|Tragedy would hit
the munitions company on March 26, 1943. John P. Breck,
25, of Olean and fuse loading foreman at the facility, was
killed instantly at 11:05 by an explosion on the grounds
of the company. Breck was exploding rejected detonators
when the fatality occurred in a field used for that purpose.
The scene took place approximately 1,000 feet from the main
gate and was segregated from all the other buildings. Army
Ordnance department officials investigated the fatality
along with the county coroner and his death ruled an accident.
The munitions company did face temporary closures during
its operational times. The first took place in July 1942,
when flood waters reached record heights along the Allegheny,
causing great damage along its path. A second flood came
in January 1943, when waters reached the highway leading
to and from the plant. Employees were evacuated from the
facility when the water became more than a foot deep on
the highway near the Toll Gate at Portville. Until the water
was expected to crest, the bridges to the facility became
impassable and prevented the approach of buses carrying
workers from Olean, Coudersport, Wellsville, Cuba and other
communities. Closure also came when the first contract fulfillments
were completed in August 1943. The munitions company reopened
by October 1, 1943, when new contracts were rewarded. More
than 300 workers were recalled and new hires took place.
The company was unfortunately subject
to an employee strike election in November 1943. Even though
national labor unions pledged to President Roosevelt not to
strike, many strikes still took place across the nation and
here in McKean County. A strike election ordered by the National
War Labor Board and conducted by workers at the munitions company
resulted in 277 production workers voting to strike and 221
votes in opposition. The complaint made to the Labor Board covered
a period of August 1941 to November 1943. The union complaint
was that the company failed to pay wages by scale, no recognition
of seniority rights, and failure to pay comparable wages to
women, under a contract between the union and the company. A
hearing was held in Erie by the Regional War Labor Board (RWLB)
November 22, 1943. Company management and over seventy-five
plant employees attended the hearing.
The issues presented by the Union
1) That the National Ammunition Company was formed for the sole
purpose of impairing the obligation of the Company under the
contract of August 9, 1941 and that to all intents and purposes,
the National Ammunition Company and the National Munitions Company
are one and the same.
2) The Company failed to comply with the provisions of the contract
of August 9, 1941 in the payment of the wage scales to its employees
despite the fact that the contract calls for the payment of
pressmen of a wage of $.90 per hour.
3) The Company failed to respect the seniority rights of its
various employees as provided in the contract.
4) The Company failed to protect the
health and welfare of its employees as provided in the contract.
5) The Company failed to pay to women
employees comparable wages equal to men employees replaced by
said women employees.
6) The Company failed to pay the minimum
wage rates set by the Secretary of Labor, pursuant to the Walsh-Healy
7) The Company failed to comply with
the provisions of the arbitration award and decision made by
Jacob Blair on May 3, 1943 which was later approved by the War
Labor Board being retroactive back to May 3, 1943.
The recommendation of the labor panel was as follows:
Issue 1: The Panel accepts the Company’s
statement for changing the name of the National Munitions Company,
Plant No. 4 to the National Ammunition Company, Plant No. 4.
The name was not changed for the purpose of impairing the obligation
of the Company under Contract of August 9, 1941. The change
was made in order to separate the liability on contract of each
company from the other.
Issue 3: Seniority should be respected
as rigidly as possible with due consideration for safety and
efficiency factors, to be determined in joint conference of
the Union and Company representatives. When an employee is transferred
to a lower wage rate job for a period of thirty (30) days or
less, the employee’s wage rate shall be maintained, and not
reduced to the lower rate. When an employee is transferred to
a higher wage rate job, the employee should be paid the higher
rate. When an employee is transferred (demoted) permanently
to a lower wage rate job, the employee and his representative
must agree to the lower wage rate.
Issue 4: The Company’s record regarding
health and accidents is better than average for like industry.
It is the opinion of the Panel that the Company is complying
with all Federal and State laws, rules and regulations, in regards
to health and safety.
Issue 6: The Panel has been advised
that according to Captain Louis F. O’Brien of the Labor Branch
of the War Department, Pittsburgh, this Company is not subject
to the provisions of the Walsh-Healy Act because of certain
Issues 2, 5 and 7: It was the unanimous
opinion of the Panel that these issues should never have come
before the several Government Agencies or this Panel. They should
have been adjusted in joint conferences between the Company
and the Union.
The company and the union were unable
to settle their differences and an organized walk-out by union
employees took place on December 23, 1943. National Munitions
made additional hires promoting overtime pay and kept in operation
through war’s end in 1945.