Cochran Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

E.R. Frank

The Coal Crisis and its Lessons for American Labor

(June 1943)

From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.6, June 1943, pp.168-173.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The three month long fight in coal has centered national attention on the miners union; has evoked a new burst of strikes in the war-converted automobile and rubber industries; has thrust the Roosevelt war government into its first serious labor crisis and disgraced its two main agencies on the domestic front, the War Labor Board and the OPA; has broken up the existing disposition of forces inside the labor movement and has again catapulted the figure of John L. Lewis into a position of high eminence.

The fight which Lewis is now conducting is on behalf of the coal miners and their economic demands. But the grievances of the coal miners are basically the grievances of the whole working class. The dissatisfaction of the miners and their will to fight is by no means peculiar to them alone. It mirrors with complete faithfulness the existing mood of the men working in the giant factories and plants of America’s war-converted industrial machine.

The flurry of strikes that has swept through the Michigan war plants and in the nation-wide aircraft industry since the beginning of the year gave clear warning that the patience of the workers was wearing thin, that the tide of resentment was rapidly rising and that a preliminary showdown was in the offing. What the fight of the miners accomplished was to crystalize this sentiment and provide leadership for it. When Lewis spoke out against war inflation, when he attacked the “Little Steel formula,” when he defied the WLB, his words thundered with power across the whole country. Not only because Lewis spoke out against war inflation, when he attacked the “Little [...] [1*] feelings of millions of American workers and because behind him stood over half a million miners, who, in turn, enjoyed the sympathy and encouragement of millions of other workers. His very first blast at the WLB and its “Little Steel formula,” in the preliminary meeting with the coal operators, shattered the “hypnosis” of labor – the “hypnosis” that there was no way out of the blind alley that the labor movement was in, that nothing could be accomplished while the war was in progress, that there was no way of disengaging the labor movement from the chains of die “no-strike” pledge, that there was no alternative to the policy of subverting the labor movement into a miserable appendage of the war machine. The obvious sympathy and support with which the rank and file greeted the Lewis defiance was clear proof that the labor movement was thirsting for a clear word and a bold challenge. The Lewis blast quickly pushed the AFL and CIO representatives on the WLB into a noisy campaign of garrulous complaining and whining, which thrust the board into a crisis from which it has not emerged to the present day. This conduct of the AFL and CIO representatives, while scarcely courageous, nevertheless served to increase the general confusion and uncertainty and to further weaken the existing labor relations apparatus of the Roosevelt war government.

The program of freezing wages under conditions of war inflation, the program of chaining labor to the machines in a new form of industrial feudalism under conditions where the giant corporations are paid huge subsidies out of the public treasury to continue manufacturing articles of war, the program of starving labor under conditions of unbridled war profiteering – in a word, the Roosevelt war program, is under normal circumstances not attractive to labor nor conducive toward winning its support. Such a program fares best with a labor movement that is humble, whipped and imbued with chauvinism. But the American labor movement is neither humble nor whipped nor, despite its support of the war, has it succumbed to chauvinism.

The repressive machinery of the Roosevelt war government appeared imposing and authoritative in 1942 because it was supported by the labor movement through the agency of its top officialdom. It appeared doubly impressive and authoritative when the Murrays and Greens would whine and bleat in protest over some order or decree, while continuing to support and buttress by the strength of their millions of members the whole repressive machinery by which labor is hog-tied and rendered ineffectual.

But from the very first day of the current coal negotiations, Lewis challenged this repressive machinery, studiously ignored the WLB, unlike every other trade union leader, conducted himself as the spokesman of a sovereign power, as if his headquarters suite in New York were fully on a par with the White House. This one act of courage of one union leader threatened to topple the whole intricate labor relations edifice and upset Roosevelt’s coalition with the labor movement.

The Plan of the Kitchen Cabinet

As they watched Lewis breathing thunder and defiance, Roosevelt’s kitchen cabinet must have experienced the feeling of the proprietor of a china shop when a wild bull comes charging into his well ordered establishment. Lewis must be stopped at once, they cried, before he wrecks the whole delicate relationship of the coalition structure – the coalition upon which depends the stability of the administration.

