Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

David Coolidge

All Labor Must Protest the Centralia Disaster

Must More Miners Die?

(7 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 14, 7 April 1947, pp. 1 & 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

As this is being written, hundreds of thousands of members of the United Mine Workers of America are preparing to stop digging coal for one week in protest against the slaughter of 111 human beings in a mine belonging to the Centralia Coal Co. at Centralia, Ill. These 111 human beings, all coal miners, were entombed 540 feet below the surface on Tuesday, March 26, following an explosion. They were digging out coal, as the capitalist press hypocritically puts it when a strike is threatened, to keep little children warm in school buildings and the sick in the hospitals from freezing.

There were 131 men in the mine and 111 are dead. That means that 20 were “saved” to go back again and be slaughtered in the next explosion. As is usual in these mine explosions, the mouth of the pit was surrounded by women and children, the families of the entombed miners, hoping that their kin would be brought out alive, or at least brought out whole if they were dead.

The rescue teams were there, the mine inspectors, and mine officials. The police were there of course “to keep the crowds back.” Floodlights played on the scene and the ambulances were lined up for a quarter of a mile. The state, the mine owners and “the public” were ready to do everything possible for these DEAD MINERS. They must have “Christian burial.”

Of course there will be “an investigation.” There have been a thousand of these investigations. But every miner knows that there is no need for an investigation to determine why this disaster occurred. They know why these 111 human beings are dead. They know why thousands of miners have died in the past in mine explosions. They know that these explosions are not “acts of God,” like hurricanes, cyclones and death from lightning. The federal and state governments know this too. The coal operators know it. They all know the reason and they know that no investigation is necessary. They know, and the miners, know, that nothing much will come from this investigation.

The federal government, the state governments, the coal operators and the miners know that these “accidents” can be reduced to minimum. They can be reduced to minimum if the coal companies will take some of their profits and install safety devices: if the state mine regulations are enforced, if federal mine safety recommendations are followed, if mine inspectors cease to be political appointees and if bribery of mine inspectors is eliminated.

The closing of the mines from March 31 to April 6 means that no miners will be slaughtered during that week. There will be no additions to the 100,000 miners killed in the past one hundred years or to the 58,000 killed and disabled during 1946. State mine inspectors in Illinois and other states can go about the political tasks assigned them by their masters during this week with a clear conscience. They will not be responsible for the “safety” of hundreds of thousands of coal diggers.

Let Other Workers Demonstrate Solidarity

Fire bosses at the mines will not be faced with the demand of the coal companies that they change their reports to make them conform to the requirements of coal company policy and profits. The Wall Street bankers who own or control the coal properties can take themselves to their Christian churches on Easter Sunday and join in the chant about “the risen Christ.” They will rejoice that they are not as other men “who pile up treasure where moth and rust corrupt.” Their serenity will not be disturbed because they will have no reports on Easter Sunday that a hundred or more human beings have been slaughtered in their mines, 540 feet underground.

The Workers Party joins the miners in mourning their dead. We believe, however, that it is not enough that the miners be left to mourn these 111 alone. THIS IS A DEMONSTRATION AND PROTEST FOR EVERY UNION AND EVERY WORKER TO JOIN. It is particularly now that the miners need the support of the whole working class and of every union, AFL or CIO. It is the miners especially who have felt the axe of the capitalist ruling class and its government at Washington. IT WOULD, FOR EXAMPLE, BE A MAGNIFICENT DEMONSTRATION OF SOLIDARITY IF STEEL WORKERS AND OTHER WORKERS QUIT WORK FOR A DAY DURING THE SIX-DAY MOURNING PERIOD.

We want to say, however, that we are especially interested in that part of the statement of the officials of the UMWA which reads: “This killing must stop. This debauched administration of mine safety must stop. It must be stopped now.” We do not believe that it can be stopped, however, by calling on “the American people.” We do not believe that the meditation or the prayers of the coal operators will improve the situation. They only meditate on how to evade the mine safety regulations and only pray for more profits. Furthermore, we do not believe that much will be gained by the miners and other working people joining in the “Holy Week” “spiritual exercises” of the coal operators, steel manufacturers, automobile manufacturers and bankers. Workers have been doing this for many decades and all we have gained is death, hunger and misery.

