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Your strikes … represent no honest grievance…. You are striking our fighting men from the rear. The War Department insists these strikes be stopped at once.
Smith said no, until President Roosevelt ordered the army to take over eight of the plants.31 In time, the militancy of the MESA spread to the CIO-affiliated United Autoworkers. M. F.
Macauley, Manufacturing Control Manager at the Packard Motor Company, told a senate committee that he could not do ‘time and motion’ studies: ‘the stewards of the plant objected every time’ and ‘some foremen … were walked out of the plant’. In the same hearing one Colonel Anthony explained that ‘only a very small proportion of the strikes appear in the newspapers’ and according to Senator Ferguson the official record ‘doesn’t give us any true picture of the number of strikes in the war plants here in Detroit’.32 Year Strikes Workers taking part Days lost Per cent of employed 1941 4288 2362620 23047556 8.4 1942 2968 839961 4182557 2.8 1943 3752 1981279 13500529 6.9 1945 4750 3467000 38025000 12.2 Source: Glabermann, Wartime Strikes, 1980, p 36 In 1943, America’s mines were shut down by a run of strikes. United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis had signed up for the no-strike deal, but his members were hurting.
The UMW’s own survey showed that food prices had gone up 124 per cent between 1939 and 1943 even though wages were frozen. ‘Mine workers are hungry’, said Lewis: ‘They are asking for food’. Accidents, he said were rising, 64,000 in 1941, 75,000 in 1942 and 100,000 in 1943. ‘That’s a lot of meat,’ he said ‘a lot of human meat to grind up in one year’.33 A strike of anthracite miners began on 30 December 1942, without the Union’s backing. On 15 January the National War Labour Board ordered the strike end, but the miners extended it.
President Roosevelt, speaking as ‘Commander in Chief’ ordered the miners back to work, so they extended the strike again, until Lewis promised to fight for a big wage demand and they went back to work on 22 January.
‘The government of the United States’, said the New York Herald Tribune, ‘has got to do something about John L. Lewis’: ‘It is not easy to exaggerate Lewis’s challenge not only to the nation’s prosecution of the war but to the basic conception of American democracy’ (13 March 1943). On 26 March Lewis was summoned before the Truman Senate War Investigating Committee, but scoffed at those representatives who wanted his members to go hungry while leaving war profiteers alone.
The government tried to shunt the row off to one side in the War Labour Board on 22 April, while the President blustered that the wage and price freeze had to hold (even though prices were in truth out of control and the Office of Price Administration had just agreed a 23 cents a ton increase with the western Pennsylvania soft coal operators). Ordered to work on by the WLB, miners in Pennsylvania and Alabama started to walk out. Lewis joked that if there was no contract, then miners would surely not trespass on mine property. The mines were shut down on 1 May – and a panic-stricken Roosevelt ordered the mines taken over by the government. It was still the old management, but the flag flew over the mines and Secretary of State for the Interior Harold Ickes said the miners were working for the government and had to go back to work. Lewis tried to calm things down by offering a truce and told the men to go back, which they did, after another day’s protest. Roosevelt gave a radio broadcast charging the miners with making ‘a gamble with the lives of American soldiers and sailors’.34 On 1 June, the miners were out again: 530,000 of them, and the owners tried to settle, meeting demands for better pay and terms. But the War Labor Board ordered the men back to work and struck down the agreement. Meanwhile Congress passed the Smith-Connally War Labor Disputes Act which gave the War Labor Board statutory powers and outlawed strikes. In Detroit, the United Auto Workers’ conference delegates snubbed their leaders and voted solidarity with the miners, and also that the Smith Connally Act ‘made a mockery out of avowed claims that this is a war for democracy’.35 In reply, the miners came out again. The coalfields were in chaos. Lewis could not get the miners back to work, even when he tried. In despair, Ickes handed control of the mines back to the owners in October. On 20 November the War Labor Board accepted the pay rise that the miners and the coal owners agreed, breaking the wage freeze.
