From International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.2, Spring 1959, pp.47-52. [1*]
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The miners in World War II faced a powerful combination that included the owners, union bureaucrats, leaders of the Communist Party, the government. Yet they managed to win
THIS national strike of the soft-coal miners [May 1-4, 1943] was not only the largest coal strike this country had seen up to the time. It was the largest single strike of any kind the land had ever known. It was carried out with a dispatch, discipline and single-minded determination that had never been surpassed in the American labor movement.
The big business press did surpass itself in the volume of vituperation, slanders and threats hurled at the miners and Lewis. Lewis was linked with Hitler in newsreels, on the radio, in countless newspaper cartoons. Union leaders who could not reach up to the top of Lewis’s shoes joined the chorus of anti-labor forces who were screaming for nothing less than the destruction of the miners’ union under guise of aiding the war for “democracy.” UAW President R.J. Thomas said the miners’ walkout was “a political strike against the President.”
Roosevelt himself on May 1 ordered government “seizure” of the struck coal mines and their operation under Solid Fuels Administrator Harold L. Ickes. Ickes “seized” the mines by promptly ordering the American flag to be flown over all mine properties and directing all mine owners and managers to run the mines as government agents in the name of the government – all profits to continue as usual. Ickes then declared the miners were working “for the Government” and ordered them back to work.
The miners didn’t budge. They waited for the decision of the union. On Sunday night, May 2, Roosevelt was scheduled for a nationwide radio address to the miners. Just before the President’s broadcast, Lewis called a press conference and announced that starting Tuesday morning, May 4, another fifteen-day truce would be observed to give the government time to show whether it would make a just settlement with the miners. Right after the radio networks had flashed this news, Roosevelt, speaking in a savage tone, attacked Lewis and the miners, claiming that the strike involved “a gamble with the lives of American soldiers and sailors ...” This was a baseless accusation. At no time during that strike and the three subsequent ones was there less than a full month’s supply of coal aboveground, as the US Bureau of Mines records show.
This writer was an eyewitness to the response of the miners after Roosevelt’s diatribe, I toured the Western Pennsylvania mining area near Pittsburgh and wrote on May 3 for the May 8 Militant:
“The hope of the mine operators and every other boss in the country that President Roosevelt’s speech last night would send the coal miners scurrying back to the pits this morning in a demoralized rout has been completely smashed.
“Sticking by their guns in a magnificent display of union discipline and solidarity, and in the face of an unparalleled barrage of government threat and intimidation, the miners throughout this key soft coal area today held hundreds of local meetings and in an organized, deliberate fashion voted to return to work tomorrow pending the outcome of the 15-day mine truce announced by United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis.”
It must be noted that the Militant’s was the only significant press voice, in or out of the labor movement, that spoke unconditionally in defense of the mine strike.
The wartime miners’ strikes became the touchstone by which to judge the real loyalty of every union leader and working-class group toward the American workers. It revealed great masses of CIO workers in strong sympathy with the coal miners. But the whole top layer of the CIO bureaucracy opposed the miners in fear lest a UMW victory might force them to take more vigorous action against the wage freeze, in defense of their members, and thereby come in conflict with Roosevelt.
In Detroit on May 2, the day of Roosevelt’s radio call to the miners, a thousand delegates representing 350,000 members of the United Auto Workers in Michigan overrode their national officers and adopted by overwhelming vote a resolution to support not only the UMW’s demands but the miners’ strike. The UAW national leaders, including President Thomas and Vice-President Walter Reuther, introduced and backed a minority resolution opposing the strike. Thomas, Reuther and the Stalinist delegates spoke against Lewis and the strike. But the delegates would not be swayed. Only a half dozen or so, recognized Stalinists, openly voted against the majority resolution to back the coal strike.
An East Coast UAW conference of some 1,000 delegates, meeting in New York City on May 6, adopted a resolution which declared that “the fight against John L. Lewis is not the issue in this case” and that “it is evident that the miners’ fight, involving as it does the struggle against lowering the living standards, is actually the fight of every working man and woman in America ...”
