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David Coolidge

Coal Diggers, Steel Workers Ask Boost in Pay

But the Demands the Unions Make Are Much Too Moderate
in View of the Enormous Profits the Companies Make

(17 March 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 11, 17 March 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Negotiations between the coal operators and the United Mine Workers of America began Tuesday morning. Conferences between the United States Steel Corp, and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee are also in progress. The negotiations between the miners and the coal mine owners overlap with those between the steel workers and the steel operators. This, because some of the largest mines are owned by the United States Steel Corp. and other large steel companies such as Jones & Laughlin. These are the “captive mines” such as those operated by the Frick Coal Co., subsidiary of U.S. Steel.

The present two-year contract of the miners expires March 31. The contract of the steel workers with U.S. Steel runs perpetually unless it is called off by the SWOC or the Corporation.

Central Demand

The central demand of the miners and the steel workers is an increase in wages. At present the miners have a 35-hour week and a basic daily wage of $6.00 in the North and $5.60 in the South. The miners will probably demand a 30-hour week and a $1.00 a day increase in pay.

The SWOC has already rejected the 2½ cents an hour increase offered by U.S. Steel. The union wants 10 cents an hour increase. Among other demands of the union are:

  1. To be recognized as the exclusive bargaining agent for all employees of the corporation, instead of the present arrangement under which the agreements are plant by plant and the union is the bargaining agent for union members only.
  2. A 48-hour rest period in each calendar week, the work week to run from Monday to Friday. This would eliminate the practice of the company in working the men for 10 consecutive days and on Saturdays and Sundays without a rest period.
  3. Time and a half for overtime in excess of eight hours a day and for work in excess of 40 hours in any calendar week.
  4. One week’s vacation with pay for one to five years’ employment and two weeks for all employed over five years.
  5. Improvement of the present grievance machinery.
  6. Creation of a joint commission of the union and the company to consider equalization of rates in various labor classifications.
  7. Reinstatement provisions for draftees.
  8. Seniority to be based on continuous service.
  9. Arrangements for machinery through which the union can collect dues.

Weaknesses of SWOC

A reading of the present demands of the SWOC reveals a number of important points that were not covered in the original contract with U.S. Steel. At present the SWOC is bargaining agent only for union members. This despite the fact that there is no union in steel other than the SWOC. There has not been any other union that could in any sense be called representative of the steel workers for at least 40 years.

The way, of course, for the SWOC to push this demand and to make the demand effective is to complete the organization of the steel industry and to set up a real steel international. At present the SWOC is a loose aggregation, completely controlled from the top. The top officers of the SWOC sign contracts without submitting the contract to the workers involved for approval or rejection. Contracts do not cover all the plants of a company or all of the several subsidiary companies of a holding company like U.S. Steel. The SWOC is seeking now to correct this weakness in its relations with U.S. Steel but nothing has been done yet to strengthen the union internally by making it a more militant and better fighting organization. For this more internal democracy is needed, the encouragement of more initiative from the Union membership and locals, the complete organization of the industry and the formation of a steel international union.

Sore Spots

U.S. Steel is not paying time and a half for overtime in excess of the basic work day of eight hours. Furthermore, by judicious juggling of the work week fay the “stagger” system, the corporation is in position to tamper with the time and a half provision. Added to this is the fact that the workers lose Saturdays and Sundays off.

The union demands do not define what is meant by “improvement of the present grievance machinery.” However, it is evident that here is a real sore spot. This is usually the case in all loosely drawn contracts. If grievance procedure is not clearly defined, well understood by the workers and an efficient grievance committee established, the company can render a contract completely useless. This is a further reason for establishing an international in steel and putting the union under the democratic control of the workers.

It is impossible for a committee, at the top, and removed from the daily practical problems that come up in every plant, to handle grievances efficiently. This holds not only for the national leadership but also for any local or regional leadership appointed from the top. Day-to-day grievances can be handled effectively only by elected representatives or committees of the men in the shops. These representatives should be employed in the shops. When it is necessary for international officers to step in, it should be at the request of the men in the plants and in consultation with their elected shop representatives. No union contracts should be signed until the union membership has had the opportunity to approve or reject them.

From demand “9” it seems that the SWOC has had some difficulties in collecting dues. In the final showdown, the inclination of workers to pay dues will be decided by the service which they feel the union is giving them. No company-union “machinery” can take the place of a militant, loyal and democratic union leadership.

The demand SWOC makes of U.S. Steel for an increase of ten cents an hour is far too low. The present base pay is 62½ cents an hour. The demand should be for a $1.00-an-hour minimum for a base 30-hour week. All work over 30 hours should be at time and a half rates, with double time for Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. This should hold, of course, not only for U.S. Steel but for all the steel companies.

The miners have a higher wage rate than the steel workers and they are asking an increase. This is correct. The coal industry is beginning to boom again. Holders of coal company stock are sitting by gleefully waiting for the dividends to begin rolling in. Coal output increased in 1940 by 61,000,000 tons over 1939. The output of 1941 will be greater than for 1940.

The steel corporations are making fabulous profits. These profits will increase during 1941. Workers are far too modest in demanding move of the wealth which they create by their sweat and toil. They are too willing to divide up with the boss. The way this works out in practice is for the boss to get the lion’s share although he performs no useful and necessary service. In fact the coupon clippers and those who draw down the big dividends are not entitled to anything.

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Last updated: 15.12.2012