J.R. Johnson

Economics of Miners’ Fight

(12 March 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 11, 12 March 1945, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

John L. Lewis has demanded a royalty of ten cents per ton on every ton of coal mined for use or sale. Apart from its actual effect in the struggle for wage increases the demand, as made by Lewis is of the most profound social significance.

Lewis says:

“Such royalty shall be deemed partial compensation in equity to the mine worker for the establishment and maintenance of his ready-to-serve status, so vital to the profit motive of the employer and so essential to public welfare.”

It is a grand sentence, leading far. It does not go far enough, but it makes a serious attempt to lift labor theoretically to the status of capital. And it does so, not in general, not in the abstract, not in a convention address, but in wage demands and negotiations. It is aimed at disturbing the pockets of capital and not at soothing the ears of the workers.

The Position of Labor

The key phrase here is “the establishment and maintenance of his ready-to-serve status.” Lewis here touches on the fundamental relation between capital and labor.

Karl Marx, the great economist, made it the basis of his analysis of capitalist society, that the worker was paid only what was necessary to enable him to live so as to produce profit. As he would in time die, he received a little more so as to enable him to raise a new generation of laborers – to produce profit. Some small sections of the workers might get more than that. The general level of wages might be higher in one country than in another. But if you took any country as a whole, calculated the wages of a worker from the time his working-life began, included unemployment periods and the generally rising cost of living, including also the years of old age, then it became clear that, like coal or oil or cotton, the power to labor of the worker was a commodity, bought and paid for like other commodities at their value.

Lewis challenges this, and in widely publicized wage negotiations. He says, in effect: Labor is NOT a mere commodity. Labor is different from cotton, coal, oil, steel or potatoes. Labor lives and maintains itself, and is always ready to serve capital; Labor therefore demands something more than its mere value as a commodity.

In principle, this royalty is excluded from wages. It is NOT unemployment pay. It is a sum demanded “in equity,” that is to say, as a claim of legal and social justice. It is demanded because the mere fact that the laborer has to exist and be ready to work is “vital to the profit motive of the employer.”

Coal, oil, cotton and other commodities are put in their place. They are inert, lifeless, waiting to be used. They don’t have to establish and to maintain themselves, to be ready to serve. They are always there, ready to serve, Lewis places the capitalist and the laborer in a category apart, both as human beings with human aims, human responsibilities and human privileges. He says: “You get your royalty to encourage you. We must get our royalty to encourage us.”

Note what the fund is to be used for. Modern medical and surgical service, hospitalization, etc.; but the last two items are “rehabilitation and economic protection.” That can mean anything, from establishing workers’ recreation clubs to building a university for training workers to master the processes of managing the coal industry.

In thus raising the question of the dignity of labor, not in a general sense but specifically in a wage contract, expressible in dollars and cents, coming from the pockets of capital and established as a principle, Lewis shows himself once more to be far ahead of the average run of labor leaders. Yet it also lays bare the fundamental weakness of Lewis in that he cannot escape from the limitations of capitalist society.

Lewis’ Errors

It was Marx’s contention that the essential process of capitalist production was an interchange between capital and labor. By capital Marx meant the mass of raw materials either in its natural form or in a form processed by labor, such as machinery. In the early days of capitalism the capitalist carried out a certain function necessary to the process. He organized it. Today the capitalist is no longer necessary to the productive process.

If the Sixty Families all collapsed from heart failure at Lewis’ demand or from overeating or from whatever cause you wish, it would make not the slightest difference to the production and distribution of goods for American society. The word “royalty” here is very important. It has nothing to do with funds paid to those who supervise. It carries the connotation of paying the capitalist for what he likes to think is his ready-to-serve status. In reality, he has no ready-to-serve status. He is absolutely useless. The laborer is not. He is vitally necessary. This is Lewis’ theoretical error. He says in the paragraph that the laborer’s ready-to-serve status is vital to the profit motive of the employer and “imperatively essential to public welfare.”

It is a gross error. The laborer’s ready-to-serve status is imperatively necessary to public welfare, Lewis does not say but he implies or at least accepts the profit motive of the employer as imperatively essential to public welfare. He does not repudiate it. He leaves it on an equality with what he demands for labor. In fact, as Labor Action has demonstrated a thousand times in a thousand different ways, it is this very profit motive as the basis of the productive system which limits it, distorts it, ruins it and leads mankind into ever deepening difficulties of economic crisis, fascism and imperialist war.

We do not propose for one moment that every labor leader engaged in wage negotiations should raise or emphasize the uselessness of the capitalist to modern production. There is a time and place for everything. But Lewis has never shown the slightest understanding of the fact that the basic premise of labor’s progress today must be the elevation of the productive laborer to the role, formerly held and rightly so, by the capitalist of master in the process of production.

The point is not merely theoretical. Lewis’ whole conception is based on the idea of the continuance of private profit with the worker making bolder and bolder demands to be realized within the structure of capitalist production. It cannot be done. Capitalism is bankrupt. The war is one proof. Another proof is the fact that the President has to take it upon himself to promise 60,000,000 jobs. Capital can no longer be trusted to do any such thing. And we may note that the medical and surgical services, hospitalization, etc., for which Lewis demands royalties, should be rightly the province of the state.

A Change Is Coming

Lewis seeks to establish in principle that the workers’ remuneration should be such as to enable him to live as a human being with social needs corresponding to his vitally important status in production. Good. But at the present stage of capitalism, this is a political question. It can only be done by the workers themselves seizing the economic power. That, we repeat, is not a question of wage negotiations today or tomorrow. It is a question of principle.

Yet it would be a mistake not to see the social significance of this demand, its causes and its probable effects. There is the increasing awareness in the minds of labor as to what is, its role in production, and not only its responsibilities, but also its privileges in society as a whole.

That spirit is spreading and penetrating into the minds and hearts of tens of millions of American workers. It manifests itself in various ways, among others in the lip service which the capitalist politicians pay to the so-called Four Freedoms and the century of the common man. Lewis here shows himself a shrewd and bold trade union leader. In reality, he is but an expression of the general social consciousness and half-conscious aims and aspirations of American labor in this stage of social development.

By his demand and its formulation, the stir which it has created and will create among not only the miners but among the millions of other workers, he lifts a stage higher the social consciousness of American labor. Thereby he brings them closer to the day when they will realize that the only solution for their increasing problems is to lift themselves to the position of masters of the process of production now held by the capitalist. But by so doing they will not substitute another dominance for the capitalist dominance. Labor being the majority; and the most oppressed class by emancipating itself lays the basis for the emancipation of all.

Last updated on 19 April 2016