In February of 1946, tugboat crews in New York Harbor had had it. They had been trying since October, 1945 to negotiate an end to the wartime freeze on wages, to reduce hours from 48 per week to 40, to receive two weeks paid vacation per year, and perhaps most importantly, to end the practice of stranding workers in far-away ports and forcing them to pay their own way home, without success. Although the war was over, the federal government was still regulating the price of freight, which meant that shipping companies didn't want to raise wages. Frustrated, the tugboat workers struck. Starting February 4, 1946, tugboats did not move coal or fuel in the nation's busiest port.
Manhattan is an island, and maritime freight played a huge role in supplying the city with fuel, food, and other supplies, as well as removing garbage by water. At the time of the strike, officials estimated the city has just a few days of reserve coal.
The strike was covered in several newsreels at the time. British Pathe put together this short report on the strike:
Universal put together this newsreel, sadly presented here without any sound:
Newly-elected mayor William O'Dwyer did not react well to the strike. Facing a fuel shortage for one of the nation's most populous cities in midwinter was no laughing matter, but O'Dwyer implemented measures that many later deemed an overreaction to the strike. He essentially rationed fuel for the entire city, prioritizing housing for the sick and aged, but enforcing a 60 degree maximum temperature for all other building interiors, turning off heat in the subway and limiting service, shutting down all public schools on February 8, and by February 11 shutting down entirely restaurants, stores, Broadway theaters, and other recreational venues. The bright lights of Times Square and elsewhere were also turned off to conserve electricity, as illustrated in this second newsreel from British Pathe:
After 18 hours of shutdown, the shipping companies and the tugboat unions agreed to end the strike and enter into third party arbitration for their contract. Tugboats started moving fuel again, and the lights turned back on. And that's the end of the story - or is it?
On February 14, 1946, the New York Times published an article entitled "Lessons of the Tug Strike," whereby they largely blamed O'Dwyer for the costly shutdown. "New York tugboat workers and management have sent their dispute to arbitration after a ten-day strike that endangered life and property, cost business millions of dollars and paralyzed the whole city for a day. We may well breathe a sigh of relief and at the same time examine some aspects of this incident that offer guidance for the future," the Times wrote, and went on to ask that O'Dwyer never do that again "unless the need is clearly established."
As for the tugboat workers, it would take nearly another year for the threat of a strike to fade completely. Negotiations continued throughout 1946, with little movement, until the threat of another strike emerged in December of 1946. It was avoided by additional arbitration with Mayor O'Dwyer's emergency labor board. Finally, the arbitrators won concessions from both sides, and on January 5, 1947, the New York Times reported that a settlement had been reached. The tugboat workers got their 40 hour workweek, but not the same wages as 48 hours of work. They did get an 11 cent per hour wage increase along with a minimum wage for deck hands, a five day workweek, and time and a half for Saturdays and Sundays. However, the contract was only for 12 months, and in December of 1947, another strike was on the table as workers struggled for another wage increase. The strike was averted with more concessions from the companies, including a ten cent raise, food allowances, and more. But in the fall of 1948, the contract was up again, and the specter of the February, 1946 shutdown arose as a strike was once again on the table as part of the negotiations.
Strikes were common in the years following the Second World War, in nearly every aspect of American society. In particular, the Strike Wave of 1945-46 impacted as many as five million American workers across all sectors. The strikes, although sometimes effective in improving worker wages and conditions, were largely unpopular with the general public. In 1947, Congress overrode President Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, which limited the power of labor unions and ushered in an era of "right to work" laws. Learn more about the strike wave in this podcast from the National WWII Museum.
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