There is growing interest in a Green New Deal, but far too little discussion among supporters about the challenging nature of the required economic transformation, the necessary role of public planning and ownership in shaping it, or the strategies necessary to institutionalize a strong worker-community voice in the process and final outcome. In this two-part series I draw on the experience of World War II, when the state was forced to direct a rapid transformation from civilian to military production, to help encourage and concretize that discussion.
In Part I, I first discussed the need for a rapid Green New Deal-inspired transformation and the value of studying the U.S. experience during World War II to help us achieve it. Then, I examined the evolution, challenges, and central role of state planning in the wartime conversion to alert us to the kind of state agencies and capacities we will need to develop. Finally, I highlighted two problematic aspects of the wartime conversion and postwar reconversion which we must guard against: the ability of corporations to strengthen their dominance and the marginalization of working people from any decision-making role in conversion planning.
Here in Part II, I discuss the efforts of labor activists to democratize the process of transformation during the war period in order to sharpen our thinking about how best to organize a labor-community movement for a Green New Deal. During this period, many labor activists struggled against powerful political forces to open up space for new forms of economic planning with institutionalized worker-community involvement. The organizing and movement building efforts of District 8 leaders of the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), as described by Rosemary Feuer in her book Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950, stand out in this regard. Although their success was limited, there is much that we can learn from their efforts.
Organizing for a worker-community planned conversion process
District 8 covered Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas, southern Indiana and southern and western Illinois, and UE contracts in that area were heavily weighted towards small and medium sized firms producing mechanical and electrical products. As the government began its war time economic conversion in 1941, its policy of suppressing civilian goods and rewarding big corporations with defense contracts hit the firms that employed UE members hard.
The UE response was to build a labor and community-based effort to gain control over the conversion process. In Evansville, Indiana, the UE organized a community campaign titled “Prevent Evansville from Becoming a Ghost Town.” As Feurer explains,
District 8’s tentative proposal called upon union and civic and business leaders to request the establishment of a federal program that would “be administered through joint and bona fide union-management-government cooperation” at the local level. It would ensure that before reductions in the production of consumer goods were instituted, government must give enough primary war contracts and subcontracts to “take up the slack” of unemployment caused in cities such as Evansville. It also proposed that laid-off workers would get “first claim on jobs with other companies in the community,” while excessive overtime would be eliminated until unemployment was reduced.
District 8 organizers pressed Evansville’s mayor to gather community, labor, and business representatives from all over the Midwest to discuss how to manage the conversion to save jobs. They organized mass petition drives and won endorsements for their campaign from many community groups and small businesses. Persuaded, Evansville’s mayor contacted some 500 mayors from cities with populations under 250,000 in eleven midwestern states, requesting that they send delegations of “city officials, labor leaders, managers of industry and other civic leaders” to a gathering in Chicago. Some 1500 delegates attended the September meeting.
The conference endorsed the UE’s call for a significant role for labor in conversion planning, specifically “equal participation of management and labor in determining a proper and adequate retraining program and allocation of primary and sub-contracts. . . [And that] all possible steps be taken to avoid serious dislocations in non-defense industries.” A committee of seven, with two labor representatives, was chosen to draw up a more concrete program of action.
One result was that Evansville and Newton, Iowa (another city with a strong UE presence) were named “Priority Unemployment Plan” areas, and allowed to conduct “an experiment for community-based solving of unemployment and dislocations caused by war priorities.” The plan restricted new plant construction if existing production capacity was considered sufficient, encouraged industry-wide and geographical-based pooling of production facilities to boost efficiency and stabilize employment, required companies to provide training to help workers upgrade their skills, and supported industry-wide studies to determine how to best adapt existing facilities for military production.
William Sentner, the head of District 8, called for labor to take a leading role in organizing community gatherings in other regions and creating regional planning councils. Unfortunately, CIO leaders did little to support the idea. Moreover, once the war started, unemployment stopped being a serious problem and the federal government took direct control over the conversion process.
Organizing for a worker-community planned reconversion process
As the war began to wind down, District 8 leaders once again took up the issue of conversion, this time conversion back to a peacetime economy. In 1943, they got the mayor of St. Louis to create a community planning committee, with strong labor participation, to discuss future economic possibilities for the city. In 1944, they organized a series of union conferences with elected worker representatives from each factory department in plants under UE contract throughout the district, along with selected guests, to discuss reconversion and postwar employment issues.
At these conferences District 8 leaders emphasized the importance of continued government planning to guarantee full employment, but also stressed that the new jobs should be interesting and fulfilling and the workweek should be reduced to 30 hours to allow more time for study, recreation, and family life. They also discussed the importance of other goals: an expansion of workers’ rights in production; labor-management collaboration to develop and produce new products responsive to new needs; support for women who wanted to continue working, in part by the provision of nurseries; and the need to end employment discrimination against African Americans.
While these conferences were taking place, the Missouri River flooded, covering many thousands of acres of farmland with dirt and sand, and leaving thousands of people homeless. The US Army Corps of Engineers rushed to take advantage of the situation, proposing a major dredging operation to deepen the lower Missouri River channel, an effort strongly supported by big shipping interests. It became known as the Pick Plan. Not long after, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed a competing plan that involved building a series of dams and reservoirs in the upper river valley, a plan strongly supported by big agricultural interests. It became known as the Sloan Plan.
While lower river and upper river business interests battled, a grassroots movement grew across the region opposing both plans, seeing them, each in their own way, as highly destructive. For example, building the dams and reservoirs would destroy the environment and require the flooding of hundreds of thousands of acres, much of it owned by small farmers, and leave tens of thousands of families without homes.
