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David Coolidge

Recent Events in Miners’ Struggle

What Is WLB Up to Now?

(21 June 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 25, 21 June 1943, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The “decision” on the settlement of the coal strike which is expected from the War Labor Board has not yet been announced as the time approaches for Labor Action to go to press. This is too bad. We would have liked to comment this week on what the board has to say and the “award” it makes, if any. But despite the fact that Labor Action goes to press before the WLB thunders forth again, there are a few significant happenings that require comment.

The first is the “fines” that Custodian Ickes threatened to levy against the miners. It is generally known that Ickes is Secretary of the Interior, Solid Fuels Administrator and Custodian of the Mines by directive of the President, following his “seizure” of the mines and making of them “United States property.”

We have commented in previous issues of this paper on the strange role of Mr. Ickes. He is mine custodian and the mines are “United States property,” but Mr. Ickes has no authority to deal with his new “employees” in the matter of wages and other matters involved in the present dispute! In all questions of contractual relations and wages, Ickes must take a back seat while the WLB takes over and does nothing that the miners can accept or agree with.

Although Mr. Ickes has no say in the matter of contracts and wages, it seems that he does have the authority to levy fines! We don’t know whether or not he has the power to collect the fines. What needs to be exposed is the manner in which Ickes handled this business of fines. There is a clause in the UMWA contract which says that if the miners go on strike during the life of the contract they shall be subject to a fine of $1.00 a day for the days each miner is on strike in violation of the contract.

Facts About the Contract

After the men had gone back to work following the first “truce” some operators attempted to levy fines for such “violations,” Ickes was against this, and so advised these operators.

When the second walk-out came on May 31 the miners had no contract with the operators or anyone else. Therefore they could not violate this or any other contract. Neither the government or the operators asked that the contract be extended. And yet it is because they were on strike during these five days that the miners were fined.

According to Ickes, it would be unjust for the operators to fine the miners for striking during a period in which the contract had been extended, but it was not unjust for the government to fine the miners for a walk-out at a time when the government had not asked for an extension of the contract, and when no contract, in fact, existed. Ickes perhaps would argue that the contract remains in operation automatically so long as the mines are “United States property.” This is an excellent example of the manner in which government bosses and bureaucrats interrupt and make “laws” to fit the occasion. Ickes was floored by the WLB and he tried a come-back, not against the WLB, but against the miners! Ickes, a government bureaucrat, is on a rampage, using his administrative post as a springboard.

Later he modified his order levying the fines. The miners owners were to be permitted to act as they saw fit. Operators in Pennsylvania and West Virginia employing 225,000 miners have already agreed to waive the fines. This means that few if any miners will be faced with the fines, since the order did not apply to the anthracite and captive workers.

A Behind-the-Scenes Fight

It is clear from all that is going on that the real battle from the side of the government and the operators is taking place behind the scenes. The WLB and Ickes maneuver with each other and against each other. The operators sit tight, grant nothing, still hoping that the government will pull them out of the ditch. That this is the situation is well illustrated by the latest move from the operators. The Central Pennsylvania Coal Producers Association, which had agreed to portal-to-portal pay of $1.30 a day, has now withdrawn from this agreement.

These operators say that they asked the UMWA to concur in an extension of this agreement beyond the one-year term which would expire April 1, 1944. This the UMWA would not agree to. We are of the opinion that pressure was put on these operators to try and get out of the agreement they had made for $1.30 portal-to-portal pay. If this agreement had been signed it would have set the standard for the rest of the country and by now the strike would have been settled.

There is strong evidence for the belief that the WLB and other New Deal government bosses do not want this strike settled in this manner. That is, they don’t want the operators and miners to come to agreement through collective bargaining processes between themselves and without the “aid” and intervention of the WLB:

The WLB has clearly demonstrated that it is against, genuine collective bargaining between employers and labor. Its whole handling of the mine strike has been an attempt to establish itself, a government board, as perpetual and decisive arbitrator. If the WLB can get away with this procedure, genuine collective bargaining will be a thing of the past.

Hold the Ranks

The actions of the WLB and Ickes in this strike give a clear indication of what is in store for labor if the unions do not arouse themselves from the dangerous slumber into which they have been lulled by the AFL-CIO leadership. An attempt is being made at the regimentation of labor by the government and under its direct supervision. The role of policeman will either be assigned to the WLB or this board will attempt to usurp such authority. What is more than tragic in this situation is the fact that leading officials of the AFL and the CIO have remained on the WLB throughout the mine dispute. Not only have they stayed there, but they have been part and parcel of the most outrageous unanimous decisions against the miners and their union.

All the miners need remember is what we have said again and again: they have an impregnable position, they are right, they can win. They must hold their ranks!

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