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Notes of the Month

Once Again, The Miners’ Fight

(June 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 6, June 1943, pp. 163–164.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

At the time of this writing, the coal miners of America are still waging the struggle for their most elementary rights. In the beginning there was arrayed against them the coal operators and the reactionary and liberal press, which charged that the justified demands of the coal diggers were merely auxiliary to the ambitions of John L. Lewis. If the past two months have taught anything to the advocates and practitioners of yellow journalism, it is that the coal miners are not dupes, but the best organized and most conscious section of the American working class.

The analysis we made of this struggle in our last issue holds with even greater force as the passing weeks reveal the Administration plan to destroy the effectiveness of this great labor organization, not merely because of the requirements of the labor situation in general, but also to save its tottering structure of the War Labor Board and its entire labor policy. The element of revenge against Lewis also enters into the picture, but it is by no means the decisive aspect of this situation.

The past months witnessed the continuation of Lewis’ determined refusal to submit his case before the WLB, fully cognizant that the interests of the miners would be ill served within this house. Working through Ickes, who seemed to be pursuing an independent policy in his own determination to bring about a solution to the coal crisis, Lewis went back into negotiations with the coal operators. The time of the second truce had already run and, without a contract in effect, the miners again went out on strike. The strike was only a few days old when it appeared likely that a contract with the operators would be signed. But in the midst of these negotiations, which both Lewis and the operators had declared were well along the road to solution, the WLB ordered them to cease, on the ground that the miners were on strike in violation of the no-strike agreement!

The third truce runs to June so. Agreements were already reached in Illinois and central Pennsylvania. In other words, a group of operators, tired of their own stalling and fearing the consequences of an agreement which would mean paying off beginning with April 1, felt that, in their own profit interests, the signing of a contract with the miners was necessary. But the WLB is still to be reckoned with, since its heavy hand holds back any genuine progress in the settlement of the dispute.

Ickes Fines the Miners

And, finally, as if to goad the miners on, Ickes announced that he was fining the men one dollar a day each for the five days’ duration of the strike. This, said Ickes, was perfectly legal since it was in accord with the old contract between the operators and the union. The action by Ickes, however, is only calculated to intensify the present situation because the miners will not and cannot take this fine lying down. It is a flagrantly illegal action! The Administration hasn’t a legal leg to stand on.

The miners’ contract expired on April 30. Since then, the miners have worked under the wage and hour conditions of the contract only to permit negotiations for a new one to be completed. The conditions of the old contract had expired and the miners did not understand and certainly would not accept the idea that by continuing their work for the old rate of pay they were subject to all the provisions of this expired document. What, then, is the propriety of Ickes’ action? He declares that he has extended the provisions of the contract! By what right? Under what theory of law?

But this brings us to the whole question of the government’s policy in the coal situation. Roosevelt has taken over the mines. He has declared that the miners are employees of the government. It would seem logical that the government would then negotiate a new contract with the miners. But nothing of the kind. The government orders the miners to negotiate with the operators who are, under the presidential decree, no longer the owners of the mines. Are the operators acting for the Administration? Are they merely the servants of the government? Or are they negotiating a new contract as the legal and actual owners of the mines? Merely posing the questions elicits prompt answers. The coal operators are not representing the government; they are representing themselves. The miners are not on the government payroll; the government is not the actual employer.

Government Ownership or Employer Ownership?

Roosevelt’s action in taking over the mines was merely a strategical move to weaken the miners in their struggle for a decent contract to meet the rising cost of living. Furthermore, the President took this action to save his War Labor Board, a body without any statutory power, from ignominious collapse. But the action which he believed would quickly resolve the miners’ dispute has only intensified and confused the struggle.

In his widely syndicated column, Drew Pearson revealed the inner struggle among Roosevelt’s aides and committees. Pearson reports a meeting, called by the President, of the WLB, Ickes, Byrnes and Hopkins, at which the WLB threatened to resign unless Ickes pulled his oars out of the mine situation and permitted them to take complete charge so that they might bend the will of Lewis and the miners. It was and is the aim of the WLB to compel the UMW to pay proper obeisance to the board. The WLB feels highly insulted and its position imperilled by the refusal of the miners to permit their case to be adjudicated by them.

Ickes countered by charging the WLB with standing in the way of a settlement of the miners’ dispute because of their narrow interests. While it is reported that Roosevelt sided with Ickes, he finally gave in to the WLB because of its threat to resign. Its resignation would destroy the President’s whole set-up for solving the labor problems as expressed in the present wage struggles of the working class. Since he could not permit the resignation of the WLB, he decided to go along with it.

We do not know whether or not this report is accurate. Nor is it important to this discussion, for in the last analysis the Administration will endeavor to carry out its general policy, which is inimical to the best interests of labor. But this story does show what conflicting interests stand in the way of the coal miners.

A Threatening Danger

In the welter of confusion arising from the miners’ fight, one important and significant, as well as dangerous, element in the situation is the new policy developing in Washington. This policy takes the form of state interference in collective bargaining between employers and workers, which is presumably guaranteed by the Wagner Act. This is a grave danger for the union movement. Under the best circumstances of a “friendly” Administration it would cause the labor movement to rely upon “friends” in Washington, rather than upon the independent and organized strength of the working class. Under more normal conditions, it would mean that the employers have an additional weapon in their hands with which to combat labor. Such state interference is but added expression of the increasing totalitarianization of government. It is a sign of a mounting bureaucratization which can never be of interest to the working class. An illustration of the practical consequences of such a development is found in the miners’ struggle.

If the miners have held their own and even made gains, something which is good for the entire labor movement, it is precisely because they have maintained their ranks, their independence and their will to struggle in defense of their most elementary rights.

The miners’ struggle reflects a new mood of American labor. Thus, its significance cannot be overestimated. This increasing will to struggle, however, is accompanied by increasing reaction in general, and in the Administration and Congress in particular. Now is the time to take inventory of this situation. The next steps of labor, both political and economic, will largely determine the character of the coming period of class relations in America.

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