Creating a democratically run economy: Lessons from World War II price control struggle

By Marty Hart-Landsberg

August 1, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Reports from the Economic Front — Many activists in the United States are working to build a movement for a Green New Deal transformation of the economy.  Not surprisingly, a growing number look to the World War II conversion of the US economy from civilian to military production for inspiration and policy ideas.  The conversion experience shows that a rapid, system-wide transformation of the U.S. economy is indeed possible. It also demonstrates that state capacities and action are critical; the successful conversion required state planning, public financing and ownership, and state direction of economic activity.  At the same time, with very few exceptions, the conversion process was structured in ways that minimized any serious challenge to existing class relations.1 

One of the most important exceptions was the government’s approach to price stability.  Faced with business determination to boost its prices and profits, and worker willingness to strike to maintain their real income, the Office of Price Administration was eventually forced to “deputize” volunteers to administer and ensure compliance with its system of price control.  Tens of thousands of volunteers were authorized to visit retail locations to monitor business compliance with the controls and tens of thousands of additional volunteers served on price boards that were empowered to investigate and fine retailers who were found to be in violation of the controls. 

This experience demonstrates that working people are willing and able, with minimal national supervision, to oversee and regulate business practices in order to advance a favorable national economic program of change.  In fact, their effort was critical to the program’s success.  Most importantly, I believe that the struggle over price stability has much to teach us about the process of building the institutional and class capacities needed for creating a democratically run economy.

In Part I of this post, I highlight the inflationary consequences of the growth of the US war economy.  In Part II, I examine the economic and social pressures that led the government to pursue ever more stringent price controls.  In Part III, I describe the struggle for popular participation in the implementation and enforcement of the controls.  In Part IV, I describe the role played by volunteers in successfully containing inflation during the last two years of the war.  In Part V, I discuss the business offensive against this volunteer participation. In Part VI, I conclude by highlighting some of the important lessons from this experience and their contemporary relevance. 

Part I: The war economy and inflation

The growth of the war economy brought the depression era to a close.  Unemployment in 1940 was still 14.6 percent.  Real gross private investment remained 18 percent below what it had been in 1929, and industrial production only 16 percent above its 1929 level.2 It was sustained military spending, beginning mid-1941, which finally produced the conditions necessary for a rapid decline in unemployment and rise in production. 

The transformation of the US economy into a war economy is perhaps best highlighted by the fact that although civilian production rose along with military production in the transition year of 1941, it declined thereafter, with many civilian production facilities shutdown or converted to military production.  While overall US industrial production rose rapidly over the years 1941 to 1943, civilian industrial production actually declined every year, in dollar terms, from 1941 to 1944.  Civilian industrial production as a percent of total industrial production fell from approximately 80% in 1941, to 40% in 1942, and to 35% in both 1943 and 1944.3  Business investment fell to a “low in 1943 that was only 37 percent of the 1940 level (and much below replacement requirements)” at the same time that “total civilian consumption, even of goods, in 1943 was higher than it had been in 1940.”4 

The combination of the fall in civilian-oriented industrial production and the rise in civilian employment and purchasing power meant upward pressure on prices.  And the inflationary pressure posed two serious threats to the war effort—it could trigger strikes by workers seeking to maintain their real income and it would raise the cost of financing the war. 

Part II: Inflation, wage struggles and price controls

Days after the US entry into the war, the government moved to minimize possible disruptions to the war mobilization; labor was its prime target.  President Roosevelt convened a labor-management conference at which the participants agreed on two basic policies: strikes and lockouts were to be prohibited during the war.  That meant that labor disputes, especially over wage increases, were to be submitted to the newly created National War Labor Board (NWLB) for resolution.

The Office of Price Administration (OPA), established in August 1941, was charged with securing price stability.  Its early efforts at price control were largely limited to issuing price schedules with maximum prices and negotiating voluntary agreements with producers of major industrial commodities and goods.  However, this industry-by-industry approach proved unworkable as the military build-up proceeded.  Prices rose rapidly and polls conducted in late 1941 and early 1942 showed a strong public desire for government action to stop their rise.

