Sewell Avery thrown out

In 1944, America’s largest retailer, Montgomery Ward & Company was beset by a labor dispute. A strike which had dragged on into its fourth month deeply concerned the White House, which was worried about the problems at the mail-order giant having an adverse effect of the delivery of goods in wartime and the inflation.

The Roosevelt Administration pressured both the local Chicago Montgomery Ward union as well as the company’s management, headed by Sewell Avery. Puganious Avery was brought into Montgomery Ward by J.P.Morgan bank amidst the Great Depression to turn the retailer around. A scion of a powerful lumber family, he was also a leading figure in right-wing, anti-New Deal movement and viewed unions as subversive conspiracies that stripped property owners of their constitutional rights. He wasn’t about to give in.

While the union called off its strike, Avery still refused to negotiate, claiming that the union did not represent the majority of workers He denounced the White House of interfering with private enterprise and prepared for a prolonged strike by hiring high school-aged scabs. The government sent in Commerice Department bureacrats to seize and operate Montgomery Ward’s Chicago properties.

The Commerce Department lacked the War Department’s experience with seizures and largely bungled the operation. Under Secretary of Commerce Wayne C. Taylor was given a copy of the
War Department plant seizure manual and a short briefing from Army experts less than an hour before he was about to leave to direct the takeover. The War Department, which wanted nothing to do with the seizure, however, was put in the unenviable position of having to supply troops.

Avery was informed of the decision to seize the properties but stubbornly, he still went to work the next day as usual. His forcible ejection by two soldiers — Sergant Jacob Lepak of Milwaukee and Private Cecil Dies of Nashville — would become a part of American folklore. Life magazine noted, “If a Montgomery Ware press agent and a great historian had plotted and planned for years, they could never have improved on the picture.”

Avery went out denoucing Attorney General Francis Biddle, who had flown to meet with him and try to avert a showdown, “To hell with the government, you… New Dealer!”

Many photographers — William Pauer of Chicago Times, Ed Geisse of Chicago Tribune — were there to capture the moment, but the photo of the day was made by Harry Hall for AP. For more than anything, Hall had to thank the AP for his photo becoming famous: the AP was the first to transmit the photo. Hall remembered:

I had my Speed Graphic ready and was just waiting around, when all of a sudden the front door opened and two soldiers came out carrying Sewell Avery. I made a long shot and then several others, following the three men down the street. They stopped in front of Avery’s chauffeur-driven car, and let him down. He was smiling as he jumped into the auto and I made some more photos.

The photo above would soon be on newspaper frontpages across the country. “Troops Seize Montgomery Ward Plant,” declared the front page of the Washington Post.” Charles S. Dewey, a former banker and Chicago congressman, demanded an investigation and denounced it as ‘Un-American’ and befitting ‘Gestapo methods’. Senator Harry Bryd of Virgina, a leading opponent of FDR, called it, “an outrageous abuse of power.”


The next day Avery joked, “I’ve been fired before in my life, but this is the first time they carried me out feet first”. Having seized the business, the Commerce Department had no idea how to run a $600-million, 78,000 people organization. It would quickly return it to Avery, but would have to conduct another seizure eight mouths later, with Montgomery Ward still intractable in its labor dispute. This time, Roosevelt issued an executive order seizing all of the retailer’s property nationwide. The following year, Truman would end the seizure. The public gained the impression that the government had illegally seized Montgomery Ward, and the photo of defiant Avery led out by soldiers contributed to this criticism and ridicule.

As for Avery, he didn’t much have the last laugh. Fearing that there would be more depression after World War II (as depressions usually followed wars), he refused to open any new stores and even not permit renovation of existing stores (he even refused repainting costs). His disregard for labor was also enduring — unlike Sears, he resisted pension plans, insurance and profit sharing with employees. By 1951, Sears would have double the business volume of Montgomery Ward, not only having surpassed Ward in retail stores but also managing to buy up better locations. The Board forced his resignation in 1954, but Montogomery Ward never regained its former lead position.