Roosevelt had no qualms in March and April 1943 about the rest of the labor movement. Was he not himself the first leader of American labor? In any case, Murray and Green had assured him that they would soft-pedal their opposition to the “Little Steel formula” in return for the promise that prices would be “rolled back.” Besides, there was no danger from this quarter. Roosevelt knew the Murrays and Greens and how one decisive word from him was sufficient to keep this chicken-hearted crew in line. And after all, they represented the massed millions of the AFL and CIO. Their announcement that they would abide by the decision of the WLB majority, when the latter rejected their proposals to revise the “Little Steel formula” was an open demonstration of Lewis’ isolation. Lewis alone was the danger. The Murrays and Greens, its was obvious, having made their face saving protests, were ready to abandon the miners to the tender mercies of the WLB and to abandon Lewis, they hoped, to his fate.

The White House coterie acted as if this might be the God-given opportunity to settle old scores with Lewis and to eliminate him once and for all as a contender for leadership of the American labor movement. Who knows? Maybe if all went well, he might even be squeezed out of his position in the miners union. It had been accomplished once before in the case of the CIO. But what is basic was their deadly fear that a concession to the miners would break the dams: the workers all over the country would defy the government and strike to secure favorable action on their wage demands; the policy followed by Lewis would become a pattern for other union leaderships and it would become impossible for the Murrays and Greens to continue their kow-towing to Roosevelt. The kitchen cabinet thus had its strategy all cut out: isolate Lewis, disgrace him as a leader before the working class, grant no concessions to the miners, keep the wage and job freezing program intact, teach labor a stiff lesson that opposition does not pay and thereby insure the continued support of the Murrays and Greens and make them, as a matter of fact, even more dependent upon the bounty and the favors of the White House.

So, egged on by his advisers and with the admonitions of the tory press about a “firm” policy ringing in his ears, Roosevelt on April 8th announced his new “hold-the-line” order. Wages were to be absolutely frozen without any ifs, ands or buts. The question of wages was closed for the duration! The following week, McNutt, the Manpower Commissioner, issued his ruling that 27 million workers were frozen to their present jobs. Two brilliant strokes all in one week! With one decree and one departmental ruling Roosevelt had solved all his labor troubles for the duration of the war. Why had he not thought of this simple solution before? By legal fiat, it was now ensured that Lewis and the miners could not secure any of their wage demands. This would also constitute a never-to-be-forgotten lesson of the dire consequences that befall labor or any of its leaders when they challenge the authority of the government.

But events demonstrated that Roosevelt had reckoned without his host. For once, he had badly miscalculated the forces of the labor movement. For once, he had seriously overestimated his hold upon the American worker and mistaken his temper. The mine union leadership was not overawed by the “hold-the-line” decree! Lewis calmly challenged it as he had previously challenged the “Little Steel” ruling of the WLB. On April 10 he announced:

“It is beside the point that other labor organizations such as the AFL and CIO, through their leaders, have adopted a policy of cringing toadyism to the administration ... The United Mine Workers and its membership will continue to make this fight ...”

Where Roosevelt Miscalculated

Accompanying the defiance of the miners, groups of workers struck in many cities. The unrest in labor ranks grew so acute that many leaders of the most important International unions, feeling the hot anger of their own membership, began to make threatening gestures. Before many days had elapsed even the august statesmen of labor themselves, Murray and Green, crawfished on their assurances to the White House and issued protests against the new decree. Even such a case-hardened bureaucrat as Matthew Woll began popping off: “The War Labor Board has become a policeman’s club,” he declared. “The time has come for labor to declare its independence of unconstitutional government dictation ...” With the labor movement in a furor, the AFL and CIO representatives of the WLB threatened to resign. Its prestige already badly punctured, the board now faced imminent death. The “hold-the-line” order thus failed to achieve any of its objectives. It did not dampen the unrest of the labor movement. It further aroused it. It did not isolate Lewis, as a preliminary to his eclipse and downfall. It threatened to push the labor movement into his arms. It did not settle the coal crisis. It aggravated it. It did not reestablish the authority of the WLB. It almost wrecked it.