In late April 1942, in response to public concerns, Roosevelt announced a seven-point anti-inflationary program that called for increasing taxes, wage controls, rationing, war bonds sales, and credit controls.  The next day, the OPA issued its General Maximum Price Regulation (GMPR), which ordered the prices of almost all consumer goods to be frozen at the highest level reached in March 1942, effective as of May 15. 

Taking its cue from Roosevelt’s anti-inflationary program and the GMPR, the NWLB moved to place a ceiling on wage increases.  It ruled, in its July 1942 “Little Steel” decision, that since government figures showed that living costs had only risen by 15 percent between January 1, 1941 and May 1, 1942, steel worker wages could only increase by that amount. The Steel Worker Organizing Committee had sought dollar a day wage increases for workers at the smaller steel companies; the NWLB awarded them an increase of only 44 cents. 

The GMPR was an across-the-board effort at price control, covering “all commodities and services not specifically excluded or not covered by another regulation office.”  As part of that effort, retailers were required to keep a record of all their March prices at their place of business. They were also required to file with the OPA, and post on-site, a list showing their March prices for a specified group of “cost-of-living” items. 

While the GMPR appeared comprehensive, it proved difficult to administer as well as enforce.  For example, businesses were constantly modifying existing products or introducing new ones.  When that happened, the regulation called for businesses to price their products at a price that was comparable to similar products that were sold in March.  If a particular business had not previously produced or sold similar products, it could use the price charged by a competitive firm. 

Not surprisingly, consumers found the GMPR wanting.  There was no way for them to determine whether businesses were complying with the regulation.  Prices changed regularly and, if challenged, sellers had little trouble in justifying their actions.

With weak price controls doing little to prevent price increases, especially for food, the Congress, with the president’s encouragement, passed the Economic Stabilization Act on October 2, 1942.  It called upon the president to ensure that prices, wages, and salaries remained at their September 15, 1942 levels.  Roosevelt directed the OPA to immediately place new price ceilings on a number of food items, including eggs, chicken, butter, cheese, potatoes, and flour.  He also ordered the NWLB to apply the terms of its Little Steel ruling to all workers, regardless of industry. 

The AFL and CIO attacked the Little Steel formula on multiple grounds.  Union officials pointed out that while hourly wage gains were limited to 15 percent, prices and profits had risen far more.  Moreover, even the government’s own cost of living index showed a 23.4 percent rise between January 1941 and December 1943.  They also highlighted flaws in the index which led to a serious underestimation of the rise in cost of living.  For example, many low-cost items such as shoes and clothing had disappeared from stores, forcing workers to buy more expensive ones.  Prices in restaurants and cafeterias had doubled, yet more people were forced to eat out because of their work schedules.  The unions calculated that living costs over this period had actually increased by 43.5 percent.5

The price rise slowed in the months following passage of the Economic Stabilization Act, but then prices began accelerating again in early 1943.  Not surprisingly, workers responded by striking for higher wages. In 1943, over 2 million workers went out on strike.  Approximately 13 million [person] days of labor were lost, more than three times the number in 1942.6 

The President sought to mollify workers with yet another initiative.  His April 1943 “Hold the Line” order included, in addition to an end to the remaining few NWLB approved exceptions to the Little Steel formula, a call for OPA to take still tougher actions on prices.  The OPA, in turn, significantly tightened its regulatory structure, taking an especially aggressive stance towards food prices.  For the first time it set actual dollars and cents ceiling prices for the most important food items. 

In contrast to its past approach, which relied on adjustable price ceilings tied to base period prices, dollars and cents ceiling prices could easily be understood and monitored by consumers.  Some of the new ceiling prices, such as for meat, were set by the national office.  The great majority—for a community price list of 300 designated grocery products—were to be set by district offices. 

More specifically, all grocery stores were divided into one of four categories based on their size and service; each category was then assigned its own nationally determined percentage mark-up.  To calculate community price ceilings, OPA district offices first calculated the local production costs of each product on the list using information from local suppliers.  Then they applied the national mark-up to the local costs.  The result was a dollars and cents ceiling price for each commodity, that varied by type of store and community.  District offices regularly adjusted these ceiling prices—weekly for perishables and monthly for dry groceries.

