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Notes of the Month

The Meaning of the Miners’ Fight

(May 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 5, May 1943, pp. 131–133.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The fight of the United Mine Workers of America against the prevailing labor policy of the Administration, as expressed in its position on wages and the cost of living, has brought the labor situation to a crisis. When John L. Lewis announced, before the expiration of the miners’ contract on April 1, that he would demand a $2.00-a-day wage increase to meet the enormous rise in the cost of living in the coal areas of the nation, the crisis was certain. For against the altogether legitimate demands of the miners, and the increasingly determined demands of workers all over the country for wage increases, the Administration held steadfastly to the position that it would permit no departure from the “Little Steal” formula under which the ignominious War Labor Board operated.

In our Notes for last month, we point out that the President’s “hold the line” order was directed exclusively against the American working class, because it sought to doom their living standards in this period when the cost of living has already gone beyond their ability to meet the fantastic rise in prices. The “hold the line” order, therefore, demonstrated that Roosevelt was prepared to meet the mounting dissatisfaction of the American workers with a head-on opposition. In doing so, and insisting that the WLB maintain an undeviating adherence to its wage formula, the crisis on the WLB, already sharpened, was extended. The AFL and CIO representatives, the former especially, threatened to resign unless remedies were immediately forthcoming. It is interesting to note how the Administration endeavored to meet the crisis in its relations with labor.

Lewis made it abundantly clear that unless the wage demands of the miners’ union was met he would call a national strike. This announcement was the signal for one of the dirtiest journalistic campaigns in American labor history. It is necessary, in order to understand all of the ramifications of this situation, to recall the specific problems that existed.

The coal miners of America, engaged in a skilled, difficult and dangerous occupation, worked at a wage scale set before the war economy went into full swing. Under their contract, they could not alter their wage scale until its termination, despite the disparity of their income and the cost of living. Thus the miners worked for more than a year at inequitable wages.

The Office of Price Administration indicated its complete impotence to intervene for a rectification of the price rise. It could hardly do so when its director, Premiss Brown, announced upon taking office that prices could not actually be controlled and that there would be a slow but persistent monthly rise. As always, those who suffered in this situation were the workers, and in this case, particularly the underpaid miners. Lewis showed that the miners, because of their occupation, need a certain supply of basic foods which they were not getting with their existing wages. He put the issue squarely when he stated that “the miners are hungry” and need immediate relief.

The Administration Seeks to Break Lewis

This is when the show began. The Administration was determined to fight Lewis now for at least two reasons: a victory for Lewis would be the signal for which all workers were waiting to begin an open struggle to overthrow the WLB and its wage formula; political revenge on Lewis for his fight against Roosevelt.

The vermin press began its work when it was certain that Roosevelt was prepared to break Lewis and, in the process, strike a blow against the miners’ union. Naturally the reactionary press was uninfluenced by anything that Roosevelt and his aids did or said. Their anti-labor line is fixed. But the so-called liberal press, the Pucks of bourgeois democracy, the New York Post and the scurrilous semi-Stalinist sheet, PM, became positively hysterial in their denunciation of John L. Lewis. With unabated fury, they carried on a daily denunciation of Lewis, his threat to strike and the arbitrariness of his demands. The only issue in the struggle, according to these sycophants, was President Roosevelt or John L. Lewis. In their completely totalitarian outlook they demanded that the miners, and the workers in general, choose between Roosevelt, the friend of labor, and Lewis, the dictator! James Wechsler, ex-Stalinist, was beside himself. He posed the issue: faith in Roosevelt or Lewis. And then he virtually pleaded with the miners to put all their trust in the President, the proved friend of labor!

But these gentlemen do not understand the working class, they do not understand labor’s union organizations. Above all, they do not understand the interests of the workers. And in this case they showed themselves completely ignorant of the United Mine Workers, the most powerfully organized and experienced labor organization in this country.

The miners saw through the gas pouring out of the mouths of the “liberal” misleaders. In their simple proletarian way, they knew that the only ones who could gain from their defeats were the coal operators and the ruling class in general. They automatically understood that if they were defeated it would mean a defeat for the whole working class. And they also knew that if they won, the workers everywhere would win – the only group that stood to lose was the rapacious capitalist class enriching itself off the backs of the workers in this war period. The miners were not alone. Hundreds of thousands of other workers rallied to their support (witness the outbreak of strikes in Detroit), much to the discomfort of the Administration and its liberal wheelhorses of the yellow press.

One must have a class attitude toward the miners’ fight. Lewis is not and cannot be the issue. Would it make any difference in this situation if the miners had another president? Would the Administration and the bosses act any differently? Obviously not! The presence of Lewis affected only secondary questions, not the main one. The point is that Lewis is fundamentally correct in this miners’ fight. He has demonstrated a courage that is rare among labor leaders. He has exhibited a determination that must galvanize the labor movement. He has displayed an elasticity of tactics that has strengthened the fight of the miners against an array of foes which seem insurmountable. And, this is what hurts the anti-labor forces and the totalitarian liberals, the Administration and their Stalinist strike-breaking supporters, Lewis has remained coolly indifferent to their veritable lynch campaign against him.

Lewis’ Rôle in the Situation

Does this mean that Lewis understands the full implications of his struggle against the Administration and the operators; that he is conscious of the class issues involved and their political significance; that he has advanced in a proletarian political way? No, Lewis hasn’t changed in that respect at all. We believe that he remains a conservative political force in the labor movement; that he is unable to lead the labor movement in progressive class political directions; that he remains tied to the worst political enemies of the working class, the bourgeois politicians and their organizations. This is Lewis’ greatest failure: a lack of political class consciousness; a lack of fundamental class consciousness! Otherwise he would now form an independent political party of labor against both capitalist parties.

