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David Coolidge

Lewis in the Dark on Real Significance of the Miners’ Strikes

(31 July 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 31, 31 July 1944, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In an article in Collier’s for July 15, which he calls Not Guilty, John L. Lewis has written what to him is the miners’ side of the case in connection with the 1943 Strikes.

The article sets forth the facts as they were already known to everybody but the most stupid among: the population. He relates the low wages of miners, the exorbitant prices charged in the company stores, the high and unprecedented production of coal, the hazards and difficulties of mining, the time lost without compensation in getting to the point of operations and back to the mouth of the mine at the end of the shift, and other inequalities suffered by the miners which reduced their “take home pay.”

Lewis goes into detail on the execrable role of the government in the handling of the miners’, demands for a wage increase. He pillories the WLB for its bungling, meddling, its pettiness and arrogance, and its slimy efforts at wrecking the miners’ union. Lewis gives the details as they occurred from week to week, month to month and strike to strike. In all this he does an excellent job which is all to the good. But, as was said above, these facts were already known. They were so clear that the real situation was apparent to the rank and file of labor. The action of the miners was of such portent that the leadership of the CIO and other organizations were continually taking to the platform and the press to warn their membership that Lewis was a scoundrel and that labor should not be influenced by what was taking place in the coal fields.

However, aside from a restatement of the facts in the case, Not Guilty is sorely inadequate. It is difficult to discover from a reading of the article just what it is that Lewis is attempting to prove himself “not guilty” of.

And is he talking about Lewis as leader of the UMWA or is he talking about the UMWA? He says the record gives the lie to the charge that the miners are not patriotic. He says that despite the 1943 strikes, the union mined nine million more tons of soft coal than in 1942 and that for the first four months of 1944 ten million more tons of anthracite were mined than in a like period in 1943. Also the UMWA is the only labor organization which enters into agreements for a two-year period.

Short On Understanding

Lewis writes that “no other labor executive or union has been subjected to any such bitter, cruel and sustained attack.” This is true, but Lewis does not get beneath the surface in his article. He doesn’t enter into the history of the case. Nothing is said about his break with Roosevelt and his support of Willkie in 1940. He emphasizes that if the miners do not get a contract they lay down their tools. “This is our historic and automatic procedure ... No contract, no work ... Nevertheless we were not careless of the national interest, for we knew that there were seventy -nine million tons of bituminous coal in storage.” We think that this last observation about the coal in storage is beside the point, really. Suppose there had been only five million tons in storage. Would the miners have worked without a contract? We don’t think so.

In his article Lewis ignores the real reasons for the “cruel and sustained attack” on the UMWA. He doesn’t explain that at first the capitalist press, the government and all other anti-labor farces centered their fire on him alone. They did not attack the union as such. It was only after the miners had exhibited such indomitable courage, loyalty to their union and union discipline that the capitalists and the government changed their tune and began to attack the union. It was because we knew that the attack right from the start was an assault on the UMWA that Labor Action took the position it did in connection with the mine strikes. In fact, Labor Action was the only paper in the country which from the Very beginning devoted its columns to full and unqualified support of the UMWA in this important struggle. Labor Action and the Workers Party took this position because we understood immediately that the attack was levelled at the miners’ union. And we knew why. It was because the miners’ actions were prompted by their economic needs. The strikes were a revolt against the notorious no-strike pledge that had been given by all the labor leaders, including Lewis. The miners were in revolt against the infamous maneuvering and conniving of the WLB and the Little Steel formula.

Not only were the miners writhing under these injustices, but all of organized labor. It so happens that .the miners are the toughest, the best organized and the most disciplined union in the country. They only expressed in action what millions of workers wanted to do but were held in check by their leadership. The capitalist employers and their government knew that the strike action of the UMWA would act as a spark which would set off an explosion throughout, the ranks of labor. Lewis had to be branded as a “traitor”; the UMWA must be attacked and driven back or the flames would spread from the coal fields to the aircraft plants, the shipyards, and to all the “arsenals of democracy.”

Lewis’ Reactionary Stand

Lewis doesn’t discuss these things but resorts to some very reactionary positions. For instance: “Countless strikes, many for reasons shocking in their essential triviality, have disrupted and are disrupting the nation’s war effort, but neither leaders nor Strikers have been named and pilloried.” The first thing wrong with this statement is that it isn’t true. In virtually every strike the workers have been pilloried: by the capitalist press, the government and again and again by the trade union leadership.

Secondly, what strikes, since the miners’ strikes of last year, would Lewis brand as “shocking in their essential triviality.” We would like for Lewis to name the strikes that have taken place for trivial reasons during the past two years. Not even the cowardly leaders of the CIO nor the traitorous scoundrels of Stalin’s Communist Party Political Association claimed that the situation behind the miners’ strikes was trivial. They only said that the UMWA should not strike, even though they had just grievances. We don’t care for the very reactionary John L. Lewis who assumes such a pious air of shock and patriotic fervor over strikes that have taken place.

Lewis has a word of praise for Secretary Ickes. “Let me say that “there was no time that Mr. Ickes did not exhibit good faith, but at every turn his hands were tied by the petty vanity of the War Labor Board.” This is either a piece of Lewis obtuseness or just seizing on any opportunity to take another crack at the WLB. We do not say that Ickes would not have come to agreement with the UMWA and that it would not have been a good agreement. But Ickes’ hands were not tied by the “petty vanity of the War Labor Board.” If they were tied, they were tied by the same people who untied the hands of the WLB: Roosevelt, the coal operators and the whole capitalist pack.

Lewis closes Not Guilty by saying that the miners carry on, faithfully observing a contract which is not fair while “other industries are disrupted and bedevilled by walkouts and work stoppages in insolent disregard of contractual obligations. But they are not stoned and execrated as were the United Mine Workers.” Aside from its essentially reactionary character, this statement is just so much tripe. What industries are disrupted? What stoppages have taken place in “insolent disregard of contractual obligations”? Lewis here sounds like the New York Times, Henry Ford or a Republican congressman.

We are glad that the UMWA is a militant union; that it has a long tradition of fighting for the rights of labor, that it has a tradition of “no contract – no work.” These are the things that make a union great. The leadership may come and go but these militant traditions go on forever.

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Last updated: 14 December 2015