An outpouring of similar resolutions from hundreds of local CIO unions in auto, rubber, steel, etc., and of thousands of individual messages of encouragement from CIO members revealed the true sentiments of the industrial workers toward the miners’ battle.
The government-employer “blitz” against the miners was designed to arouse a veritable lynch spirit against the UMW leaders, Lewis especially. Here is a sample from the May 10 Time magazine:
“In Orlando, Fla., an Army flying ace with 13 Jap planes to his credit, Col. Robert L. Scott, former aide to Major General Claire L. Chennault in China, boiled over in anger: ‘I know I could do one service – this service would be the destruction with six fifty-caliber machine guns on an American fighter plane of John L. Lewis ...’”
These bloodthirsty threats, purporting to represent the views of the men in the armed forces, were directed not only at Lewis. The press prominently featured such morsels as: “I’d just as soon shoot one of those strikers as Japs.”
Buried under this landslide of violent threats and abuse was the fact that the miners every year, in peacetime and war, suffered a higher rate of casualties in proportion to their number than the US armed forces during World War II. Every day, every hour, every second down in the pits the miners faced the cruelest forms of death and injury as a matter of course, as part of the routine of their livelihood. If Roosevelt had been so anxious about the effect of the mine strike on the war, if the war had been his overriding consideration, then he would have granted the miners their meager and just demands. The operators had already been granted a price increase more than covering any possible added cost of wage increases sought. The truth is that Roosevelt was using the war as a pretext for a campaign to crush both Lewis and the miners’ union.
This union-busting campaign whose success could have opened the way for a savage offensive against the whole labor movement and particularly the industrial unions received encouragement from those who should have been resisting the attack most fiercely – the top leaders of the CIO. During the week of May 15, the CIO Executive Board met in Cleveland and found no more important matters to take up than denunciation of Lewis and the mine strike. Ex-miner Philip Murray, CIO President, claimed the strike was nothing but part of Lewis’s “political vendetta” against “our Commander-in-Chief.”
IT WAS during the first of the series of wartime coal-mine strikes that the Communist (Stalinist) party revealed to what depths of treachery to the working class it could really sink in order to demonstrate to the US capitalists how useful the CP could be to them if American capitalism would make some kind of permanent deal with the Kremlin.
When the American Stalinists shifted from their brief Stalin-Hitler pact period of isolationist and pacifist opposition to the war, they swung all the way over to the extreme right of the labor movement. They opposed even the most elementary and feeble defense of labor and Negro rights as “aid to Hitler.”
They became so flagrant in their betrayal of the workers that not even the most conservative, hidebound, pro-war union leaders dared to go along with them – at least, not openly. An Extraordinary Conference of the top CIO leaders in Washington in March 1942 featured a clash between Murray and the Stalinists. The left-liberal New York daily PM reported on March 25, 1942:
“Murray and CIO left-wingers [Stalinists] clashed briefly for the first time since the Nazi-Soviet war began. The dispute arose over a speech by Harry Bridges, West Coast longshore leader, who charged, it is understood, that the CIO has not fashioned an adequate war program.
“Bridges is said to have deprecated agitation over current anti-labor legislation and labor’s economic status, demanding greater emphasis on production.”
Bridges had spelled out precisely what he meant by “an adequate war program” for the CIO in a speech he gave, shortly before the Washington conference, to the San Francisco CIO Council (subsequently published in Labor Herald, organ of the California CIO). Bridges said:
“If we place stress on hours and wages so that we interfere with the fighting we’re slackers and selling out our unions and our country ...
“The majority of the time of officers, of grievance committeemen, of the unions as a whole must go to winning the war. How? Production. I’d rather say speed-up, and I mean speed-up. The term production covers the boss, the government and so on. But speed-up covers the workers – the people who suffer from speed-up are the workers.
