J. T. Murphy

American Coal War

Source: The Communist, August 19, 1922
Publisher: The Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.

ON April 1st, 1922, 600,000 miners responded to their leaders’ call and downed tools. It is now August and, in spite of the use of troops in fifteen States; in spite of Court injunctions; evictions; shootings of strikers; hiring of gunmen and thugs; and strenuous endeavours to organize blackleg forces; the strikers stand firm as ever. Wonderful solidarity has been displayed throughout.

At the beginning of the strike there were 520,000 organised mine workers out of 700,000. At the call for action, 600,000 responded and, for the first time in the History of the miners’ struggles in America, the beginning of the fight has been the signal for a powerful organising campaign amongst non-union labour, and the success that has followed is remarkable. Instead of breaking the miners’ organisations, they have inspired them to fight better. The job of organising non-union fields in America is “some” job. There are entire counties in West Virginia and in Pennsylvania where no union organiser is permitted to enter. The coal companies control the local municipal and court machinery absolutely. They hire the police, they pay the Sheriffs. But despite every obstacle, the union has won over several minefields hitherto non-union, and has forced several steel mills depending upon coal from these counties to reduce production. Between 100,000 and 150,000 non-anion miners have joined the strike and at least 35,000 have joined the American Mine Workers’ Union.

It was a great thing to begin the fight. The odds against a win were long odds; especially if assistance from other industries and other countries was not forthcoming. But what else could they do other than fight. The conditions of labour were terrible. There is no need for us to emphasise the dangerous character of the miner’s life. But the dangers of the American miners are even greater than the danger of the British Miners. The average number of deaths during the past ten years is 2,466 per annum. In 1919 there were 2,317 fatal accidents, more than double the number in Great Britain and Ireland, although the latter countries employed 50 per cent. more miners in that year. Risk!

Pile it on to the “reward for their labour.”

According to Professor Ogburn, of Columbia University, it requires “1,622 dollars annually to keep just above the poverty line, and 2,244 to give a miner a minimum of health and comfort.” The most recent figures taken in 200 bituminous mines, show average earnings of 1,357 dollars, 40 cents. That is 264 dollars 80 cents below the poverty line. On top of this the mine owners demand 25 per cent. to 40 per cent. wages cuts and the abolition of the check-off and State or district agreements. Can you beat it?

The bituminous miner’s rate is 7 dollars, 50 cents per day. But what becomes of it when short time beats you at every turn? In Central Pennsylvania, for example, the miners in fourteen counties worked only 122 days in 1921, making the average net income of 760 dollars for the year—i.e., 862 dollars below the calculated poverty-line.

And all the bituminous miners are demanding is—maintenance of existing wage scales and the check-off where it is now in effect.

Remember it is a defensive fight they are putting up against the most vicious and unscrupulous boss class known to history, a boss class who will stop at nothing and who have simply piled up wealth out of the blood and misery of the miners. Prior to the slump, the Senate Report shows for 1917, out of 340 bituminous coal companies, 14 secured profits of over 1,000 per cent., 21 from 500 to 1,000 per cent., 135 from 100 to 500 per cent., 79 from 50 to 100 per cent., 68 from 25 to 50 per cent., and 23 made profits under 25 per cent. of invested capital.

Since 1910 to 1918 the mine owners’ increase in receipts per ton are almost seven times those of the miners, whilst the retailers’ advance in prices is over 9 times the increase to the workers.

And these are they who demand from 25 to 40 per cent. cuts in starvation wages.

No wonder the fight is bitter though the odds are long odds.

On the first day of the strike the U.S.A. Government estimated the complete stock of coal above ground to be 60,000,000 to 65,000,000 tons. It was estimated that non-union labour could produce about 4,000,000 tons per week during the strike, and that weekly consumption during 1921 was at the rate of 8,000,000 tons per week.

Four months have elapsed and the situation has become critical for all concerned. The miners and their families are suffering severe privations. The Government stocks are down.

It becomes obviously an international issue, not only to the student who knew it as such from the beginning, but also to the masses of workers who had not thought of the international implications. The U.S.A. Government has become panicky. It has not only to face the miners’ strike, but the railways are being tied up too. Stocks are down. Their demands to the mine owners to open the pits and their efforts to drive the miners into the pits to labour under military supervision prove futile. Neither martial law nor tanks have won. So new lines must be struck. 70 vessels are chartered to bring coal from Britain. 20 vessels are chartered to bring coal from Australia. Arrangements are made for the delivery of 100,000 tons per day from Britain. On July 25th over 35,000 tons were shipped from Cardiff alone. A new boom in coal and shipping is set afoot and that boom is the boom of defeat for the mine workers of America, without help from this country.

How like the story of the miners’ defeat in Britain. Starting off as a national dispute it will end as an international calamity without something is done quickly. The Times states that the foremost factor is the prospect of obtaining sufficient supplies of British coal to enable industry generally “to hold out against the miners demands.” This is not simply a miners’ problem. It involves action by miners, transport workers, railwaymen, seamen. Already many excuses are being made for doing nothing. From the Daily Herald to the Labour Magazine much is being made of the fact that the American Mine Workers’ Union is not affiliated to the Amsterdam International. What this has to do with the Trade Union’s responsibility for international blacklegging we fail to see. If all the unions pursue the policy of waiting until each other are perfect models of virtue to talk of international solidarity becomes a farce. The Amsterdam International claims to dominate the unions vitally involved in the act of breaking the American coal strike. Very well. If it wishes to justify its appeal to the American mine workers, let it use the organisations it controls to stop this damnable business of scabbing and not hide behind paltry excuses. Get the union executives together and rouse the rank-and-file.

Do you think that by allowing things to drift and taking advantage of what the employers jubilantly call a “boom” that you are rendering a service to either British Unionism or International Unionism?

Already you have been instrumental in swamping northern France with coal and forcing strikes in defence of wages and hours, and the defeat of the American miners will rebound in a far more severe fashion than these will do. Listen! The annual requirements of the U.S. amount to 500,000,000 tons of bituminous coal. The capacity of the mines in operation is about 800,000,000 tons. That means 300,000,000 tons per annum for export. The production per man in U.S.A. is 710 tons per annum; in Great Britain, 324. The British miner has been thrust down to “competitive levels” and now there is talk of a “boom.” Face to face with the 25 to 40 per cent. cut in American miners’ wages what will become of their “boom”? Whilst the U.S. Government and the mine owners are striving to beat the miners, the shipping bosses are manœuvering for and will obtain State subsidies and other privileges for shipping.

The defeat of the American miner will thus rebound on to the British miner with a resounding thump and the last stage will be worse than the first.

The British unions—the N.U.R., the A.S.E. and F., the Dockers and Transport Workers, and the M.F.G.B. hold the fate of the British miners in their hands. If they will meet at once and jointly refuse to help defeat the American miners they can save the American miners from degradation and the British miners from a further calamity. The Bureau of the Red International has appealed to them to act. The Communist Party has appealed to them also. Each have offered to do the utmost they can to render every possible assistance to any move which the organisations we have named alone can make.

We appeal direct to the rank-and-file as well as to their elected leaders.

Refuse to be used as blacklegs.

Use your organizations to save the American miners from defeat if not because you believe in international working-class solidarity, then do it to save yourselves.