Tragedy and Closures
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 were:
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 Act.

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 technicalities.

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.