“To put it bluntly, I mean your unions today must become instruments of speed-up of the working people of America.”
At the time Bridges was declaring that “I mean speed-up,” the Stalinist-controlled leadership of the CIO United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers demanded that their members increase their individual production fifteen per cent. They made clear that “this increase shall be by the direct additional expenditure of energy and effort, over and above such increases as will be effected through improved methods or techniques instituted by our war production councils.”
The speed-up urged by the Communist party and its followers in the unions was attractively packaged in what the CP in early 1943 called the “wage incentive plan,” which it adopted as an official plank of its program. This was simply the old-fashioned sweat-shop piece-work system. The CIO Executive Board in February 1943 at a Washington meeting voted down a motion to advocate this “incentive wage” plan. The Michigan state convention of the Communist Party in March 1943 voted to send a letter to the FBI, demanding that it “discover and expose” the sponsors of leaflets, being distributed at war plants in the Detroit areas, which denounced the Stalinist “incentive pay” plan as a return to the notorious “Bedaux piece-work system.” Michigan CP state secretary Pat Toohey wrote that “the leaflet is actually an attack on the wage incentive plan issued by the War Labor Board ...” Before FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover even got this letter, UAW Ford Local 600 President Paul Ste. Marie issued a statement saying that he took responsibility for the leaflet and he again denounced the Stalinists for trying “to bring back the stretchout and speedup which the UAW has eliminated from most organized plants.”
Subsequently, in March 1943, the UAW International Executive Board unanimously rejected “incentive pay” and the UAW convention in October defeated it overwhelmingly.
The May 1-4 national soft-coal strike brought the anti-labor, strikebreaking activities of the Communist party to a peak of ferocity that the vilest capitalist enemies of the unions did not surpass. On April 29, the Daily Worker had carried a front-page appeal by CP National Chairman William Z. Foster, urging the miners not to respond to their union’s strike call. He claimed:
“If Mr. Lewis ... had given support to Roosevelt’s seven-point program for economic stabilization, the miners and other workers would not be finding themselves in their present difficult economic situation.”
This referred to nothing but Roosevelt’s wage-freezing program.
The May 1 Daily Worker editorialized that Lewis’s refusal to submit the miners’ demands to the War Labor Board on the grounds that their case had been prejudged was “false and demagogic.” On May 4, the Worker featured a headline: “Lewis Stirs Up Wave of Anti-Labor Legislation” – a reference to the anti-strike bills being rushed through Congress under the prodding of the administration and the Democrats. After the miners returned to work under a truce, the Worker gloated that the “Lewis line” of militant mass action in defense of the miners had been checked and demanded that it be “utterly defeated.”
This strikebreaking agitation was not confined to the columns of the Daily Worker. The Communist party sent organizers and speakers into the coal fields to try to mobilize such scab elements as might be found for a back-to-work movement. Among these Stalinist mine-field tourists was Louis Budenz, managing editor of the Daily Worker. His articles falsely attempted to portray widespread wavering among the miners.
On May 2, Foster himself invaded the chief coal state, Pennsylvania. He addressed a meeting at the Town Hall in Philadelphia where he urged the miners to return to the pits and submit to what Lewis had called the “headsman’s axe” of the War Labor Board. A Stalinist May Day meeting, held in the Yankee Stadium in New York City, was used to whip up hatred of Lewis and the striking miners. “The boos at the mention of Lewis’ name were as loud as any expression of displeasure that ever came from a Yankee Stadium audience,” approvingly reported the May 3 Daily Worker. The CP even bought radio time to spread its strikebreaking propaganda. Charles Spencer, CP secretary in the Wilkes Barre, Pa., anthracite area, spoke over a local station on May 2 to tell the miners “not to follow Lewis into a treasonable strike.”
ROOSEVELT’S threats, the lynch cries of the press, CIO President Murray’s stab-in-the-back attacks, the Stalinist strikebreaking attempts – all these did not make a dent on the miners. For the next six months they were to carry on a bitter, tenacious struggle, a succession of four national strikes conducted with such matchless solidarity and discipline that the massive assault upon them finally cracked up and broke to pieces.
