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Truman orders Navy to seize control of petroleum refineries

On this day in 1945, President Harry Truman issues Executive Order No. 9639, giving the Secretary of the Navy the power to seize control of and operate a list of petroleum refineries and transportation companies in order to counteract strikes by oil workers. The list of plants seized by the Navy included those owned by industry giants: the Gulf, Shell, Standard and Union oil companies.

Although the Second World War was for all intents and purposes over with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 8 respectively, the war did not formally end until the Japanese signed an unconditional surrender agreement on September 2, 1945. Knowing that vast amounts of oil would be required to enable demobilization and the return of military equipment and personnel to the U.S., Truman was forced to intervene between oil workers and management to avoid a crippling shutdown of the industry. Oil, gas and chemical workers had worked longer and harder than usual during the war to meet production demands and now wanted to return to a 40-hour work week. They resented the amount of money oil-industry CEOs were making off of their labor while they simultaneously threatened to lower workers’ wages after the war.

Truman ordered the formation of an emergency board to negotiate a settlement between the oil workers’ union and industry owners. The union rejected the board’s recommendations and on August 25 seemed determined to carry out their strike. At that point, Truman felt he had no other option but to bring in the Navy. Shortly thereafter, the oil workers’ union accepted the Truman’s administration’s terms and ended their strike. Truman’s tough action, however, alienated many of his labor supporters.

Truman later employed similar tactics to avoid critical shutdowns of industries during the Korean War. In 1948 and 1950, he intervened in railway disputes between union employees and management and, in 1952, he waded into the middle of a conflict in the steel industry. Truman, like his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt, believed that government intervention was critical to maintaining uninterrupted industrial production in a time of war.

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