Production Board under Sidney Hill-man and to various divisions of the U. S. Office of Education. These programs have already trained well over three million war workers and are rapidly expanding. Unfortunately, instructors and equipment are scarce. Industry—however much it would like to co-operate with these training activities—has been facing such serious shortages, particularly of skilled workers, that it is not only reluctant to release them to serve as technical instructors but, as a matter of fact, is attracting many away from teaching into production jobs.

These major governmental channels, numerous subsidiary ones, and scores of private services and agents have been “cooperating” to meet the labor needs of our growing war machine. In practice, this co-operation turned out to be a gigantic struggle in which each of these groups jockeyed for first place at the labor well, and as happened more often than not several buckets were dipped in at the same time. By the end of last fall the well started to run dry. The Tolan Committee on Inter-State Migration of Defense Workers reported the dire conditions of labor on the move and the jamming up of people in defense centers. Private agencies were still advertising and trying to recruit people along busi-ness-as-usual lines. Discrimination against women, Negroes, and minority groups continued. The whole cycle of 1917-18 was being re-enacted. Something had to be done to prevent local shortages and migration from spreading, to meet the growing demands for all categories of workers, and to prevent the growing threat of labor piracy. But what?

As in 1918, “Draft labor!” was whispered again. In Washington, where rumors are even more common than statues, the grapevine was alive with all sorts of reports— all off-the-record, of course. After Pearl Harbor the air grew thicker. Federal Security Administrator Paul V. Mc-Nutt was reported to have handed the President a blueprint for a centralized manpower control board. Despite the Administrator’s increasingly sympathetic attitude toward labor in recent years, the CIO came out against any such plan. Brickbats flew thick and fast. On top of all this, the Tolan Committee issued its second interim report, recommending radical changes in the war program. Noteworthy was the suggestion that “A single civilian board of the Federal Government be charged with full responsibility for procurement and for planning war production and the production of essential civilian needs.” It was recommended that the board be staffed with engineers and with representatives of the armed forces and of labor, and that it “compile and maintain an up-to-date complete inventory on industrial facilities, the supply of critical materials, and the supply of labor.” On the transfer of labor to war work, the Committee recommended that “The re-employment of the unemployed and the transfer of workers from non-military to war work be an integral part of the planning of production. . . . The transfer of displaced workers shall be planned in advance and not after the fact of unemployment. The first prerequisite for such planning is the complete inventory of available labor supply. . . .” That these recommendations came “after the facts” rather than before them is obvious. But as the situation became more critical, it was equally obvious that little was being done about it.

Finally, however, “the first prerequisite” has begun to be realized. The logical machinery for such an inventory was the one thousand five hundred local offices of the U. S. Employment Service or the six thousand five hundred local draft boards of the Selective Service System. After registering on February 16, 1942, draftees received a complete occupational questionnaire. The results of this inventory, originally to be shared by the Employment Service and the Selective Service System, will now be “co-ordinated” by the War Manpower Commission.


Prior to the appointment of this Commission on April 18, 1942, our labor situation was not materially different from what it was in late 1918. The single advance we had made was the partial labor inventory—but with two important groups, women and youth, excluded. Apparently we had not profited from our World War experiences. Nor had we learned what democratic England and Nazi Germany had learned: that in total war every physically able man, woman, and child—and frequently the handicapped as well—must be used effectively. And that effective use means compulsion.

It was a simple matter in Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he immediately set out to wipe out the five or more million unemployed by using as many of them as possible on large-scale public works, primarily military. Governmental controls were soon brought to bear on production and labor alike. Labor organizations were transformed into a single governmental-controlled agency, the >Arbeitsfront, under the general supervision of the Ministry of Labor. Membership in this organization was compulsory for all workers. Labor exchanges (Arbeitsvemittlung), originally set up for voluntary labor procurement, were soon replaced by labor allocation boards (Arbeitseinsatz). By 1935 the plans for total war were set.

