Crippling unemployment, low wages, and labor uncertainty characterized workers’ lives during the torturous years of the Great Depression. Although President Franklin. D Roosevelt’s New Deal created jobs and relief programs for millions of Americans, by 1940, the unemployment rate stood at 15% across the country and poverty remained the norm. The economic recovery Americans hoped for did eventually arrive, but it sprung from an unlikely source: World War II.
American entry into the War created a massive demand for military equipment, including guns, trucks, tanks, ships, planes, and a wide range of other goods in order to fuel the nation’s war effort. This created millions of jobs in wartime industries producing supplies that troops would need to secure an American victory. In fact, the national unemployment rate fell by 10% from 1940 levels within months of the war’s outbreak, and by 1944, it had fallen to a record low of 1.2% unemployed. The enormous unemployment of the Great Depression was finally over.
President Roosevelt acted quickly to manage labor in the country and ensure a smooth war effort. He established the National War Labor Board (NWLB) in 1942 to settle wartime labor disputes and set wages for defense industries as well as the War Manpower Commission (WPC) to balance the labor needs of agriculture, industry, and the military.
Meanwhile, union membership grew thanks to the surge in employment, but the long hours and often stagnant wages in defense jobs led to labor unrest. Thousands of workers walked off the job during a series of strikes in 1942 and 1943, but Congress—fearful that strikes and a hostile labor movement would jeopardize the war effort—passed the Smith-Connally Act of 1943 over FDR’s veto. This law allowed the government to seize control of industries facing strikes if such strikes would interfere with wartime production.
Since millions of men left the labor force to join the military, many of the new jobs that World War II created went to women. Symbolized by the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter, women soon came to represent nearly a third of America’s total workforce and enjoyed access to industrial jobs that were previously reserved for men and that offered higher wages.
The War also opened opportunities for African-American workers. Most skilled factory jobs were segregated by race, but many industries were willing to hire African-Americans in order to meet the intense need for workers; just as it had for women, this opened up a range of higher-paying, skilled roles for African-American workers. In addition, the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) established by President Roosevelt in 1941 outlawed racial discrimination in defense industries.