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The New International, November 1941


Notes of the Month

The Aftermath of the Miners’ Strike


From The New International, Vol. VII No. 10, November 1941, pp. 260–3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE SINGLE, MOST IMPORTANT labor event to occur since the outbreak of the war was the strike of the coal miners employed in the captive mines owned by the steel industry. It is true, there has been no lack of strikes in the past two years. They were generated by the rise in the economic curve, which, in turn, was caused by continuing transition from normal economic activity to a war economy. The weight of war production has made many demands on the American working class. It is asked to work long hours, to suffer a halt in the improvement of their working conditions, to sacrifice, sacrifice and sacrifice, so that this country may truly become “the arsenal of democracy” in this gigantic total war and be thoroughly prepared for its own military entrance into the conflict.

Characteristically enough, big business is enriching itself through the avenue of the all-out defense program. Despite large increases in taxation, the bourgeoisie earns fabulous profits and is determined that nothing shall interfere with its “earnings.” Every demand of labor to share in the new prosperity created by the war is resisted to the bitter end by a grasping and vicious ruling class. But the working class instinctively senses that, unless it wages the struggle now for an improvement of its lot, to pull up the slack of a ten-year depression and to prepare for a post-war crisis, it will be hopelessly lost. Here again we have the sharpest expression of the irreconcilable contradiction between the interests of the ruling class and the masses. In this highly accented situation, the role of the Roosevelt Administration as a war régime becomes daily clearer.

It is necessary to bear in mind several important objective factors which control the situation in order to intelligently understand the character of current labor struggles, especially the all-embracing implications involved in the coal strike. The transition to a complete war economy in the United States threatens disaster for the bulk of the American working class.

Several things follow from the main economic and political trend of American society. A war economy cannot be successfully realized unless it is accompanied by a deterioration in the living standards of the masses. War economy, whether the country is actually at war or preparing for it, necessitates an enormous increase in the production of the implements of warfare and a corresponding decline in the production of consumers’ goods. It requires along with this all-important change in the character of economic activity, complete sacrifice on the part of labor: longer working hours, cessation of the struggle for an improvement of working conditions, halt the fight for wage increases (especially when rising prices, increasing national income and the decline of consumer goods acutely hasten the dangers of inflation), maintain the status quo in capital-labor relations, i.e., relinquish the struggle for unionism. For all of these things, if resisted, would inevitably mean a reduction of the profits of the financial and industrial ruling class.

The state has no choice in this irreconcilable conflict between the capitalist class and the workers. In the last analysis, as a bourgeois state, it stands at the side of the ruling class. The reformist period of New Dealism is ended; it has definitely given way to the War Deal and is destined to remain with us for an extended period of years.

The Nature of the Strike

The miners’ strike can be understood only against the background of this objective situation – the preparation for war. The struggle of the United Mine Workers was not just another strike to organize some open shop mines, although all the issues of unionism were involved. The labor movement stands at the fork of the road: it will either succumb to the war machine and surrender all its interests to the demands of “the war for democracy” or else it will retain its independence, muster its great strength and continue to defend and extend the vital gains won by its great sacrifices and heroism. Half-way measures, conciliationism, will avail the labor movement next to nothing, for, in the context of the war economy, they are only measures of capitulation.

How did this particular strike arise and what relation did it bear to the aforementioned matters? The United Mine Workers of America had organized 97 per cent of the captive coal miners – almost 53,000 men. Under the terms of the Wagner Act, the union had a legal right to establish a union shop and thus make the steel corporation mines correspond to all other coal mines in the country. The resistance of the steel barons to this demand for the union shop was based not only upon its principled opposition to unionism, but in fear that the recognition of the union shop in its captive mines would lay the ground for a union shop drive in the steel industry by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. To allay this possibility, the bloated steel magnates determined to reject the demand of the UMWA. They invoked the war program as a means of creating a hysteria of “public opinion” against the miners and organized labor. In this they were ably abetted by the President. A strike would close their mines and halt steel production, they said. With only enough coal for several days, this strike would cripple steel production and cause an all-around stoppage of the defense program.