With the birth of the four-year plan for total rearmament in 1936, labor surpluses disappeared. The Employment Service shifted over half a million workers en masse from agriculture and non-essential industry into war production. But this shift was only a drop in the bucket. Millions more had to be recruited. Between 1933 and 1938 over eight million workers (including the unemployed) were put to work, Forced apprenticeship of the young and compulsory farm and factory labor for school youths were effected through the Employment Service. But still there weren’t enough workers. At the outbreak of war, the Nazis cut consumer goods production to the bone—a useless pursuit once wholesale looting was underway—and thereby tapped another reserve. This too was soon exhausted. Forced labor of Jews, political prisoners, and criminals followed. But the end was not in sight. As Germany strode across Europe, the manpower and material needs of its legions grew. Hundreds of thousands of workers were “recruited” from France and Belgium and Holland, from Czechoslovakia and Rumania and Italy. By the fall of 1941 nearly four million foreigners, half of them war prisoners, were working in Greater Germany.

The single noteworthy fact about the German experience is that even with the strict regimentation of labor, shortages appeared. It is obvious, however, that had the Germans not resorted to compulsion, they woidd not have been able to carry the war as far as they have.

Britain started out differently—recruiting labor on a voluntary basis. But compulsion soon became a necessary expedient for survival. Contrary to common opinion, England was not caught completely unprepared, As the prospect of war loomed after Munich, the British moved quickly toward total rearmament. Inevitably the typical war-labor pattern started to jell. Workers migrated to areas and industries of higher wages. Farm labor moved next, threatening a serious harvest shortage in the summer and fall of 1940. Strikes and frictional unemployment were common.

Governmental controls over drafting, hiring and firing, placing and transferring workers became imperative. The Control of Employment Act, passed in 1939 and empowering the Ministry of Labor and National Service to exercise those controls, was only partially successful. The government refused to use its full power and preferred to mobilize manpower by indirection—a typical procedure of democracy. It sought, through the diversion of raw materials to war production, to direct workers into war industries. As unemployment decreased and labor shortages increased, the problems of labor turnover and disputes grew more and more acute, So the Control of Employment Act was renewed and extended by the Emergency Powers Act of 1940, “essential work orders” and other Defense-of-the-Realm regulations.

Through such regulations the government is able to draw upon the labor potential and to shift workers to particular areas and industries as the needs occur. Where such transfers are essential in the national interest, “lodging and traveling allowances are authorized from Government funds.”

As labor shortages increased in England during the past year, still further governmental controls became necessary. The limiting of consumer goods production made it possible to channel more workers into war industries. But shortages continued. The final stages in meeting the situation were enacted only recently when the government was empowered to draft labor completely. Now workers can no longer leave their jobs without governmental permission. Severe lines are levied for individual laziness and slowdowns. Governmental order directs transfer of workers from non-essential to war industries and from industry to industry. Training programs established early in the war have been broadened. Women have become an increasingly important source of labor. The number of female workers to enter British industry since the outbreak of the war has been estimated at four and one-quarter million. Indeed, half of Britain’s air-Craft workers today are women. Thus has Great Britain tackled her labor problems.


We in America are at the crossroads. The regimentation of Nazi Germany is hateful to us. The compulsion which became necessary in Great Britain is also distasteful. But if the alternative to compulsion is losing the war, surely there can be no doubt as to the decision we shall make. And, as a matter of fact, that decision is apparently now in the making in the establishment of the War Manpower Commission with Paul V. McNutt, Federal Security Administrator, as its Chairman. The Commission consists of representatives of each of the following departments and agencies: War, Navy, Agriculture, Labor, War Production Board, Selective Service System, and the Civil Service Commission. Besides formulating basic plans to mobilize man and woman power for total war, the Commission is directed to estimate the total manpower requirements for military, agricultural, and civilian needs and to direct government agencies in the proper allocation of this manpower. The Commission, and its Chairman in particular, are further directed to co-ordinate information of various government agencies concerning the labor market and to establish policies governing all Federal programs dealing with recruiting, vocational training, and placement of workers.

Implied in the additional directive to “formulate legislative” programs designed to facilitate the mobilization of national manpower is the setting up of an over-all draft program for labor. In his first press conference as Chairman of the Commission, Mr. McNutt said that he was opposed to any draft of labor—save as a final resort, That this resort may be necessary is attested by the experience of each of the fighting democracies. Of these, Australia—a democracy with a labor government (hence immune to charges of fascism)—has found it necessary to draft the country’s entire resources, industrial and human alike, As John Curtin, the Prime Minister, recently expressed it: “It means that every human being in Australia, whether he or she likes it or not, is at the service of the government for the defense of Australia,”

This is the decision Australia made in order to save her life. It is a decision which we too may yet have to make.


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