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David Coolidge

A First-Hand Report from Cincinnati

UMW Convention Votes to Withdraw from the CIO

(19 October 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 42, 19 October 1942, pp. 1, 2 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

CINCINNATI – As this is being written, the thirty-seventh constitutional convention of the United Mine Workers of America is drawing to a close. The 2,800 delegates from the nineteen states and Canada where coal is mined have been sitting in the large Music Hall here for ten days now, giving attention to the most important questions that have ever come before their international.

The great majority of the delegates to this convention have had years of experience with the business at hand, They have been going to UMWA conventions; for ten, twenty and forty years. They are not young men, but scarred and seasoned veterans of the trade union movement. They have been and are today the hardened and disciplined vanguard of the organized labor movement in the United States.

When the convention opened with the address of welcome by John Owens, president of District 6, it was clear what the course of the UMWA would be on the all-important matter of the relationship of this international to the CIO. In his opening address Owens set the tone of the convention. The speech of Owens was, of course, the expression of the opinion of the international officers, Lewis, O’Leary and Kennedy.

Owens reviewed the history of the founding of the CIO, the aid and assistance given by the miners’ organization, reserving however the bulk of the praise for the personal leadership of John L. Lewis. It was a Lewis convention right from the start. From the opening day on there was left only the: smallest crack for any Murray adherents to squeeze through. This held of course in far greater degree for the Stalinists. If there were any of their hatchet men present they succeeded in maintaining the most impenetrable disguise.

In the course of his speech, Owens said that

“I want to say to this delegation that if it had not been for John L. Lewis there would not have been any organization in the steel industry ... what is true of steel is true of rubber ... if it had not been for John L. Lewis there would not be any United Rubber Workers’ organization in America ... so it was with auto ...”

When Lewis took over to reply to the various addresses of welcome to the convention, he followed and elaborated the line by Owens. He however emphasized that it was the mine workers, who had accomplished all the organizational feats that had been attributed to him personally by Owens.

Lewis of course understands these questions and situations far better than Owens. He knows that there existed, long before the formal organization of the CIO, an objective situation in American industry that called for the organization of the mass production workers into industrial unions and a break from the craft-ridden and impotent AFL. Lewis knows that even though he had never been born there would have been a successful industrial union movement; answering the call of the mass production workers and fulfilling their requirements. If not this one, then there would have been another John L. Lewis called by another name.

In the course of his speech, Owens dug up a bit of history that he might as well have left buried. He brought up his leadership of the Little Steel strike in Ohio. Said Owens: “A lot of so-called labor leaders are going around over this country sticking out their chests pointing to accomplishments of what they did in steel. I led the Little Steel strike in the state of Ohio ...” As we remember that strike, it wasn’t anything for any labor leader to be bragging about today. Owen did in that strike – because he was ordered to, we suppose – exactly what Murray and his friends are doing today: depending on the government to win the workers’ battles for them.

Perspectives of UMWA

Not only did Lewis go over the matters that were to come before the convention in his first speech but he gave a resumé of where he and the other international officers stood in his discussion of the officers’ report. In the course of the convention he made many allusions to the perspectives of the organization and to his intention to attempt to keep the UMWA on the same track that it has pursued for the many decades of its existence. For instance, on the organization of the chemical industries and the attitude of the miners he said: “I know no reason why the coal miners in this country, after this emergency is over, should use non-union explosives, and neither do the members of District No. 50.”

On the matter of the demand for a $2.00 a day increase in wages, Lewis said that the basic coal wage can be raised under the recent stabilization legislation and the executive order of October 3. This position intimated that Lewis will contend that the base pay of the miners, $35 a week, is sub-standard and can be raised without violating either the wage stabilization act or the executive order.

Furthermore, according to Lewis, the miners will not depart from their old ways: “Our membership have no thought of changing their ways or their methods or their thoughts to meet the temporary policies of any segment of the American labor movement which might for reasons of expediency depart from those tried and true policies which have made this union great.”

Now, what and whom could Lewis be talking about here except the present retreat of the CIO and the complete capitulation of Murray and the other CIO leaders. He could not be talking about the AFL and Bill Green. There has been no retreat on their part; they stand today where they have stood for half a century. The miners, says Lewis, “are the vanguard of the American labor movement, the shock troops of our economic establishment.”

The most far-reaching action of the present convention, of course, was the vote to withdraw from the CIO. The split was prepared, it is now clear, long before the convention convened. It must be said, too, that the split did not take place because the CIO owes the UMWA $1,650,000 and refuses to pay. The split did not take place because – in the words of John Owens, speaking of certain CIO leaders – “out of their hypocritical lips come sentimental mouthings about the members of our union, then they puke up from their foul stomachs asinine statements about the president of our union.” Nor did it occur because the CIO distributed the following document among the UMWA locals:

“The officers and members of the United Mine Workers of America, representing more than ______ thousand employees of the ______ company, wish to express our sincere thanks for the recognition and voice in the national affairs which you have given labor in our country by setting up the combined War Labor Board stop We want you to know that we stand with you and our Vice-President Philip Murray to the fullest extent of our ability in the prosecution of the war to defeat Hitlerism and all it stands for stop Again we find ourselves in disagreement with John L. Lewis in his refusal to enoperate with you and our government during these critical times stop Carry on we are with you without limitations.

“Signed: Local ______ UMWA

“Note: District Directors: Have your local unions send this telegram via night letter to the President of the United States just as soon as possible. Mail copies of the telegram, after it has been sent, to ... (Murray and Lewis).


