On This Day

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Associated Press
President Truman announces the government seizure of the steel industry, April 8, 1952.

On This Day: President Truman Seizes Control of Steel Industry

April 08, 2011 05:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On April 8, 1952, President Harry S. Truman took control of the steel industry in order to avert a nationwide strike.

Truman Issues Executive Order 10340

On Dec. 31, 1951, the labor contract between the United Steelworkers Union and U.S. steel manufacturers expired. The Wage Stabilization Board ruled that workers should be given a 26-cent-per-hour raise, but steel manufacturers refused to grant the raise because the Office of Price Stabilization would not raise the price of steel.

As negotiations remained stalled, Truman feared that a strike would cripple the country’s war effort in Korea. He considered invoking the Taft-Hartley Act—which he had vetoed just five years before—to order a “cooling-off” period during which steel production would continue, but chose not to. Instead, with a strike set to begin at midnight on April 8, he decided to take control of the steel industry through Executive Order 10340.

In a radio and television address on the night of April 8, Truman declared, “Our national security and our chances for peace depend on our defense production. Our defense production depends on steel … I have no doubt that if our defense program fails, the danger of war, the possibility of hostile attack, grows that much greater. I would not be faithful to my responsibilities as President if I did not use every effort to keep this from happening.”

The order placed control of 71 steel companies under the secretary of commerce, who would “determine and prescribe terms and conditions of employment under which the plants … shall be operated.” The next day, notices of seizure were hung inside steel factories as work went on as usual.

Truman sent a letter to Congress explaining his action and asking for support. “On the basis of the facts that are known to me at this time, I do not believe that immediate Congressional action is essential; but I would, of course, be glad to cooperate in developing any legislative proposals which the Congress may wish to consider,” he wrote. Congress took no action.

Public opinion was divided, and many questioned the wisdom and legality of Truman’s decision. Time magazine wrote, “[H]is action left the dispute over steel itself, and the future of the whole wage-price stabilization program, right where it started: tangled, confused—and more embittered than ever.”

Reactions: Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer

Within an hour of Truman’s April 8 speech, steel company owners filed their first legal challenges to the order. Within days a district court judge had ruled the order unconstitutional and issued an injunction, at which time the steelworkers went on strike.

The case, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, reached the Supreme Court in May 1952. At issue was whether the president had the constitutional authority to seize control of the steel industry without the approval of Congress.

The case was argued on May 12 and 13, and the decision was reached on June 2, less than two months after the order was released. In a 6 to 3 decision, the court ruled against Truman.

In the majority decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “In the framework of our Constitution, the President's power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker. The Constitution limits his functions in the lawmaking process to the recommending of laws he thinks wise and the vetoing of laws he thinks bad.”

Each concurring judge wrote his own opinion, which made different arguments than Black’s. The most influential of these opinions was written by Justice Robert Jackson, who wrote that there were three types of situations where a president rules without consent of Congress: when he acts with implied authorization of Congress, when he acts when Congress is silent and when he acts in defiance of Congress.

Jackson determined that Truman had acted in defiance of Congress and thus ruled that his actions could not be justified. “In short, we can sustain the President only by holding that seizure of such strike-bound industries is within his domain and beyond control by Congress,” he wrote.

With Truman’s executive order ruled unconstitutional, the strike continued until July, when he was finally able to arbitrate a settlement. “Truman had risked much of his political capital on a strike that, in the end, had minimal effect on the Korean War,” writes the Miller Center of Public Affairs. “The choices he made in this incident increased the unpopularity of an already embattled President.”

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