William F. Dunne

The Thirtieth Convention of the United Mine Workers of America

Source: The Communist, No. 1, March 1927, Vol. 1.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The Thirtieth Convention of the United Mine Workers of America, the backbone of the American labor movement, can be characterised correctly as first, the continuation of the rapid drive towards reaction on the part of labor officialdom and second, as another phase of the new offensive against the Communists and the left wing.1

Meeting in Indianapolis Jan. 25-Feb. 2, the Lewis machine turned its back on the glorious past of the union and, so far as the official attitude of the union is concerned, wiped out all vestiges of class consciousness and militant tradition.

That this was not accomplished without a struggle, and that because of the resistance of the membership it was necessary for the Lewis machine to resort to the most shameless methods of suppression, is testimony to the working-class integrity of the rank and file to the purposeness with which the left wing had waged its struggle under the slogan of “Save the Union,” and is also a guarantee of the crystallization in the United Mine Workers of a left wing leadership, which by following a correct policy and tactics will save the union from the machine which has driven it to the verge of destruction.

Before dealing more at length with the convention struggle, the methods of the Lewis machine, what it did at the convention, the role of the left wing, and drawing the conclusions from these facts, it will be well to sketch briefly the present situation of the U. M. W. A.

The report of Secretary-Treasurer Kennedy, submitted in printed form, reveals some startling facts—facts which prove irrefutably that the indictment of the Lewis machine made by the “Save the Union” bloc is correct.

His figures show that, after making every effort to list all possible members, the total membership of the United Mine Workers is 273,000. In 1924, the U. M. W. A. paid per capital to the American Federation of Labor on 402,700 members. The Jacksonville agreement, signed for three years in 1924, with the understanding that a process of “normalization” of the industry would be carried out jointly by the Lewis machine and the coal operators i.e., the operators would freeze out small producers and the U. M. W. A. officialdom would raise no objection to a period of shutdowns which would drive unemployed miners out of the industry, has thus resulted in a minimum of 129,700 miners being DRIVEN OUT OF THE UNION.

The figures contained in Secretary-Treasurer Kennedy’s report reveal another fact which shows the utter incompetency of the Lewis machine and the destructive result of its policy.

The last six months covered by the report were months in which all records for coal production were broken. This was due to the advantage taken by American coal owners of the opportunity to capture British markets during the strike and to the fact that enormous amounts of coal were being stored in anticipation of an interruption of production at the expiration of the Jacksonville agreement.

During this period of abnormal activity, covering six months, the UNION LOST 19,000 MEMBERS.

The “normalization” of the industry has been carried out at the expense of the unionized workers with the consent of U. M. W. A. officialdom. Contrasted with this, and further proof of the suicidal policy of the Lewis machine, we have the fact that coal experts now estimate the non-union coal production at 62½ to 70 per cent of the total tonnage in the United States. In 1922-23 the reverse was true.

The Jacksonville agreement expires April 31 and according to statements of prominent railway officials published in the New York Times, the railroads are storing from two to five months’ supply of coal to overcome a shortage caused by a strike. Other large coal consumers—and the operators—are doing the same. The coal barons, by extending their operations in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Western Pennsylvania, have surrounded the so-called central competitive field—Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and a part of Western Pennsylvania—with a circle of non-union properties.

It is probable that under forced production the non-union fields can increase their tonnage to 90 per cent of the total.

In many districts—West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee—the union has practically been destroyed. In Eastern and Western Pennsylvania and Ohio it has been cut almost in half and in Indiana and Illinois it has been weakened seriously. The union officials for the most part make no pretense of enforcing the working conditions stipulated in the Jacksonville agreement.

In the anthracite fields the acceptance of a five-year agreement by the Lewis machine which does not provide for the check-off and does provide for arbitration by a third party, has weakened the position of the union, lowered the morale of the membership and made it possible for the coal companies to lay the base for company unionism.

It is obvious that the U. M. W. A. faces a critical situation.

Only the internal consolidation of the union and the organization of decisive sections of the unorganized fields can save the union.

