Max Shachtman

A Balance Sheet of the Coal Strike

(16 December 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 50, 16 December 1946, pp. 1 & 8.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE strike of the 400,000 bituminous coal miners underlined the irresistible and invincible power of the organized working class acting unitedly.

The decision by President John L. Lewis calling off the miners strike underlined the weakness of the organized working class and of American labor in general.

Unless this weakness is overcome – and overcome speedily – it is certain to prove fatal to the hopes and interests and the whole future of the American workers. In no struggle between labor and capital in recent times has this all important fact, been made so clear and emphatic as in the miners strike. If this is not understood by every militant in the labor movement, things will not go from bad to better, but from better to worse.

A Magnificent Display of Working Class Power

In response to the announcement by Lewis that there was no longer a contract between the United Mine Workers and the government which is the administrator of the mines, the soft coal miners walked off the job to a man. They acted in accordance with the powerful tradition ingrained in every mine worker in the country: No contract, no work!

The capitalist press and all the big and little spokesmen and servitors of capitalism shrieked in helpless frenzy. They called attention to the fact that only one man, John L. Lewis, was responsible for precipitating the walk-out, that he did not consult the miners about his announcement or seek their formal approval. They inveighed against Lewis as an autocrat, a dictator, an American Hitler. All the sewers of abuse were opened up against him.

That Lewis did not “consult” the miners is true. But if he had consulted them there would not have been a hair’s-breadth difference in the decision and in the practical result. In making the announcement that the UMW no longer had a contract with the government, Lewis was simply discharging the elementary duty to the organization of which he is the chief officer, was only carrying out a standing mandate from the UMW. In walking out of the mines, the miners were only putting into effect their old and well known policy: No contract, no work.

The miners did not quit work because, as the press tried to argue, they feared the power of Lewis as head of the union. Only hired capitalist scribblers, who share the mentality of slavemasters, could regard these 400,000 miners as dumb sheep who can be driven in any direction by a union official. It is precisely because the miners are not dumb sheep, it is precisely because they are not slaves and do not want to be slaves that they refuse to work simply under any conditions at all that their employers seek to impose upon them, without regard for their just demands, without regard for their existence and development as human beings.

The miners are not slaves, humbly ready to do the bidding of John L. Lewis or anyone else. They are courageous and militant workers filled with a spirit of rebellion against the exceptional burdens which their work imposes upon them, against the miserable and sub-human conditions of life to which the mine owners and their government seek to chain them and for a modest, tiny increase in the share of the great wealth they produce for the enrichment of mine owners who would not fake their jobs at ten times their pay.

The walk out of the miners was one of the most magnificent displays of working class solidarity and working class power this country has seen in a long time. The miners came out to a man, without any compulsion other than the bonds of united working class interest. If anything, the compulsion came from the other direction, the terrific pressure upon the men all through the capitalist world to stay at work without a contract and without a single one of their demands being granted or even seriously considered.

Limitations Revealed by Its Thoroughness

Every mine was shut down tight. Not a lump of coal came out of the pits. Where were all the great captains of industry, the great organizers of production, the great promoters of enterprise, the mine operators and their bankers? Where were all these great “indispensable” owners and managers without whom, we are always told, nothing would move? Without the miners, all of them put together could not dig enough coal to keep one factory going through the winter. All that is indispensable to the mining industry is the miners.

But not only the mines were shutdown. Without a single other worker going out on strike anywhere, the mere fact that the miners quit working began to paralyze one industry after another – iron and steel, automobiles, power plants, transportation and others.

If that is the economic power that a mere 400,000 coal miners can show, it should not be hard to imagine what power the united working class, as a whole would have in this country. The power .that this working class could summon – nobody and no combination of forces could resist effectively. It is an inconquerable power. Properly exerted, it could do infinitely more than paralyze industry. It could so completely reorganize the economic life of this country, arrange it so rationally, that there would be abundance, prosperity and security for all.

But the very perfection, the very thoroughness and effectiveness of the strike as an economic action brought it smack up against the strict limitations, the fatal weakness of the economic action itself. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than in the conduct of John L. Lewis himself, who was so significantly instrumental in making the strike 100 per cent effective so far as shutting down the mines was concerned.

The miners strike was not a political strike, so far as the miners were concerned. They did not strike for political reasons or for the realization of political demands. Like Lewis, they put forward and supported economic demands pure and simple – an increase in wages and a reduction in the working day.

Yet, this was a political strike in the deepest sense of the word, whether Lewis and the miners were conscious of it or not, whether they wanted it or not.

Government Helpless Against Labor’s Might

Through President John L. Lewis, the United Mine Workers directed their demands to the government. The government is a political institution. The government called upon the miners to stay at work. It called upon Lewis to issue orders to the miners to go back to work. Lewis and the miners refused to heed the orders of the government. In their refusal, they were 100 per cent correct. But their refusal was a political action, a political challenge backed up by organized economic power.