From the moment that Lewis announced his attention to fight for the union shop and if necessary to invoke the strike weapon in order to force the steel barons to their knees, the whole bourgeois press poured down a concerted torrent of abuse upon the heads of the union leaders as part of a general attack on organized labor. The President issued statement upon statement declaring an emergency situation in the country and through the medium of a pronunciamento denounced the strike as intolerable. All the forces of reaction allied themselves with the official New Deal administration in their condemnation of Lewis and, through him, against the trade union movement.

Heads I Win – Tails You Lose

With this background, the National Defense Mediation Board was called into session. Composed of representatives of the bosses, the AFL, the CIO and the “impartials,” it was believed that the Mediation Board could hand down no other decision but one of recognition of the union shop. But exactly the contrary happened. The Mediation Board, in an extremely contradictory and stupid decision, stated that while it recognized the right of the UMWA to a closed shop in this particular sphere of the mining industry, the union did not require such a decision from the Mediation Board since it already had 97 per cent of the miners in the union. In other words, we recognize your right to a union shop but since you already have almost all the miners in the union you do not really need a union shop. What undoubtedly happened at the board hearing was that the bosses, together with the AFL representatives, who found this a propitious moment to stab the CIO in the back, and the “impartials,” joined hands to deliver this blow to the miners’ union.

The reaction of the CIO was one of militant defiance. It could not be otherwise, since the abject acceptance of this blatantly reactionary decision against the miners would have immediately redounded against the most elementary interests of the labor movement. The CIO representatives and alternates to the Board, almost to a man, resigned from the body in protest against this vile decision. The whole country looked up to see what Lewis and the Policy Committee of the UMWA would do in face of this decision. They had not long to wait for their answer. Lewis called the captive miners out on strike and threatened a general strike of the entire mining industry.

It was at this point that the Roosevelt Administration went into action. The President, uncertain of his course, greatly disturbed by the implications of his previous declarations and fearful of what the consequences of any action that he might take would be on the labor movement, at one and the same time threatened the use of the army – to force the workers to work at the point of a bayonet – and made conciliatory gestures to the rank and file miners over the head of Lewis. This was an extremely crucial point in the strike. Would the miners heed Roosevelt’s plea to go back to work in face of a union call to strike? Could the use of troops, even to the tune of 50,000, make possible the production of coal, when the miners refused to work?

Varied Responses to the Strike

The answers were immediately forthcoming. The miners, even the most hesitant, understood that there was no backsliding in this situation. To retreat now would mean to surrender to the demands of the steel industry. Nay, it might mean the beginning of the end of the miners’ union. Lewis invoked the argument of the inviolable character of a contract; that he could not by the terms of the miners’ constitution and the contracts signed with the commercial coal operators sign an open shop agreement. The miners understood that if this were done it would free the way for a non-union onslaught by the entire mining industry against the coal union. So far as the troops were concerned, Lewis made it sufficiently clear that no soldiers were going to dig coal with their bayonets or would even deign to go down into the pit.

The first skirmishes took place and the miners fared well. The strike was solid! The CIO convention in Detroit, meeting concurrently with the strike, could take no other stand but to support the miners’ strike. And here the matter stood for some days. On the miners’ side of the battle lines were arrayed the miners’ union, the CIO and other sections of the labor movement. Against them, likewise in battle formation, were the steel industry, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Roosevelt Administration, the Senate and the House, the War and Navy Departments, and the unified, corrupt and yellow press, all of them howling for their pound of labor’s flesh.

The Stalinist Party, now one of the leading strike-breaking organizations in the country, once more raised its dastardly voice to the detriment of labor’s best interests. The Daily Worker, while declaring its support to issues of unionism involved in the dispute between the steel barons and the UMWA, nevertheless carried on a vicious campaign against Lewis on the ground that the “superior” issues of the great war of democracy required a rapid settlement of the strike. The Stalinist leaders in the CIO, Quill and Merrill, arose in the convention to point out that the war was more important than all the issues involved in the strike. Quill proposed that the CIO representatives return to the Mediation Board and seek a settlement. This is the same Quill who remained so adamant in the Transport Workers’ struggle with LaGuardia (but then, it must be remembered, Stalin was still allied with Hitler and hindering the “democratic” war effort was an essential policy of the Stalinists). Quill now proposed that the miners crawl on their bellies to beg a crumb from the bosses and the AFL fakers. He was roundly disabused of this proposal by Murray.