But the Lewis machine, instead of declaring war on the coal barons and strengthening the union internally, made war on the militant rank and ale and their leaders.

The convention was the culmination of the Lewis offensive against the elementary interests of the membership and was the third phase of the struggle of the left wing to save the union.

The first phase was the grouping of all honest oppositional elements in the union around the candidacy of John Brophy on the “Save the Union” platform and the election campaign.

The second phase was the struggle for the election of delegates to the convention.

Just as the left wing in the convention was carrying through its struggle for the union into the highest body of the union so was the convention offensive of the Lewis machine an extension of its war on the left wing which had been going on continually since 1923. The difference was in the intensity of the struggle and the openly reactionary character of the convention objectives, strategy and tactics of the Lewis machine.

The left wing fought for a program the main features of which were: Organization of the unorganized—no wage-cut—abolition of operators’ influence in the union-democracy in the union—honest elections—nationalization of the industry—a labor party.

The most casual examination of the union and the industry will show that this program was and is capable of solving the problems of the union in this period.

The program of the Lewis machine is the program of the agents of imperialism in the labor movement. It can be stated briefly as follows:

1. To bring the U. M. W. A. into line with the official “efficiency unionism” policy of the American Federation of Labor.

2. To place the U. M. W. A. completely in the hands of the Lewis machine.

3. To present the coal barons in the central competitive field with a union which will not endanger their profits, and make an agreement on this basis which will nominally preserve what is left of the union while actually surrendering to the operators.

4. To deliver the union nationally to one or the other of the capitalist parties, more effectively than ever before, and preferably to the republican party.

In conformity with this program the Lewis machine proceeded as follows: The Lewis appointed committees, with Secretary-Treasurer Kennedy, a former socialist, playing a prominent part, recommended and the Lewis machine shoved through such measures as:

a. The elimination of the clause in the preamble to the constitution stating that workers are entitled to “the full social value of their product” and its substitution by the Civic Federation phrase “equitable fruits of their labor.”

This is designed to destroy all constitutional sanction for advocacy of a policy of class struggle.

b. The adoption of a constitutional amendment which prohibits any member who is not a citizen from holding office in the union. This is another Civic federation “Americanization” scheme and its purpose is to robotize the foreign-born miners who make up a majority of the union membership.

This measure sets up a special caste of officeholders and leaves those who by accident of birth or otherwise are not American citizens with only the privilege of paying dues and voting for 100 per centers.

c. The abolition of the constitutional provision which made it necessary to secure approval of the membership for assessments covering a longer period than two months. The officials now have the power to levy and collect assessments for any amount and for any length of time without membership sanction.

This gives the Lewis machine complete control of the union finances.

d. Enactment of a provision outlawing expression of minority opinion in the union.

While ostensibly directed only at the Communists this provision actually legalizes expulsion for criticism of officials.

Repudiation of the previous convention endorsements of a labor party and acceptance of the official A. F. of L. policy of support of capitalist party candidates as the policy of the U. M. W. A.

f. Raising official salaries as an endorsement of the policy of the Lewis machine. (Lewis’ salary was raised from $8,000 to $12,000 per year, the salaries of Murray and Kennedy from $7,000 to $9,000 per year.)

In the desperate situation in which the union finds itself as a result of the machines corruption and bankruptcy these huge salary increases are in themselves sufficient commentary on the cynical disregard of the interests of the rank and file.

The Lewis machine was able to put over the above program by a combination of political and organizational methods that can be summarized as follows:

1. By taking advantage of the general campaign against Communists in the labor movement.

a. Publication of the “Coyle letter” linking up the opposition bloc with our party and “outside elements” (Coyle of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, liberal elements, etc.)

2. By capitalizing the sudden increase in employment due to the British coal strike and the storage of coal by operators and consumers as an achievement of the Lewis machine-propaganda which the opposition bloc was unable to answer effectively.

3. By claiming, shortly before the convention, tremendous success for organization campaigns in West Virginia, Kentucky, etc.

