Harry S. Truman photo

Radio Address to the American People on the Railroad Strike Emergency.

May 24, 1946

[Broadcast from the White House at 10 p.m.]

My fellow countrymen:

I come before the American people tonight at a time of great crisis. The crisis of Pearl Harbor was the result of action by a foreign enemy. The crisis tonight is caused by a group of men within our own country who place their private interests above the welfare of the nation.

As Americans you have the right to look to the President for leadership in this grave emergency. I have accepted the responsibility, as I have accepted it in other emergencies.

Every citizen of this country has the right to know what has brought about this crisis. It is my desire to report to you what has already taken place and the action that I intend to take.

Negotiations between the unions and the railroad operators started in accordance with the Railway Labor Act. Twenty unions were involved. Eighteen of these unions agreed to arbitrate the wage question, and an award was made. Now Alvanley Johnston, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and A. F. Whitney, president of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen, refused to arbitrate the matter for their unions and instead took a strike vote. An Emergency Board heard the case of these two unions and recommended the same wage increase awarded to the other 18 unions. Mr. Johnston and Mr. Whitney, however, rejected the Emergency Board's recommendation in its entirety.

I began conferring with Mr. Whitney and Mr. Johnston as far back as February 21, 1946, in order that every effort should be made to avert a rail strike. When it became evident that the parties themselves were unable to agree, I submitted a compromise proposition to all the parties involved.

Negotiations were made considerably more difficult by the attitude of Mr. Whitney and Mr. Johnston in refusing my request that they meet with the operators and the other 18 unions in a joint conference in the office of the President of the United States. They agreed to meet with the operators but not in the presence of the representatives of the other unions. Accordingly, three separate conferences had to be held in the White House.

The unions had been awarded an increase of 16 cents per hour and certain changes in rules by the arbitration and emergency boards. I recommended that they accept the 16 cent increase awarded by the Boards, plus 2 1/2 cents in lieu of rule changes. These rule changes had been considered by the Emergency Board, which recommended that most of them be negotiated by the parties.

After consideration, this compromise was accepted by the operators and by 18 of the unions. These 18 unions were cooperative. They placed the interests of their country first. The compromise was rejected by the locomotive engineers and the trainmen.

This offer of an increase of 18 1/2 cents per hour was eminently fair. It would have resulted in actually increasing the take-home pay of the union members above the greatest take-home pay which they enjoyed during the war. In addition, these two unions are among the highest paid unions in the country. It is also important that the suggested increase of 18 1/2 cents was within the wage stabilization formula--and this formula must be maintained.

Instead of accepting this offer as did 18 of the unions and the operators, Mr. Johnston and Mr. Whitney chose to reject it and to call a strike of their unions. I assume that these two men know the terrible havoc that their decision has caused and the even more extreme suffering that will result in the future. It is inconceivable that the rank and file of these two unions realize the terrifying situation created by the action of these two men.

The effects of the rail tie-up were felt immediately by industry. Lack of fuel, raw materials and shipping is bringing about the shutdown of hundreds of factories. Lack of transportation facilities will bring chaos to food distribution.

Farmers cannot move food to markets. All of you will see your food supplies dwindle, your health and safety endangered, your streets darkened, your transportation facilities broken down

The housing program is being given a severe setback by the interruption of shipment of materials.

Utilities must begin conservation of fuel immediately.

Returning veterans will not be able to get home.

Millions of workers will be thrown out of their jobs.

The added inflationary pressure caused by the drop in production cannot be measured.

While the situation in our country is extremely acute, the condition in Europe is tragic. Most of our friends today in liberated Europe are receiving less than one-third of the average American consumption of food. We have promised to help the starving masses of Asia and Europe, and we have been helping them. We have been exerting our utmost efforts and it is necessary for us to increase our shipments. At this minute 100,000 tons of grain are being held up by the strike of these two unions. UNRRA has 12 ships scheduled to leave from our ports with grain. These ships cannot sail because the strike of these two unions is keeping the food from reaching the ports. If these ships are held up any longer it means that the bread supply of 45 million people will be cut off within one week.

These people are living from hand to mouth. They depend upon weekly shipments from us to meet their minimum daily needs. This grain held up in this country by the strike of these few men means the difference between life and death to hundreds of thousands of persons. This is stark, tragic truth. If the operation of our railroads is not resumed at once thousands of persons, both here and abroad, will starve. During these past weeks I have told Mr. Johnston and Mr. Whitney of the tragedy that would result from a strike. They have refused to heed my warning. I doubt whether the rank and file of their unions have been told these facts. I am telling them now so that each one of them can face his conscience and consider the spectre of starvation and death that will result from the course which Mr. Whitney and Mr. Johnston are following.

I do not speak tonight of the situation in the coal mines of the nation, for the men are now at work and negotiations for settlement are now taking place between the government and the unions.

I am a friend of labor. You men of labor who are familiar with my record in the United States Senate know that I have been a consistent advocate of the rights of labor and of the improvement of labor's position. I have opposed and will continue to oppose unfair restrictions upon the activities of labor organizations and upon the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively. It has been the basic philosophy of my political career to advocate those measures that result in the greatest good for the greatest number of our people. I shall always be a friend of labor.

But in any conflict that arises between one particular group, no matter who they may be, and the country as a whole, the welfare of the country must come first. It is inconceivable that in our democracy any two men should be placed in a position where they can completely stifle our economy and ultimately destroy our country. The Government is challenged as seldom before in our history. It must meet the challenge or confess its impotence.

I would regret deeply if the act of the two leaders of these unions should create such a wave of ill will and a desire for vengeance that there should result ill-advised restrictive legislation that would cause labor to lose those gains which it has rightfully made during the years.

As president of the United States, I am the representative of 140 million people and I cannot stand idly by while they are being caused to suffer by reason of the action of these two men.

This is no contest between labor and management. This is a contest between a small group of men and their government. The railroads are now being operated by your government and the strike of these men is a strike against your government. The fact is that the action of this small group of men has resulted in millions of other workers losing their wages. The factories of our country are far behind in filling their orders. Our workers have good jobs at high wages but they cannot earn these wages because of the willful attitude of these few men. I cannot believe that any right of any worker in our country needs such a strike for its protection. I believe that it constitutes a fundamental attack upon the rights of society and upon the welfare of our country. It is time for plain speaking. This strike with which we are now confronted touches not only the welfare of a class but vitally concerns the well-being and the very life of all our people.

The railroads must resume operation. In view of the extraordinary emergency which exists, as President of the United States, I call upon the men who are now out on strike to return to their jobs and to operate our railroads. To each man now out on strike I say that the duty to your country goes beyond any desire for personal gain.

If sufficient workers to operate the trains have not returned by 4 p.m. tomorrow, as head of your government I have no alternative but to operate the trains by using every means within my power. I shall call upon the Army to assist the Office of Defense Transportation in operating the trains and I shall ask our armed forces to furnish protection to every man who heeds the call of his country in this hour of need.

This emergency is so acute and the issue is so vital that I have requested the Congress to be in session tomorrow at 4 p.m. and I shall appear before a joint session of the Congress to deliver a message on this subject.

Harry S Truman, Radio Address to the American People on the Railroad Strike Emergency. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/231653

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