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David Coolidge

Will John L. Lewis Answer The Question?

Who Runs the Supreme Court?

(17 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 11, 17 March 1947, pp. 1 & 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“This constitutional court” which, according to Lewis “is, and we believe will ever be, the protector of American liberties, and the rightful privileges of individual citizens,” has handed its reply to John L. Lewis and the coal miners. This United States Supreme Court, this constitutional court, this protector of liberty, this protagonist of “the rightful privileges of individual citizens,” has decided in favor of the government and against the miners. The court has decided that the miners have no “rightful privileges” as “individual citizens,” or as an organization of workers, which the government is bound to respect, in disputes between that government and an organization of citizens who are workers.

The Supreme Court by a 7 to 2 vote sustained the contempt conviction of Lewis and the UMWA. By a 5 to 4 vote the court held that the Norris-LaGuardia Act does not apply to those situations in which the government is technically and legally the employer.

The court also commanded the UMWA to withdraw the notice of the termination of its contract with the government. Should the UMWA fail to do this the union will become liable to the $3,500,000 fine imposed by Judge Goldsborough and not the reduced fine of $700,000 set by the Supreme Court.

Variations of Opinion

Although the justices of the Supreme Court were able to come to agreement on the question of contempt and on the question of the applicability of the Norris-LaGuardia Act there were all sorts of variations of opinion between them as to their reasons for voting the way they did.

Five documents were necessary to outline the positions of the justices on the two questions; a total of 56,000 words. Jackson agreed with Vinson but said that the Norris-LaGuardia Act did not apply. Rutledge dissented in 44 pages. Black and Douglas partly dissented and partly agreed. Murphy dissented and Frankfurter concurred. Vinson said that the miners and the government had the relation of employer and employee. Frankfurter and Jackson voted with Vinson, not because the Norris-LaGuardia Act applied but because Lewis should have obeyed the order of Goldsborough, even though the act did not apply. The union should have waited for a “peaceful” settlement on appeal to the higher court.

According to Black and Douglas, the miners were government employees. Black held that since Congress did not expressly say that the act applied to the government, the court could not take the position that it did. Rutledge and Murphy took the position that the injunction was jurisdictionally invalid when issued and that therefore violation of the injunction could not be cause for contempt.

Vinson was very sharp in his criticism of Lewis and the UMWA. The strike of the miners was a violation “of the rights of other citizens.” The improvement in the condition of the miners and other citizens is due to their having the “rights of free men under our system of government ... the overriding loyalty of all is to our country.” The conduct of Lewis and the UMWA before Goldsborough “showed a total lack of respect for the judicial process.” Rutledge said that to construe the Norris-LaGuardia Act in the manner of the majority was. “to go beyond our function and intrude upon that of Congress.”. The Constitution did not contemplate “any case of admixture of civil and criminal proceedings in one.”

Murphy wrote in his dissent that “time and again strikes were broken,” before the Norris-LaGuardia Act by the issuance of temporary restraining orders. The “highly fluid character” of labor disputes and the delay in getting final court action in injunction cases, “often resulted in neutralizing the rights of employees to strike and picket.” The UMWA decision was “full of dangerous implications.” The government would have the power to seize property where a strike was threatened, get an injunction and then return the property to the private owners after the strike had been broken.

The “Judicial” Mind

We have dealt with the reasoning of the various members of the Supreme Court as an illustration of the “judicial process” and the judicial mind; particularly to show what the “judicial process” and the judicial mind are in cases where the capitalist courts are considering the rights of the working class. Here was a sordid display of what Lewis’ “constitutional court” really is. This fantastic orgy of legal and constitutional verbiage, this barrage of solemn sophistry and word-mongering is, according to his communication to the miners; a basis for the protection of “American liberties and the rightful privileges of individual citizens.”

How could Lewis or anyone else have expected anything different. Murphy was the only justice who even approached getting down to the nub of the situation. What else could the Supreme Court have done? Could this supreme representative of the capitalist ruling class render a decision, in a labor case, which meant that workers have the right to strike against the government of the capitalist exploiters? It is only the capitalist exploiters themselves who have the right to do this and under the protection of the courts.

Aircraft companies during the war can hold up production until their government guarantees them a higher profit. Copper companies can supply their government with defective cable. The duPonts can maintain agreements with German trusts during the war. The big capitalist corporations can do all these things and more. They can get away with it because it is their government at Washington: their President, their Congress and their Supreme Court.

What did the Supreme Court really say in this decision? It said two things. It said first that workers must not strike against the government. The court upheld by this decision the contention of the government that wherever the government puts up a sign bearing the legend, “U.S. Property,” it makes no difference if the property really does not belong to the government. Thus the court said that not only must workers not strike against the government where the government really owns, as in the case of a navy yard, but also in the case of the mines, which are really owned by the coal companies and are only being temporarily operated by the government.

The court said that wherever a U.S. marshal, an officer of the Army or Navy, tacks up a sign by order of the President, saying “U.S. Property,” no strike can take place legally at that place or in that industry. The Supreme Court said, in effect, that no distinction will be made on threat of strike, between a government navy yard, arsenal, or atomic bomb plant and the property of Mellon, Ford, duPont or Morgan, if the government is temporarily in possession bf that property. Despite the fact that the private owners still operate the plant, determine wages, working conditions and prices, continue to receive the profits, determine and pay dividends and interest – in such plants the workers, according to the court, are employees of the government. Even though government ownership is a fiction, the employees may not strike.