At the same time, the war mongering New Leader also contributed its trickle of reactionary abuse on Lewis, the CIO and the miners’ unoion. Socialist renegades, neo-democrats, the Stalinist periphery and the anti-Stalinist Rooseveltians, all joined hands. The issue of the war, in its great confusion, cuts across all labor and political formations.

The Miners Accept Arbitration

In the Senate and the House, pro-war senators and congressmen, the anti-labor bloc and the isolationist reactionaries, asserted their unity and announced their determination to force labor to its knees. A plethora of bills was introduced to curb the trade union movement, halt strikes, set up enormous penalties against any action taken by labor to improve its condition and to subject organized labor to government control. At this point the arbitration scheme was proposed.

In his personal response to the presidential proposal that he arbitrate the issues in dispute, Lewis rejected it out of hand. It was not until the Policy Committee of the United Mine Workers of America convened and discussed Roosevelt’s personal plea that the union accepted arbitration as a means of solving the struggle between the miners and the steel barons. Whatever the circumstances were which compelled the union to accede to the presidential demand, the arbitration scheme bodes ill for the future, not only for the miners’ union, but for the entire labor movement. The arbitration scheme, accompanied as it is with a “no-strike” clause, is only one of the many sought by the anti-labor forces to bind the hands of the workers. The action of Lewis and the Policy Committee, faced as it was with an alarming “public” pressure, has set a specific tone to all other disputes, namely, subjects all the struggles of the working class to pressure for arbitration by the miners’ example, and thus allows the most elementary interests of their class to be decided, what in most cases is a preordained victory for the bosses. The “impartials” are usually interested in “public order” and “public opinion” as it is formed and constituted by the reactionary press. Thus, in a majority of cases, labor gains a concession, but is forced to surrender its most urgent demands.

In this particular case, it is bruited about that the arbitration committee will grant Lewis’ demand for the recognition of the union shop – the right of the union in this instance is unquestioned. But will this gain, on one sector of the labor front, be worth the harm in store for the labor movement as a whole? We believe that it sets a dangerous precedent, for arbitration accompanied with a “no-strike” clause signifies the entrance of labor into negotiations with the loss of the sole weapon it can employ to defend itself. Obviously, the bosses give up nothing in such a situation. They retain their property, they continue to earn their fabulous profits. They have conceded nothing at this point. But labor marches into such meetings without a single one of its demands granted, with the sole possible exception that the union men will not be deprived of their jobs during the period of arbitration. It is in this sense that labor is the loser before the battle is fought.

A Reactionary Field Day in Congress

At the time of this writing, the congressional battle is on. The representatives and the senators are impeded by only one consideration in the adoption of their anti-labor bills: the effects which their actions may have on the congressional elections and the concurrent fear that labor will take its revenge upon any scurrilous acts committed by them. Naturally this does not hold true for all the congressional gentry. Too many of them come from districts where there is a small labor movement. But these labor haters, representing small or no industrial areas, unhampered by the considerations of the “labor vote,” are the most rabid and reactionary members of the House and the Senate. They – and most of them are from the deep South – are the most dangerous. They speak frankly and avowedly as labor haters. Some, isolationists, avowedly opposed to Roosevelt’s war program, nevertheless take advantage of this situation as the means of promoting their sole goal in life, that of destroying the labor movement or, at least, reducing its effectiveness and ability to struggle.

Observe for a moment the measures now pending in the House. There are five bills, presently under discussion. All of them proceed from a single point of departure: prevention of strikes and control of the trade union movement.