16 thoughts on “Sewell Avery thrown out”

  1. get it right. This was not a dispute between management and labor within Montgomery Ward, this was a FDR and Big Union take over of MW, because Avery refused to join the Union and fire nonunion employees. FDR had no right, or constitutional authority to sieze this private property. Even though FDR gave himself such right through the War Labor Board, it still does not justify this for, Montgomery Ward’s merchandise was NOT war effected material, and there was NO stoppage of work. This was a Progressive Liberal President helping his Labor Union minions to engulf a nonunion business, simply for growth of wealth, and power. And in the end, it cost the Democrats their long running majority in both Government houses, for this event aided in their defeat in 1946.

    1. And we see how well that worked for Montgomery Wards. How often do you shop there now? Oh right, when Sewell was put back in charge after the war, he ran the company into the ground and it never recovered, going out of business in 2001. Oh, and the nationwide strike at Wards DID have a work stoppage that did cause a slow-down of war related goods. So as Commander in Chief, Roosevelt had NO CHOICE but to do what he did. Why can’t conservatives ever get history right?

      1. FDR was in your mind a King with total power! If he thought, as he did that labor Union dues would help his bid for a 4th term election 7 months later, then he could tell the thousands that did not vote for collectivism, they must join or be ousted too!
        The company, like many others, accepted the union contracts and paid the opponents the same or promoted many to other non -union assignments. Union leaders called these workers scabs to make them pay dues to help Union-Political forces help get us to where we are now. Vote for socialism and class war to get full power like FDR, or Biden, all the time.

  2. I remember seeing that picture, in the “Chicago Tribune,” which Louise Precious, the teacher in the one-room school I was attending, brought to school. I was age 12, and my family didn’t subscribe to any daily paper.

    Through this link, I found John T. Flynn’s very critical book about Roosevelt. I’d seen some other books by Flynn, many years ago.

  3. I made a mistake, above. If that picture was taken in April of 1944, I was still age 11, and I must have seen it in a paper that my parents were getting at that time.
    It would have been either the Des Moines Tribune or the relatively new Chicago Sun. I think Mrs. Precious hadn’t started bringing the Chicago Tribune to school. At that time I still wasn’t aware of such a thing as a public library.

  4. What are the regs for this duty? They are in class A, but it seems to be khacki slacks with Olive Drab jackets. The sargeant, photo left, has a white pistol belt–no pistol. Private, photo right has a gas mask.
    I want to paint this historic moment.

  5. The claim by Hall to have taken this photo is bogus. My father , Bill Pauer ,captured this picture and won an award plus a bonus ($50.00) from the Chicago Sun-Times . He lost rights to this picture when it went nationwide and anyone can claim to have taken it. My father said that when they went to remove Sewell Avery from Montgomery Wards , the officials came out and offered coffee and donuts to waiting press by saying it would be awhile before removing Avery. My father said no one ever did that so he stayed out side and waited , that is how he was the only one to take the picture .

  6. […] Avery, by the way, was a noted opponent of the New Deal and of U.S. militarism.  When Uncle Sam seized control of Montgomery Ward in December 1944, Avery refused to leave his office and had to be physically carried out by armed goons of the state. […]

  7. […] Much more infrequent was the battalion’s mobilization in response to labor troubles. But when an incident did arise, the MPs were ready. Receiving national press coverage was the unit’s seizure of the Chicago office of Montgomery Ward on 27 April, 1944. The chairman of Montgomery Ward at that time was Sewell Avery who after refusing to settle a weeks-long strike, provoked the government to intervene. Avery was ordered by the MPs to vacate the building premises but chose not to. Drastic measures were taken and Avery, along with his chair, was picked up and carried out.15 […]

  8. […] TUESDAY’s ANSWER: Congrats to Elizabeth Grisanzio, finance director for Greg Hart’s DuPage chairman campaign, for correctly answering that Montgomery Ward CEO Sewell L. Avery refused to settle a strike in 1944 despite the order of the National War Labor Board. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the company seized, citing the importance of its operations to the war effort. When Avery refused to leave, two guardsmen picked him up and carried him out. An AP photographer captured the scene. […]

  9. […] TUESDAY’s ANSWER: Congrats to Elizabeth Grisanzio, finance director for Greg Hart’s DuPage chairman campaign, for correctly answering that Montgomery Ward CEO Sewell L. Avery refused to settle a strike in 1944 despite the order of the National War Labor Board. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the company seized, citing the importance of its operations to the war effort. When Avery refused to leave, two guardsmen picked him up and carried him out. An AP photographer captured the scene. […]

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