On 30 November 1943 railway workers voted by 97.7 per cent to strike. Again Roosevelt ordered the army in, and they seized the railways, though only after Secretary of War Stimson promised that he would not interfere with their profits. The Army Chief of Staff George Marshall gave a news conference that called the railway strike ‘the damnedest crime that was ever committed against America’, and the White House Press Secretary made it clear that the President was ‘thinking along the same lines’. 36 In fact in the first six months of the Smith Connally Act there were 1,919 strikes, of which only 34 were legal. That Christmas, 100,000 steelworkers joined the strike wave.
Truman, writing in 1946, remembered bitterly ‘John Lewis called two strikes in War Time to satisfy his ego. Two strikes which were worse than bullets in the back of our soldiers. The railworkers did exactly the same thing.’ 37 Soldiers, though, did not necessarily agree. An editorial in the Army Newspaper of 15 January 1944 complained about the ‘way
certain periodicals reaching soldiers have begun to campaign against labor’:
Soldiers generally are concerned about this unfair carping. Most of them are working men. It is estimated that nearly a million are trade union members … In these days the working people need a few dollars more to cover the ever-rising cost of living.38
Race war in America
Over four nights from 3-7 June 1943 sailors on shore at Los Angeles, massing into crowds of as many as 1000-strong carried on a sustained attack on young Mexicans. Their target was the ‘Zoot Suit’. Young Mexicans took to wearing the zoot suit, with its baggy pants coming to a peg leg, high waist, padded shoulders and long drapes. The cultural code was not so hard to work out. The suit might have its origins in Campesino-wear of the previous century, but most pointedly it was a contrast to the neat uniforms of the services, and an ostentatious use of cloth in an age of austerity. Zoot suiters’ ostentatious ‘loafing’ was contrasted with hard-working and responsibly saving America. A letter to Time set out the
way that the zoot suit offended:
To a soldier who has been taken from his home and put into the army, the sight of loafers of any race, creed, religion or colour of hair, loafing around in ridiculous clothes that cost $75 to $85 per suit is enough to make them see red.39 The rioting white sailors understood the meaning of the zoot suit, too. They tore them from the backs of the young Mexicans they caught, and set them on fire, or pissed on them.
Stripped and beaten, the young men’s pictures were in the papers, surrounded by jubilant rioters, or sometimes by sympathetic crowds. Hatred of the zoot-suiters was not just a spasm on the part of the sailors; they were backed-up by the authorities. On 9 June Councilman Norris Nelson put the resolution to ‘prohibit the wearing of Zoot Suits with reet pleats within the city of Los Angeles’. In the event it was thought that the laws on rioting would do the job.40 Days later the Los Angeles Times reported that ‘the federal government stepped into the local zoot-suit picture by obtaining an injunction against a down-town store restraining sale of the zooters’ “uniform”’ (13 June 1943). Later the War Production Board decided that no more would be made.41 Official anger had been building against the young Mexicans. The previous year, after José Días was killed in a gang fight near the Sleepy Lagoon, the police took the opportunity for a great dragnet, arresting 600. Seventeen were tried for the murder on the strained argument that having crashed a party together they were engaged in a joint enterprise. The boys were refused a change of clothes before the trial so they would be seen by jurors in their zoot suits. Lieutenant Edward Duran Ayres of the Sheriff’s office gave expert testimony that ‘the Indian’ has ‘utter disregard for human life’ – as could be seen in the history of Aztec human sacrifice. Three of the accused were found guilty of first degree murder, nine of second degree murder, five of lesser charges.
A Sleepy Lagoon Defence Committee fronted by Orson Wells, Rita Hayworth and Anthony Quinn garnered support from the Longshoremen’s Union, the National Maritime Union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union and the Screen Artists Guild. Though the Communist Party, which did a lot of the leg-work for the Defence Committee, opposed the persecution of the zoot-suiters, they balked at the evident cultural rejection of the popular war effort. Communist LaRue McCormick blamed the rise in juvenile delinquency on Mexican ‘Fifth Columnists’, known as ‘Synarquista’ – a religious movement of the far right, marginal in Mexico and non-existent in America. Even the Sleepy Lagoon Committee swore to fight ‘against the Sinarchists and Falangists’ who they thought were promoting ‘delinquency’.42 A Zoot-suiter is frisked by a policeman The zoot suit was taken up by America’s black hipsters, who understood its meaning well. Malcolm Little – who would later make his fame as Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam – was called before the draft board on 1 June 1943: ‘The day I went down there, I costumed like an actor. With my wild zoot suit I wore the yellow knob-toe shoes, and I frizzled my hair up into a reddish bush of conk.’ 43 It was a performance that earned him the 4F rating he wanted.
