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“Word Has Just Been Received”: Truman Speaks on the Railroad Strike

Unions that continued to press beyond the general labor settlements established in the auto and steel industries after World War II found themselves facing an additional and powerful adversary—the federal government. In the spring of 1946, both coal miners and railroad workers staged nationwide strikes. President Harry Truman decided that the unions had gone too far, and after the railroad workers rejected a settlement, he seized control of the railroads. Despite the government takeover, the workers continued with their strike plans. As a result, on May 24, 1946, Truman issued an ultimatum declaring that the government would operate the railroads and use the army as strikebreakers. When the deadline passed, Truman went before Congress to seek the power to deny seniority rights to strikers and to draft strikers into the armed forces. Just as Truman reached the climax of his speech, he received a note saying that the strike was “settled on the terms proposed by the President.” After the congressional cheers died down, Truman proceeded with his prepared text.

Listen to Audio:

Harry Truman: Members of the Congress of the United States:

I desire to thank you for this privilege of appearing before you in order to urge legislation which I deem essential to the welfare of our country.

For the past two days the nation has been in the grip of a railroad strike which threatens to paralyze all our industrial, agricultural, commercial, and social life.

Last night I tried to point out to the American people the bleak picture which we faced at home and abroad if the strike is permitted to continue.

The disaster will spare no one. It will bear equally upon businessmen, workers, farmers and upon every citizen of the United States. Food, raw materials, fuel, shipping, housing, the public health, the public safety—all will be dangerously affected. Hundreds of thousands of liberated people of Europe and Asia will die who could be saved if the railroads were not now tied up.

As I stated last night, unless the railroads are manned by returning strikers I shall immediately undertake to run them by the Army of the United States.

I assure you that I do not take this action lightly. But there is no alternative. This is no longer a dispute between labor and management. It has now become a strike against the Government of the United States itself.

That kind of strike can never be tolerated. If allowed to continue, the government will break down. Strikes against the government must stop.

I appear before you to request immediate legislation designed to help stop them.

The benefits which labor has gained in the last thirteen years must be preserved. I voted for all these benefits while I was a member of the Congress. As President of the United States, I have repeatedly urged not only their retention but their improvement. I shall continue to do so.

However, what we are dealing with here is not labor as a whole. We are dealing with a handful of men who are striking against their own government and against every one of their fellow citizens, and against themselves. We are dealing with a handful of men who have it within their power to cripple to entire economy of the nation.

I request temporary legislation to take care of this immediate crisis. I request permanent legislation leading to the formulation of a long-range labor policy designed to prevent the recurrence of such crises and generally to reduce the stoppages of work in all industries for the future.

The legislation should provide that, after the government has taken over an industry and has directed men to remain at work or to return to work, the wage scale be fixed either by negotiation or by arbitrators appointed by the President, and when so fixed, it shall be retroactive.

This legislation must be used in a way that is fair to capital and labor alike. The President will not permit either side—industry or workers—to use it to further their own selfish interests or to foist upon the government the carrying out of their selfish aims.

Net profits of government operation, if any, should go to the Treasury of the United States.

As a part of this temporary emergency legislation I request the Congress immediately to authorize the president to draft into the armed forces of the United States all workers who are on strike against their government.

Word has just been received that the rail strike has been settled on terms proposed by the President.

These measures may appear to you to be drastic. They are. I repeat that I recommend them only as temporary emergency expedients and only in cases where workers are striking against the government.

I believe that the time has come to adopt a comprehensive labor policy which will tend to reduce the number of stoppages of work and other acts which injury labor, capital, and the whole population.

The general right of workers to strike against private employers must be preserved. I am sure, however, that adequate study and consideration can produce permanent long-range legislation which will reduce the number of occasions where that ultimate remedy has to be adopted. The whole subject of labor relations should be studied afresh.

I make these recommendations for temporary and long range legislation with the same emphasis on each. They should both be part of one program designed to maintain our American system of free enterprise with fairness and justice to all the American citizens who contribute to it. I thank you.

Source: Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library.

See Also:GM Rejects Reuther's Call to "Open the Books": The Post-WWII Strike Wave