Against this organized economic power, the government and the capitalist class it represents and protects, was helpless. So long as the miners refused to dig coal, no coal was dug, and one industrial enterprise after another folded up. The government did some mumbling about using troops to enforce its orders. The miners did not budge because they know that bayonets cannot dig coal very well. They know also that among the troops are many workers’ sons, and that the government would have the devil’s own time getting these children of the working class to use their bayonets against workers fighting for a decent life for themselves, their families and generations to come.

So the government went into court, a court presided over by a “New Deal” justice – not a moss-back reactionary, oh no, but by a genuine, dyed in the wool and a yard wide “liberal” of the “New Deal” school. Under government prosecution, and without so much as trial by jury, John L. Lewis and the whole of the United Mine Workers of America were condemned by one man who, with a stroke of his pen, reestablished the infamy of Government by Injunction. The capitalist press in a rabid rage over the spectacle of one man “ordering” 400,000 miners, when that one man was John L. Lewis, was hysterically jubilant and found it entirely proper for one man to decide the fate of these same 400,000 miners when he bore the name of Goldsborough and when he invested himself with the autocratic power to enjoin the whole union and to send the miners back to work against their will.

Supreme Court Part of the Government

What is the Goldsborough injunction? A piece of paper! A yellow dog injunction, as Lewis rightly called it! This piece of paper has even less ability to dig coal than the bayonets of the troops that the government threatened to call out.

Nevertheless, it ft precisely to this piece of paper that John L. Lewis capitulated. Why? In the letter sent to the members of the United Mine Workers on December 7, in which the men are told to go back to work, Lewis declares that the Goldsborough injunction has reached the Supreme Court, that “its powers are derived from the federal Constitution,” and that the Supreme Court “is, and we believe will ever be, the protector of American liberties and the rightful privileges of individual citizens.”

These statements are utter nonsense, reactionary nonsense, misleading nonsense. The government Administration which Lewis had first challenged derives no more and no less of its powers from the federal Constitution than does the Supreme Court. It is no more and no less the “protector of American liberties and the rightful privileges of individual citizens” than is the Supreme Court. What applies to the one applies, or should apply, to the other. Both are a part of the political institution known as the government.

The government, in its several parts, is the political instrument and protector not of “American liberties” in general but of the privileges and power of big capital. This instrument is at the disposal of the capitalist class. The fatal weakness of the miners and the rest of the American working class is that it does not have such an instrument at its disposal and that it is not yet even organized itself in such a manner as to acquire such an instrument.

John L. Lewis is a labor leader of exceptional talents. In the field of tactics, ip will power, in fearless aggressiveness, he towers above the average labor leader. In social outlook and in political matters no other word can properly describe him than “reactionary.” He would be more at home in the 19th Century than he is today.

Miners’ Action Raised Question of Politics

In their fight for a decent life, the miners came right up against not the coal operators directly, but against the representative of the coal operators, the government. Precisely because their walk out was so completely effective on the economic field, they created a political crisis of the greatest scope and depth. Precisely because they so effectively shut down, not only the mines, but one branch of American life after another as well, they raised the question, consciously or not, of who is running the country, who has the authority in the country, who is the government in the country, who has the real power in the country! In other words, they raised the most decisive political question imaginable,

To think that so decisive a political question can be answered or even dealt with by a purely economic action is the height of absurdity. From its point of view, the capitalist, class, speaking through its newspapers and other mouthpieces, was absolutely right when it declared that this question can be settled immediately and by political measures, that is, by prompt government action. The capitalist class was in a position to act politically because it is politically organized and has political machinery at its disposal in the form of the government and its numerous institutions.

But the working class, in this case the miners, did not act politically,, and because they are not equipped for it at the present time, could not act politically. They have no government at their disposal, no government to protect their economic and political interests, and they do not have at their disposal a political party of their own that seeks to establish such a government.

From its point of view, the capitalist class was absolutely right when it declared that in the political crisis created by the miners strike, the government must proceed against the miners in order to establish clearly who is the master in the country – the workers fighting for a decent living or the government fighting to protect the interests of the coal operators and the rest of the monopoly capitalists. Equipped with its power and true to its nature, that is exactly how the government proceeded. It simply could not allow the situation to continue.

But neither could the miners. In order to win, once they had been challenged by the government and they had in turn challenged the government, they had to proceed against the government or – to retreat.

How Labor Could Have Answered

Given the reactionary political and social outlook of Lewis, who may not regard the Truman Administration as his own from a party point of view but who does regard the government, including the Supreme Court, as his government and his Supreme Court, he ordered the retreat in the form of a capitulation. Even if somewhat different in form, Lewis took fundamentally the same position that he took in 1919 when he called off the miners strike under Wilson’s administration on the ground, “I cannot fight my government.” Fundamentally and regardless of all the other changes in John L. Lewis, he remains today what he was in 1919; able, very able, to fight this or that capitalist or this or that group of capitalists in one way or another, but totally incapable and unwilling to fight the capitalist class and the capitalist government.

