December 27

This Day in History

Presidential

Dec 27, 1944:

FDR seizes control of Montgomery Ward

On this day in 1944, as World War II dragged on, President Franklin D. Roosevelt orders his secretary of war to seize properties belonging to the Montgomery Ward company because the company refused to comply with a labor agreement.

In an effort to avert strikes in critical war-support industries, Roosevelt created the National War Labor Board in 1942. The board negotiated settlements between management and workers to avoid shut-downs in production that might cripple the war effort. During the war, the well-known retailer and manufacturer Montgomery Ward had supplied the Allies with everything from tractors to auto parts to workmen's clothing--items deemed as important to the war effort as bullets and ships. However, Montgomery Ward Chairman Sewell Avery refused to comply with the terms of three different collective bargaining agreements with the United Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union hammered out between 1943 and 1944. In April 1944, after Sewell refused a second board order, Roosevelt called out the Army National Guard to seize the company's main plant in Chicago. Sewell himself had to be carried out of his office by National Guard troops. By December of that year, Roosevelt was fed up with Sewell's obstinacy and disrespect for the government's authority. (The uber-capitalist Sewell's favorite insult was to call someone a "New Dealer"--a direct reference to Roosevelt's Depression-era policies.) On December 27, Roosevelt ordered the secretary of war to seize Montgomery Ward's plants and facilities in New York, Michigan, California, Illinois, Colorado and Oregon.

In his announcement that day, Roosevelt emphasized that the government would "not tolerate any interference with war production in this critical hour." He issued a stern warning to labor unions and industry management alike: "strikes in wartime cannot be condoned, whether they are strikes by workers against their employers or strikes by employers against their Government." Sewell took the fight to federal court, but lost.

For much of the 20th century, Montgomery Ward, founded in 1872, reigned as one of the country's largest department store and mail-order retail chains. Heavy competition from Wal-Mart, Target and similar discount stores forced the company to close all of its stores in 2000, though it retains a catalog and internet presence.

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