We do not believe that “this period of mourning ... will realistically bring home to our callous government officials and the American people the necessity of such protection in the future.” “Our” government officials are not “callous” men, but only officials of a capitalist government working in the interest of capitalist coal operators and their Wall Street creditors. These government officials will be in their pews on Easter Sunday beside the coal operators, the bankers and the other masters of “our system of free enterprise.” Let them be there; that is where they belong.

What we say is that the miners and other working people have no business there. On Easter Sunday let the working people assemble in their union halls to mourn the 111 Centralia dead and to make real plans to stop this killing and to stop it now.

Make Coal Companies Pay for the Week Off

What the capitalist ruling class thinks of the protest stoppage of the miners was voiced by somebody named Battle, speaking for the bituminous coal operators. This Battle called the order for the stoppage an exhibition of Lewis’ “tyrannical and absolute power over the coal miners and the nation’s fuel supply.” The one week’s work stoppage “will not bring any of these dead back to life and will not bring any aid or comfort to their bereaved families or dependents.” Battle of course has nothing to say about what will stop the slaughter or what will bring aid and comfort to the families of the dead miners.

This Battle is also worried over the miners losing a week’s pay and the country losing millions of tons of coal. We can’t make any recommendations about the loss of the coal but we can about the week’s loss of pay. LET THE COAL COMPANIES PAY THE MINERS FOR THE WEEK THEY ARE OFF. This would solve the problem which worries Battle and at the same time be a beautiful Easter remembrance to the miners. We would suggest that all ministers and priests include such a recommendation in their Easter sermons.

Battle is certain that the work stoppage is illegal and “contemptuous of government authority.” “It is a flagrant breach of the contract,” yammers Battle. We will ask Battle, the coal operators and the government: would the miners remaining at work “bring any of these dead back to life?” About the legality and the contract, we are not competent to judge. Perhaps the miners have thought over these aspects of the situation. Perhaps they have been meditating over the history of labor in the U.S. They may have discovered the fact that there has been a lot of “illegality” and a lot of breaching of contracts. And not always on the part of labor. One justice of the Supreme Court said that the Goldsborough injunction against the UMWA was illegal. The miners may have discovered that the mines are operated in violation of the “law.” We are taught that it is “illegal” to violate the law. Mine inspectors taking bribes from coal companies is also said to be “illegal.”

Government Is Not Miners’ Government

What can the miners or other workers do in the midst of all this illegality? Just go on being slaughtered, maimed, underpaid and exploited? Or would it be better to “breach” a few contracts, and be a little “contemptuous of government authority”?

Whose government is the government at Washington? Surely not the miners’ or those 111 human beings out in Centralia, Ill., would still be alive. If the government at Washington, Republican or Democratic, were a government of the workers, of labor, all mines would have the most modern safety devices. All mines would be properly inspected. The law would be enforced. But the present owners of the mines “breach” the contract. They are “contemptuous of government authority.” They can well be because the government at Washington is THEIR government. They can do with it as they please.

If the miners and all of us of the working class had OUR OWN GOVERNMENT AT WASHINGTON, then we could have some confidence in that government. Then we would not be “contemptuous of government authority.”

With the present capitalist government, however, and with the present “system of free enterprise” we will have to go right on being slaughtered, maimed, fined, jailed, exploited and starved. Every mine in the country will remain a house of death and a sepulchre. The miners will continue daily to go from their cabins in the mud to be blown to bits and entombed in the mines. Hundreds of thousands of dead and injured miners; millions of profits for the coal companies and the Wall Street bankers.

The miners will have to choose. All workers will have to choose: The present government at Washington, with exploitation, misery and death; OR A GOVERNMENT OF LABOR, WITH LIFE, FREEDOM AND HAPPINESS.

Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 5 January 2022