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Hugo Oehler

Miners’ Revolt Checked at Muste Convention

(May 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 9, 1 May 1931, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The revolt against the Fishwick-Lewis sell-out agreement brought ninety-nine delegates, representing miners in all parts of the country, to the St. Louis convention, April 15. The sentiment of the miners in mass meetings preceding this gathering was for a house-cleaning from top to bottom and for the building of a new union. But these hopes did not materialize.

The hitter attacks upon the rank and file by the reactionary U.M.W. officials, lack of finances, and lack of actual preparatory organization resulted in only one-sixth of the Illinois miners being represented. Those present however were there on behalf of the most live section, a total of sixty-one delegates representing thirty-three locals. Ohio was represented by eight delegates, Kansas by twenty delegates, Indiana by two delegates, and West Virginia by eight.

From the first day of the convention the Muste-Howat type of “progressive” proved to be in the majority and had the control. But before adjournment the bankruptcy of their policy for a solution to the miners’ present problem stood out clearly. Further to the Right of this combination were elements unorganized but exercising a certain weight on the policies of the social reformers. To the Left was a minority of honest rank and file delegates who wanted a new union but were pulled into the orbit of the bankrupt Muste policy through the weight of the organized majority faction. The National Miners’ Union, directed by the Stalinist party bureaucrats, had issued leaflets in the field urging the miners to stay away from the convention. Nevertheless, it was represented there by Joe Tash. A minority of delegates supporting the policy of the Left Communist Opposition carried the main burden of the fight for a new union.

Alexander Howat made the opening political speech which gave a good deal of evidence on the sell-out agreement but failed to give any indication as to what should be done. In his conclusion he praised the “revolt of the masses in South America who had kicked out their kings and rulers and the Spanish workers who are kicking out their king.” In the past, when Howat was still a rebel, he would always remember to point to the workers’ achievements in the Russian Revolution; now he failed to mention that. Apparently he does not know that the revolts he mentioned are purely bourgeois revolts. Muste, Daeck, Tippet and Hapgood also proved by their speeches and actions their inability to present a program although Muste and Hapgood by far were the most active in giving lip service to a new union. In this situation their position as a whole became a thoroughly reactionary one.

The most important point on the agenda around which everything else revolved was the question of forming a new union. Every time delegates supporting the Left Communist Opposition raised this issue the Muste followers denounced such talk. One delegate said: “When we had the ‘reorganized’ union we had the officials and the operators on our side. Now we don’t have them and cannot organize a union.” He seemed blissfully ignorant of the fact that a union which really represents the interests of the workers can be organized only in opposition to the officials and the operators. Another delegate, remembering the glorious traditions and great sacrifices of the United Mine Workers, wanted a return to these conditions of years ago but did not want a new union right now. Still another delegate said: “We can’t go back to Lewis, we won’t pay dues to him, but we can’t organize a new union.” The bankruptcy of the upper strata of the Muste leadership was thoroughly proved by actually proposing exactly the same thing, although using plenty of radical sounding phrases and giving plenty of lip service to deceive the workers into a belief that their course was a different one.

There were in reality only two roads open to the convention. One to go back to the Lewis union, a road which the convention repudiated by rejecting the Lewis-Fishwick compromise and by a call to stop dues payments to both factions. The other, the building of a new miners’ union, was also rejected. Hence this convention was left rudderless and the course finally accepted, entirely a negative one, can at best only spell demoralization for the miners. It is true that a new union formed at this moment would have resulted in the most extreme Right wing delegates leaving the convention. But that would just have been a blessing as there are miners all over the country who would replace this deserting element tenfold. It must also be remembered that the convention had delegates from new local unions organized which could have no cause whatever to become a part of the remnants of the Lewis-controlled U.M. of A.

