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The New International, March 1944


Books in Review

Men and Coal


From The New International, Vol. X No. 3, March 1944, pp. 93–94.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Men and Coal
by McAlistar Coleman
Farrar & Rinehart, New York, N.Y.

The continued “strategic withdrawals” of labor’s leaders from the battlefront against inflation and exploitation would, if complete, have marked an ignoble chapter in labor’s history for the year 1943. The Philip Murrays and William Greens exhibited panicky generalship before the sweep of events in this crucial year. However, one indomitable army saved the day. And tragic defeat was turned into a strengthening of the lines. In fact, inspired by the example of the coal miners, the railroad and steel workers held their defenses against the hammer blows of inflation and political double-crosses by false allies.

The battle between labor and capital was joined, as they say in the military communiques. At this writing, the sturdy work of the coal miners, assisted by the revitalized steel and railroad workers, appeared in a sound position to hold against any further attacks. It is never an accident when well-trained troops and experienced generals do a good job. Practice makes perfect, or at least tends toward perfection.

If you want to know the training school of the coal miners, and its leadership, if you want to analyze the merit of its obstacle courses, its “wartime maneuvers,” you can find out a good deal in the book by Coleman. Labor has its own unforgettable memories. The Ludlow Massacre, Bloody Herrin, the Mingo County March, Harlan, Ky. – these are names that will never be forgotten in labor’s sagas of its mighty struggles. For here coal miners starved and died, and fought and won, and lost, and returned again to rebuild their “line,” the union, the United Mine Workers of America, until it became the strongest defense of the coal diggers, and a bulwark for the entire labor movement.

Death on the picket line, and death in the murky black underground. Life in a concentration camp (the company town) and life as a cruel oppressor of the downtrodden – such was the psychological milieu of this army of coal miners under the conditions of this ruthless and lawless industry. Coleman does a good job of bringing out this background of the present mentality and opinions of the coal miner. For coal, as a lifeblood in capitalist industry, suffered the vicissitudes which only a planless, blind and profit-seeking economy can give to a valuable raw material and its diggers from the earth. Read about the utter bankruptcy of the coal barons, and the sufferings of generations of coal miners at the hands of these tyrants, one of whom epitomized perfectly their whole philosophy when he said, in response to a question about the factually proved miseries of the coal miners: “They don’t suffer! Why, these people can’t even speak English.”

Out of such turbulent circumstances only one kind of union leadership could arise, a hard-boiled, tough-minded crew of the “get-things-done” school. John L. Lewis is the supreme expression of this kind of union leadership. Lewis is the man who learns only the hard way. His whole life testifies to it. His earlier philosophy, expressed in his brochure, The Miners Fight for American Standards, is simply the other side of the coin of the coal barons’ pragmatism and ruthlessness. And that is precisely why he took such a beating – and the coal miners such defeats – in the epoch of the golden twenties, the zenith of American capitalism. For precisely during this time was the full power of the ruling class hurled time and again against the frontline of the American workers, the UMWA. It was the period of bitter inter-union struggle which Coleman unfortunately treats too gently. “No question but that Lewis’s way was that of a dictator, as charged, but his enemies had no better way out of the problem of holding together an organization of men fighting desperately in the dark against seemingly insuperable odds.” Of course, some of Lewis’s union opponents were hardly different. Farrington, for example. But to wipe out the whole history of the splendid struggle of the coal union militants for a democratic union, and for some of the ideas which Lewis adopted ten years later – like industrial unionism for all basic industries – is to substitute the well-known brush of whitewash for analytical and valuable treatment.

The UMWA was reduced to less than 60,000 members during this period. Despair ruled in the thousands of coal towns, and life was a matter of “be born, work, suffer and die” for thousands of families. The bleak life of the coal miners is portrayed much better, incidentally, in Korson’s Coal Dust on the Fiddle than in Coleman’s description of this existence. Korson, whose book is worth reading to get the “feel” of the coal miners and coal mining, didn’t make this the major aim of his book either, thereby perhaps adding to its very effectiveness.

The year 1929 awoke everyone in this country from the dream-world so glibly painted by Hollywood, the press, the radio and the endless after-dinner speakers. It was a rude shock to John L. Lewis. And it stirred the coal miners again to restlessness and discontent. And then came 1933, when the entire nation was paralyzed, and the Roosevelt Administration talked radical.

Lewis, the opportunist, saw his chance. How he capitalized on it is an old story, retold by Coleman. The miners’ union grew to over 400,000. Lewis had learned also that only if steel and other basic industries were organized could the UMWA hold its gains, for Wall Street was merely recovering its breath, and more battles were to follow. The idea of the CIO grew from .this conviction, fortified by the tragic experience of the mass-production industry workers in the archaic AFL craft union set-up. Lewis, the strong man of the AFL hierarchy, soon became the even more powerful oppositionist. The CIO was organized in mighty struggles in which the financial sinews and experienced leaders were furnished time and again by the coal miners to supplement the resurgence and fighting spirit of the working people, who contributed the sit-down as a “secret weapon” which demoralized the enemy.

But leopards don’t change spots, and only geniuses are capable of absorbing the lessons of this brilliant chapter of labor history. The old “make-a-deal-with-your-friends” philosophy, which was the Maginot-Line mentality of the AFL leadership, was still part and parcel of the Lewis mentality, which he instilled in the freshly-won recruits to the CIO movement. So when Lewis, after a series of skirmishes with Roosevelt, broke with the Administration, he stood almost alone, and a rather pitiful figure at that, back in the camp of the Republicans. His previous allies, the Stalinists (whose rôle is underplayed in Coleman’s book), deserted him, and the coal miners’ union, run with an iron hand, took the lonely road. Of course, on all the union issues against the chiseling of the employers, and the treacherous actions of the so-called friend of labor, the Administration, Lewis was correct.

However, the coal miners had learned one thing above all things, as Roosevelt pointed out at his press conference on December 29 in the White House. The coal miners know that everything they have gained in the last twenty years was through their union, and that is why they stick to it, despite everything. Lewis was determined to keep this fact true, and the coal miners, as the cost of war poured on their shoulders more and more, supported Lewis in fighting for wage adjustments to offset partially the rapid rise of inflation.

The story of the 1943 coal miners’ strikes against the evils of inflation and the high cost of living, is the highlight of Coleman’s book. The coal miners’ case is given to the reader. And this is a good service to the labor movement. In 1919, when the conditions in the pits became unbearable, the coal miners pulled a nation-wide strike. Lewis retreated before the dictates of the other Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson. “I will not fight my government, the greatest government in the world.” In 1943 the coal miners, as usual, and as to be expected, closed down the mines to fight for the justice of their case. In 1943, Lewis fought the Roosevelt regime, outsmarted it and won a distinct victory, with all the weight of the capitalist world against him. Here, then, is a cycle whose course is worth tracing, but which is not done well – a serious defect of the book.

Perhaps the greatest tribute paid to the coal miners for their resistance to the attacks of their enemies is the adoption of their tactics by the railroad and steel workers. And the sudden conversion of the CIO and AFL leaders to John L. Lewis’ “pressure tactics” and his save-the-union-movement-first concept speaks eloquently of the miserable character of these “Kentucky Colonels” as leaders of labor’s army.

Out of the struggles of the coal miners, and the subsequent victories of other industrial workers, comes again the fresh lesson of self-reliance, self-confidence, and the “hold-that-line” battle cry that rallied labor in this hour of need.

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