The whole capitalist class, moreover, in the wake of the coal operators was pressing down on Roosevelt for a “strong” policy. “Hold the line,” they demanded. “No more concessions to labor.” Roosevelt is first and foremost the war spokesman of the American capitalist class and he must heed his master’s voice, in spite of the fact that the stability of his own administration, not to mention Roosevelt’s own career as a public figure, rests upon an understanding and alliance with labor.

As the walkouts in the mines began spreading with the approach of the May 1 deadline, Roosevelt threw caution to the winds and embarked on the ambitious venture of separating the coal miners from their union organization and leadership. He went on the air May 1 and in his own name he called upon the half million coal miners to repudiate the union strike call and to continue at work. It is true that, unlike Lewis in 1940, he did not promise to resign his position if the miners ignored his demand. Nevertheless, he threw his own labor prestige pretty heavily into the balance. The miners did not keep him waiting long for an answer. They calmly disregarded the Rooseveltian exhortation to scab and in their overwhelming majority obeyed and followed the instructions of their union.

It is not, of course, an impossibility to separate a union membership from its leadership. Lewis in the past has been very unpopular in the coal fields. Anti-Lewis feeling and opposition to his administration is by no means all dissipated even today. For years, Lewis has ruled the union by bureaucratic suppression of all opponents and critics, by the destruction of the democratic rights of the membership, by strong-arm squads, by expulsion out of the union and industry of the foremost militants among the coal miners. Democracy is still something to be achieved, even today, in the miners’ union.

But in the current controversy Lewis and his lieutenants are waging a militant fight for the demands of the miners. In this fight, the men in the coal fields were back of Lewis 100 per cent. For Roosevelt to imagine that in this situation he could play on the traditional anti-Lewis feeling of large sections of the coal miners, or bank on his own labor prestige, at a time when he was advocating a straight union-busting program and counseling the miners to scab against their union in order to ensure his wage-freezing, job-freezing orders, did not reveal a very high order of thinking. It demonstrated that with all his abilities, talents and great wealth of experience, Roosevelt has all the limitations of the educated bourgeois snob and that his understanding of the working man and the labor movement is indeed a very one-sided one. At any rate, Roosevelt and his advisers lost their illusions how the miners would respond, as the second strike deadline approached on the eve of May 15. No newspaper reporters were rushed out to the coal fields this time to dig up miners who proclaimed their intentions to scab. May 1 demonstrated even to the blind that the miners were ready to fight. As a corollary, the kitchen cabinet was taught that an important labor leader like Lewis in the midst of leading a militant labor fight cannot be read out of the labor movement by a Harry Hopkins or a Ma Perkins or even by Roosevelt himself.

Instead of a group of cowed miners, isolated and spurned by the rest of the labor movement and docilely trudging back to the coal pits, after the government took possession of the mine properties, the miners returned to work as they had come out – united, confident and determined to continue the fight. They returned only when their union announced a strike truce. Their fight had won them the admiration and the active sympathy of the ranks of all American labor. The miners had definitely won the first round.

Things were not faring half so well in the camp of the Roosevelt government. The WLB and the OPA were a shambles. Then, before the second strike truce expired and before the government could recover its poise, two great roars of thunder came crashing out of Detroit and Akron – the four-day strike of 29,000 Chrysler workers and the six-day strike of 50,000 rubber workers. Samuel Colton, executive secretary of the American Labor League, representing over 300,000 AFL and CIO members of New Jersey has properly described them as “anti-administration strikes.” In less than a month Roosevelt had been dealt two serious rebuffs. His government was in the throes of a full-blown labor crisis.

The Labor Crisis Was Inevitable

How did this experienced, talented capitalist politician, who for over ten years has proven himself a master in leading the labor movement and in manipulating its leadership, allow himself to be maneuvered into such a difficult position?

Because the economic consequences of the war have a logic far more eloquent than Roosevelt’s radio speeches. There is a limit to trickery, deception and demagogy. It was only a question of time until the workers would begin to catch up with him. The war and the resultant government policies have enormously speeded up the political education of the workers.