“Fraternally yours,
Assistant Director.”

The split is not due to a personal quarrel between Lewis and Murray or for the reason that “Lewis is a power-crazed czar.” A Negro delegate to whom I talked penetrated right to the heart of the situation when he said: “If you ask me, it’s Roosevelt.” That is, at the bottom of this split is the hand of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Beneath all the window dressing and the anti-CIO fireworks that exploded in the convention is the Second World Imperialist War.

The split between the AFL and the CIO was a clear and unmistakable (to everyone except Bill Green) revolt against craft unionism and for industrial unionism. The causes of the present split in the CIO are somewhat obscure but they can be discovered. They go back to the fall of 1940, when Lewis made the speech for Willkie. The rift widened when Lewis joined Hoover and America First.

The point is that the split was really consummated when Lewis did not go along with Murray in blind support of the imperialist war and knee-bending submission to Roosevelt. And, of course, Roosevelt was always behind the scenes with Murray pouring oil on the flames.

Lewis’ Report

It was necessary in the convention for Lewis to cleanse himself of some of the charges that had been made against him in connection with his isolationism, anti-patriotism, etc. He attended to this on the first day of the convention. After giving a report of the amount of war bonds that have been purchased by the international, the districts and the members of the UMWA, Lewis said: “Let any other union show a record as good.”

On the question of his attitude toward the war, Lewis said:

“The United Mine Workers of America abhor the necessity of war, and throughout the years, in times of peace, have expressly, by resolution from time to time ... declared against war as long as war could be avoided, and as long as our nation was not attacked ..., it is known that for some years past I have urged non-participation in foreign, wars if that could be avoided. That was my position, and I understood it to be the position of the United Mine Workers of America, until the time came when it was evident that our nation was to be attacked by foreign enemies. When that time came, like millions of other citizens and like hundreds of thousands of our members, I abandoned every other consideration and stated purposely and acted according, in support of our government, of our institutions, of our policies, of the integrity of our nation and the well-being, not alone of the members of the United Mine Workers of America, but the well-being of every American.”

Lewis continued with:

“It is true that there have been individuals abroad in this land who for reasons of their own, have seen fit to question the loyalty of the president of the United Mine Workers of America to the principles of his government and sometimes have questioned the loyalty of the United Mine Workers of America, There can be no greater misrepresentation and there can be no greater distortion of the truth. But because men may misrepresent and distort and sometimes seek to defame an individual or an organisation is no reason for that individual or that organization to be influenced in its policies by such considerations, or to abate one whit of its efforts to ever hew to the line, in proper participation, proper support, in unyielding determination to carry on to a point where the armed forces of our nation will triumph, when our free institutions will be preserved and where the minimum inconvenience and suffering to the population may be brought about.”

Lewis read this to the convention as part of the statement he made at a. meeting of the UMWA international policy committee in Washington on June 3.

I won’t go into what’s wrong with this statement at this time, but surely no stronger statement in support of the Second World Imperialist War has been made by Murray, Thomas, the Reuthers, any other CIO leaders or by the Stalinists. There is a difference, of course: Lewis has little to say about supporting Roosevelt; be talks about “our country,” “our government” and the “armed forces.” Murray, Thomas and the others are simple supporters of Roosevelt, while Lewis speaks more or less generally of the country and the government.

Discuss Union Problems

At the last steel workers’ convention the platform was adorned with a large-sized portrait of Roosevelt and MacArthur. There is nothing of this kind at the miners’ convention. There is a portrait of Lewis on the stage and one of “our officers,” Lewis, O’Leary and Kennedy, at one end of the hall.

Furthermore, the time of the convention is consumed almost entirely with the working class problems that the miners face. There has been no telegram from Roosevelt, no addresses by big-shot federal officials and no executive flag-waving, such as one sees from time to time in CIO conventions. This convention is mope like the CIO convention of 1940 at Atlantic City.

The motion to disaffiliate from the CIO reads as follows:

“Your committee, therefore, recommends to this convention that the United Mine Workers of America now officially withdraw from the CIO, and direct its subordinate units and members to withdraw from any official participation in the affairs, or affiliation with any unit of the CIO, until such time as the CIO sees fit to correct its errors, desist from its policy of denunciation and antagonistic attitude toward the United Mine Workers of America and recognize its valid financial obligations.”

There were a few delegates and numerous resolutions advocating remaining in the CIO. But it was clear from the beginning that could not be. The speech of Lewis in support of the recommendation was the climax of the debate and assured that the resolution would carry with only a handful of dissenting votes.

Lewis introduced a powerful argument when he brought in the attitude of some CIO leaders toward the captive mine strike.

“I could have criticized the leadership in the CIO,” he said, “when they were attempting to sell the United Mine Workers of America down the river in the captive mine fight. I could name names and give dates and quote the text of these things, but life is too short for me to answer the yappings of every cur that follows at my heels. I hear the pack in my rear at time, I can turn my head and see the lap dogs and the kept dogs and the yellow dogs in pursuit. But I am serene in the knowledge that they won’t come too close. They are not very close now. Some of them could have come here but they did not come ... If you don’t want to adopt this report, then you don’t want a man like me to be your president. You will want a man with more rabbit in him than I have got. You want a man who will lay down on his back and put his arms and legs in the air while somebody kicks him in the ribs and stomps upon his face, and I am not that kind of a man.”

This speech of Lewis ended all opposition from the floor and the second great split in the American labor movement in seven years had been consummated.

(David Coolidge will continue his report on the momentous mine workers’ convention in next week’s issue.)

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