The National War Labor Board (NWLB) was a United States federal agency created in two different incarnations, the first by President Woodrow Wilson from 1918–19 during World War I and the second by President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1942–45 during World War II. In both cases the board's purpose was to arbitrate disputes between workers and employers in order to ensure labor reliability and productivity during the war.
The board began operations on April 8, 1918, after Wilson's action. It was composed of twelve representatives from business and labor, and co-chaired by former President William Howard Taft.
The decisions of the NWLB generally supported and strengthened the position of labor. Although it opposed the disruption of war production by strikes, it supported an eight-hour day for workers, equal pay for women, and the right to organize unions and bargain collectively. Although the NWLB did have any coercive enforcement power, Wilson generally ensured compliance with its decisions.
In general, the relative strength of organized labor in America grew substantially during the war. Union membership almost doubled after the formation of the NWLB. Of note, the AFL membership rose from 2 million in 1916 to 3.2 million in 1919. By the end of the decade, 15 percent of the nonagricultural work force was unionized.
In all, the board ruled on 1,245 cases. Almost 90 percent of them sprang from worker complaints, and five skilled trades accounted for 45 percent. Of the cases, 591 were dismissed, 315 were referred to other federal labor agencies, and 520 resulted in formal awards or findings. In reaching decisions, the board was aided by an office and investigative staff of 250 people. Approximately 700,000 workers in 1,000 establishments were directly affected.
The board was disbanded on May 31, 1919, some six and a half months after the war's close.
The National War Labor Board was reestablished by President Roosevelt on January 12, 1942, under the chairmanship of William Hammatt Davis. It was reestablished by Executive Order 9017. It became a tripartite body and was charged with acting as an arbitration tribunal in labor-management dispute cases, thereby preventing work stoppages which might hinder the war effort. It administered wage control in national industries such as automobiles, shipping, railways, airlines, telegraph lines, and mining.
The Board was originally divided into twelve Regional Administrative Boards which handled both labor dispute settlement and wage stabilization functions for specific geographic regions. The National Board further decentralized in 1943, when it established special tripartite commissions and panels to deal with specific industries on a national basis.
It ceased operating on December 31, 1945, some four months after the war's close. Labor disputes were thereafter handled by the National Labor Relations Board, originally set up in 1935.
Atleson, James B. Labor and the Wartime State: Labor Relations and Law During World War II. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1998. ISBN 0-252-06674-X
Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 7: Labor and World War I, 1914-1918. New York: International Publishers, 1987. Cloth ISBN 0-7178-0638-3; Paperback ISBN 0-7178-0627-8
Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1987. ISBN 0-521-22579-5
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