Truman Orders Seizure of the Railroads Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Amid the crises of U.S. postwar economic reconversion, President Harry S. Truman ordered seizure of the railroads, accelerating a reconsideration of relations among government, business, and labor.

Summary of Event

The year following the end of World War II was filled with a succession of crises in the United States attending domestic readjustments to peace. Organized labor had fared well between 1939 and 1945 relative to the Depression years of the 1930’s, but the swift demobilization of 13 million service personnel, the lasting effects of many wartime economic restrictions, and the destabilizing results of industrial reconversions, rising prices, and unslaked consumption provoked an unprecedented eruption of labor unrest. Executive Order 9727[Executive Order 09727] Railroads, U.S. Labor unions;railroad workers Strikes Nationalization of land and industries;United States [kw]Truman Orders Seizure of the Railroads (May 17-25, 1946) [kw]Seizure of the Railroads, Truman Orders (May 17-25, 1946) [kw]Railroads, Truman Orders Seizure of the (May 17-25, 1946) Executive Order 9727[Executive Order 09727] Railroads, U.S. Labor unions;railroad workers Strikes Nationalization of land and industries;United States [g]North America;May 17-25, 1946: Truman Orders Seizure of the Railroads[01730] [g]United States;May 17-25, 1946: Truman Orders Seizure of the Railroads[01730] [c]Government and politics;May 17-25, 1946: Truman Orders Seizure of the Railroads[01730] [c]Business and labor;May 17-25, 1946: Truman Orders Seizure of the Railroads[01730] [c]Transportation;May 17-25, 1946: Truman Orders Seizure of the Railroads[01730] Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;and organized labor[organized labor] Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;seizure of industries Steelman, John Roy Johnston, Alvanley Whitney, Alexander Fell Clifford, Clark Case, Clifford

During the spring and summer of 1946, the United States was paralyzed by a record wave of strikes, and still more and worse strikes were feared. Despite full employment during wartime, comparatively high wages, and much overtime work, organized labor felt restrained by the imposition of many wartime regulations and by the results of its wartime cooperation with management. The consolidations and mergers of many industries—that is, what appeared to be a continuing trend toward monopoly—and suspicions that management had used patriotism to garner exorbitant shares of profits while abusing labor’s voluntarism as a means of regaining control of the workplace were only a few of the factors that exacerbated labor leaders’ growing discontent with the postwar world.

The strikes of 1945 and 1946 affected about 1 percent of the total labor force. In many respects, industrial reconversion was proceeding satisfactorily, if not smoothly. At the peak of these stoppages, nearly 550 strikes were in progress, constituting a loss of more than 3 percent of available workers’ time and directly involving about 1.4 million men and women. Statistics, however, can obscure the critical economic importance of the industries that were being struck: steel, automobiles, petroleum, meatpacking, and—most important, because the nation’s power was so dependent upon it—coal mining. Additional threats of a nationwide railroad strike, one capable of paralyzing nearly all economic activity, further aggravated President Harry S. Truman.

Until the spring of 1946, Truman had been a model of patience in dealing with the nation’s labor problems. From the beginning of his political career in Missouri through his days in the U.S. Senate, Truman had been a trusted friend of organized labor and had enjoyed its staunch support in all of his elections, including his run for the vice presidency during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth and last presidential campaign. In addition, during his years in the Senate, Truman had earned high repute as an expert in railroad affairs.

Consequently, at the first hint of a rail strike in early 1946, Truman invoked the Railway Labor Act Railway Labor Act (1926) of 1926, which called for a sixty-day mediation period while the principal issue, a wage hike, was negotiated. To oversee negotiations between railroad management and representatives of twenty rail unions, Truman appointed Secretary of Labor Lewis Schwellenbach Schwellenbach, Lewis . Negotiations languished for months despite the passage of Schwellenbach’s responsibilities as mediator to economist and White House staffer John Roy Steelman.