More concretely, the existence of the powerful miners union, remaining independent and aloof from the administration, under a leadership hostile to Roosevelt, has constituted for a long time a potential danger to the coalition and its stability. It is not so easy to ignore a strong industrial union of 600,000 men headed by an able, experienced and bold leader. The Roosevelt policy of keeping Lewis isolated and granting him no recognition was effective only so long as the miners union was quiescent, while its leadership remained isolated from the rest of the labor movement, and Green and Murray could continue to speak unchallenged for the millions of workers of the AFL and CIO. But as soon as the miners launched their fight and their challenge of the government was eagerly seconded by the auto and rubber workers, it was a foregone matter that the Roosevelt coalition could no longer continue without some drastic readjustments and a new reshuffle of the labor machinery.

In the final settlement of the coal controversy, the operators will unquestionably sign a contract granting the miners union the minimum which the union was prepared to accept as a settlement from the first – a six-day week and a fair portal-to-portal pay allowance. But the government will carry the onus of having permitted concessions only under compulsion – it was first necessary for the miners to strike. Formally channeling the case via the WLB has not upheld the tottering authority of the already-moribund WLB. The Detroit and Akron strikes gave warning that the government’s troubles, far from ending, are just about to begin. [1]

It is probably not surprising, viewing the coal crisis in retrospect, that the popularity and authority of Roosevelt suffered a setback in the eleventh year of his rule. The forces of American labor are too strong, too militant, too well organized, too fresh and undefeated to be cheated and tricked indefinitely. What was surprising was the bull-headed manner in which Roosevelt attempted to halt the march of American labor, his miscalculation of its temper and strength and the subjectivity and obvious malice with which he tried to wreck a leadership that opposed him.

The Roosevelt strategy of April 8 has not come out of the battle unscathed. Roosevelt tried to isolate Lewis. Lewis has emerged again as a labor figure of great importance. Roosevelt tried to prevent the granting of concessions to the miners. He will be forced in the end to grant concessions. He tried to teach labor a lesson that opposition to Roosevelt does not pay. The opposite has been established. He tried to end the debate on his wage and job freezing program. The program is under heavier attack from the labor movement.

Why did it fall to the United Mine Workers to strike the first blow in labor’s challenge to the government, rather than to the more aggressive and dynamic industrial unions in auto or rubber? Because the miners union, through Lewis, is independent of the Roosevelt administration and hostile to it, while the national leaderships of both the auto and rubber unions are tied in the straitjacket of the Roosevelt war government. The present fight of the miners was conducted in every respect under the direction and control of the Lewis leadership. The automobile and rubber workers in their battles were forced to call “outlaw” strikes against the wishes and in defiance of the authority of their international union leaderships.

In certain respects, Lewis heads a union that is ideally suited to challenge the government. The membership of the miners unions is distinctive. The miners are by no means more politically advanced or more militant than the members of the auto, rubber or steel unions. Quite the contrary. But the miner does have a somewhat different attitude toward his union than the worker in mass production industry. The miner as a rule lives in a small community where life does not offer the numerous activities of the metropolitan city. The union is a far more dominant feature of life and vehicle of public opinion in the small mining communities than it is in the large industrial cities. Union organizers often relate with what pride the miners in the small hamlets of West Virginia, Kentucky or Tennessee will exhibit their union membership cards and how painstakingly they will make clear that all their dues stamps and assessments are paid up to date. How often have we heard the expression: “Unionism is the miners’ religion.”

The average mining town does not have the complex and intricate gradation of classes of the big cities. What is there outside of the miners and their families? A handful of storekeepers, a schoolteacher, a preacher and the direct agents of the mine owners. A scab in the coal strike must not only buck the pickets; he has to brave the social ostracism of the community. Even today, with the outside world having been brought far closer by means of the radio and the automobile, it is far more difficult to bring the full pressure of capitalist public opinion down on the heads of the coal miners than on a group of city workers.

For these reasons, it is traditionally a difficult task to break a coal strike. Even under martial law with the presence of troops, the miners simply stay away from the pits. The common method of breaking a coal strike, as a matter of fact, is for the owner to shut down the mine and starve the men out. Sooner or later the ranks break under the pressure of hunger and before long, a sullen group of coal diggers marches back dejectedly to the pits.