Influenced by the growing public anger, newspapers in St. Louis began calling for the creation of a new public authority, a Missouri Valley Authority (MVA), to implement a unified plan for flood control and development that was responsive to popular needs. Their interest in an MVA reflected the popularity of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), an agency created in 1933 and tasked with providing cheap electricity to homes and businesses and addressing many of the region’s other development challenges, such as flooding, land erosion, and population out-migration. In fact, during the 1930s, several bills were submitted to Congress to establish other river-based regional authorities. Roosevelt endorsed seven of them, but they all died in committee as the Congress grew more conservative and war planning took center stage in Washington DC.
District 8, building on its desire to promote postwar regional public planning, eagerly took up the idea of an MVA. It issued a pamphlet titled “One River, One Plan” that laid out its vision for the agency. As a public agency, it was to be responsive to a broad community steering committee; have the authority to engage in economic and environmental planning for the region; and, like the TVA, directly employ unionized workers to carry out much of its work. Its primary tasks would be the electrification of rural areas and flood control through soil and water conservation projects and reforestation. The pamphlet estimated that five hundred thousand jobs could be created within five years as a result of these activities and the greater demand for goods and services flowing from electrification and the revitalization of small farms and their communities.
District 8 used its pamphlet to launch a community-based grassroots campaign for its MVA, which received strong support from many unions, environmentalists, and farm groups. And, in August 1944, Senator James Murray from Montana submitted legislation to establish an MVA, written largely with the help of District 8 representatives. A similar bill was submitted in the House. Both versions called for a two-year planning period with the final plan to be voted on by Congress.
District 8 began planning for a bigger campaign to win Congressional approval. However, their efforts were dealt a major blow when rival supporters of the Pick and Sloan plans settled their differences and coalesced around a compromise plan. Congress quickly approved the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act late December 1944 but, giving MVA supporters some hope that they could still prevail, Senator Murray succeeded in removing the act’s anti-MVA provisions.
District 8 leaders persuaded their national union to assign staff to help them establish a St. Louis committee, a nine-state committee, and a national committee to support the MVA. The St. Louis committee was formed in January 1945 with a diverse community-based steering committee. Its strong outreach effort was remarkably successful, even winning support from the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce. Feurer provides a good picture of the breadth and success of the effort:
By early 1945, other city-based committees were organizing in the nine-state region. A new national CIO committee for an MVA laid plans for “reaching every CIO member in the nine-state region on the importance of regionally administered MVA. In addition, other state CIO federations pledged to organize for an MVA and to disseminate material on the MVA through local unions to individual members. Further the seeds planted in 1944 among AFL unions were beginning to develop into a real coalition. In Kansas City, the AFL was “circulating all the building trades unions in the nine states for support” to establish a nine-state buildings trades MVA committee. Both the AFL and CIO held valley wide conferences on the MVA to promote and organize for it.
Murray submitted a new bill in February 1945, which included new measures on soil conversation and the protection of wild game, water conservation, and forest renewal. It also gave the MVA responsibility for the “disposal of war and defense factories to encourage industrial and business expansion.”
But the political tide had turned. The economy was in expansion, the Democratic Party was moving rightward, and powerful forces were promoting a growing fear of communism. Murray’s new bill was shunted to a hostile committee and big business mounted an unrelenting and successful campaign to kill it, arguing that the MVA would establish an undemocratic “super-government,” was a step toward “state socialism,” and was now unnecessary given passage of the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act.
A careful study of District 8’s efforts, especially its campaign for an MVA, can help us think more creatively and effectively about how to build a labor-community coalition in support of a Green New Deal. In terms of policy, there are many reasons to consider following District 8 in advocating for regionally based public entities empowered to plan and direct economic activity as a way to begin the national process of transformation. For example, many of the consequences of climate change are experienced differently depending on region, which makes it far more effective to plan regional responses. And many of the energy and natural resources that need to be managed during a period of transformation are shared by neighboring states. Moreover, state governments, unions, and community groups are more likely to have established relations with their regional counterparts, making conversation and coordination easier to achieve. Also, regionally organized action would make it much harder for corporations to use inter-state competition to weaken initiatives.
Jonathan Kissam, UE’s Communication Director and editor of the UE News, advocates just such an approach:
UE District 8’s Missouri Valley Authority proposal could easily be revived and modernized, and combined with elements of the British proposal for a National Climate Service. A network of regional Just Transition Authorities, publicly owned and accountable to communities and workers, could be set up to address the specific carbon-reduction and employment needs of different regions of the country.
The political lessons are perhaps the most important. District 8’s success in building significant labor-community alliances around innovative plans for war conversion and then peacetime reconversion highlights the pivotal role unions can, or perhaps must, play in a progressive transformation process. Underpinning this success was District 8’s commitment to sustained internal organizing and engagement with community partners. Union members embraced the campaigns because they could see how a planned transformation of regional economic activity was the only way to secure meaningful improvements in workplace conditions, and such a transformation could only be won in alliance with the broader community. And community allies, and eventually even political leaders, were drawn to the campaigns because they recognized that joining with organized labor gave them the best chance to win structural changes that also benefited them.
We face enormous challenges in attempting to build a similar kind of working class-anchored movement for a Green New Deal-inspired economic transformation. Among them: weakened unions; popular distrust of the effectiveness of public planning and production; and weak ties between labor, environmental, and other community groups. Overcoming these challenges will require our own sustained conversations and organizing to strengthen the capacities of, and connections between, our organizations and to develop a shared and grounded vision of a Green New Deal, one that can unite and empower the broader movement for change we so desperately need.