4. By claiming, while at the same time withholding the tabulated vote by local unions, an overwhelming victory for the, Lewis machine in the elections. (The vote as given out was 173,000 for Lewis, 60,000 for Brophy.) 2

5. By taking the offensive in the matter of securing resolutions commending the officials, upholding the appointive power, asking a raise its salaries for officials, etc. Most of these resolutions came from “bluesky” locals but some of them represent a real attempt of the machine to reach the rank and file directly. All of them represent an attempt of the machine to give the impression of mass support for its reactionary program.

6. By concentrating in the union fields a squad of paid “organizers”—estimated at a minimum of 100.

a. Securing the withdrawal of opposition delegates through pressure brought by these “organizers” upon local officials.

7. By bringing fake delegations to the convention—as in the case of District 31, West Virginia—172 delegates representing, according to figures obtained in the secretary&38217;s report, exactly 377 dues-paying members. There are many other smaller but equally flagrant instances. (It is probable that from 30 to 40 per cent of the convention support of the machine was of this nature.)

8. By open intimidation of the rank and file (slugging of Hapgood, Demchak, etc.)

9. By unseating capable left wing leaders, (Toohey, Hapgood, Coffe, Howat, etc.)

In spite of the undoubted effectiveness of these methods in hampering the left wing, it was evident that the Lewis machine has lost its grip on the minds of the great majority of the working membership. Its utter reaction in policy and the unscrupulousness of its methods has widened the gulf between it and the membership.

This was shown in the convention when the Lewis machine found it necessary to defeat a majority against its proposal for unlimited taxing power by counting out the opposition. It was shown in a still stronger form when the proposal of the machine to extend the period between local union elections from one to two years was defeated by such a majority that it was impossible to miscount it.

On the questions of organization of the unorganized, the labor party, the seating of deft wing delegates and a number of other less important issues, there were sharp struggles which showed the temper of the rank and file.

The opposition in the convention, however, got into action too late. The main reason for this was that, composed of elements of different degree of political consciousness and militancy, the left wing leadership was unable to rally the rank and file delegates for common struggle until a majority understood, as a result of the attack of the Lewis machine, that the drive against the Communists were merely preliminary to a general assault on the most elementary principles of trade union democracy and honesty.

By the time that the opposition bloc had grasped the fact that the Lewis machine slogan of “purge the U. M. W. A. of Communism” really meant stripping the union of all its militant traditions and throttling the rank and file and had begun to fight in earnest, most of the damage had been done.

The weakness of the opposition bloc in the convention can be listed as:

1. Lack of political clarity shown by its inability to broaden the struggle on secondary issues such as granting unlimited power to the machine levy assessments and other principles of trade union democracy, into a general struggle against the machine on the basis of the “Save the Union” program.

2. Inability to make a complete indictment of the machine on the basis of its ruinous policy.

3. Underestimation of the ruthlessness and anti-working-class character of the Lewis leadership.

4. Weakness of organization.

a. Poor connection between leaders and mass following. This weakness exists both in the districts and nationally.

b. Lack of aggressiveness—inability to take the offensive and capitalize to the fullest extent the blunders of the Lewis machine.

5. The left wing leaders had not as yet established themselves completely as the spokesmen of the rank and file on a national scale.

The above defects, however, are of the kind that the growing tyranny of the Lewis machine and the necessity for energetic prosecution of the struggle to save the union will correct. The strong points of the opposition bloc are an assurance that its defeat in the convention will tend rather to strengthen than awaken it. These points are:

1. The correct line of its program.

2. Its mass character—although in the convention this developed rather late.

3. Courage in the face of the most bitter and sustained attack in the history of the U. M. W. A.

4. The fact that its delegates for the most part came from large local unions in contrast to the fraudulent character of a great proportion of the machine delegates.

5. The fact that for the first time in a U. M. W. A. convention there was a bloc of ANTHRACITE delegates in opposition to the machine.

6. The ability to gain strength as the struggle progressed.

7. The large percentage of young miners among its followers—a guarantee that the movement is developing and not stagnating.