In April, although eighteen of the disaffected unions had agreed to an accommodation, two of them, each essential to railroad operations, notified the Truman administration of a strike to begin on May 18. Together, the two unions—the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen —were capable of pulling 280,000 railroad workers from their jobs. This potentially disastrous situation was further complicated by the fact that Alvanley Johnston, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, and Alexander Fell Whitney, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, were longtime political allies of Truman. Both were distinguished veteran union men whose quarrels with railroad management were venerable. Both had supported Truman in his 1940 Senate race, as well as in his run for the vice presidency.

On May 17, the president summoned Whitney and Johnston to the White House. There, the union leaders argued that their men were demanding a work stoppage. Truman responded by signing an executive order authorizing government seizure and operation of the railroads. Under this pressure, Whitney and Johnston agreed to a strike delay of five days. In the interim, troops seized the railroads and Truman called upon other political figures to urge compromise upon the union leaders. He proposed an 18.5-cent-per-hour pay raise for railroad workers, more generous than the raise recommended by a fact-finding commission. Whitney and Johnston remained intractable.

Media attention focused on the White House as the strike deadline approached. An hour before the scheduled strike, on May 23, Truman addressed nearly nine hundred wounded veterans on the South Lawn, conscious of the contrast between their sacrifices and the dangers posed to the country by two union leaders. Behind him, inside the White House, negotiations remained stalemated. At five o’clock, as scheduled, the strike began. Its impact was immediate. Neither the great rail strike of 1877 nor the American Railway Union’s strike of 1894 had so completely paralyzed rail traffic. Of the nation’s nearly 200,000 freight and passenger trains, about 400 remained operative amid the vast disruption. The White House at once came under fire for its apparent failure to steer negotiations to a successful conclusion.

Truman’s reaction—one opposed by many of his cabinet members, friends, and aides—was a public expression of rage. The following day, he drafted a blistering radio speech. In its original version, the speech bitterly denounced the unions’ leaders, sharply and inaccurately contrasting their pay with his own and, with equal inaccuracy, comparing the pay of railroad workers with that of soldiers. It simultaneously vilified other labor leaders, along with Congress, and virtually called for vigilantism against those who jeopardized the nation’s welfare. Although it remained tough, the speech was materially refined and softened by White House aide Clark Clifford before its 10:00 p.m. delivery. As negotiations resumed on May 25, Truman delivered an extended version to Congress, urging approval to draft strikers. Even as Truman spoke, however, he was handed a note confirming a strike settlement. The conscription of railroad workers he was recommending was rendered unnecessary.

Significance

The deep issues involved in the strike conflict reasserted themselves over the following months and years. One such issue concerned the extent of and limitations on presidential powers. The issue had surfaced regularly during each of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administrations. Truman’s proposal to use federal authority not only to break a strike but to do so by drafting strikers into the armed forces dramatically revived that issue. Although management and a majority of the public praised Truman’s toughness and his forceful display of public character, many of his associates, aides, and friends believed that his radio and congressional addresses were patently unconstitutional, as well as intemperate.

Stronger denunciations came from Truman’s former friends, Whitney and Johnston. Their views were echoed loudly by virtually every major U.S. labor leader. These leaders variously depicted the president as a dictator, a fascist, or a communist, vowing a complete withdrawal of their support. This was a predictable reaction, considering that labor’s battles against hostile uses of federal authority were integral parts of labor history. Unions, at least until the mid-1930’s, not only had had to contend with antilabor legislation but also had been obliged to fight for their existence against the government’s employment or support of strikebreaking court injunctions, judicial repression of organizing and strike tactics through dubious applications of the Sherman Antitrust Act, federal resort to the Army to quell labor disturbances, and government prosecution and imprisonment of labor leaders. Reforms embodied in the National Labor Relations Act (1935) National Labor Relations Act (1935) Wagner Act (1935) and other prolabor legislation during the 1930’s were of too recent vintage in 1946 to erase such memories.

Broader than the issue of presidential power, therefore, was the issue of what role government should play, if any, in critical disputes between management and labor. This in turn was just one part of a more general and widely discussed question about the role of government in the economy as a whole. Immediately after settlement of the rail strike, there were two related matters before Congress: One was Truman’s earlier proposal for a mandatory cooling-off period and specified fact-finding procedures before strikes occurred. The counterpoint to Truman’s proposal was a conservative bill authored in February, 1946, by Representative Clifford Case of New Jersey. The Case bill called for a thirty-day cooling-off period before a strike could take effect, the use of injunctions—particularly in regard to boycotts—and provisions to make both labor and management liable for breaching labor contracts. Each of these provisos sounded alarms in labor’s camp.