Equally important, for the first time, as discussed more fully below, the OPA began to use volunteers to administer and ensure retail compliance with its new ceiling prices.  The combination of new controls and popular participation in their application proved to be a success.  “Between the spring of 1943 and April 1945 . . . the BLS Index of Consumer Prices rose less than 2 percent, or at one-sixth the rate which had characterized the preceding 2 years.  By means of subsidies, roll-backs, and drastic simplification of controls, food prices actually declined at retail by more than 4 percent.”7 This was an especially noteworthy achievement in that it occurred during the last two years of the war economy, a time when employment was at a maximum and consumer goods production highly restricted. 

Part III: Struggles over popular participation in price control

The OPA had resisted using volunteers in its price control work even though they had proven essential to its rationing work.  The main reason: it didn’t want to anger the business community. 

The war in the Pacific had cut off America’s main source of rubber.  To conserve the existing stock of rubber, the government halted the production and sale of new tires and, in December 1941, the OPA was put in charge of rationing the existing supply.  Tire ration boards were quickly established in every political subdivision in the county and governors in each state were contacted and asked to mobilize their state defense councils to generate the required volunteer board members. 

Over 7000 tire-rationing boards (varying in size from 3 to 7 members) were quickly created and tire rationing began in early January 1942.  Soon after, the OPA was designated the official rationing agency, and the work of the rationing boards was expanded to cover typewriters, automobiles, sugar, gasoline, bicycles, rubber footwear, fuel oil, coffee, stoves, shoes, processed foods, and meats and fats. 

In addition to the volunteer board members, the rationing program also used what the OPA called “regular” rationing volunteers.  These included receptionists, file clerks, telephone clerks, and counter clerks.  At its peak, the program relied on approximately 125,000 regular rationing volunteers.  Although far from perfect, the ration system generally enjoyed community support.  Most Americans were willing to accept its inefficiencies because those administering it were unpaid volunteers, many of who gave more than 40 hours a week in service.8

Most business leaders were willing to accept rationing, including volunteer participation in the rationing program, because they did not see it as a threat to their independence or profitability.  Price controls were a different matter.  Business leaders not only opposed price controls, they were adamantly opposed to popular participation in their enforcement out of fear that it might lead to public involvement in, and regulation of, all aspects of their business operation. Therefore, to maintain good relations with the business community, the OPA had refrained from enlisting volunteers for its price control efforts.

Unfortunately for the OPA, its pro-business stance was not rewarded. In June 1942, one month after the GMPR went into effect, prices continued to rise.  Under pressure to produce results, the OPA decided to carry out a survey of retailers to check on their compliance.

This decision raised the question of who would actually visit the country’s two million retail outlets.  Echoing the position of the OPA policy committee, John Kenneth Galbraith, Deputy Administrator for Price, argued that the survey should be done by eight to ten thousand paid inspectors.  He publicly pledged to the business community that “no Gestapo of volunteer housewives” would be used.9 Members of Congress and the business community began openly referring to shoppers or volunteers who wanted to help check compliance as “trouble makers” and “snoopers.”  This was strong language in the context of the war.

Despite the popularity of this anti-volunteer sentiment, Congress refused to appropriate the money needed to hire paid inspectors.  Therefore, the OPA was forced to seek volunteers for its price survey.  Not surprisingly, this proved difficult.  Many civic organizations were reluctant to mobilize their members for volunteer price work given the negative public comments that had been made about the activity.  Even though some OPA leaders, including Galbraith, eventually changed their position, these early attacks on volunteer participation in the price program had long lasting negative effects on recruitment. 

In May 1942, OPA director Leon Henderson announced that existing rationing boards would be renamed War Price and Rationing Boards.  But still he refrained from recruiting new volunteers with responsibilities for price control.  Price material was sent to the existing boards but, busy with rationing, it was largely ignored.     