It must also be remembered that the left wing was severely handicapped in the convention by the suspension of its organ “The Coal Miner,” due to lack of funds.

This left it without a paper with which to put its slogans and program before the delegates and it also served to give undeserved color to the charge of the machine that “The Coal Miner” had been published merely for election , purposes.

Another handicap for the left wing has been the continuous unemployment in the union fields which has forced thousands of miners out of the industry entirely or into the non-union fields. Naturally, the most militant miners have been the first to feel the pressure, of “normalization.”

There has been also the steady campaign of expulsions directed against the Communists and left wing.

The recent improvement in employment in the union fields, beginning in September when the shortage in the British markets made itself felt in the union territories, while it did not bring back the thousands of left wing supporters, did lessen the discontent in the union and deprived the left wing of a political issue.

Last, the unseating of well-known and capable left wing spokesmen like Coffey, Howat, Toohey, and Hapgood deprived the opposition bloc of much needed floor leadership.

The Thirtieth Convention did not solve a single problem facing the union. Not one single measure was passed which will benefit the membership or the labor movement as a whole. On the contrary, so far as the U. M. W. A. officialdom could do so it hurled the union into the trough of reaction in which the American labor movement is wallowing.

Even for the coming struggle with the coal barons the machine laid down no program. It preferred the two-hundred odd resolutions dealing with down to contract, wages and working conditions to the wage-scale committee composed, with a few minor exceptions, of machine henchmen.

It made not the slightest pretense of mobilizing the union for resistance to the operators’ demand for conditions that will allow union fields to compete with non-union districts. It centered its whole attack, not on the operators but on the membership and especially on that section of the membership which puts forward a program which the machine did not even dare to criticise either before or during the convention.

From the above we can draw the following conclusions:

1. The Lewis machine desires to placate the coal barons by hamstringing the U. M. W. A. so that, convinced that it is in “safe and sane” hands, the operators, rather than wage an open struggle for the outright destruction of the union which would arouse its traditionally militancy, may, with the co-operation of the union officials, even agree to the continuation of the present wage-scale pending arbitration while insisting on and securing some special form of the “B. and O.” plan for the union fields which will amount in practice to a wage-cut and actual defeat for the union.

The program of the Lewis machine in the convention would indicate that this is what it expects to accomplish.

2. There is the probability that in the central competitive field—competitive now in name only—that the operators, or a large section of the most powerful ones, will insist that the union accept an outright reduction in wages. Failing to secure agreement on this point, these operators will announce that their mines are open for workers at the reduced scale and carry on a guerilla warfare against the union. With the morale of the union seriously weakened through the abrogation of district and local autonomy and the revision of working conditions downward that the Lewis machine will in other sections in return for nominal recognition of the union, the U. M. W. A., under the Lewis leadership, will be unable to wage an effective struggle against these attacks.

3. The main problem for the U. M. W. A. remains the same as before the convention. It is:

Either to fall in line with the general trend of the official labor movement (which is the Lewis policy) accept the theory of “Partnership of Labor and Capital,” (efficiency unionism) negotiate an agreement on that basis and continue to drag out a moribund existence with non-union production being extended gradually and strangling finally even the docile union that the operators seem willing to tolerate for the present.

Or, (the policy of the left wing) to organize the non-union fields, defeat the coal barons and force restoration of the working conditions which have been abrogated almost at will since 1924 and build the U. M. W. A. into a militant and efficient organization of the coal miners of this continent—an organization which can and will, as it did at one time, give aid and inspiration to the whole labor movement.

4. Following the convention the struggle of the left wing enters a new phase but its fundamental task remains the same—to save the union.

The immediate struggle is to prevent the betrayal of the union to the coal barons during the coming negotiations and to mobilize the membership struggle against a wage-cut and the destruction of the union by forces within and without.

To save the union the left wing will find it necessary to increase ten-fold its organizational strength. This can be done only by first rallying all honest elements in the union—they are the great majority—around the elementary issues of its program, gradually broadening the struggle on the concrete issues which the Lewis machine itself has furnished the left wing, popularizing its program and leadership by its words and deeds.