His present fight does not change the past or cancel out his bureaucratic rule in the AFL, the CIO and the UMW. Neither does it obliterate the many serious mistakes he has made for many years prior to the organization of the CIO. But how can one overlook the initiative he took and the responsibility which is his, for the organization of the CIO? How can one overlook the progressive character of the present fight which he is leading?

Lewis seems to understand one thing: Unless the labor movement maintains itself during the war, adheres to a militant policy, seeks to extend its organization, achieves labor unity, it will be chopped up in the mad hysteria of the war and the inevitable economic collapse in the post-war period. He sees the forces now at work which threaten the entire labor movement. Unlike his inferior colleagues in the labor movement, he prefers not to put his trust in Roosevelt and the Administration, but in the fighting strength of labor. As far as he goes, Lewis is engaged in a progressive struggle and this is all that matters.

The press sent its representatives into the field, and these correspondents could not believe their eyes and ears. The miners are in ferment, they wrote. They are behind Lewis to a man because he is fighting for their very lives. They will strike unless they get their demands. They will strike even if Lewis calls off any strike. They admired Roosevelt, so it was reported, but Lewis was the leader of their union and their union meant their lives. This was quickly borne home even to the most obtuse.

A Frame-Up Against the Miners

It was clear from the opening day of the negotiations between the miners and the coal operators that something was afoot. The coal operators, on a tip from Washington that the Administration would not deviate from the “Little Steal” formula (this meant that the miners would get no raise) refused to negotiate. They held their ground in silence. Lewis in presenting his demands to them asked for counter-proposals so that collective bargaining could begin. But the operators would not budge. They had nothing to offer. By their refusal to deal with the union, the operators knew that the case would go to the WLB and the miners would get a big zero.

Lewis had already made clear that he would have nothing to do with the WLB; that such a step meant the end of any miners’ demands; that the WLB was already stacked against the miners; that it operated under the “hold the line” order and thus automatically precluded any redress for the miners, and finally, the board was, in its majority, anti-labor.

Negotiations broke down, the miners’ contract ended and the strike began automatically. Then follows a whole series of events which are in part still foggy. Roosevelt meets the strike danger with a seizure of the mines and proclaims them “government property” and the miners “government employees.” Now there can be no strike! In the meantime, Lewis and Ickes, government “custodian” of the mines, meet in Washington and apparently a settlement is on the way. The strike is called off. Lewis takes the position that since there is no contract, since the government is now the mine owner, an adjudication of the miners’ demands will take place through the “custodian.”

In a pathetic way, the OPA suddenly announces its intention to investigate prices in the coal areas. Finding a disparity of only five per cent in prices, the OPA determined that prices were not “out of line”! But immediately thereafter it ordered a roll-back of prices of ten per cent as a partial face-saving gesture. This act was proof, if any proof was needed, that the position of the miners was completely justified. How do the OPA and the President proceed to effect a roll-back of ten per cent? By paying a subsidy to the purveyors of staple goods, the big farmers, the food processors, the rich merchants and commission houses. It is impossible, you see, to grant the miners a wage increase, but it is possible to effect a roll-back of prices by handing the profiteers a subsidy! The important point, however, is that a ten per cent roll-back will not materially improve the position of the workers.

Lewis and the Miners

Roosevelt, in proclaiming his order, called upon the miners to return to work on Monday. Lewis, following his meeting with Ickes, instructed the miners to go back on Tuesday. Whom would the miners follow? This was one crucial test and the miners answered it in a straightforward way. They followed the president of their union, their organization, and went to work on Tuesday. A two-week truce had been effected.

The WLB enters the situation and demands that the case, no matter what adjudication is made between Ickes and Lewis, or the operators and Lewis, must come to them for review! In the inter-departmental struggles in Washington, furious battles take place. Now Ickes announces that he cannot settle anything, the whole matter must go before the WLB. The union officials charge a double-cross somewhere along the line, and maintain their position that they cannot and will not appear before the WLB. Once more the strike is imminent as the two-week period runs out. Again Ickes calls for Lewis and another truce is effected. This time it is certain that Ickes will force a settlement which will give the miners at least part of their demands, either in the form of a six-day week guaranteed for a year, with time and a half for the sixth day, perhaps a portal-to-portal rate, or perhaps a straight raise in the daily wage rate. But no sooner is another two-week truce announced than the WLB again demands that the issue be tried before it and orders the operators and the union to appear. But Lewis is adamant and will not fall for this old army game. What is the authority under which the WLB operates? It has no statutory rights. It has no right of subpoena or arrest. In other words, it has no real power except the power of “public opinion” and “persuasion.” Then, too, what does it mean to say that the mines “are government property” and the miners are “employees of the government”? If that is true, why, then, does Ickes send the issue back for negotiation, and why does the WLB presume control over negotiations between the operators and miners? Contrast this with the case of the New York Transit Workers Union. In that situation the WLB declared it could not intervene because it was a struggle between a government and its employees!

The struggle between the miners and the coal operators is complicated by the political aims of the Administration in seeking complete control over and unanimous support from the labor movement in preparation for its political campaign, which is soon to begin. Lewis is a stumbling block in their plans.

And, finally, in the midst of this struggle, Lewis presents the miners’ application for reaffiliation with the AFL. It is difficult, because of lack of information at the time of this writing, to assess the full significance of this action. It would seem, at first hand, to strengthen Lewis’ position enormously and thus to fortify the fight of the miners. Lewis has far more allies in the labor movement than most people believe. His move will strengthen the tendencies toward labor unity. It will hasten the militant development of other large sections of the labor movement. On the whole, it appears as if Lewis has outgeneraled the formidable array of foes who are determined to kick the miners in the back.

The next issue of The New International will contain a complete review of the miners’ struggle as the most important labor development since the outbreak of the war.

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