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The War Labor Board Insists on Equal Pay for Black Workers

The War Labor Board (WLB) and its predecessor, the National Defense Mediation Board, had a profound impact on relations between employers and unions during World War II. The WLB—made up of representatives from government, labor, and management—provided protection for unions from hostile bosses, increased the wages of the lowest-paid workers, helped set industry-wide wage patterns, and established methods of resolving shop floor disputes. Although the WLB operated in routinized and bureaucratic ways, its decisions could also carry powerful ideological messages. That became clear in the following document, which insisted upon the policy of equal pay for equal work—a seemingly self-evident principle that was not standard practice in American industry. This board decision mandated equal pay for African-American workers.

In this small but significant case the National War Labor Board abolishes the classifications “colored laborer” and “white laborer” and reclassifies both simply as “laborers” with the same rates of pay for all in that classification without discrimination on account of color. The Negro workers in this classification are hereby granted wage increases which place them on a basis of economic parity with the white workers in the same classification. This wage increase is made without regard to the “Little Steel” formula, but with regard simply for the democratic formula of equal pay for work equal in quantity and quality in the same classification. This equalization of economic opportunity is not a violation of the sound American provision of differentials in pay for differences in skills. It is rather a bit of realization of the no less sound American principle of equal pay for equal work as one of those equal rights in the promise of American democracy regardless of color, race, sex, religion, or national origin.

The unanimous decision is in line with the President’s Executive Order 8802; with the general policy of the Board; with the union’s request; with the recommendation of the Referee, Dr. Thomas J. Ragusa; with the unanimous recommendation of the review committee composed of representatives of labor, industry, and the public; with prophetic Americanism; and with the cause of the United Nations. To the credit of the Company this decision, along with other decisions in the case, is accepted by management in good faith and spirit.

Economic and political discrimination on account of race or creed is in line with the Nazi program. America, in the days of its infant weakness, the haven of heretics and the oppressed of all races, must not in the days of its power become the stronghold of bigots. The world has given America the vigor and variety of its differences. America should protect and enrich its differences for the sake of America and the world. Understanding religious and racial differences make for a better understanding of other differences and for an appreciation of the sacredness of human personality, as a basic to human freedom. The American answer to differences in color and creed is not a concentration camp but cooperation. The answer to human error is not terror but light and liberty under the moral law. By this light and liberty, the Negro has made a contribution in work and faith, song and story, laughter and struggle which are an enduring part of the spiritual heritage of America.

There is no more loyal group of our fellow citizens than the American Negroes, north and south. In defense of America from attack from without, they spring to arms in the spirit of Dorie Miller of Texas, the Negro mess boy, who, when the machine gunner on the Arizona was killed, jumped to his unappointed place and fired the last rounds as the ship was sinking in Pearl Harbor.

It is the acknowledged fact that in spite of all the handicaps of slavery and discrimination, the Negro in America has compressed more progress in the shortest time than any race in human history. Slavery gave the Negro his Christianity. Christianity gave the Negro his freedom. This freedom must give the Negro equal rights to home and health, education and citizenship, and an equal opportunity to work and fight for our common country.

Whether as vigorous fighting men or for production of food and munitions, America needs the Negro; the Negro needs the equal opportunity to work and fight. The Negro is necessary for winning the war, and, at the same time, is a test of our sincerity in the cause for which we are fighting. More hundreds of millions of colored people are involved in the outcome of this war than the combined populations of the Axis Powers. Under Hitler and his Master Race, their movement is backward to slavery and despair. In America, the colored people have the freedom to struggle for freedom. With the victory of the democracies, the human destiny is toward freedom, hope, equality of opportunity and the gradual fulfillment for all peoples of the noblest aspirations of the brothers of men and the sons of God, without regard to color or creed, region or race, in the world neighborhood of human brotherhood.

Source: Opinion by Frank P. Graham, National War Labor Board, Case No. 771 (2898-CS-D), In the Matter of Southport Petroleum Company (Texas City, Texas) and Oil Workers' International Union, Local 449, CIO, June 5, 1943. Reprinted in The Termination Report of the National War Labor Board: Industrial Disputes and Wage Stabilization in Wartime, January 12, 1942-December 31, 1945, vol. II, Appendix G, 339–340.

See Also:Equal Pay for Equal Work: The War Labor Board on Gender Inequality