The whole point of the matter, especially nowadays, is that no one is capable of consistently and effectively defending the interests of the working class if he is not prepared consciously and consistently to fight against the monopoly of economic and political power by the capitalist class and for replacing its government with a government of the working class. The whole point of the matter is, further, that any attempt to do this by purely economic means, any attempt to do this by means of the trade unions alone, any attempt to do this without organizing and acting politically, is doomed in advance.

Could Lewis or the miners have acted differently? Yes, most certainly! Could they have appealed to the rest of the working class to walk out in solidarity with them against the infamy of Government by Injunction which threatens the interests and very life of the labor movement? Certainly! There is no question but that hundreds of thousands and millions of workers in this country stood poised in readiness to respond to such a call. Every thinking worker was solidly behind the lines.

If, instead of mere rhetorical talk the leaders of the other labor organizations in this country had immediately called a representative general conference of all the organized workers and proclaimed their readiness to stand by the miners in this fight regardless of what action was necessary to gain a victory, the whole capitalist class, its government and its courts included, would have been compelled to retreat from their autocratic arrogance. Even now it is not too late to organize a powerful national network of united councils of action representing every branch of the trade union movement to stamp out the viper of Government by Injunction before it poisons the labor movement. What hit the miners yesterday will hit every other worker tomorrow.

It is worthwhile pointing out that even if, let us say, a general strike had been called in support of the miners under the direction of the present labor leadership, that would only have raised more acutely – far more acutely – the decisive question raised by the strike of the miners themselves, namely, who is master in this house, who is the authority in this country. It would have raised more acutely the decisive political question.

The capitalist class of this country is prepared to. answer this question, as it showed in the miners strike, by forcing Lewis to his knees. Are the American workers ready to answer this question? Have they the means with which to make their answer effective?

Trade Unionism Alone Is Not Sufficient

We are compelled to say that the working class and the labor movement of this country are not equipped at the present time with the indispensable means. Trade unionism is a powerful weapon of the working class, one without which it would be completely paralyzed and helpless. This power is greater than ever before in the United States today, where some 15 million men and women are organized into unions. But trade unionism alone, the traditional trade union methods alone, these are inadequate today. As they are now they cannot cope with such crucial questions as are raised in every important national strike.

It is not at all a question of giving up trade unionism! That would be preposterous, criminal, monstrous. Nothing of the sort is involved. But it is a question of providing the working class with those arms which it must have if the latest retreat is to be followed not by other retreats and capitulations and defeats but by advances and victories.

Those arms are the arms of a working class political party, a party based upon and organized by the trade unions, as the most democratic, the most representative, the most numerous social organizations in the country. Not a party whose whole aim in life is to get a few men elected to “represent labor” in Congress but a labor party which aims at establishing a workers’ government that will represent and defend the best interests of all the people against the monopoly capitalist class.

Principal Lesson in Miners’ Strike

The government challenges the miners, as it did the railroad workers led by A.F. Whitney, with the question, “Do you think you are running the country and the government?”

The workers of this country have to be in a position to reply:

“No, not yet. You are running the country and the government. But under your leadership of the nation miners have to fight bitterly, year in and year out, not for luxuries but for a modest, decent life. Under your leadership of the nation, the economic life of the country is still in a state of chaos and uncertainty. Under your leadership, there is not the slightest assurance of prosperity and security for the people, or even of a peace that will really banish the terrifying nightmare of atomic war. Under your leadership, monopoly capital prospers as never before, while the middle class is being smashed and the workers, who are the very heart and sinews of economy, have to fight for crumbs. You are bankrupts. You will not and cannot run the economic life of the country for the benefit of the people as a whole. We accept your challenge. We believe we can establish a government which will wipe out these inequities and organize production for abundance for all. And this is the end toward which we are establishing our own political party and proclaiming our political program.”

That is the chief lesson to learn from the miners strike.

The fight of the miners, of course, is not over. The threat to the miners is a threat to the whole working class. The vicious’ head of Government by Injunction must be cut’ off before it grows to devour us all. The whole labor movement must be summoned to the alert. The great economic power that the miners showed, multiplied by all the forces of the organized labor movement, must be brought to bear against the menacing anti-labor offensive.

A united labor movement, mobilized from top to bottom, can and must make its strength felt before it is deprived of its strength. There must be such demonstrations of this strength all over the country, not just indignant resolutions but actual demonstrations of strength, as will make the capitalist class and its strikebreaking government think 20 times before they dare bring down their fist again upon the head of the working class.

But alongside of this, and above everything else in importance, must come the conscious, systematic, speedy work of launching the working class into politics as an organized and independent force, with an independent labor party that does not support but contests the two capitalist parties for leadership of the country, that has a program and a will of its own, and the determination to make them supreme in the land.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 17 July 2020