Mary E. Marcy

Hamstringing the Unions

(October 1916)

From International Socialist Review, Vol. 17. No. 4, October 1916.
Transcribed by Matthew Siegfried.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

PEOPLE in America have often said that there was no tribunal in this country above the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, they said, was the Court of Last Appeals, and what it decided settled events for good and all.

And when the Supreme Court, including ex-chief justice, Charles E. Hughes, decided that the Danbury Hatters should pay damages to the hat manufacturers of several hundred thousand dollars, and that the members of the union should be assessed personally to pay these damages, some folks said the knell of trade unionism had been sounded in America. They said that when it became possible for employers of labor to secure personal damages from the members of unions, or to absorb the union funds in the form of damages, no trade union could endure.

Now comes a decision of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals at Minneapolis, which, prominent labor journals declare, “threatens the existence of the entire trade union movement.” This decision makes a union liable for three-fold damages under the Sherman anti-trust law.

Two cases are involved in this recent decision. The Bache-Denman Coal Company, of Arkansas, and the Pennsylvania Mining Company, each brought suit against the United Mine Workers. The first corporation sued for $1,250,000 and the Pennsylvania company for $600,000.

The alleged facts on which damages were claimed and which were approved by the court were more dangerous to the trade unions than the basis of the Danbury case. The Wall Street Journal which is rejoicing over this decision, informs us that the complaints in the coal mine suits “set forth the attempts of the United Mine Workers to prevent the operation of open shop mines in the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Colorado, and allege that these attacks were part of a general scheme to monopolize interstate trade for union coal, and to further prevent the operation of open shop mines; that in furtherance of this scheme the defendants determined to destroy the competition of open shop mines by preventing the operation of these mines.”

Members of the United Mine Workers claim that if this decision stands any union that calls a strike will be liable for any damage the employer may claim to suffer as a result of that strike. If the strike prevents the sale of commodities and causes the loss of a market, the union must meet the damages.

The court ruled that labor organizations can be sued and held responsible to the same extent as individuals and corporations and they referred to the decision of Mr. Hughes and the other members of the Supreme Court in the Danbury hatters’ case, which held that the members of labor unions are liable for whatever is done by their union thru its officers within their delegates’ authority.

Perhaps, after all, every strike means sabotaging the property interests of employers, for it is obvious that all strikes damage these property interests. Every intelligent striker hopes for victory thru the destruction of property interests. It is by stopping production, and, therefore, stopping profits that all strikers hope to attain victory. They hope to bring employers to the point where they prefer to yield a part rather than to lose ill.

We do not see how an isolated trade union can fight this latest weapon of the mine owners. Or how a trade union that permits and encourages its members in different states and counties to sign up contracts which expire at different periods of time – can hope to win out against the mine operators.

It looks to us as tho the union men have forged their own chains. The courts are against them; the laws oppose them and if a portion of the miners go out on strike at the expiration of their contracts, the other portions of the United Mine Workers will probably keep right on working and scabbing on their fellow workers. One half of the “union” (?) miners will break the strike of the other half. It looks to us as tho the isolated, conservative trade unions were going to be doomed by this last move on the part of the capitalist class. They are certainly doomed so long as they remain conservative, respectable and divided by time contracts.

To begin with – no union ought to have a million dollars in its treasury. As Bill Haywood used to say when he was secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, “the best place for the miner’s money is in the miner’s pocket.” As fast as a union receives dues it should spend that money for revolutionary, class literature and in broadening its organization. An empty treasury makes a strong and a fighting organization. The leaders will not so often try to block progress or prevent strikes when they have no Honey Pots to protect.

The situation is like this. Take the railroad brotherhoods. These organizations have great sums in the treasuries of the various organizations. If the railroad men go out on strike, they face the possibility of losing these funds, a large part of which may mean insurance to the men. If they do not go out on strike (later on) they may find, as they have found out in the past few years, that wages will continue to fall and the hours of labor to increase.

Wasn’t it Bismarck who said, “Help every German workingman to own his own home, and he will never rebel against the government,” or words to that effect? The capitalist class is counting on something like that. Mont Bozeman declared that a workingman would slave twenty years at $20 a week, when he might have gone on strike and secured $30 – rather than risk losing the $500 he had paid on his home, or the $1,000 coming to him on union insurance.

It looks as tho conservative unions were going to be crushed by their conservatism. A mass of workingmen can defy any power on earth. Four hundred thousand men, well organized, defied the United States, its government and its capitalist class. It has won – at least a temporary victory – thru its economic strength.

The working class can make any law break any law, scrap any court or any constitution, win any victory – whenever it decides to unite and fight for these things. It alone is the real Court of Last Appeal!

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Last updated on 20 January 2023