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Journal of Policy History 14.2 (2002) 191-203

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The National War Labor Board and American State Building:
A Response

Bartholomew H. Sparrow

In his article "Creating the National War Labor Board: Franklin Roosevelt and the Politics of State Building in the Early 1940s," Andrew Workman argues for a revised "institutionalist" understanding of the creation of the National War Labor Board (NWLB). 1 Specifically, Workman includes interest groups, networks of policy intellectuals, and intragovernmental relations in an institutionalist account of the origin of the NWLB. Existing accounts that focus on the government's dependence on labor unions (Sparrow) or partisan politics (Katznelson and Pietrokowski; Katznelson, Geiger, and Kryder) do not explain the complex origins of this key wartime board. 2

Workman's account of the Roosevelt administration's handling of labor-management relations during the mobilization period of late 1940 (the surrender of France) up to mid-December 1941 (immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor) follows from the work of J. P. Nettl and Stephen Skowronek: the former indicates the importance of crises in state-building; the latter discusses the role of historical contingency and the influence of the particular organization of the preestablished state. 3 Workman builds on these two approaches to present an account of the Roosevelt administration's labor policy as it evolved from the formation of the National Defense Advisory Board in mid-1940, to the NDAB's transformation into the Labor Division of the Office of Production Management (OPM), the creation of the National Defense Mediation Board (NDMB), and ultimately [End Page 191] the establishment of the National War Labor Board in early 1942.

Workman uses primary sources (agency records, presidential correspondence) and the secondary literature (newspapers, journal articles, books) to trace out the labor politics of the period, explain the failure of the Roosevelt administration's initiatives prior to the creation of the NWLB, and argue that FDR's labor-management policies favored the unions rather than business. He rejects the resource-dependence perspective used in From the Outside In for the reason that it misses the other political players--beside the unions--in the mix. The resource-dependence perspective also mischaracterizes labor's advantaged status in the NWLB, as Workman sees it. Whereas the state building that resulted from the war "did not redound to the benefit of the American labor movement" (as Workman quotes me), Workman sees the glass as at least half-full, or fuller. He points out that the NWLB saved the unions from anti-union congressional action, protected union security, and established a relatively benign mechanism for settling labor-management disputes. 4

A partisan account of labor policy is also deficient, according to Workman, since the conservative Democratic-Republican coalition then dominant in Congress was unable to control the creation of the tripartite wartime labor boards (that is, boards composed of representatives from the labor, business, and public sectors). By establishing tripartite bodies for handling labor policy, FDR was able to avoid working through the (hostile) Congress. 5

I have no great quarrel with Workman's argument. I appreciate his attention to labor policy as a component of American state building of the early 1940s, his close historical research, and his challenge to some of the dominant accounts of organized labor in the United States at mid-century. But I should clarify the record on two basic points, and make a few other comments.

First, it seems that we are mostly talking past each other. My purpose in From the Outside In was to test an organizational model of state building, one that I could apply to democratic governments and across different policy domains. The resource-dependence perspective as I adapted it so that it could be applied to government organizations, in lieu of business firms, posits that in times of crisis (here, World War II), democratic governments have to reach out to [End Page 192] societal (that is, nongovernmental) actors--whether individuals or associations--so as to secure needed resources.

Where such actors are organized (labor unions, large business firms and particular industrial...


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