Two Coal Strikes: What We Can Learn

United States, 1943 – Britain, 1926

(10 May 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 19, 10 May 1943, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

The miners’ strike, whatever its outcome, is an important stage in the development of American labor. It is not a mere strike for higher wages. It is a protest against the treachery and the hypocrisy of the government, against the contrast between the things the government SAYS about “equality of sacrifice,” “holding down prices,” etc., and the things the government DOES – allowing the capitalists to fatten themselves on the war and letting the burdens pile up on the people.

In its way, the strike is also a protest against the labor leadership which took it upon itself to sign away labor’s rights, and chain it to the capitalist war machine with a no-strike pledge.

To understand completely the lessons of this strike, we can usefully spend a few minutes thinking about another great strike, the general strike of 1926 in Great Britain which began with a strike of the miners.

Bare Right to Live

In 1926 Great Britain was not at war, but the whole working class was seething with dissatisfaction, just as the whole working class in America is seething with dissatisfaction today. During the war British capitalism had made the most high-sounding promises of all that labor was going to get – after the war of course. Now the war was over and, as was inevitable, Britain was placing the burdens of what was called post-war reconstruction upon the backs of the workers. As in America today, so in Great Britain in 1926.

The struggle began to crystallize around the miners’ demand that no further attempt be made to degrade the standard of life and working conditions in the coal fields. “Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day.” Then as now, it was a question of the mere right to live as a human being.

The British government had no WLB and OPA at the time. But it appointed one a Royal Commission on the Coal Industry, presided over by Sir Herbert Samuel, a former Minister of the Crown. The British working class knew that if the miners lost, all of them would be overwhelmed by a general capitalist attack on all fronts.

In February 1926 there was a joint meeting of the Industrial Committee (representing all the British trade union and the miners’ leaders), and on the 19th the committee issued a statement expressing complete solidarity with the miners, and a determination to stand by them. It would seem that these men were at any rate different from Philip Murray and William Green, who have carefully expressed solidarity with Roosevelt in his struggle against the miners. Wait a bit, my friends, wait a bit. A trade union bureaucrat is a bureaucrat, in America, England or France.

Three weeks afterward, with the struggle approaching a climax, the miners’ leaders again approached the Industrial Committee, which began to back watier. It spoke about “reducing points of difference to the smallest possible dimensions”; and Walter, now Sir Walter Citrine, wrote to the miners that the committee did not think matters had reached the stage when “any final declaration of the General Council’s policy can be made.”

Meanwhile the coal operators proposed going back from the seven hour day to the eight, and a lowering of wages. The Government Commission (pardon me, the Royal Commission) sent in its report, which drew special attention to the horrible suffering and losses – of the coal operators.

With all the British workers backing the miners the General Council of Trade Unions held a meeting to consider a general strike of the whole working class in support of its brothers in the coal fields. The vote was 3,653,527 for the strike, 49,911 against.

If you want to know how the British capitalist press behaved, just read the American press today. There was no war, but the same howls of “challenge to the government,” “defiance of the civil power,” etc., etc. The British workers stood firm, determined to win this battle, for they knew that, in defending, the miners, they were defending themselves. Yet the strike lasted only nine days and came to an abrupt end. Why?

As soon as the meeting declaring the strike was over, the labor leadjers at once sought ways and means to break it! This is the literal truth.

For the ensuing nine days the leaders of the General Council spent their time on their knees before the government. As A.J. Cook, the John L. Lewis of those days, wrote afterward: “It seemed that the only desire of some leaders was to call off the general strike at any cost, without any guarantee for the workers, miners or others.”

That was exactly what happened. They called off the strike and the miners were left to carry on alone, only to be beaten after many months of heroic struggle.

The Historical Lessons

There are many differences between 1926 in Britain and 1943 in America, but despite all the differences, there is a certain historical pattern which we can follow and store up for future use.

  1. This is not a personal conflict between Roosevelt and John L. Lewis, just as in 1926 there was no personal conflict between A.J. Cook and the British Prime Minister. Wheneyer the working class of any country is getting consistent blows, one union, very often the miners, brings the issue to a head by a decision to fight.
  2. The rest of the workers, in 1926 as in 1943, know what is at stake, and follow the struggle with deep interest and a desire to help. But whatever the labor leaders say, you will find them, in too many cases, using their influence against the continuance of the struggle.
  3. The Roosevelt Administration says that owing to the war, the workers must go back. That is, it supports the coal operators “only because of the war.” But the Baldwin government was not waging any foreign war. Yet it wrapped itself in the report of the Royal Commission and fought side by side with the coal operators. OPA, WEB, Royal Commission – these are only capitalist disguises.
  4. The struggle was decided then, as it will be decided now, by the solidarity of the workers and their determination to keep their leaders in line. The moment the General Council betrayed the struggle, the miners were lost. Today, if the miners win some concessions, it is due to a variety of reasons which are explained in other pages of Labor Action. But one fundamental reason will be that Roosevelt knows how eagerly and sympathetically the large masses of the workers are watching the miners’ fight. He cannot afford to antagonize labor now.

The militancy of the miners and the importance of the solidarity of labor as a whole. That was the lesson of 1926. That is the lesson of 1943. Don’t let all this blabber about John L. Lewis, John L. Lewis, John L. and the President fool us. The American working class is making one of its great and necessary experiences on its road to power. This direct challenge to the capitalist class and the capitalist state is a milestone on that road. We must see it for the historic event that it is.

Last updated on 24 May 2015