The Bush Administration’s Department of Defense is examining whether it has the power to break a strike at tire plants that supply the military.
The Constitution affords the executive branch no such authority. But, as should be obvious by now, the current Administration has little regard for the founding document.
“The US Army is considering measures to force striking workers back to their jobs at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant in Kansas in the face of a looming shortage of tires for Humvee trucks and other military equipment used in Iraq and Afghanistan,” reported the Financial Times on December 15. “A strike involving 17,000 members of the United Steelworkers union has crippled 16 Goodyear plants in the US and Canada since October 5.”
This is no small matter, as a similar dispute in the early 1950s provoked one of the most significant constitutional crises of modern times.
In April 1952, when a dispute between the nation’s steel companies and the United Steel Workers of America union threatened to disrupt production at more than eighty steel mills, President Harry Truman issued an executive order that the plants be seized.
The President argued that he had the power to do so because the country was engaged in the Korean War, claiming that he acted “by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, and as President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States.”
Truman had an expansive view of executive powers during wartime, as was evidenced during his April 17, 1952, press conference, where a reporter asked: “Mr. President, if you can seize the steel mills under your inherent powers, can you, in your opinion, also seize the newspapers and, or, the radio stations?”
“Under similar circumstances,” claimed Truman, “the President of the United States has to act for whatever is for the best of the country. That’s the answer to your question.”
In fact, Truman was wrong on both political and constitutional grounds. As with the current Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the Korean fight had been entered into without a declaration of war by Congress–the bloody conflict was described vaguely as a “police action.” Even if a declaration of war had been made, there was little reason to believe that Truman had the authority that he said was his. Without such a declaration, there was no question that he was claiming powers that were not his to exercise.
Republican members of Congress, led by Ohioan George Bender, moved to impeach Truman. Bender declared, “I do not believe that our people can tolerate the formation of a presidential precedent which would permit any occupant of the White House to exercise his untrammeled discretion to take over the industry, communications system or other forms of private enterprise in the name of ’emergency.'”