It’s not terribly surprising that in the course of these letters, the not-quite-20-year-old Babe doesn’t comment much on the larger world around him. It’s often about what’s close to him, who he has heard from, the day-to-day activities he’s been through and whatnot.
So it’s somewhat noteworthy when he takes the time to comment forcefully about current events, as he did in his July 18, 1944, letter, which I transcribed this week, even if it is just a couple of sentences: “I was reading ‘Time’ magazine today and it had quite a bit to say about these strikers back home. All I’ve got to say is that they better not have a strike on the railroad because that would make me mad. It makes us pretty mad every time they strike back there.”
The reference got me curious. I tracked down an article I speculate could have been the one Babe was referencing in that letter. Time magazine’s June 5, 1944, issue included an article headlined, “LABOR: The Soda Pop War,” a 10-paragraph piece in that edition’s “War & Terrorism” section.
The article enumerated a number of work stoppages, labor actions and strikes that had occurred in recent weeks and made particular note of labor leaders’ concern over the public backlash they might endure as a result of wartime strikes.
“We must restrain ourselves and our hotheaded brothers today,” the article quoted R.J. Thomas, then president of the United Auto Workers’. “If we do not, there will be no union after the war.”
Just over a year earlier, Congress had passed the Smith–Connally Act, which, according to its Wikipedia entry, “allowed the federal government to seize and operate industries threatened by or under strikes that would interfere with war production.” Time’s article described Smith-Connally as “muddled” and said its provisions allowed for wartime strikes “if the union gives 30 days notice.”
The June 5 article said a wildcat strike by the UAW “last week” had shut down production of guns, plane and truck parts at seven Chrysler auto plants over a dispute involving “whether (American Federation of Labor) or (Congress of Industrial Organizations) truckmen should deliver soda pop to the plants” — hence the headline of the Time article.
It further noted that there had been recent labor actions by lumbermen in the Pacific Northwest; toolmakers in Rhode Island; bakery drivers in Detroit; aviation fuel makers in St. Louis; steelmakers in Granite City, Ill.; and drug-producers at a Parke, Davis & Co. plant in Detroit, halting production of penicillin and blood plasma.
“All the outbreaks of labor trouble had this obvious fact in common: striking men & women believed their own grievances, real or fancied, more important than continued production,” the Time article noted, with little effort to be objective. “Union men could say that the number on strike (some 41,000 at week’s end) was statistically small in total U.S. man-hours; but this did not show why there should be wartime strikes at all.”
The labor actions didn’t end there. Two weeks after Babe’s letter, Philadelphia Transit Company workers staged a massive six-day “sick-out” to protest the promotion of eight African Americans to the “white” job of trolley car driver — piling continued racism on top of a disregard for wartime production needs.
That story stands out in part because of Babe’s admonishment that “they better not have a strike on the railroad,” which also brings to mind, for me, the fact that my grandfather, Babe’s father, at some point in his career worked for the railroad as well.