Abstract: The Construction of USS Atlanta and the Navy Seizure of Federal Shipbuilding

David F. Winkler


In this paper I look at the construction of the light cruiser USS Atlanta (CL 51) at the U.S. Steel-owned Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Docking Company at Kearny, New Jersey, during a period of management-labor strife that led to the Navy's seizing and operating the shipyard. Following her commissioning at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in late December 1941, this warship would join the Pacific Fleet in time for the Battle of Midway. U.S. Steel vigorously opposed the unionization of its workers, but conditions at Kearny enabled the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America (IUMSWA) to gain the support of a bullied and disgruntled workforce. By February 1937, the union organization effort successfully elected IUMSWA representatives to fill company "union" positions. The new officers dissolved the company "union" and recognized IUMSWA Local 16 as the organization representing workers at Federal Shipbuilding. Thus began a period of strained relations between labor and Federal Shipbuilding president Lynn H. Korndoff; during this timeframe, in April 1939, Federal Shipbuilding was awarded the contract to build Atlanta and her sister ship Juneau. With war breaking out in Europe in September 1939, Local 16 pledged to refrain from strikes for two years, but pursued its demand to establish the yard as a closed shop. The union had an ally in the government's Defense Mediation Board, which recommended the implementation of a modified union shop. With this backing, in the summer of 1941, with Atlanta being readied for launch, workers marched out on strike. Eventually, the Federal Government reacted by seizing the yard. Rear Admiral Harold G. Bowen replaced Korndoff and implemented "Navy management." With the Navy in charge, the union ended their picket lines and went back to work alongside Navy sailors who were arriving at Federal Shipbuilding as part of the pre-commissioning crew. Bowen sidestepped the issue of implementing a closed shop. While the Defense Mediation Board investigated Bowen for not enforcing its ruling, Bowen explained he would not do so unless directed by the president or Navy secretary. Instead, Bowen moved to dramatically improve safety conditions, and spent dawn to dusk walking around the yard, earning the respect and trust of the workers. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with the union committed to increase production to support the war effort, Rear Adm. Bowen saw the opportunity to transfer the shipyard back to the private sector. On January 5, 1942, President Roosevelt signed an order to relinquish control of Federal Shipbuilding.