AFL and CIO leaders were not happy with OPA’s reluctance to establish active price panels.  They believed that the agency’s lack of commitment to a popular mobilization in support of price controls was a major reason for the lack of progress in the anti-inflation fight.  The OPA was caught in a crossfire.  Labor was critical of the OPA because it was not doing enough to halt the inflation-driven decline in real wages.  Business was critical of the OPA because it was slowly moving (or being pushed) towards adoption of an effective, volunteer-supported price control system. 

Business opposition to OPA’s policy direction eventually led to Leon Henderson’s forced resignation in January 1943; he was replaced by Prentiss Brown.  Galbraith was also forced to resign not long after his change in heart about the use of volunteers.  The ongoing political struggle within the agency did little to improve its effectiveness.  Thus, until Roosevelt’s April 1943 Hold the Line order, prices continued to rise, labor activism continued to grow, and popular participation in price control remained limited. 

Part IV: Popular participation and the success of price control

In March 1943, Prentiss Brown, the newly appointed head of the OPA, called for price panels to be established on every War Price and Rationing Board and for volunteer price assistants to be recruited to assist the panels in their work.  At the time, Brown did not intend for these price assistants to play a major role in price control; he saw them primarily helping to distribute and explain OPA materials to retailers.  But, after Roosevelt’s Hold the Line order, he had little choice but to greatly increase their responsibilities. 

On May 7, the OPA instructed its boards to carry out a national grocery survey over the period May 12-13 to check for compliance with the newly created community price lists.  This survey effort immediately forced a rethinking and elevating of the role of the price assistants. They were assigned the job of checking that every grocery store displayed a poster showing its assigned category, a separate poster showing the dollars and cents price ceilings for stores in its category, and clear signs posted near each product on the community price list showing its selling price.  The assistants were also to check that the selling prices were no higher than the mandated ceiling prices.  If a store was found to be out of compliance the assistants were to inform the store manager and request that the problems be corrected. 

This first survey was far from complete.  The boards were not given enough time to prepare for it.  Moreover, less than one-third of the 5,500 boards had price panels, and fewer than 10 percent of those boards had price panel assistants. 

Brown called for another, more complete, survey of grocery stores no later than June 28.  By then, many more boards had price panels and recruited price assistants.  The assistants were instructed to examine 12 designated food items, comparing their selling price with OPA’s ceiling price.  Not surprisingly, they found a large number of violations.  As required, panel assistants returned for follow-up visits the next week to determine whether corrections had been made.  The program proved to be a success; in June, for the first time in 30 months, the national cost of living index fell.

Despite the program’s overall success, there were still many areas without well-functioning price panels.  Therefore, in July 1943, Chester Bowles, the Connecticut OPA director, was brought to the national office to assist local boards in establishing effective price panels and recruiting and training price panel assistants. 

Bowles pressured the OPA’s nine regional administrators to work with their 93 district offices to quickly increase the number and diversity of volunteers working on price control.  No longer required to work exclusively with defense councils, the district offices began selecting new volunteers from lists drawn up by unions, women’s clubs, and consumer groups.  In reporting on the Connecticut experience, Bowles described the composition of that state’s board members in late 1943 as follows: “There are 156 farmers, 209 housewives, 43 insurance men, 20 doctors and 8 dentists, 47 nurses, 97 school teachers, 237 industrial workers, 32 attorneys, 53 engineers, 127 storekeepers and store clerks, 21 clergymen, 15 carpenters, 11 electricians, and 10 plumbers.”10

The price panels had tremendous responsibilities.  For example, they were supposed to educate all retail businesses, not just those selling food, about the government’s price regulations.  This meant that price panel members had to be informed about price regulations for laundries, department stores, grocery stores, restaurants, and many other establishments.  To carry out their educational responsibilities, panel members generally held meetings with the various retailers in their area to explain the rules and answer questions. 

