Thursday, May 9, 2013
Sanchez: The Great Depression, World War II, and Post WWII Effects
Jennifer P. Sanchez
The Great Depression, World War II, and Post WWII Effects on the Working Class
For decades the American working class has been struggling for better conditions, higher wages, and safer work. Prior to the Great Depression and World War II the working class’ conditions were extremely poor and at one of the lowest points in history. In this paper I will be discussing how the Great Depression and World War II helped transform the working class’ work conditions and wages. These two events collectively improved the working conditions and living conditions for the working class. During these two time periods the history of the working class was a roller coaster of a ride, but eventually these workers united in fighting for their rights. Many workers feared losing their jobs and due to desperation and necessity were forced to endure the harsh conditions and low wages. The rise of unions helped these workers unite and protest without fear of repercussion.
Due to disproportionately low wages among the working class, men, women, and children were forced to work days and nights in unsafe conditions and for very little money. When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929 the effects were devastating on all Americans excluding the very wealthy but particularly hitting to the working class.1 The working class was already struggling to get by and lived and a day-to-day basis. America’s economic difficulties left the working class to struggle against poverty, hunger, illness, and unemployment. Many families had to adapt to a lower standard of living which included making their own clothes, growing and canning food, visiting the doctors and dentists less often and holding on to their aging cars. 2 During the Great Depression wages decreased and many lost their jobs thus forcing more family members to enter the labor force. Despite the fact that only 25% of Americans lost their jobs during the Great Depression and 75% were able to maintain some sort of income the lives working class families was very unpredictable and tightly budgeted. 3 The working class and middle class finally got some relief when President Roosevelt signed into law the New Deal Programs in 1933. The New Deal programs assisted in relieving the unemployed, reforming the financial system, and helping the economy recover. Among the programs were the FDIC, REA, HOLC, SSA, WPA, CCC, Wagner Act, Fair Labor Act, NLRB. 4
As the Great Depression comes to an end in 1939, the commencement of World War II approaches. Although the U.S.’ entered the war late they did establish a defense program in 1940, which created more jobs in ship, aircraft, steel and rubber manufacturing. During WWII approximately 13 million Americans were sent to war, 300,000 of them women. With so many men gone, manufacturing companies and service/field jobs were intent on encouraging women to enter non-traditional jobs.5 Thus the working class was mainly made up of women during this era. Many women mainly out of necessity began taking on non-traditional jobs. In contrast to the Great Depression era, during WWII children were less likely to be needed to help provide for the family. Prior to World War II women were confined to pink collar jobs such as secretary, garment work and factory work. These blue-collar jobs helped provide women with social advancement because the wages in these types of jobs were considerably higher than in traditionally female occupations. 6 Although the wages and conditions were better than they had been before, women suffered from sexual harassment, sexism, and disproportionate pay compared to their male counter parts. Despite these issues many maintained their jobs because of the AFL-CIO’s pledge to not strike during the war.7 It was the federal government who controlled the wages and prices of goods during this time to prevent inflation.
At the conclusion of the Second World War a major issue arose. The issue was would the influx of 16 million veterans negatively affect the still fragile economy.8 With the Great Depression still fresh in the memory of most Americans, many workers (in particular the women) braced themselves for layoffs and cuts in wages. Many of the women who worked in non-traditional jobs were replaced after the war ended, very few fought to keep their job especially if they were in an authoritative position (e.g. forelady, supervisor, steward, etc).9 A White House agency, called The National Resources Planning Board, recommended a variety of programs that provided education and training for returning veterans. 10 On June 22, 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, into law. The G.I. Bill of Rights provided returning veterans with a new place in society while also compensating them for their services during the war. A single veteran received a subsistence of up to $50 a month, which increased to $65 in 1946, and increased to $75 in 1948. Veterans who had dependents were eligible to receive a larger subsistence. 11 The G.I. Bill provided veterans with “one free year of higher education for each ninety days of service and one additional month of paid education for each month of service up to 48 months.” In addition, it would also provide books and it would give veterans a chance to set up their own businesses, buy their own home, and receive other financial aid.12 Prior to World War II only about 160,000 U.S. citizens graduated from college each year. But by the early 1950’s the number of U.S. citizens who graduated each year rose to 500,000. Essentially, the G.I. Bill helped contribute to the expansion of post war education, which in effect created bountiful opportunities for socioeconomic mobility for the working class. 13
