Labor in World War II
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War II, the nature of the country’s economy and workforce changed rapidly. Wartime production provided millions of new industry jobs. Chicago played a vital role in war industry, producing over half of the electronics used in the war and a variety of other important goods. With young men being drafted into the service, minority workers including women and African Americans were needed to take jobs in manufacturing and other trades previously barred to them.
At the start of the war, the Congress of Industrial Organizations and most major unions signed a pledge that they would not hold strikes until peace time returned. Despite the “no strike” pledge, union activity actually grew during the 1940s. Frustrated workers were compelled to work longer hours to keep up with the needs of the war, and their wages stayed the same as the cost of living rose. Unrest led to a dramatic increase in strikes and the frequent shutting down of plants. This disruption of production during wartime led to a backlash against unions. Congress passed laws, including the Smith-Connally Act of 1943, to limit the power of unions in war industry. This distrust of unions would continue after the war.
Mollie During Wartime
Mollie and Carl Lieber married in 1940. During this time, Mollie worked as a secretary and an organizer for the Young Communist League. Carl continued as a journalist.
When the United States entered the war in 1941, Carl decided to get a job in industry in order to support the war effort. With his job at a foundry and work with the United Auto Workers Union, Carl was considered valuable on the home front and exempt from the draft. However, after witnessing so many of his friends heading to the war and losing their lives, he decided to volunteer to fight. Carl was inducted into the United States Army in 1943 and was sent overseas later that year.
Before Carl was sent overseas, Mollie became pregnant. In their letters, they wrote of their excitement for the child and their hope for the future after the war. Mollie continued to work late into her pregnancy.
Just when she was about to begin her maternity leave and prepare for the birth of her child, Mollie suddenly experienced a placental abruption leading to the stillbirth of her baby. Mollie almost lost her own life due to the complication, but was saved by emergency blood transfusions provided by friends and colleagues who crowded the hospital to donate blood for her. Carl was unaware of the tragic loss and his wife’s condition until a letter from a friend finally reached him two weeks later.
Just as Mollie recovered her health, she learned that she had also lost her husband. Carl was killed on January 24, 1945 in a car crash on a coastal road near Nice, France.
After the death of Carl and the medical emergency that almost killed her, Mollie kept busy in order to get through her grief. She returned to work at the Young Communist League, which had been reorganized and named the American Youth for Democracy (AYD). At that time, influenced by the Popular Front policy of the Communist Party, there was a movement to bring together youths worldwide in a peaceful coalition. Mollie was elected as a delegate from the United States and traveled to international youth conferences throughout Europe.
In her time of mourning, Mollie found healing in visiting Europe and meeting people from around the world who had also experienced loss.While traveling, she was able to arrange to see where Carl was buried in France, becoming the first American widow to visit her husband’s grave.
See some of the many letters between Carl Lieber and Mollie in the 1940s here.
While serving in the army, Carl sent two vinyl records to Mollie with recorded messages. Listen to each of the messages below.
*The audio in these videos was converted from vinyl records that are over 70 years old. The audio is distorted due to the warping of the original records. For transcripts and more information, visit the Youtube page by clicking on the logo in the bottom right of each video!
Learn more: Women workers in World War II
World War II provided more opportunities for women to work outside the home. When the United States government put out a call for laborers to keep the economy and the war effort in motion, six million women answered. Between 1940 and 1945, the percentage of the workforce made up by women rose from about 27% to 37%. Even while taking on difficult industry jobs previously only open to men, women were rarely given more than 50% of wages earned by men. Unions offered some help to women in the fight for equal pay. However, unions saw women as temporary replacements in the workforce, and wanted to keep wages high for the men who would return to those jobs. When peace returned, many women wanted to continue their jobs, but most were fired to make room for returning veterans. Women were still not treated equally as workers, but they continued to have a growing presence in the workplace in the following decades.
Header image: Letter from Carl Lieber to Mollie, January 17, 1944