Price panels were also charged with investigating cases of alleged business non-compliance.  The panels were instructed to investigate all consumer complaints.  If the panel felt that a violation had likely occurred, panel members would hold a conference, normally in the evening, where both the consumer and retailer could argue their respective positions.  If the panel concluded that a violation had taken place, the consumer had the right to collect any overcharge due, or sue in court for three times the overcharge or $50, which ever was larger.

Most of the time, the retailer, if found guilty by the panel, would sign a pledge acknowledging that a mistake had been made, promise to correct it, and pay the overcharge to the consumer.  In the case of overcharges on food items, which were the majority of cases, the amounts involved were small.  But since the panels also regulated prices for large consumer durable goods such as refrigerators, washing machines, and automobiles, sometimes the refunds could be substantial.   

If retailers refused to acknowledge their guilt or change their pricing habits, the board’s only recourse was to send a letter to the offending business threatening it with loss of license (after gaining approval from the district office) and then, if there was no response, ask its local Legal Division to take action.  Unfortunately, in many cases, the Legal Divisions proved unwilling to act. 

Conferences were also held after surveys to follow up on violations discovered by price assistants that were not corrected.  If the board determined that a retailer had violated the law, its only recourse was to collect the overcharge for the benefit of the US Treasury.  Boards were barred from suing for damages; only consumers were given this right. 

The legal sanctions available to the local boards were greatly strengthened in the 1944 legislation renewing the authority of the OPA.  Since few consumers used their legal right to sue, most retailers faced relatively small penalties for violating ceiling prices.  However, according to the terms of the new legislation, if a consumer did not sue within 30 days, then the local board, acting for the OPA Administrator, could assert the “Administrator’s claim” for damages.  This new legislation also allowed local boards to sue for damages when violations were discovered by price assistants. 

Although some boards were reluctant to use their new power, many were not.  The national record was impressive: from January 1945 to June 1946, a total of 71,050 sellers were required to pay over $5.1 million to the US Treasury.11

Most importantly, the volunteer price panel assistants were proving highly effective in stabilizing prices. OPA studies established that business compliance rose substantially the more frequently enterprises were surveyed.  However, there were still, even at the beginning of 1944, too few price assistants to carry out the desired monthly surveys of the country’s 600,000 food stores.  Moreover, the OPA was determined to undertake similar but less frequent surveys of restaurants and service outlets.  Therefore, Chester Bowles, who became head of the OPA in November 1943, called for expanding the number of price assistants to 125,000, each of whom was expected to work from 3-4 hours a day, 2 to 3 days a week.12 

In an attempt to strengthen the survey effort, the OPA ordered an emergency price check of every food store in the country during a one-week period in March 1944.  Over 5000 boards participated and some 450,000 food stores were visited, 3 times the number covered in any previous month.  A board-by-board examination of the survey results yielded “convincing evidence of the effect of continued store checking.  In areas where there were enough volunteers to make weekly visits the number of stores in violation dropped to 4 percent, and where there were no regular visits as many as 75 percent of the stores were found to be overcharging.”13

In April 1944, Bowles sent a letter to the President summarizing the success of OPA’s community pricing efforts.  He noted that while the prices of some items had continued to rise over the last year, in particular clothing, those of other items, in particular foods, had fallen.  In fact, “the cost of living as a whole is slightly lower than it was a year ago today.  This record—1 year of stable living costs—is unprecedented either in this war or the last war.”14

Part V: Business fights back

This success of the OPA’s volunteer-driven price control program set off alarm bells in the business community.  It was the Grocers’ Association, whose member stores were the main focus of OPA survey work, that organized and led the fight against the use of volunteer price checkers.  In fact, it was its “Grocer-Consumer Anti-inflation Campaign” that proved to be the critical turning point in the struggle over popular participation in price control. 

OPA surveys of grocery stores revealed that its price posters were often not displayed properly or at all.  Unable to achieve his target of 125,000 price assistants to force compliance, Bowles decided to outmaneuver the grocers by printing pocket-sized posters with the ceiling prices, and distributing them directly to consumers so that they could do their own checking.  The OPA printed up 2.5 million posters in March 1944 and sent them to a select group of regional directors for a test distribution. 