To do this effectively the left wing needs a central organ by which such issues as a labor party can be connected with the practical experiences of the daily struggles of the union and its members.

Such an organ it must establish at the earliest possible moment.

To save the union the left wing, will have to make its program the program of the union, drive out the $12,000 per year agents of American imperialism and give the union a leadership to which the coal miners of America can look to with confidence, sure because of the proof given by its deeds that it works and fights for the interests of the miners, not against them as the Lewis machine shows it does by both words and deeds.

For our party and the whole American labor movement the thirtieth convention of the U. M. W. A. was of primary importance. It will probably be found as time goes on that this convention exercised a more decisive influence on the labor movement than did the Detroit convention of the American Federation of Labor and for the following reasons:

1. The U. M. W. A. is the only important union in heavy industry that possesses a class struggle, if not a revolutionary, tradition.

2. Social ideology of the pre-war type was strongly rooted in the U. M. W. A.

3. The most stubborn and militant struggles in the history of the American labor movement have been waged by the U. M. W. A.

4. Up to the thirtieth convention it had not surrendered officially to the “worker-employer co-operation” doctrine.

5. It is the largest industrial union in the American labor movement and second in size only to the Carpenters’ Union.

6. The left wing has its most important following in the U. M. W. A.

7. President Green of the A. F. of L. was secretary-treasurer of the U. M. W. A. when selected for his present position and he and the Lewis machine are leading the fight on the Communists and the left wing throughout the labor movement.

8. The thirtieth convention resulted in the establishment of a left wing leadership in the union which is of non-Communist character.

This situation confronts our party with great possibilities but also with certain dangers which it would be just as foolish to minimise as to exaggerate. It is not, however, the purpose of this article to deal in detail with these questions.

It is enough to say here that sufficient facts are at hand to prove than the strengthening and activization of the Communist fractions in the U. M. W. A. is one of the major tasks of our trade union work. In giving every possible aid to the left wing in the U. M. W. A., in combatting the black reaction and bandit methods of the Lewis machine, we are taking part in a struggle which is not alone to save the U. M. W. A. but which is in reality a struggle on the result of which depends in a large measure the fate of the whole American labor movement in this period.



1.  See “The Threat to Trade Unionism—The New Conspiracy Against the Labor Movement.” By Wm. F. Dunne. Published by The Daily Worker Publishing Company. 15c.

2.  The vote in the elections, as given out by the Lewis tellers, compared with the actual dues paying membership as contained in the secretary-treasurer’s report is an indication of the lengths to which the machine was forced to go in its efforts to deceive the membership and the labor movement generally.

Brophy was given, in round figures, 60,000 votes. Lewis took 173,000. This makes a total of 233,000 votes cast out of a total dues paying membership of 273,000.

In other words, there were only 40,000 members who did not vote. This is a manifest impossibility and in no election in the U. M. W. A. has such a high percentage vote ever been cast. This would mean that approximately six-sevenths of the membership voted.

In the Communist party, where the percentage of voting is higher than in any other body of workers in the United States, no such percentage of the membership has ever expressed themselves even at the height of internal struggle over policy and leadership.

Furthermore, a survey of the votes of many local unions which are available show that no such percentage of the membership voted.

In West Virginia, which the secretary-treasurer&38217;s report shows has but 377 members, the Lewis machine cast 15,000 votes for their ticket.

The first figures made public by the Lewis machine, evidently given out before the secretary-treasurer had compiled his report, gave the total vote cast as 290,000. These figures had to be revised in conformity with the report as they gave the total vote cast as 17,000 MORE than the actual membership.

It is the belief of the writer that an investigation of both the recent election and the one preceding—in which the Lewis machine credited Voysey with 66,000 votes—would show that Lewis has never been elected by actual votes cast.

The Lewis machine has never complied with the constitutional provision which instructs the tellers to make public by January 10 of each election year the tabulated vote by local unions.