  1. The Ramspeck Bill, which is now known as the House Labor Committee Bill, introduced by Representative Rams-peck of Georgia, calls for a compulsory 60-day “cooling off” period in defense labor disputes. During this 60-day period, settlement of the labor dispute would be sought through the National Defense Mediation Board. As a last resort, in the absence of settlement, it authorizes the government “to seize and operate” the plant. This bill originally called for compulsory arbitration, which was eliminated from it because of the opposition voiced by the National Association of Manufacturers, the AFL and the CIO. It is conceded by most Washington observers as having the most favorable chances of acceptance in view of the large bloc of compromisers.
  2. The Vinson Bill, introduced by Representative Vinson, also of Georgia, calls for all-out compulsory arbitration and the most stringent measures to enforce it. This was introduced last May by the House Naval Affairs Committee, and while it has been considerably modified, represents the official Navy views on the labor question.
  3. The Smith Bill, sponsored by Representative Smith of Virginia, the most rabid anti-labor man in the House, calls for the outlawing of jurisdictional, sympathetic and boycott strikes, abolition of mass picketing, freezing of the open or closed shop, whichever may exist at the time of the outbreak of a labor dispute and, finally, would require a majority vote by a secret ballot before a strike could be called. He would also require unions to register and account for their funds to the government.
  4. The Walter measure, proposed by Representative Walter of Pennsylvania, through the House Judiciary Committee, calls for the application of anti-trust laws against labor in accordance with the Supreme Court decision in the Hutcheson (Carpenters’ Union of the AFL) case.
  5. The bills of Senators Connally of Texas and Ball of Minnesota also ask for the freezing of the union or open shops in defense production, and authorize the government to seize plants when strikes cause a halt in production. It is Senator Ball’s proposal that the Labor Committee set up a voluntary mediation and conciliation machinery and forbid the recognition, by an employer, of a union shop where a strike is called for this purpose.

“Impartial” Speeches and Anti-Labor Actions

In each instance, the congressional spokesmen endeavor to create the impression that these measures are directed against both capital and labor. But their comments on their respective bills clearly indicate the venomous anti-labor atmosphere that pervades the senatorial chambers.

Expressive of the attitude in the House, Representative Ramspeck stated that he found himself “in the middle of a cat and dog fight.” Describing how his “good friends” are convinced of the need of legislation to halt labor, Ramspeck said: “Others want to perform a major operation on organized labor.”

So far as he himself is concerned, the Georgia representative declared:

Previously I have opposed all legislation along this line (anti-labor legislation). But when John L. Lewis rejected all the President’s patience, tact and diplomacy in seeking a peaceful settlement of the captive mines dispute, I decided it was time to find out whether the people or Mr. Lewis are running the United States.

In his criticism of the Ramspeck Bill, Representative Smith stated that it only:

... legalizes what has generally been going on – a process of seeking to settle defense strikes which has been a failure for more than a year. Mine would get at the place where the trouble starts instead of attacking the disease after it develops.

In explanation of his bill, he adds:

It carries no criminal punishment for lawful (1) strikes, but in cases of strikes made illegal under it the strikers would lose their rights under the National Labor Relations and Norris LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Acts.

Representative Vinson is even more outspoken. In a statement presumably representative of “public opinion” but in reality calculated to create a certain type of public opinion, this Navy man bases his bill on the fact that “the public is demanding anti-strike legislation.” In furtherance of his anti-labor aims, the leading member of the House Naval Affairs Committee, who works in closest harmony with the Navy Department, added:

The people are not going to tolerate any further appeasement. This issue is clear and the hour has come to meet it. It is a question of national safety as against the selfish interests of labor organizations. No group, whether it be labor or capital, can be allowed to imperil this country.

Add to these statements that of Rear Admiral Blandy, who, speaking in Georgia, urged the use of violence against labor organizers, suggesting to the workers in his audience the hope that “you will ride them out of town on a rail as if they were wearing swastikas on their sleeves,” and the support given to this statement by that arch-reactionary, Secretary of the Navy Knox, and it will be observed that all the measures discussed in Washington are directed first and foremost against the elementary democratic rights of the labor movement. While it is true that capital is sometimes joined to labor in the denunciatory declarations, all the measures are frankly directed against the workers.

The New York Post Disguises a Danger

In contrast to the anti-labor bloc in Congress we have the “liberal” proposal as personified by the New York Post, which has issued the call for a labor-management-government conference where all the problems existing in the present war period may be resolved around the discussion table and voluntary measures adopted by capital, labor and the government, to insure no further interruptions to the defense program.