Although the problem of readjusting to the millions of returning veterans was solved, there still remained the issues of the workers that had been postponed due to the unions no strike pledge. Almost immediately after the end of WWII, the working class united in order to fight low wages. 14 Three weeks had barely passed since the end of WWII, when NYC (predominantly working class) felt the impact of the working class’ frustration. On September 24, 1945 15,000 elevator operators, doormen, porters, firemen, and maintenance workers employed in commercial buildings rallied together in a strike paralyzing New York City’s business districts.15 This first strike would lead to commencement of one of the biggest strike waves in U.S. history. Following the building workers strike, 10,000 painters walked out for a week, 7,000 members of the American Communications Association struck for four weeks, and a series of truck drivers strikes occurred that caused empty grocery stores and factory closings. One of the largest strikes took place on October 1, 1945 almost immediately after the building workers walkout, when stevedores at 6 Chelsea docks walked out to protest a contract that had been negotiated by their union president. The strike quickly escalated to 35,000 members of the International Longshoreman’s Association to join in. After two weeks an arbitrator gave workers a large wage increase and better conditions, while this satisfied most ILA members one specific group was left out, the tugboat workers.16 Four months later these workers walked off their jobs and like their predecessors their strike caused a massive impact on NYC. By strategically striking mid winter and cutting of the city’s supply of oil and fuel, NYC was in a state of chaos. President Truman was forced to heat on subways and trolleys to be shut off, advertising lights to be turned off, and no fuel to be delivered to amusement parks and schools. When he saw that the tugboat workers were not budging he ordered all schools, stores, libraries, museums, theaters, restaurants and business and industrial establishments be closed. While the strike wave went on for the next year involving all different industries, it proved that the working class was fed up with the low wages they earned during WWII. In 1945, 3.5 million workers struck nationwide and quickly rose to 4.6 million by 1946. With the help of unions many workers were successful in obtaining what they demanded.
In conclusion, the Great Depression, WWII, & post WWII were important times in working class history. Each of these eras provided an important stepping-stone for improvements for the working class. The New Deal programs arose from the ashes of the Great Depression, which was a major source of help for the working class during WWII and post WWII. The G.I. Bill and employment of women during WWII helped sustain the economy. Although the wages had been decent during the war prices kept increasing thus making it hard for working class to live on the same salary. In a desperate attempt to be heard the working class united to fight for better wages and conditions, which provided a better standard of living for themselves. While the working class is still struggling in present day conditions have improved greatly since the Great Depression.
1 .Richard C. Hanes and Sharon M. Hanes. “Everyday life 1929-1941” Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression, Vol. 1. (Detroit: Gale, 2002): p. 305-329.
2 Richard C. Hanes and Sharon M. Hanes. “Everyday life 1929-1941” Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression, Vol. 1. (Detroit: Gale, 2002): p. 305-329.
3 Richard C. Hanes and Sharon M. Hanes. “Everyday life 1929-1941” Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression, Vol. 1 (2002) : p. 305-329 (This is a part of a book I accessed on gale virtual library.)
4 Although these programs were supposed to help working class citizens it excluded two major workers the farmers and domestic workers.
5 Maureen Honey, “The Working-Class Woman and Recruitment Propaganda during World War II: Class Differences in the Portrayal of War Work” Signs, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Summer, 1983), pp. 672-687
6 Maureen Honey, “The Working-Class Woman and Recruitment Propaganda during World War II: Class Differences in the Portrayal of War Work” Signs, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Summer, 1983), pp. 672-687
7 William Arthur Atkins “No Strike Pledge: World War II” St James Encyclopedia of Labor History Worldwide, Vol. 2. (2003),pp. 51-57.
8 Stanley Aronowitz, From the Ashes of the Old: American Labor and America’s Future (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998), pp. 1-22
9 Ed. Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk. “Postwar Posperity” Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History Vol. 2 (2000), pp. 812-81
10 U.S. Congress Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944. U.S. Public Law 346. 78th Cong. 2d sess., June 22, 1944 http://www.nara.gov:80/cgi-bin/starfinder/20769
11 Cynthia Rose. “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944” American Decades Primary Sources Vol. 5: 1940-1949. Detroit: Gale, 2004. p135-138.
12 U.S. Congress Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944. U.S. Public Law 346. 78th Cong. 2d sess., June 22, 1944 http://www.nara.gov:80/cgi-bin/starfinder/20769
13 Cynthia Rose. “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944” American Decades Primary Sources Vol. 5: 1940-1949. Detroit: Gale, 2004. p135-138.
14 Joshua Freeman, “Working Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II” Reviews in American History, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 433-440
15 Joshua Freeman, “Working Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II” Reviews in American History, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 433-440
16 Joshua Freeman, “Working Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II” Reviews in American History, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 433-440