The Supreme Court also said that the decisions and rulings of a judge must be obeyed even though a higher court or some members of the higher court, may hold that the lower court had “no jurisdiction.” That is, Lewis and the UMWA should have obeyed the order of Goldsborough even though they believed, and a higher court may have decided later, that the Norris-LaGuardia Act did apply.

No Time to Lament

This decision of the Supreme Court only underscores again the futility of labor relying on the capitalist courts for protection and support. The government at Washington had only one aim in view: to establish its contention that “you cannot strike against the government.” The government sought through appeal to another section of itself, to strengthen its position as the defender of the interests of the capitalist ruling class. Is anyone so stupid as to believe that the only concern of the government was to keep the production of coal going? To believe this is to accept the hypocritical and reactionary sobbing of the capitalist press in its editorial writing about the hardships which would be inflicted on schools and hospitals if a strike took place in the mines.

The action of the government and the Supreme Court, in this case, again should make clear that labor cannot depend on the government in any respect. Neither on acts of Congress, orders of the President or decisions of the courts. Labor cannot put its faith in anti-injunction laws. The government will find a way to violate these anti-injunction acts, the courts will find a way to sustain the government and Congress will find a way to ignore any violation of its legislation by the President or by the courts. That is, where the rights of labor are concerned.

For labor to wail and lament over this decision is a waste of time. To berate the Supreme Court or the government for taking such a position “after the war is over,” is to misunderstand the war, the government, the capitalist ruling class and capitalist society. It is precisely because labor did not understand the Second Imperialist World War, the role of the government at Washington and capitalist society as a whole, that labor is confronted today with such a decision as this, with such an arrogantly hostile Congress and with an administration, that no matter how stupid, is solidly devoted to the straight-jacketing of labor. The President may be suffering from “delerium Trumens,” there may be those who are convinced that he is what Mencken called Calvin Coolidge, but at least he is aware that the capitalist ruling class must be protected from labor.

How to Fight

If labor cannot strike against the government at Washington then we need to put a government in Washington that we can strike against if such an act is necessary in order to defend our interests and the interests of the masses. Labor cannot go on forever accepting the decision of the capitalist government that we can only strike against “private employers” and then only under conditions set by the government of the private employers. This can only mean that we can only strike on conditions set by the capitalist employers, when they decide and only so long as they, are willing to let the stride go on. This is not the way we won the right to organize and to exercise the right of collective bargaining. We did not get our unions and the rights we have, as workers, through respect for capitalist “judicial process,” but by disrespect for capitalist judicial process. This is historical fact. What rights the working class has today were not gained through obeying the decisions of capitalist judges but by disobeying them when we felt such disobedience necessary in our own class interests.

This struggle, however, cannot be carried on in the manner proposed by Lewis, Murray, Green, Reuther and the other labor bureaucrats. They are as blatant in the defense of the “judicial process” as are Vinson, Truman and the two capitalist political parties. They are as fervently committed to “our system of free enterprise,” as are the Mellons, Fords, duPonts and Rockefellers. These labor leaders not only bend the knee before the capitalist government at Washington but they stand with drawn saber against any attempts of the working class to move even in the direction of a government of its own: A WORKERS’ GOVERNMENT. This is particularly applicable to Lewis.

There is no place at all in his thinking for labor politics and an independent political party of labor. At least Murray and Reuther talk about a labor party and reject the notion. Lewis never gets to the point of rejection because the idea seemingly never enters his head, or the heads of any of the top leaders of the UMWA.

This decision of the Supreme Court, the arrogance of the administration and the raucous anti-labor noises in Congress, have the labor bureaucracy backed against the wall. They have no weapons with which they can fight back. The weapons which they are accustomed to using are dull, rusty and useless today. The one powerful weapon which is indicated and which they could use, they are hesitant about. That is the numbers, the power and the might of the working class. They fear to summon labor to action because although they don’t know much, they at least are aware that such a struggle could not be confined to the union halls, resolution passing -and aggressive speeches in union conventions.

Such a struggle would have to take place in the streets: at the mine pits, the factory gates and in the fields. Masses would become involved, millions of workers and toilers. The militant politicalized workers would be there; explaining, teaching, guiding and leading. The workers and toilers would be inspired to bury the capitalist “judicial process” along with “our system of free enterprise.” The workers and toilers would sever all connection with the capitalist Republican and Democratic parties. They would form their own independent labor party. The masses at the factory gates, at the mine pits, around the mills and in the fields, might get the notion that the mines, mills, factories, railroads, the banks and the fields should belong to them and be operated by them. It might occur to them instead of “writing your congressman,” to march to Washington and surround the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court with the mighty army of labor. Even the thought of such an act by labor puts the labor bureaucrats info a cold sweat and creates panic in their ranks.

Despite their timidity and Stupidity, despite their subservience to capitalism and the capitalist ruling class, we recommend again this course of action to Green, Murray, Lewis and the others among the labor leadership. There is no other road for labor which leads to freedom and security. There is no other answer to the Supreme Court, to Truman and to Congress. There is no other working class substitute for the operations of the capitalist injunction and the capitalist “judicial process.”

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