In support of its contention the Post points to England and the surrender of the labor officials to the government as the example which should be followed in the United States. This liberal war-mongering daily is in agreement with the content of some of the House bills. But it opposes legislation to carry them into effect because it would then taint the legislation with a compulsory character and thus only intensify the the conflicts between an industrial and financial ruling class growing daily more bloated with war profits, and a working class faced with a deterioration of its standard of living. In typical liberal fashion the Post proposes that all the rights of labor be formally and legally retained. It says in its editorial of December 1:

There is only one way to put rights on ice, preserving them without using them and that is through voluntary agreement.

In other words, if labor wants to retain its legal and moral rights, if it desires to thwart the aims of reactionaries in and out of government, it should “evolve a code of conduct for the duration of the emergency” that would lead to ho strikes, though it “preserve its right to strike.” You can have your rights, but you must not use them. This reads like the usual liberal double-talk. But it would be a mistake to regard these thoughts complacently. Elsewhere in its editorial, the Post editor says:

FOUR. The public, and its Congress, must of course reserve the right to use ultimate force, if necessary, to preserve the nation. There can be no two ways about that. We are not going to see this Republic fall because of any one interest. But to use force before it becomes necessary merely sets the style of using force, ushers in a new climate, changes every vital process of democracy.

It is clear from this statement that the admonition is directed to the labor movement. It must not resist! It must “freeze” all its interests! Otherwise the waves of reaction will engulf and destroy it. And this (the use of state force) will be necessary in the interests of “the Republic.”

The interesting feature of the Post plan is that it approximates the Murray plan of labor-management-government cooperation. While we reserve comment and a thorough analysis of the Murray plan for another time, the similarity of the two proposals is indicated to show that the dangers inherent in the Post plan are the same as those which would follow the application of the Murray plan.

Green Again Is Against the CIO

How is the labor movement reacting to this perilous situation? The CIO gives every indication that it will resist the congressional drive against every right of the organized trade unions and the working class in general. The AFL, however, through the vapid mutterings of William Green, qualifiedly resists the proposed measures. In an extremely petty and shortsighted manner it calls attention to the fact that the AFL is loyal to the defense program – implying that the CIO is disloyal – and has adopted a “no-strike” policy in defense industries. Citing the additional fact that strikes by AFL members were “inconsequential,” the president of that organization declared:

It seems inconceivable that Congress would take such action. Imagine, if you please, the state of mind which will be created among these loyal, devoted workers identified with the American Federation of Labor when they realize they have become the victims of anti-labor legislation!

Why should Congress penalize millions of workers whose services have measured up to the highest government requirements because of the indefensible acts of some irresponsible leaders of a labor organization unaffiliated with the American Federation of Labor?

The remedy for the cause which it is alleged underlies the action contemplated by Congress cannot be found through the enactment of anti-labor legislation. Available remedies should be applied, rather than to seek a new one through the enactment of anti-labor legislation.

Three things are to be observed from the characteristic obsequiousness expressed by Green: 1. The AFL is a loyal and patriotic organization, outside the group which should be the object of the anti-labor legislation; 2. The real culprit in the present situation is the CIO and all congressional shafts should be directed against it; and 3. There is enough legislation on the books now to provide Congress, in the interests of the bosses and the war, to take action against ... the CIO.

The Labor Movement Must Be on Guard

If this kind of situation continues within the house of labor it will find itself at the mercy of the American ruling class and a Congress which does the latter’s bidding. The trade unionists in the AFL and the CIO must repudiate Green and replace his policy with a militant defense of all the rights of labor. The slightest hesitation by labor, its slightest capitulation, can have no other result but a complete destruction of the great organizations built up in the past ten years. Labor can have only one policy: rejection of all legislation, all proposals, no matter what their quarter, which would disarm it, reduce it to impotence. It must counter these measures with an even greater drive to organize all the workers in this country, to defend and extend its wage gains, to fight the high cost of living, to resist a reduction of its standard of living, to compel the bourgeoisie to disgorge itself of the enormous riches it is accumulating as a result of the defense program and the preparation of the Roosevelt Administration for war.

Labor will observe the increasing defection of its fair-weather friends as they jump on the war-mongers’ bandwagon. It will find that its greatest strength lies in its own united power and clear resolve to fight for its deepest interests.

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