Many black leaders saw the war as a way of proving their respectability, and even working themes of racial justice into the case for war. The Double V campaign called for a victory against Fascism abroad and Jim Crow at home. But alongside that response, other black Americans were dismissive of the war effort, and contrasted the War for Democracy abroad with their condition at home cynically, not optimistically.44 The innovators of Be Bop Jazz managed to avoid the war altogether. Lester Young did time in military prison for brewing illicit liquor, but Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk worked across America indifferent to the whole event – except that restrictions on gasoline, shellack, and lighting along the west coast interfered with their touring and recording. Charlie Parker’s biographer and sometime manager, Ross Russell, wrote that for them ‘World War II was a grotesque show staged by sick old men who had succeeded in turning America into a huge prison camp.’ There were black stars who worked for the war effort, like Paul Robeson and boxing champion Joe Louis. The cultural life black Americans made for themselves in the burgeoning centres of Detroit and Harlem was divided on the war.
Blacks migrated northwards, many to Detroit, to get jobs in the war industries. Life reported that ‘the tremendous migration of white and Negro war workers from the south since 1940’ had created problems. ‘Detroit’s abominable housing situation’, the article went on, ‘condemns thousands to living in slums, tents and trailers’.45 Tensions between the two races grew as a special housing project for blacks, named after Sojourner Truth, was opened. White war workers – and police – barred the way. The following year black Detroiters clashed with whites on the bridge to Belle Isle, Detroit’s beach and leisure centre.
Angered at the challenge, whites toured black districts in cars threatening violence and attacking people. Blacks fought back, but the police joined in containing the blacks. Looting broke out in Detroit. Thirty four people were killed of whom 25 were black, and around 1000 were wounded. The police killed 15, most of whom were accused of looting, but some of firing on police.46 ‘Police brutality’, the Michigan Chronicle reported, ‘reached a new high in Negro sections of the city during the race riot’ (26 June 1943). The Age wrote that ‘the most horrible Nazi atrocity stories are no worse than these home front outrages’ (26 June 1943).
‘Tyranny and atrocities in America’: Japan’s Global Knowledge reports Detroit race riots, June 1943 Just over a month later, on 1 August 1943, at 7 pm, patrolman James Collins was at the Braddock Hotel on West 126th Street where Marjorie Polite was arguing with the staff over money. Robert Bandy, on leave from the Army’s 703rd Police Battalion took issue with Collins, and the two came to blows – at which point Collins shot Bandy dead. Before long 3000 people gathered outside the 28th Precinct Headquarters demanding justice for Robert Bandy.
At that time Harlem was, in poet Claude McKay’s words, ‘the Negro capital of the world’ – 397 city blocks of northern Manhattan, south to north between 110th and 155th Streets, east to west between Third and Amsterdam Avenues, it was eighty per cent black. The rioting that followed was intense. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was thought of as more liberal than the Detroit City authorities, and had watched the trouble their closely. He sent 6600 city police and civil guards into Harlem, while a further 8000 State Guardsmen and 1500 civilian volunteers surrounded the perimeter. Still the police killed six people all black, 185 were injured and 550 arrested – overwhelmingly they were black.47 In Harlem at that time many bought the pamphlet by ‘Native Son’ (the radical activist and scholar CLR James) that scoffed at the call for blacks to fight for democracy: ‘I have no democracy and the democracy I haven’t got, Hitler didn’t take from me’.48
Class war in Britain
In Britain, as in France and America, miners were pushing back. In the first year of the war 62,318 miners left the pits, joining up, or taking on other war work. To get back in charge the Essential Work (Coalmining) Order said that 30,000 ex-miners and others were ordered down the mines by 17 March 1942. By May of that year 2681 workers over all – mostly miners – were prosecuted for refusing Essential Work Orders and 220 were imprisoned.