By Daniel Hardin
“Let the company come to us. I speak not of compromise. I say meet our demands.”
–Walter H. Vanstavern
Nearly 4,500 workers on the Washington, D.C. Capital Transit streetcar and bus system went on a wildcat strike November 6, 1945 to demand higher wages, despite a no-strike provision in the contract between the Amalgamated Association of Street Electric Railway Employees (the Amalgamated) Division 689 and the company.
The strike ended briefly with a truce, but a second wildcat strike took place two weeks later that ended when the U.S. government seized the company and threatened to operate the system with U.S. troops.
The Capital Transit strike was part of perhaps the greatest strike wave in U.S. history–during 1945-46–that involved upwards of 4.5 million workers across the country.
As GIs returned to the U.S. and sought employment, workers’ hours, and thereby their take-home pay, were cut in nearly all industries. Pay demands were also pent up due to relatively small raises granted during the war years of 1942-45 where many unions entered no-strike pledges. The companies also began pushing elimination or weakening of seniority and other work rules designed to protect employees.
The strike wave involved workers in the auto, meatpacking, steel, coal, railroad, mining and oil industries, among others. The government responded by seizing the railroads, threatening to seize other industries and to draft strikers into the army.
Division 689 of the Amalgamated was established after a one-day strike in 1916 at the Capital Traction and the Washington Railway & Electric companies. A year after the settlement WRE president Clarence King sought to break the union when he fired key union supporters and refused to negotiate a new agreement, instead offering individual contracts to workers.
Capital Traction settled the day before a scheduled strike. The union called a strike against the larger WRE, but the company operated with strikebreakers and broke the union. The unionization of city lines wasn’t completed again until Capital Traction merged with the WRE to become Capital Transit in 1933 and applied the union contract to all workers.
The defeat at WRE in 1917 loomed large over the union leaders for the next two decades and as a result they pursued a policy of accommodation with the company. The old guard was defeated in 1940 by upstarts calling for a more militant approach, but former president William F. Simms recaptured the position by defeating Jonathan G. Bigelow in 1944 by accusing him of being soft on resisting de-segregation of bus and trolley operators.
The transit companies in Washington, D.C. had no practice or law requiring Jim Crow seating like those south of the Potomac River, but the D.C. companies had long refused to hire African American operators or conductors.
In 1940 a group of young activists began undertaking a campaign to integrate the Capital Transit operator ranks through education, pickets, lobbying and demonstrations. The federal government had the power to integrate the company during World War II through a Fair Employment Practices Commission; however, despite repeated promises they had failed to do so by 1945.
While Bigelow was union president, he took the position of the Amalgamated’s International Union that the union accepted anyone who was hired. Indeed, he pointed out that hundreds of maintenance employees were African Americans. But he warned that bus and streetcar operators might not accept black drivers and would likely strike if they were employed. Simms was not so reticent He vowed to oppose any attempt to hire African Americans.
Against this background of pent-up wage demands, talk of strikes opposing integration, the end of World War II and the beginning of a new general labor militancy, the Capital Transit workers gathered at a union meeting to consider their situation.
The Strike Begins
In October 1945, Capital Transit rejected the union’s wage demands. To put pressure on the company, Simms called for a “continuous union meeting” to begin at midnight at the Gayety theater near 9th & E Streets NW. It was attended by around 2,500 workers.
The strike effectively began at 2:30 am on November 6, 1945 when the first trains and buses were due to leave their barns and workers were still in their meeting.
The strike left heavily-streetcar-dependent Washington paralyzed. Over 500,000 passengers normally made between 1.2 and 1.5 million trips per day.
Without any preparations for the strike, the federal government opened on time, but closed two hours early. Downtown department stores closed at 4:30 p.m. All district government employees except firemen and police were let out at 3:30 pm.
The Washington Post wrote, “Scenes on the Capital’s streets included: a naval officer pedaling a bicycle with a government stenographer in a basket on the handlebars; a Negro riding to work on horseback, and a youth zigzagging down Sixteenth Street on roller skates he obviously hadn’t used for years.”
“Among the hundreds of thousands affected by the strike were delegates to President Truman’s labor-management conference called to write a national peace formula for industry and labor. They had to depend on scarce taxicabs or private automobiles,” the Washington Post reported.
