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Albert Gates

Judge Wham Fines Illinois Miners
for Alleged Conspiracy

Says 3-Year Strike Damaged Business

Precedent a Menace to Labor If Upheld

(January 1933)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 5, 29 January 1938, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Organized labor was dealt a severe blow in the far-reaching decision handed down by Federal Judge Fred L. Wham, sitting in East St. Louis, Illinois, when on January 13th he ordered the Progressive Miners union to pay $117,000 in damages to the United Electric Coal Company in a suit arising out of a long and bitter strike at the company’s Red Ray mine near Freeburg, Illinois.

The United Electric Company instituted suit against the PMA for $400,000 claimed as losses to the company as a result of the strike. The strike, beginning on April 1, 1933, lasted for three years. Those assessed for damages as a result of this decision, were seven locals of the PMA and 66 individual members.

In handing down his decision Judge Wham found that the company was entitled to actual damages only. The figure was arrived at in the following manner: $70,000 for net profits that would have been made had the mine operated; $22,000 overhead losses, and $25,000 shutdown expenses.

Words of Camouflage

Judge Wham made sure to announce that his finding was made not because there was a strike but because there was a conspiracy on the part of the union and the workers to harm the effective operation of the company’s business. The Judge declared that his decision in no way questioned the right of workers to engage in strike action provided that strike action is legal. That was the least he could have said in the light of existing laws upholding the right to strike.

The right to strike is a right acquired by the workers in struggle. Legislation permitting the right to strike and picket is the result of the continuous pressure of the workers in the strike waves of recent years and to the legal recognition of an existing fact.

From coast to coast the workers have struck on the job in order to obtain recognition of their union organizations and an improvement of their working and living conditions. By their mass action, they have rendered anti-strike legislation ineffective and influenced the new trend in labor law developed in the reformist period of the Roosevelt administration.

To Cripple Strikes

The boss class, compelled to accept reformist labor legislation, now seeks to cripple the strike movements of the workers through other means, and one of the means utilized is to sue a union and its members for damages arising out of “illegal” strikes and violence occurring in strikes as a result of the “thug and fink” policy of the financial and industrial rulers.

Federal Judge Wham declares that his decision does not violate the right to strike; it is only directed against those who, engaging in “a conspiracy to inflict violent injury upon an employer or upon his property or business and in furtherance of the object of the conspiracy do, by violent and other unlawful conduct, inflict injury upon the property or business of such employer, or by such unlawful means do obstruct its business or prevent it from conducting its business – ...” He concludes then that a union, its members and sympathizers will all be held liable for money damages.

Who is to determine the legality or illegality of a strike ? Who is to determine how and why violence arose in any given strike?

Bosses Provoke Violence

It is common knowledge that the traditional policy of the boss class is to provoke violence in all strikes by the employment of thugs, stool-pigeons, deputy sheriffs, and others of the same stripe, in order thereby to obtain legal refuge for strike-breaking. Judges are notoriously anti-labor. It is they who will determine whether a strike is legal or not, whether violence attends a strike and how this violence is caused. But instead of openly finding against the right to strike and the right to unionization, they will find conspiracy against business as the motive for strikes and seek to cripple the unions by returning verdicts in money damages for the companies.

A strike will not be rendered illegal as such, but will be held illegal on conspiratorial grounds. Workers will go to jail, union officials will be incarcerated for failure to pay judgments to companies so suing a union or group of strikers.

How does it operate in the case of the PMA? While the union is appealing the decision, the company has already taken the following steps to secure its judgment in the event Judge Wham’s decision is upheld: When the Judge signs the decree, it will attach the property of the state organization of the A.F. of L. affiliated at Gillespie, and of the 13 locals in Madison and St. Clair counties. In the event the funds of the union do not satisfy the judgment, the company will levy against the property of individual members who were defendants. The attorneys for the company likewise are considering a garnishment of the dues of the union members which are held by the mine operators under the check-off plan and which ultimately find their way into the union treasury. The company will also be in a position to collect on the bond put up by the union in this case pending its appeal.

Dangerous Precedent

The precedent set in this case is extremely dangerous. In various parts of the country attempts have been made by companies to secure money damages from unions and striking workers on the ground of a “conspiracy to injure business.” Judge Wham’s anti-labor decision is certain to encourage such actions against other unions.

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