Such a tactic was manifestly out of the question in the present controversy. Before the coal miners could have been starved out, the steel industry would have shut down and the whole war effort would have come to a grinding stop. That is why, from a purely trade union point of view, the miners were in an exceptionally strong position to defy the government and to strike for their demands.

The power of the capitalist class in this country is immense and it would be a rash statement to say that Roosevelt could not smash a coal strike. But obviously he was loathe to break the strike in cold blood. Because, even if successful, he would at the same time have obliterated his coalition with labor and written his own death decree as a public figure.

The Lewis Machine

The leadership of the union is very simply described: John L. Lewis rules as the undisputed head. Lewis achieved this preeminent position by building a machine that ruthlessly crushed all opposition and destroyed the democracy, the free discussion and debate that had been characteristic of the mine union in the previous decades. Even when the UMW flowered again in the NRA days and hundreds of thousands of miners were brought back into its fold, the union never regained its old spirit of free discussion, its rich internal life. No important new leaders have emerged in the miners union in the recent period, although half a million new members have been enrolled into the union since the NRA days. The leadership remains roughly the same as in the period when the union had a membership of 100,000 in 1930.

John L. Lewis does the thinking in the UMW for the machine. Insofar as he has a philosophy, Lewis is of course thoroughly capitalist in his thinking. Personally, however, he is built on a different scale than the grey nonentities and mediocrities that make up the national officialdom of the AFL and CIO. He is imperious, egotistic, proud, ambitious and far bolder, far more able, far more colorful and far more imaginative than any one or dozen other top labor officials. To this must be added that Lewis is an adventurer, par excellence. His gesture of placing the CIO presidency on the gambling table in the 1940 elections was far more suited to a poker player than a responsible leader of labor. His adventurism and unbridled opportunism give him a certain dexterity and nimbleness of movement. He has none of the inhibitions of the Murrays and Greens. But these characteristics also set off his woeful limitations. His machine is a personal one. It has no basic program or aims except those of power. The program and auspices under which that power will be exercised is decided for the Lewis machine not by great labor principles or aims but by expediency.

But in Lewis’ own recent experience, the power of political events more than once has thrust aside his machinations and demonstrated that political program is in the long run and on big questions more binding and decisive than personal allegiances and clique formations.

His adventurism and lightning changes of front cost him the CIO presidency in 1940. Lewis thought he could spend seven years in building up Roosevelt as Savior No.1 of American labor and then overnight snap his fingers, and with no explanations or preliminary discussion, instruct millions of workers that now the signals were changed, now we are going back to the Republican Party and Willkie is the man of the hour. But the American workers are not members of the Lewis machine nor are they adventurers.

The following year, the CIO convention at Detroit, on the eve of Pearl Harbor, isolated Lewis completely, and lost him even his closest co-workers and friends: Murray, Allan Hay-wood, Van Bittner, Fagan. Why? Some people explained that Hillman had outmaneuvered Lewis at some super-clever chess game. But that is nonsense. The lightning struck Lewis for a different reason. Lewis thought he could play with the question of program – in this case, Roosevelt and the war. He thought he could cross and recross class lines with impunity. He thought he could continue to be a 100 per cent patriot, pursue a time-honored policy of class collaboration, give backhanded support to the America Firsters, and at the same time run a private feud with the President of the United States, who is not a private individual, but the chief executive of the American capitalist class.

A basic fight against Roosevelt is a fight for labor independence and political power. You cannot do that in company with America First and the Republican Party. Lewis’ pre-war policy could be pursued by an individual pacifist who registers his protest and then retires from the scene. Possibly a newspaper columnist, who has no responsibility to a movement, might with impunity play such blind man’s buff. But the labor movement confronts the war machine every day of the week and at every turn of the road. Whatever policy its leaders adopt, they are forced by their very position to accept the full consequences of that policy. A labor union like the CIO, which is entrenched in the industries that form the backbone of America’s economy, cannot play at opposition. The top leaders of the CIO knew enough to understand this. And, of course, the thought of opposing Roosevelt and his war program never having entered their heads, they had no choice but to dump their ex-chief.