Most directors quickly distributed them by enlisting the assistance of various civic organizations.  However, one director resisted, claiming that distribution of the posters was an affront to the grocers.  Grocers and some OPA officials took up the charge and began pressing Bowles to drop his project.  Bowles refused.  He ordered the OPA to print 10 million price lists and send them to all regional directors as part of a national educational campaign.

The lists were sent, but came with no instructions for distribution or accompanying national campaign literature.  Although it is unclear who orchestrated it or how it was accomplished, a deal was struck between the grocers and the OPA without the knowledge of Bowles.  In a July 3, 1944 staff memo, Bowles was told that the OPA had agreed not to promote its June consumer price lists or print any new price lists for public distribution.  In return, the Grocers’ Association agreed to launch its own Grocer-Consumer Anti-inflation Campaign, which included a commitment by the association to ensure that grocers would display highly visible ceiling price posters of their own making.15 

The grocers did as they had promised.  Grocer committees were established in most cities and stores hung huge banners touting the campaign and colorful posters with ceiling prices.  However, while posting compliance rose noticeably, price compliance did not.  More importantly, the agreement weakened the OPA’s resolve to recruit more price panel assistants and marginalized the role of consumers.  As a result, popular interest in and support for the price control program declined. 

The OPA had long warned that inflation could easily explode with the end of the war.  Yet, in the months before its August 1945 conclusion, the national office did nothing to reinvigorate its volunteer effort in preparation for the next stage in price control.  In fact, it did quite the opposite: it abolished the price panel division and suspended all price surveys, even though price controls remained in place.  Moreover, the OPA national office made no attempt to communicate with its volunteers to explain its plans. 

Then, almost immediately after the war’s conclusion, President Truman ended restrictions on wage bargaining.  Eager to restore earnings lost under wartime wage restrictions, workers sought significant wage increases.  And, in line with the principles of wartime price control, a number of unions demanded that businesses absorb the costs of the higher wages out of their record profits and not pass them on to other working people through higher prices.  Business refused, and unions, no longer bound by their wartime no-strike pledge, responded with a massive strike wave. 

Had popular support for, and involvement in, price control been sustained, it might have been possible to create a worker-community alliance powerful enough to force business to yield.  Such a victory would have represented a significant restructuring of class relations.  Unfortunately, labor launched its struggle after the demobilization of community participation in price control. 

Truman finally acted to end the strike wave by allowing businesses to raise prices to compensate for paying higher wages.  The result was that union efforts to increase wages became pitted against the broader anti-inflation interests of the majority of working people.  While unionized workers did win substantial wage gains during the strike wave of 1945-46, their success proved short-lived.  The resulting inflation eventually erased their gains, leaving most working people worse off. 

Part VI. Lessons

Hundreds of thousands of working people served as volunteers in OPA’s price control program.  They worked on tasks that were essential to the government’s ability to manage the economy, and their efforts were largely successful.  Yet, this history of government reliance on volunteers for the implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of price controls is generally unknown. 

It would be a mistake to dismiss this history of volunteer participation as a unique wartime phenomenon of no contemporary relevance.  Of course, the war years were a period of great national emergency, which encouraged working people to generously offer their time in service to the nation.  However, it is also clear from the history of the period that working people were not mindless captives of wartime propaganda.  A case in point: many workers struck for higher wages despite wartime pleas by the president not to do so and laws that threatened punishment.  In other words, to the extent that working people volunteered their time to participate in OPA’s price control program, it was because they believed that the program was in their interest. 

Thus, this price control experience should encourage us to think more creatively about the relationship between greater democratic participation in the economy and effective national planning to meet popular needs.  Perhaps the obvious lesson we should draw from this history is that under the “right” political conditions, working people are indeed willing and able to work collectively, with minimal national supervision, to monitor and regulate private economic activity.    