To gauge the level of the convention, a resolution was introduced by Gerry Allard for the release of class war prisoners which struck a unanimous chord. But a resolution, introduced by Joe Angelo, for the defense of the Soviet Union and the granting of long term credits to help build industry in the Workers’ Republic resulted in only seventeen votes in favor. Somehow Hapgood happened to both speak and vote for this resolution Joe Tash, who was present on behalf of the National Miners’ Union, but not a delegate, obtained the floor partly due to the fairness of chairman Haynes and by motion made by delegates supporting the Left Communist Opposition. He said that the N.M.U. had not sent delegates knowing this convention would not take proper action. A few minutes later he added that he wanted the floor in order to speak to the honest rank and file delegates present. If a Communist knows that a convention will not take proper action but that there are nevertheless honest rank and file delegates present then it becomes so much more a Communist duty to endeavor to send delegates who will know how to act in order to defeat the bankrupt reformers and their wrong policies as well as to win the workers to the Communist ranks. The solution presented by Tash was a propoal that the convention adopt the program of the N.M.U., elect a rank and file committee and form a united front with the N.M.U. This was a complete right-about turn from the former position of boycotting the convention and came very near to the correct policy previously advanced by the Left Communist Opposition and published in the April first issue of the Militant.

We might add, if this convention was worthy of being asked to form a united front with the N.M.U. it should not have been boycotted. That merely gives the reformers and fakers full control. This policy of the Stalinist bureaucrats played into the hands of those elements. The failure of the Muste-Howat wing played into the hands of the Lewis-Fishwick operators united front.

As the convention proceeded further, showing its inability for decisive action toward the formation of a new union, the question finally was referred to a Policy Committee elected by the convention to report back. This Policy Committee narrowed down the forces and gave the Muste-Howat element full control. Its report to the convention brought forth the following proposals : First, to reject the Lewis-Fishwick compromise. This was accepted unanimously. Secondly, to refuse payment of [the per] capita tax to any branch of the U.M.W. of A., and to demand that the charters of “dead locals” be withdrawn in order to eliminate them. This proposal was carried although the latter part is meaningless because to refuse to pay a per capita tax to the U.M.W. of A. means to be out of it. The third and most vital point was the following: “That the delegates and representatives in the convention create a permanent policy committee of two from each district; these committees to be selected by the representatives of each respective district, which shall function as a national Policy Committee and that each local union select local committees whose duties will be to keep the district committee informed concerning developments from time to time.” After three days of convention and all that occurred before it, the Muste-Howat reformists could offer only this, which meant offering nothing, an acknowledgment of bankruptcy.

Gerry Allard immediately introduced a motion for the formation of a new union and to set up the apparatus for it now. Other delegates supporting the Left Opposition views spoke in detail for the correctness of his motion and for the defeat of the committee’s report. One delegate Dan Winnigan of Indiana, and apparently the only general supporter of the party among the delegates, also supported this motion.

Some of the so-called progressives, however, realized that the proposal of the Policy Committee needed a bit of sugar coating. This was accomplished in a substitute introduced by Hapgood and accepted by the Policy Committee reading as follows: “The purpose of the Policy Committee shall be to continue the agitation in order to keep the workers alive to their own interests so that we will be in a position to build a new national union at the proper time and to help in the organization of the new union in the outlying districts such as West Virginia and Ohio.” Hapgood’s substitute motion was adopted by 81 votes in favor and seven against, thus defeating the motion of Allard for the formation of a new union. Finally, it was completely proved that the Muste-Howat reformists were unanimous against a new union at this allegedly “inopportune” time.

What is the sum and substance of the results of this convention? They are negative. It decided to reject the Lewis-Fishwick sell-out agreement, it decided to refuse to pay the per capita tax to these fakers. By this time, the latter in combination with the operators have just as much “evidence” against the rank and file workers as if they had built a new union. They will use that wherever possible to blacklist and to expel, and to employ other means of suppression in an endeavor to smash the rank and file movement. The failure of the convention means the failure to build a real instrument for both the defensive and offensive of the coal miners. None of the problems was solved. The policy of the Muste-Howat outfit played into the hands of the enemy. The boycott policy pursued by the National Miners’ Union elements under direction of the party bureaucrats despite its turn, which came too late, is largely responsible for making this possible. It helped to secure the control for the Muste-Howat group which could otherwise easily have been dislodged.

The Left Communist Opposition warned in advance against the bankruptcy of these Muste “progressives”. The delegation supporting our views emphasized this before the delegates and proposed the correct course. The problems of the miners remain thus far unsolved and the course proposed by the Left Opposition remains as correct now as it was then. New miners’ revolts will take place and our forces will continue to fight for a correct course.

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Last updated: 27.12.2012