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First Anti-Strike Law Victim
Appeals to Labor from Prison

(8 June 1945)

From The Militant, Vol. IX No. 24, 16 June 1945, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

UNIONTOWN, Pa., June 8 – I am writing this in white-hot anger. Just a half hour ago I talked with a courageous, loyal and sincere union man, William Patterson, coal miner from Daisytown. He was locked behind the grey walls and thick black iron bars of the Fayette County prison here. He is American labor’s first imprisoned victim of the vicious Smith-Connally anti-strike act.

I hope I can transmit my feeling of protest and outrage to every worker in this country. Because after talking to him this morning inside his grim prison, I am more convinced than ever that not Bill Patterson but those who framed him up and conspired against him are the ones who should be behind bars.

“This is not a case just of personal persecution,” was the first thing he said to me in his quiet, firm voice with a trace of southern accent.

“This case involves all labor. It affects every laboring man who ever comes under the conditions of the Smith-Connally act. It would take his civil rights away, his freedom of speech and make him an industrial slave.”

Threat to Others

His very next thoughts were not about himself, but the 29 other union miners who have had a suspended sentence hanging over their heads since the 1943 national mine strikes when 30 miners from this area were tried under the federal anti-strike law. They were persuaded to plead no contest of the charges and convicted under the most vicious anti-labor law of modern times.

“The labor movement should contest the constitutionality of this bill. What I’m afraid of is the threat against the others who were involved in the 1943 trial. They treated me pretty salty when they said I violated my probation when my local went on strike last February and May. But what I’m worried about is the other poor devils. My case sets a precedent which may leave them in a hell of a shape.”

He then told me a few facts about his case.

“There were 27 of us called before a judge on August 27, 1943. There were 30 supposed to come up, but three had been hurt in the mine, and were not tried until later. We never did have any jury trial. We had been indicted by a grand jury that we never even saw. All the testimony came from other people. But we were advised by our lawyers to plead nolo contendere – no contest – and threw ourselves on the mercy of the court.”

He continued with the circumstances of his imprisonment after a hearing on June 1 for alleged violation of his probation.

“They had 11 strikes chalked up against me when I appeared at the hearing. There were a bunch of men from the mine (Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp’s Vesta No. 4, Richeyville, Pa.) to testify that I wasn’t responsible for the strikes, but the judge wouldn’t let them testify. I told the judge that every man was essential to the other in the mine, and I couldn’t work when a strike was on, even if I wanted to. But I guess they wanted a test case and I was a victim of circumstances, so I’m it.”

I knew every word he spoke was the truth. I had confirmed it in advance from the officers of UMW Local 2399 at Richeyville where I had attended the union meeting on June 3, the day after Bill was sent to prison. He had been snatched without warning from his wife and two children and shot off to jail after a speedy hearing on June 1.

As he spoke, I peered closely through the heavy steel screen and poor light at the man I had come hundreds of miles to interview so that he might have the chance for the first time to tell in his own words the story that the big-business press and anti-labor government officials have tried to misrepresent and bury.

He stood within a foot or so of me, with just the screen separating our faces, close so that we could see and hear each other. Against the dim background of the four-story barn-like prison interior, with its lines of cells in tiers along the sides, I saw a tall, slim, dark-haired man dressed in a green jacket and tan work trousers. His features were handsome even strong, and he looked much younger than his 39 years. His face revealed intelligence and firm character and his flashing black eyes looked straight into mine as he spoke quietly, but with deep conviction and feeling.

Rapid Interview

We had to talk fast, because the prison regulations permitted him only 15 minutes with a visitor, although the local prison officials stretched it. a bit to permit me to finish the interview. I shot a list of prepared questions at him. He answered every question without hesitation

During the entire interview there was not a trace of self- pity in anything he said. He was clearly a fighter and a man who understands that he went to prison for a principle in the cause of labor.

“I don’t regret a thing I did for the union,” he stated firmly. “I’m a victim of persecution, but I’d conduct the same fight all over again. And when I get out, I’m going to keep up the fight.”

At this point, his voice bad the only slight tremor in it during the entire conversation. He was obviously swept with deep emotion when he said: “I was always honest and sincere about everything I did for the union. And I’m going to continue to be so.”

From what his union brothers had told me about him, the respect they held for him, I knew he meant it from the bottom of his heart.

Patterson’s Life

Then he told me a few facts about his life.

“I’ve worked 22 years in the mines, since I was 17 years old. I’ve worked 17 years in that one mine at Richeyville. When I first started in the mines, back in 1923, I joined the union, and I’ve stuck with the union ever since.”

With justifiable pride in his fighting union record, he said:

“I’ve been in every strike in the mines since 1923. The longest I was ever out was in 1940 – six weeks. I’ve been through some pretty tough times and had plenty of close shaves in the mines, but I was lucky to get off with only slight injuries.”

He spoke about his wife, Ruby, who comes from a West Virginia miner’s family.

“I was never put out on the roadside myself, but my wife’s family was put out of their house in the 1922 strike and they lived in a tent on the mountain-side for seven months.”

His father was in the mines before him, Bill explained. He was born in Virginia, of old American stock.

“My ancestors came to this country long before the American Revolution. Why, they fought in the American Revolution. And no one can ever accuse me of any un-American activities.”

For all his courageous attitude, I could see that being in a prison was a terrible ordeal for him, a humiliating experience for a man of his self-respect, who had worked hard all his life.

Never Arrested

I started to ask, “Have you ever before been – “ He broke in, his lips smiling. “I know what you want to ask, have I ever been in jail before? No – never! I’ve never been arrested.” I could feel his deep hurt at the unjust blot which the enemies of labor have tried to put on his record.

Some people might say, well it’s only for six months. But that’s six months stolen from a man’s life, a man who values freedom and has fought for it all his life. I was in that prison only half an hour, and I confess I couldn’t wait to get out. I promised not to ask any questions. about the conditions there. But I could see it was no better nor worse than most county prisons. The prison attendant informed me that the Fayette County institution is over 50 years old. Outside, it is built like an imitation Gothic church. Inside, it is dim, bare, cold – a forbidding place of grey stone and iron. It’s a place where you do “hard time.”

But there was no complaint from Bill. The only time a note of bitterness entered his voice was when he spoke of the UMW district officials, who let him “take the rap” and have been maintaining a “hand’s off” policy. “It seems that the UMW officials are afraid to stick their necks out. The district officials (Dist. 5, UMW) have made damn fools out of themselves and possibly a martyr out of me.” He spoke not out of concern for himself, but out of pride for the union which he felt the top officials were hurting by their attitude in his case, which grew out of an anti-labor law that was directed in the first instance against the UMW itself.

Just before the time was up, he asked me to give a message to his union brothers of Local 2399 who have voted to back him 100 per cent and have established a fund to keep his family as long as he is in prison with the same amount of money they would have received if he had been working.

“Tell all the men to keep up the good fight. And tell them how much I appreciate their support and the help they are giving my family, who are being made to suffer for something they had no part in. Let the boys keep on pitching, and I will sure as hell run a few bases when I serve this time.”

That’s the spirit that has built the American labor movement, so a working man can lift up his head. That’s the spirit that the Smith-Connally law was intended to crush. For as Bill Patterson emphasized, it’s not just a “personal case.”

There will be many more Bill Pattersons, if the whole labor movement is not aroused to protest, if it fails to fight to free the honest union man, Bill Patterson, and to deal with the real criminals the profiteering crooks, labor exploiters and their political henchmen who conspired to make him an “example” and threw him behind prison bars.

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