May 13, 2014

Henry J. Kaiser sticks up for union labor at Brewster Aeronautical

Brewster F3A-1 Corsair landing on a WWII aircraft carrier.

On Jan. 29, 1954, Henry J. Kaiser delivered the keynote address at the Seminar on Human Relations in San Bernardino, California.

This conference, sponsored by the University of California and the United Steelworkers of America, brought together labor leaders, anthropologists, educators, and other intellectuals to explore productive and creative ways to work.

Kaiser’s speech was titled “Human Relations: The Key to Abundant Happiness,” and one of the lessons he drew upon was his wartime management of Brewster Aeronautical Corporation, which had plants in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Henry J. Kaiser speaking at Fontana, Calif., blast furnace dedication, 1942

Henry J. Kaiser speaking at Fontana, Calif., blast furnace dedication, 1942

Brewster was manufacturing F3A-1 Corsair fighters but had been ineptly managed and inefficiently run.  In 1943, as a favor to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Kaiser agreed to try and turn the company around.

Kaiser displayed a remarkable sensitivity to the role of organized labor and the practical mechanisms of management’s role:

“The blame for the atrocious situation was heaped by the government and the press upon the union leader, Tom DeLorenzo, who was called a liar, a criminal, and worse.

“I shall never forget my first meeting with De Lorenzo, the accused troublemaker. His attitude was that all management was dishonest, unreliable, and untruthful, and only outright battle would handle management.

“I said to De Lorenzo, ‘Can’t you and I work based on being truthful with each other?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘it won’t work. I’ve tried it too many times and always get double-crossed.’

“Quietly I said, ’Well, Tom, do you think this would work? Suppose when you come in to see me from day to day and you are going to lie, you say, ‘I’m going to lie to you today.’ But on the other hand, when you are telling me the truth you say, ‘Now I’m telling you the truth today.’

“Much to my surprise, he said, ‘That might work. I’m willing to try it.’ Many times when he came in amid the nightmare of problems, he would say, ‘I’m going to lie like hell to you today! But this is my position!’

“As time went on, more often he’d come into conferences and say, ‘I’m going to tell you the truth today.’ Tom DeLorenzo had left in him some of the spark of decency that is in every human being and when appealed to, is released.

“The thrilling sequel is that Tom DeLorenzo pitched in shoulder to shoulder with management to do the patriotic job of cleaning up the Brewster mess. Man-hours per plane were slashed to one-third; the padded workforce was cut in half; yet the production of planes was multiplied nearly 30 times.”

Despite Kaiser’s success, this productive relationship was ridiculed by anti-labor forces in the U.S. Government. House Resolution 30, “Authorizing and Directing and Investigation of the Progress of the War Effort,” began in 1941 and resulted in a series of hearings.

Congressman Melvin J. Maas (Minnesota) was the principal interrogator during a heated hearing on November 30, 1943. Maas was a tough Marine, a veteran of both WWI and WWII and had little tolerance for anything that smacked of war profiteering. He lit into Kaiser, but Kaiser gave as well as he got1:

Mr . Maas: “Mr. Kaiser, [you wrote that] ‘the responsible union leaders at the Brewster plant assure management of their desire that we should continue, and give assurance that we will receive the support and cooperation of labor to achieve an increase in plane production for the maintenance of the war effort.’

“They have opposed every other manager, but they do endorse your management. Why? What makes you think that they endorse your management while they oppose every other management at Brewster?”

Mr. Kaiser: “I guess I have confidence and faith and trust.”

Mr . Maas: “Of course, if you give (him) all the candy he wants, he’s (on your side), isn’t he?

Mr. Kaiser: “That isn’t what I said. You are making a statement that I am giving them the candy; I am not ... I told [DeLorenzo], if you are [interested in the well-being of your union members], it is necessary to make them so efficient that ... when we are going into the postwar era, they can exist and live, produce, and create in a competitive market and make a living for themselves and their families. Tom, the sooner you start moving in that direction the greater will be your service to your members.’”

Truly, Henry J. Kaiser believed in his motto, “Together we build.”


1Henry J. Kaiser – Western Colossus,  Heiner, 1991, pp 162-164