Lewis’ opportunism and lack of a thought-out program played him false again in his relations with the Stalinists. He helped build them up as a power inside the CIO. Apparently he imagined that he could get rid of them whenever they became troublesome to him, just as he had, in a previous period and under totally different conditions, rid himself of the opposition inside the miners union. The same Detroit convention saw the Stalinists very much in the CIO while the Lewis forces were virtually on the outside looking in.

This lack of a thought-out program, this combination of unbridled opportunism, adventurism and lightning-like changes and shifts of front, prevent Lewis from building anything but a personal machine. No one knows what the miners union will do or what policy it will pursue until Lewis has spoken the word. One miner expressed this idea when he said: “Lewis is always taking us into or out of something.”

The limitations of the Lewis machine are discernible even from a more limited organizational point of view. For one, the machine lacks the talent of its leader. Its origins and lack of program are all too clearly stamped on its visage. It resembles very closely the machine of a Tobin in the teamsters union. Take John L. Lewis away and the UMW leadership would resemble in almost every way the leadership of the teamsters union. That is always the drawback of a personal machine. A program can be transmitted to other people. It is not so easy to transmit to others personal talents and attainments.

The Lewis machine invariably gives a bad account of itself when called upon to perform on its own. The most recent example is the organization drive of District 50. After two years of effort, in spite of ample finances, an apparatus, organizers at the union’s disposal, with virtually no competition in the field for which theoretically it was set up – the chemical and by-products industry – District 50 has very little organization to show for the great outlay of energy and finances either in the chemical or any other field. The history of District 50 for the past two years is replete, however, with all sorts of wild adventures, screwball schemes and organization of senseless and meaningless jurisdiction battles with the CIO and AFL.

Lewis’ Return to the AFL

During the first days of the coal crisis, the miners union was organizationally isolated from the rest of American labor. It was the intention of the Murrays and Greens to keep the miners isolated, not only organizationally, but morally as well. They placed their petty personal ambitions and fears of competition from Lewis above the interests of the miners and the whole labor movement. The AFL and CIO Executive boards, meeting in the midst of the coal crisis, repudiated the mine strike and took that occasion to reiterate their no-strike pledge.

The miners, however, were saved from the evil consequences of this treachery by the active sympathy and support they received from the ranks of the more militant unions. In two important regional conferences of the Michigan and eastern districts of the UAW, representing over half a million members, the auto workers came forward against their own International officers to back the militant fight of the miners. Finally, the strikes of Detroit and Akron made amply clear that the miners were not without friends in the labor movement.

With the re-emergence of the miners union as an active force in the American trade union movement and of Lewis as its most important single figure, it was obvious that the miners union could not remain organizationally alone any longer. The coal crisis had proven that the industrial workers inside the CIO, the auto, rubber, steel workers, were the most reliable allies of the coal miners. This group of workers constitute the most dynamic and progressive section of American labor. The miners belong with them.

It was correct and necessary for Lewis to break the isolation of the miners union. This could have been accomplished in a truly progressive way had the mine leadership launched a campaign to establish a fighting alliance with the auto, rubber, steel unions, etc., as a step toward full labor unity. A campaign based upon the calling of a conference of all International unions for the purpose of launching a united fight against the wage and job freezing program of the government, if pushed with the same vigor and aggressiveness displayed in the coal fight, would have achieved such a fighting alliance. Lewis has instead taken a different course. He has come to a personal agreement with Hutcheson, Woll and several other of the most case-hardened bureaucrats of the AFL and through Hutcheson has reapplied for membership in the AFL. The miners will thus find themselves part of the more conservative, less dynamic section of the American labor movement. Here again the Lewis machine demonstrates its woeful limitations. Instead of its policies being determined by a clear goal and aim, and pressing toward such a goal at every available opportunity, we find that again purely gratuitous circumstances have dictated to Lewis his course.

What Next?

Reviewing the experiences of the miners’ fight and its aftermath, it becomes obvious that in the 18-month period since Pearl Harbor profound changes have been wrought in the political thinking of the American workers.

