|June 7, 1941: The strike at the North American Aviation plant, in which Army troops dispersed union activists and took over an essential American defense facility, is one of the landmark events in Los Angeles history.
Because of its importance – and because the details are sometimes mangled – I’m going to devote several posts to the events that unfolded in the first half of 1941 at North American Aviation, which was making the NA-73 (P-51) Mustang, the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber and the AT-6A trainer at a sprawling facility at 5701 Imperial Highway. Notice that North American is usually described as being in Inglewood, but the plant was actually at Mines Field in Los Angeles.
Although the United States would not enter the war until December, it was clear by the middle of 1941 that America would almost certainly be involved, making aircraft production a vital defense industry not only for the U.S., but for Britain, which was receiving some of North American’s planes. Aircraft workers were deferred from the draft because of the nature of their jobs.
|In early 1941, the North American Aviation plant had been the site of a battle between the United Auto Workers (CIO) and the International Assn. of Machinists (AFL) for the right to represent employees. (The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations did not merge until 1955, ending what had been a bitter rivalry.)
The results of the first election were disputed because employees were given the option of not joining either union, and so a second vote was taken with only two choices: the UAW or the machinists’ union.
On March 13, 1941, the UAW won the election by 70 votes, putting the North American, Vultee and Ryan aviation plants under the CIO. Contract negotiations – with the threat of a strike – were soon underway.
The strike began June 5, 1941, and was reported on Page 1 of the June 6, 1941, edition of the Los Angeles Times. On June 6, President Roosevelt exercised his new emergency powers by stating that he would take over the North American plant unless UAW strikers returned to their jobs. White House aide Stephen T. Early said the Army would remove pickets and take control of the factory unless production resumed.
Early on June 9, workers escorted by LAPD officers and sheriff’s deputies tried to cross the picket line, but a melee broke out. By 6:30 a.m., the 3rd Coast Artillery from Ft. MacArthur and two battalions from the 15th Infantry armed with rifles and bayonets dispersed strikers, arrested about 20 people who refused to leave and secured the factory.
It is sometimes said that one reason Arthur Hohmann resigned as police chief is because he wouldn’t use the LAPD as strike breakers, but The Times’ clips reflect a different story. The switch between Hohmann and Deputy Chief C.B. Horrall was already in the works when the strike began and by the time Horrall took over, the Army had already dispersed the picketers. In fact, the LAPD was used to escort workers into the North American plant.
In his weekly radio address for June 12, Mayor Fletcher Bowron defended the LAPD but said police were overwhelmed before the Army arrived.