World War I and Afterward: Upheaval, Repression and Terror
Publisher: Against the Current
Date Written: 01/11/2017
Year Published: 2017
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX21712
Following the April 1917 U.S. entry into World War I, a massive months-long strike wave occurred as workers in those industries, booming with wartime orders demanded improved conditions and better wages that were rapidly being outstripped by war-bred price increases.
Fanned by the administration's war propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and a reactionary press, mass public sentiment rapidly came to label any and all radical activity -- that of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), antiwar socialists and anarchists, and Black resistance to increasing white supremacist violence throughout the period -- as the result of Bolshevik subversion. The reality, of course, was that the revolutionary Left did not create the unrest.
The immediate postwar period witnessed one of the greatest strike waves in the country's history -- a veritable "epidemic of strikes" far greater than that of 1917 with over 3,630 recorded stoppages (an average of nearly ten a day) involving more than 4,000,000 workers, or nearly a fifth of the non-agricultural work force, during 1919 alone.
That insurgency resulted from a number of factors, all related to the rapid but unplanned industrial reconversion to a "peace economy;" most significant among them the decline in real incomes due to continuing cost of living increases. Though workers in manufacturing had doubled their average earnings between 1914 and 1919 and real wages were 19% higher in 1919 than in 1915, industrial workers were only able to keep up with increases in the cost of necessities through full employment supplemented by overtime pay and bonuses. (Food prices, for example, more than doubled between 1915 and 1920, and clothing costs more than tripled.)