A second lesson is that our criteria for evaluating public policies should include an assessment of their compatibility with, and potential to encourage, popular participation.  Those who supported OPA’s price control efforts, even those in the progressive community, tended to focus their praise or criticism on OPA’s system of price regulation.  Decades later, the Hold the Line period is still defined by the introduction of dollars and cents price ceilings.  However, what ensured the success of this control program was the administrative and monitoring work of volunteers.  In other words, the OPA’s price controls worked as the result of two complementary developments: the creation of a control system that allowed for popular participation and the mobilization of working people to enforce it. 

A third lesson is that activists seeking to promote a Green New Deal style transformation of the economy need to incorporate a critical understanding of both class interest and the contested nature of the state into their organizing work.  As the history of the war period makes clear, the business community was unwilling to surrender its privileges even during a time of “national” emergency.  One example: its strong opposition to meaningful price control.  Therefore, we must be careful not to encourage working people to think about policies or strategies of transformation in terms of a national interest that would promote uncritical alliances with the business community. 

Similarly, while many working people looked to the OPA for leadership in the fight against inflation, the OPA was itself internally divided and weakened because of the presence of business-friendly administrators.  Popular awareness of the structural advantages enjoyed by business in a capitalist economy, including their projection into the state policy-making process, needs to be encouraged.  However, acknowledging this reality should not lead us to conclude that state policy is unimportant or that state agencies are structurally unable to play an important role in social transformation.  The evolution of OPA’s price control program reveals that state policy can be influenced by the political strength of the working class. 

The last, and perhaps most important lesson from the history of this period, is that our organizing efforts for social transformation should be guided by a broad, class-based, worker-community perspective.  An examination of writings in the New RepublicThe NationThe Daily Worker, and AFL and CIO publications leaves no doubt that the progressive and labor communities of the time strongly supported the OPA and its efforts at price control.  In fact, these publications printed articles that openly discussed the ways in which the business community worked to undermine the OPA and called for the agency to purge its internal opponents and actively recruit working people to its cause as price panel members and price panel assistants. 

At the same time, I found no articles that considered or debated the broader political potential of the volunteer experience.  For example, there was no call for activists to work with those volunteering to help them develop a more radical perspective on the nature of the anti-inflation struggle or workings of capitalism.  This is unfortunate, because such efforts might have produced important results, including strengthened links between various working-class constituencies; greater political activism and new leadership skills among people not normally reached through the traditional activist channels of the time, especially women; and new thinking about economic alternatives. 

It is difficult to know why there was no strategic discussion about the volunteer experience.  Perhaps, it took place out of public view.  Or perhaps those writing did not see the price control struggle as offering significant potential for radicalization.  Or given the ongoing union and workplace struggles, they did not believe that activists had the organizational capacities necessary to extend their reach.  Or perhaps the lack of discussion was a result of sexism, with those writing dismissing the volunteer experience because the great majority of volunteers were women.

Regardless of the reason, hopefully the history presented here can encourage a greater appreciation for the institutional and class challenges involved in progressive policy-making, as well more creative thinking about how to overcome them.


This is a revised and condensed version of Martin Hart-Landsberg, “Popular Mobilization and Progressive Policy Making: Lessons from World War II Price Control Struggles in the United States,” Science and Society, Vol 67, No 4 (2003).

1. Martin Hart-Landsberg, “Realizing a Green New Deal: Lessons from World War II,” Reports from the Economic Front, May 27, 2021.

2. Harold G. Vatter, The U.S. Economy in World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 3.

3. Ibid., p. 16. 

4. Ibid. p. 20.

5. Irving Bernstein, “Americans in Depression and War,” in Richard M. Morris, editor, A History of the American Worker (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 182.

6. Joseph G. Rayback, A History of American Labor (New York: The Free Press, 1966), p. 380.

7. Harvey C. Mansfield, A Short History of OPA (Washington D.C.: Office of Price Administration, 1948), p. 56.

8. Imogene H. Putnam, Volunteers in OPA (Washington D.C.: Office of Price Administration, 1947) p. 21.

9. Ibid., p. 32.

10. As quoted in Ibid., pp. 83-4.

11. Ibid., p. 119.

12. Ibid., p. 157.

13. Ibid., p. 99.

14. As quoted in Ibid., p. 100.

15. Ibid., p. 112.