The flow of the Case bill through Congress coincided with a series of national emergencies caused by conflicts between workers and management. Nationwide coal strikes and two seizures of that industry by presidential fiat were followed by Truman’s seizure of the country’s major meatpacking plants, oil producing and refining facilities, and tugboat and towing company equipment. Truman coped simultaneously with major steel, electrical, and auto industry strikes. These crises and responses exhausted patience—and often judgment—in all quarters. Reflecting popular sentiments, the congressional stance toward labor hardened. As might have been expected, the Case bill was sharper by the time it came under Senate consideration. It struck Truman as so antilabor that he vetoed the bill. The veto was sustained, but Truman did not regain the favor that he had lost among labor leaders by his handling of the railroad strike.

The notion persisted inside and outside Congress that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act) had tipped the bargaining scale too far to labor’s side. For decades before, lawmakers and the country at large had cried out for curbs on business trusts and would-be monopolies, pleas in time sanctified in legislation and eventually in judicial interpretations. Justifiably or not, what presidents and Congress sought were viable formulas by which to right this apparent imbalance, which now appeared overly favorable to labor.

The Labor-Management Relations Act Labor-Management Relations Act (1947)[Labor Management Relations Act] Taft-Hartley Act (1947)[Taft Hartley Act] of 1947 (the Taft-Hartley Act), coming hard on the labor tumult of 1946, appeared to be the most politic solution, although it would soon be contested bitterly as a “slave labor law,” and become a burning issue in the 1948 and 1952 presidential elections. The Taft-Hartley Act retained labor’s rights under the Wagner Act, but it juxtaposed to the list of prohibited “unfair” practices of management a corresponding list of “unfair” labor practices of unions, seeking to establish a stable balance between the two sides. Executive Order 9727[Executive Order 09727] Railroads, U.S. Labor unions;railroad workers Strikes Nationalization of land and industries;United States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ayers, Eben A. Truman in the White House: The Diary of Eben A. Ayers. Edited by Robert H. Ferrell. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991. Edited by a leading authority on Truman, this is a literate, intelligent, abbreviated account of the flow of events, rail strike included, during the Truman administration. Needs to be supplemented, but useful. Many photos, useful index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donovan, Robert J. Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945-1948. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. Accurate and detailed. Written by a national columnist. Superior to most academic works. Many photos, chapter notes, splendid index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gosnell, Harold F. Truman’s Crises: A Political Biography of Harry S. Truman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. The author is a noted political scientist. The prose is uninspired but well organized. Chapter notes, useful bibliography, good index. Chapter 22 pertains to the railroad strike and its context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halpern, Martin. Unions, Radicals, and Democratic Presidents: Seeking Social Change in the Twentieth Century. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Study of the twentieth century relationship between organized labor and Democratic presidential administrations. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Overwritten and duplicative of many other works on Truman and his presidency. The writing falls below the standard of McCullough’s usually exciting prose. A weighty synthesis worth reading by those who previously knew little of Truman’s presidency. Many photos, source notes, fine bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Merle. Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman. New York: Berkley, 1974. Miller’s observations are acute and affectionate. Much on Truman’s special knowledge of railroads. Good index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Richard Lawrence. Truman: The Rise to Power. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986. Excellent reading, accurate and informative. Fine background on Truman’s experience and character, including his understanding of railroad labor problems in pre-White House days. Photos. Excellent notes replace bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robertson, Paul L., ed. Authority and Control in Modern Industry: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 1999. Collection of case studies of the relations between labor and management through history. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Truman, Harry S. Year of Decisions. Vol. 1 in Memoirs. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955. Inimitable Truman, pithy and deceptively straightforward. Good perspectives on the strike wave, the railroad strike, and presidential reactions. Good index. Refreshing and invaluable.

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