The rolling union meeting shifted to the Pythian Temple on 9th Street between L Street and Massachusetts Avenue in the morning and still later to Turner’s Arena at 14th Street and W Street. NW, where 3,000 union members showed up.
The raucous meeting was divided into two points of view—one urging a return to work and the other wanting to continue to exercise their newfound power. An early sign of how the meeting was to go came when a new negotiating committee was elected composed of a more militant trio, Walter Bierwagen, R. E. Hanna and Walter H. Vanstavern.
Simms, the Amalgamated’s International secretary-treasurer Sam Berrong, and federal mediator Richard W. Goodrick all urged a return to work.
“The company is more than willing to enter negotiations with the union. But the company insists that the terms of the contract, which requires that ‘service shall not be interfered with’ be honored. Go back to your jobs and I am sure that you and the company officials can get together,” Goodrick told the crowd
Compromise or Unusual Manner?
Vanstavern, newly elected to the negotiating committee spoke next: “Let the company come to us. I speak not of compromise. I say meet our demands. We regard the sentiments of our International leaders and our own president with considerable deference. But this is an unusual controversy which must be handled in an unusual manner.”
Vanstavern’s words were met with 10 minutes of shouting, foot stamping and applause by supporters of the new negotiating committee. The workers voted to continue the strike.
E. D. Merrill, president of Capital Transit, responded that the company would lose $2.5 million annually if the workers were awarded their demand of a $0.30 per hour raise to all workers. Instead he offered to incorporate the $0.07 per hour bonus that was already being paid into the basic rate—the same offer he had made in October—well before the strike.
The federal government immediately reacted to the strike. More than 500 military MPs at Ft. Myer were put on alert. Labor Department Secretary Lewis B. Schwellenbach and Sen. Jennings Randolph, chair of the House District Committee, met the union leaders and the company during the morning of Nov. 7th.
Randolph made the implicit threat of government seizure when he said that President Truman had told him to “step in and help end the dispute that had seriously impeded the government of vitally needed Government employees.”
The National Negro Congress issued a statement calling for granting the wage increase to the workers, but urged the company to desegregate its operators at the same time.
The company issued a statement refusing to bargain, citing a “no interruption of service” clause in the union’s contract.
The union demands centered on increasing pay to $1.25 an hour as a basic wage for operators and to which other classifications were tied. The current wage was $1.02 per hour that consisted of $0.95 cents basic wage and $0.07 an hour wartime bonus. Mediation in October 1945 had recommended no increase beyond incorporating the $0.07 bonus into the basic wage, a proposal the union rejected.
Workers in most departments, including bus and streetcar operators, had been working an average of 48-hour work weeks that were threatened with cut back to 40 hours as members of the armed services were released from duty. In order to make up for the lost pay, the strikers were demanding the wartime bonus be incorporated and an additional $0.23 be added to make up for lost earnings plus a nominal increase in take-home pay.
“E.D. Merrill, president of the Capital Transit, said that if the workers were paid the 30 cent an hour increase they are demanding, the company would have to raise car and bus fares to meet the added operating costs,” the Washington Post reported.
“To raise the fares charged now the company would have to petition the District Public Utilities Commission and show cause why they should be raised,” said Merrill.
“To do that would result in a long dragged out rate case that would probably take months to settle. And there’s no way you can charge bus and streetcar passengers retroactively for underpaid fares. No one can say exactly how much it would cost the company,” Merrill stated, according to the Washington Post.
Capital & Labor
The union adopted a position that was later cemented during the 1955 strike and continues to underpin the union’s position on wages and benefits today.
It can be summed up as follows: that the workers have value and needs independent of the company’s profit (or later the government’s funding) and in a society of tremendous wealth—those needs must be met.
But even without the union adopting that position, Capital Transit owned outright nearly all its facilities and equipment, had little debt, good operating profits, and large cash reserves.
The union’s negotiating committee reconsidered their bargaining position and entered into a temporary truce calling for a 14-day cooling off period.
At the same time the truce was reached, taxicab drivers of Local 953 of the Taxicab Operators Union were meeting to consider joining the strike.
