1944: The Removal of Sewell Avery

Harry Hall - The Removal of Sewell Avery (April 27, 1944)

In 1942, in an effort to avoid strikes in war-related industries, Franklin Roosevelt reinstated the War Labor Board and directed it to oversee and arbitrate negotiations between unions and employers. Most unions had also agreed not to strike during the war in exchange for the government’s support of the closed shopthe requirement that a company hire only union members.

The retail giant Montgomery Ward operated a mail-order business and department stores across the country; it also supplied Allied forces with tractors, auto parts, clothes, and other items, therefore falling under the board’s jurisdiction. Workers there had organized with the United Mail Order, Warehouse and Retail Store Employees Union, CIObut Sewell Avery, the company’s anti-union, anti-government, and anti-New Deal chairman, was determined to fight them in spite of the wartime provisions for labor peace. He refused to recognize or negotiate with the union and ignored the board’s orders to compromise.

Conflict between Avery and the union dragged on for almost two yearsuntil April, 1944, when the union contract expired and workers were no longer bound by a no-strike provision.  A strike was called in April, 1944 to protest Avery’s refusal to recognize the union and abide by the terms of a contract developed by the board. Almost 12,000 workers went on strike in Detroit, Chicago, St. Paul, Denver, San Rafael, Portland, and Jamaica, New York. The company responded by cutting wages and firing union activists.

The strike lasted about two weeks before FDR ordered the army to take over the company. Troops entered the company building in Chicago and had to physically remove Avery, carrying him from his office out to the street. Jesse Holman Jones, the United States Secretary of Commerce, was appointed manager of the Chicago plant and Montgomery Ward was virtually run by the US government.

The company, of course, challenged the action in court. As the legal process proceeded, workers again certified the union through a National Labor Relations Board election and eventually Jones turned the company back over to private management.

Montgomery Ward, however, again refused to recognize the union, so on December 27, 1944, FDR issued an executive order that authorized the Secretary of War to seize the company a second time and take over its operations in compliance with the board’s orders:

This company, under Mr. Avery’s leadership, has waged a bitter fight against the bona fide unions of its employees throughout the war, in reckless disregard of the Government’s efforts to maintain harmony between management and labor. Its record of labor relations has been a record of continuous trouble. Twice the Government has had to seize properties of Montgomery Ward as a result of Mr. Avery’s defiant attitude, once in Chicago and once in Springfield, Illinois, where the Hummer Manufacturing Company, a Montgomery Ward division, has been operated by the War Department since last May. For more than a year the company has refused to accept decisions involving workers in ten of its retail stores. Four of these stores are in the Detroit area, the very heart of war production from the viewpoint of urgency. A strike is in progress in these four stores, and strikes are threatened in other cities where the company’s stores are located. There is a distinct threat that workers in some of our most critical war plants may join the strike in support of the Montgomery Ward employees if the Government fails to act. We are not going to let this happen. Strikes in wartime cannot be condoned, whether they are strikes by workers against their employers or strikes by employers against their Government. All of our energies are engrossed in fighting a war on the military battle fronts. We have none to spare for a war on the industrial battle fronts. It is up to us to uphold and strengthen our machinery for settling disputes without interruptions of production. We cannot do this in a total war if we permit defiance to go unchallenged.

We cannot allow Montgomery Ward & Co. to set aside the wartime policies of the United States Government just because Mr. Sewell Avery does not approve of the Government’s procedure for handling labor disputes. Montgomery Ward & Co., like every other corporation and every labor union in this country, has a responsibility to our fighting men. That responsibility is to see that nothing interferes with the continuity of our war production. It is because Montgomery Ward & Co. has failed to assume this obligation that I have been forced to sign an Executive Order directing the Secretary of War to take over and operate certain properties of Montgomery Ward & Co.

The seizure was upheld by a United States Court of Appeals, but the takeover was ultimately terminated by President Harry S. Truman in 1945.

Photograph by Harry Hall

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