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History from the 1920s repeats in the 2020s

Strikers and their families receive supplies at the commissary store run by the strike committees at Cramps and Sons Shipyard, Philadelphia.

Workers in the 2020s are experiencing similar hardships as did workers from the 1920s according to a look back at Boilermaker history. One hundred years ago, a high unemployment rate and money flowing up to the wealthiest in North America created huge disparities for workers in a way that feels familiar for many today.

The book “Grace Under Pressure” outlines how The Great War galvanized workers in the United States and Canada as no other event had since the inception of the Boilermaker’s union. Government spending on shipbuilding created hundreds of thousands of jobs in a high-paying industry. The management of the railroads by the union-friendly Woodrow Wilson administration eased the difficulty of negotiating hundreds of contracts with railroad companies. Even so, workers were hurting financially.

To help the war effort, workers accepted smaller raises than they believed they deserved, expecting that after the war a grateful nation would reward them with increased wages that kept pace with spiraling inflation. That’s not what happened.

In the February 1920 issue of “The Boilermaker Journal,” the union published an article about a campaign of anti-unionism sweeping the country, run by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s American Shop Plan was a push to end unions in shops and manufacturing once and for all, because things like “rights” and “higher wages” for workers meant less profit for big businesses and the men who ran them.

While the business sector was mounting an attack to destroy unions, inflation was devouring workers’ wages. As inflation rose, buying slowed, resulting in unemployment—which rose from 2% during the war to 12% after it (by comparison, the highest unemployment rate during the COVID-19 pandemic hit 14.9%).

The government’s response in 1920? A series of tax cuts primarily benefiting businesses and the richest people in the United States. After the war, when the federal government returned the railroads to private business and sold off the ships built during the war, those industries amassed record profits—windfalls companies did not share with workers.

Strikes followed in 1921 and 1922, ending when Warren Harding’s government stepped in and put “can’t strike” legislation in place. While the Roaring 20s were prosperous, big business and the wealthy were the main beneficiaries of the lucrative times.

Editor’s note: The Reporter will highlight Boilermaker history in each issue. If you have an interesting photo or piece of Boilermaker history you would like to share with the Reporter staff, please email reporter@boilermakers.org.