The 1:00 pm meeting of about 3,000 seesawed back and forth between speakers calling for a continuation of the strike and those who urged backing the negotiating committee. In the end, the union members voted nearly unanimously to ratify the agreement. It contained three points:
- That the prestrike status quo be restored
- That all employees be returned to work without discrimination or penalties against strikers or the union.
- That negotiations proceed for a 14-day period before a special three-man Conciliation Service panel.
After the ratification vote, Berrong told local union leaders that; “I want to congratulate you on your decision. I happen to know that if you hadn’t decided to go back to work, the Army was prepared to take over at 2 o’clock,” according to the Washington Post.
Transit service began to be restored at around 1:30 pm and was completely restored by 9 pm November 7th.
Negotiations over the next two weeks moved slowly but the agreed-upon deadline was moved up just prior to Thanksgiving. On Tuesday Nov. 20th a tentative agreement was reached and a union meeting was called for midnight at Turner’s Arena.
Union president Simms presented the proposal that called for arbitration to resolve the pay dispute. In no uncertain terms, the 3,000 assembled rejected the proposal and voted to strike in the early morning hours of November 21st. Simms then recessed the meeting until 1:00 pm.
Service was crippled on the day before Thanksgiving and the federal government reacted quickly.
Office of Defense Transportation (ODT–a World War II agency) director of highway transport Guy A. Richardson appeared before the 1:00 pm union meeting and announced President Harry Truman’s decision to seize the company and operate it.
Berrong, the representative of the Amalgamated’s International union, and Simms both denounced the strike and pledged cooperation with the federal government to end it.
Union members rushed to the microphones and shouted out a motion to continue the strike that Simms in turn ruled out of order. Union members called for Simms’ impeachment, but he ignored them.
Some of the assembled workers began to drift out of the meeting while others debated the next course of action. Someone ordered the lights cut at 5 pm and the debate continued out on the street.
Truman Denounces Strike
President Truman issued his formal seizure order at 3:00 pm, saying the work stoppage “strikes…at the very roots of orderly government” and vowing that, “The federal government will not permit this kind of action to interfere with its processes either in the capital or any part of the nation.”
As Truman spoke, thousands of troops in the Washington Military District were placed on alert. Brig. Gen. Robert N. Young, the commanding general of the district, announced, “We are prepared to do anything that ODT requires,” and said he had “more than 4,000 men who can serve as bus or streetcar operators—or as military police.”
While the union members continued to debate at Turner’s Arena, others headed back to work.
The first streetcar left the Southern Division barn at Maine Ave. SW at 3:07 pm and the first bus left the Trinidad Division at 15th & Benning Road NE at 6:10 pm Most service was restored Thanksgiving Day, and Friday, November 23 saw a complete restoration of service.
Following the strike, Capital Transit fired a number of men who were accused of urging a continuation of the strike at the Brookland Division near 10th St. and Michigan Ave. NE.
One of those discharged, Ernest M. Hatfield, said “I didn’t attend the continuous meeting of the union either November 7th or last week, In fact I didn’t know about the first strike and reported to work as usual. The company refused to give me my equipment that morning when I showed up for work,” according to the Washington Post.
“I have worked seven days a week for months. I have a wife and two small children. My hours at work were from 6 am to 10 pm. Every day but Sunday. Sundays I worked from noon to 9:30 pm. The only hours I got to see my kids when they weren’t asleep was before noon on Sunday. I tried to do my bit for the company during the war. I can’t understand their action yesterday. I have had only two days off since August 12—more than three months,” Hatfield declared.
A month later, the union settled the grievances of the nine terminated men to return them to work without back pay.
While union power was being demonstrated across the country, many Congressional leaders were denouncing the workers’ actions, and particular ire was directed at the Capital Transit strikers.
The Washington Post reported that “Congress…reacted to the Washington transit, General Motors and Chicago telephone strikes with a whole series of moves aimed at organized labor.”
Representative Eugene E. Cox (D-Ga.) declared, “The goons have the country at bay,” and labeled it “an assault of organized outlaws.”
Senator Alexander Wiley (R-Wi) called the strike, “intolerable and outrageous.”