The confusion and apathy that seized the men in the shops after Pearl Harbor has worn off. Roosevelt no longer commands the uncritical loyalty that he enjoyed since NRA days. That is not to say that the working class is already anti-Roosevelt. But the Akron and Detroit strikes proved that the miners’ fight against the administration was no isolated event. The miners were only blazing the trail that the rest of American labor will now follow. For the first time in 10 years, it is possible to criticize Roosevelt personally at union meetings without inviting violent opposition from the majority of those present. Roosevelt can no longer hide behind the skirts of some underling or clerk. The recent strikes demonstrated that he must come out today and take personal responsibility for the acts of his administration and for his program of hunger and repression. The day is therefore past when labor’s anger vents itself upon Roosevelt’s hirelings and by-passes the chief culprit himself. May 1 definitely broke the Roosevelt “spell” over labor.

With the declaration of war, labor found that it was no longer negotiating with private companies, but with the government. Every contract, every wage agreement had to be approved by the WLB. The negotiations with private management became a mere formality, the negotiations with the government the reality. In the coal controversy, the operators played the role of minor characters. They uttered their few lines and then turned the whole matter over to the government. The two main parts in the unfolding drama were played by labor and by the government in its role of general executive board of big capital. For 18 months, this shift of scenery had the labor movement buffaloed. The workers had learned and understood how to fight the private corporations. They had lost all feeling of timidity for the Fords, the Girdlers, the Chryslers, the Knudsens. They had learned how to organize great strikes and see them through to victory. But how can one fight the government? That represents, they thought, all the people.

The historic significance of the coal strike is that it dramatized the hypocrisy of the government’s “equality of sacrifice” program and tore away its pretense of impartiality. The coal strike wrenched one contingent of labor free of subservience to the war machine. The fight demonstrated in practice that labor was strong, possessed great resources and could successfully resist the autocratic encroachments of the government.

We can see that the 18 months in which the labor movement was in retreat before the offensive of big capital and the government have not passed in vain. The experiences gained have produced a giant leap in the political thinking of American labor. Politics has been taken out of the realm of Fourth of July speeches and has been brought into every home every day of the week. Politics has become serious, austere, the bread and butter problem of the American worker. The declaration of independence from the Roosevelt war government is already finding organizational expression in New Jersey and elsewhere in the movement for independent political action of labor.

The miners’ fight has lessened the authority of the international officialdom, the Murrays and Greens. It will be more difficult for them to keep labor in the chains of their “no-strike pledge.” A new leadership is arising from among those officers and committeemen of the local unions who are espousing a program of the independence of labor and a fighting policy to protect labor’s rights and advance its interests. The violent struggle which the Chrysler strike precipitated in the UAW, and the sharp cleavage created between the local officers and the International bureaucracy, is a harbinger of what is in store for the top officialdom of many other International unions.

The miner’s fight has upset the relationship set up at Pearl Harbor between the labor movement and the Roosevelt administration. The old relationship no longer corresponds to the new disposition of forces. Both the AFL and CIO leaderships are going through violent convulsions in their attempt to achieve a new equilibrium. The Roosevelt government has already announced the setting up of a new super-board on the domestic front, the Office of War Mobilization, in one effort to bridge the gap. Many shifts, readjustments, struggles and convulsions are in the offing in an attempt to achieve a new equilibrium. If the Roosevelt government conducts itself with the same vengeful bull-headedness it exhibited in the coal crisis, the class struggle in America will be volcanic indeed in the days ahead.

Labor, represented by its vanguard in coal, auto and rubber, crossed swords with Roosevelt, the spokesman of American capital, in May 1943. But both sides, after taking the measure of each others’ strength, withdrew. Roosevelt was not ready to discard his pretentious disguise as “friend of labor” and openly assume the mantle of the union-busting, strike-breaking head of US imperialism in war. Labor was also not prepared to dispute the authority and the might of the war government. In this sense the fight from a national point of view has ended inconclusively. The miners will unquestionably win significant concessions. But as far as the labor movement as a whole is concerned, the wage and job freeze program remains. Labor’s fight for its right to live, ushered in by the miners and ably supported by the auto and rubber workers, will continue. The next showdown will not be long in coming.



1. This article was written before the second miners’ strike began. – Ed.


Note by ETOL

1*. There appears to be a short passage missing here in the published text.

B. Cochran Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 3.12.2005