In fairness to Franklin D. Roosevelt, he didn’t want to do it. But, Sewell Avery, the CEO of Montgomery Ward, was refusing to work with labor unions, and the US was a country at war.
At the time, Chicago-based Montgomery Ward was equivalent to Amazon today. According to Matthew Waxman, a law professor at Columbia University, “By 1943, Montgomery Ward served 30 million customers not only through mail-order deliveries but also via 600 stores and 78,000 employees in 47 states. Two-fifths of U.S. mail-order business went through Montgomery Ward, as did one-fifth of all manufactured products purchased by American farmers.”
Avery had capitulated to Roosevelt once in 1942, but by the beginning months of 1944, he was not having it. Roosevelt’s fear was that a labor strike would interfere with the war effort, and according to the War Labor Disputes Act of 1943, the National War Labor Board could get in the middle of anything that might lead to a “substantial interference with the war effort.”
According to Waxman, Montgomery Ward’s attorneys maintained that Roosevelt was overstepping in the matter. On April 25, 1944, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9438, where he proclaimed “that there are existing and threatened interruptions of the operations of the plants and facilities of Montgomery Ward and Company, located in Chicago, Illinois, as a result of labor disturbances arising from the failure of Montgomery Ward and Company to comply with directive orders of the National War Labor Board.”
Roosevelt ordered his then Secretary of Commerce, Jesse H. Jones, who hailed from my hometown of Houston, Texas, to seize control of Montgomery Ward’s headquarters, retail store, mail order house and warehouse in Chicago and to operate them for the “successful prosecution of the war.”
When a federal dispatch consisting of US Marshalls, deputies and soldiers visited Avery at the headquarters they were not only met with verbal resistance, but Avery refused to leave his office chair leading to the amusing photo that headlined throughout the country at time showing him being literally carried out of his office.
Waxman, who made the extraordinary effort to read and summarize for us the very best part of Attorney General Francis Biddle’s memories on the incident who noted that Secretary of War Henry Stimson had pleaded unsuccessfully with Roosevelt that “[E]very man was needed in the war effort; it is a great army, Mr. President, it must not be sent to act as clerks to sell women’s panties over the counter of a store.”
As a woman, I take exception to the fact that Stimson found our under-clothing the furthest possible thing from a successful prosecution of the war, but I get his point, rude as it may be.
Avery fired back in several ways including a statement released to the Associated Press on May 10, 1944 and reprinted in the New York Times where he called the seizure illegal and demanded that the matter be resolved in court. “Ward’s has been deprived of its property by force and bayonets,” he wrote.
According to Waxman, due to public disapproval, the government released Montgomery Ward back to Avery two weeks later, but then seized the company again, and this time they seized control in nine cities including Chicago after a labor strike broke out at the end of 1944. Litigation ensued and it looked like the government would win, but the end of the war brought an end to the matter.
To learn more about the Montgomery Ward Seizures, visit these resources:
- Lawfare: Remembering the Montgomery Ward Seizure: FDR and War Production Powers
- War Labor Disputes Act of 1943
- Executive Order 9438
- In Brief Authority, the Memoir of Francis Biddle
- The New York Times: Text of Avery’s Statement