Representative Charles a Halleck (R-Ind.) offered, “The transit workers are out today in violation of their contract and the company is entirely without recourse.”
Representative Roger C. Slaughter (D-Mo.) suggested the transit workers could be sued for damages under the terms of a bill he supported.
Despite having the greatest number of workers involved in militant action in the history of the U.S labor movement during 1945-46, labor leaders were unable to consolidate their gains. Instead a coalition of Republican and Democratic legislators acted to pass the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947—severely restricting union and individual rights.
Activists in the five-year fight to desegregate Capital Transit were buoyed by the opportunity presented by the federal seizure of the company. The wartime FEPC had repeatedly found against the company, but had not enforced their order to desegregate.
In August 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the seizure of the Philadelphia Transit Company during a wildcat strike and enforced the integration of operator ranks. However, in the case of Capital Transit Truman refused to do so. Charles Hamilton Houston, a longtime civil rights leader serving on the FEPC, resigned denouncing the government’s lip service to desegregation.
The Capital Transit Company’s operators were not desegregated until 1955 while the union prepared for another showdown with Capital Transit.
Pay issue Arbitration
The three member arbitration panel (one company, one union and one neutral) voted 2-1 January 2, 1946, with the company dissenting, to increase the basic wage for operators to $1.14 per hour and to guarantee a 48-hour week until the expiration of the current contract in June 1946. The increase made the union members the highest paid on the East Coast.
However the company refused to comply until the Wage Stabilization Board acted, although wage board and company agreed that its action was not necessary. Ultimately the company relented and paid the increases.
The new insurgent forces within the union were satisfied. They felt the strikes had served their purpose and they would never have received the increases without demonstrating the seriousness of their demands though the strikes.
Walter Bierwagen, a member of the 1945 negotiating committee, cut his teeth in the 1945 wildcats and went on to defeat William Simms in the 1950 Division 689 elections. He applied the lessons learned during the 1945 wildcats—that increasing the amount of public support and a united membership would be essential to outright winning a strike. Further, that stage must be set so that government intervention was on the side of the strikers—not the company.
Dependent on African American support for his election, he led the union in a 1951 strike that established seniority rights for track and maintenance departments where many African Americans worked, and ultimately forced a resolution through the union’s executive board and membership endorsing desegregation in 1955.
He made a very public case in 1955 that Capital Transit’s owners had looted the company at the public’s expense. He led a two-month strike in 1955 that won a small wage increase but firmly established a principle that workers had value independent of the way the company was run.
During Bierwagen’s tenure as head of the local transit union, pension and health and welfare benefits were established. He was elected a vice president of the international union, where he played a crucial role in protecting transit workers’ bargaining rights as public entities took over private transit companies.
The strike wave of 1945-46 was a missed opportunity for workers. Failure to consolidate gains directly led to the crippling Taft-Hartley Act. In turn that has in large part resulted in the past 60 years of defensive battles by workers while union density declines.
Sources include The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Afro American, and surviving records of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 among others.
Postscript: Early D.C. Transit Union Organizing
Amalgamated Associated of Street & Electric Railway Employees Division 689 (currently named Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689) was established in the Washington, D.C. transit system after a one-day strike March 5-6, 1916. It was settled when District government officials stepped in and brokered an agreement to arbitrate disputes not settled. The ad-hoc agreement was for one year.
Earlier efforts at organizing transit workers in Washington, D.C. met with brief successes, but ultimate defeat. The Knights of Labor established a Street Railway Protective Association in the 1880s that waged several strikes against street railway companies and achieved some success in improving wages and working conditions under the leadership of Thomas J. Lawrence before falling victim to the weaknesses in the Knights’ organization around the turn of the century.
There was a brief strike on the Metropolitan Railroad in 1900. Division 161 of the Amalgamated was established by 1901 and achieved early success on uniform issues. However, by October 1901 the Capital Traction Co. fired union president John McCrackin and the union lapsed shortly afterward.
Organizing efforts continued with attempts to establish the Amalgamated in 1907 and 1909, before Division 689 was established in January 1916.
The union currently represents 13,000 active and retired, bus and rail employees of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as well as some paratransit workers at private companies.
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