No sooner had the miners returned to work after their first strike in early May than Ickes, the administration’s agent in charge of the “seizure,” announced that the miners would not negotiate with the ostensible new operator of the mines, the government, but with the regular owners. Then, they would have to submit any agreement to the War Labor Board.
Every effort was made, every maneuver contrived, to force the miners to acknowledge the authority of the War Labor Board and submit to its decrees. On May 17, the UMW policy committee announced an extension of the strike truce until midnight, May 31, at the special request of Ickes. The WLB that same day denounced Lewis for “defying the lawfully established procedures of the Government.” The operators simultaneously announced that the WLB had “forbidden” them to resume negotiations with the UMW.
As the date for the new strike deadline approached, there were plenty of indications that the miners’ sentiments of revolt were shared by wide sectors of American workers. In Detroit, some 30,000 Chrysler and Dodge auto workers struck for four days ending May 24 in protest against an eleven-month accumulation of grievances and demands. In Akron, Ohio, some 50,000 rubber workers struck for five days, May 25-29, when the WLB conceded only a three-cent increase after a year’s delay. These strike actions were smothered by the combined efforts of the WLB, Army and Navy officials, FBI, the raging press and radio and, above all, the top union leaders of the CIO, United Auto Workers and United Rubber Workers. Unlike the miners, the auto and rubber workers did not have the support of their own leadership and this contributed decisively to their defeat. Indeed, the UAW and URW leaders publicly attacked their striking members.
The successful strikebreaking by government and union officials in the auto, rubber and other strikes during the interim of the coal-mine truce further emboldened the operators to sit back and wait for the government to smash the miners and their union. On May 25, the WLB had denied the miners all their major demands, making only two minor concessions. After the WLB ruling, which was based on hearings attended only by the operators, a leading operator told the press: “I don’t see any point in sitting around the table any longer.”
The operators began to get the point when the truce deadline, May 31, passed. On the morning of June 1, some 530,000 miners refrained from entering the pits “without any special strike call being issued and with casual matter of factness,” as George Breitman, the Militant’s correspondent, wrote from the mining area around Pittsburgh.
Roosevelt thundered at the striking miners that they “are employees of the Government and have no right to strike.” Ickes telegraphed the union that Lewis “cannot escape responsibility for the cessation of work.” But Ickes conceded that “there are a few powerful operators who from the beginning had deliberately opposed any compromise which might lead to a reasonable settlement.” This was true – but not the whole truth. The Roosevelt administration and Democratic Congress had virtually commanded the operators to make no concessions.
What was decisive, however, was the attitude of the miners, their belief in their rights, their understanding of their organized power and their strategic position in the economy. George Breitman, in a May 26 dispatch from Uniontown, Pa., to the Militant, summarized the results of his numerous interviews with miners in the important UMW District 4:
“The question I asked was: ‘Do you think you will obtain a substantial portion of your demands?’ And always the answer was an unhesitating yes. When I asked why, their answer generally went like this.
“‘Because we’re the only ones who can mine coal and they’re not going to make us do it unless they give us enough wages to do it right and feed our families on at least the same standard we had before the war. You know you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink’.”
This was the adamant positions of the miners as Roosevelt, on June 3, threatened to call out the troops unless the miners returned to work by June 7 – and, as Saul Alinsky noted in his biography of Lewis, the President no longer referred to “my friends, the miners.” The miners merely shrugged and repeated their classic phrase: “You can’t dig coal with bayonets.” Roosevelt added a further threat – miners of draft age who did not respond to his “order” would be reclassified for military service. This made no impact either.
For the first time, some of the coal operators began to question the ability of the government to terrorize the miners into submission. They also were fearful of the principle of government “seizure” of their property, even though they were aware that in this instance it was a farce and strictly a strikebreaking device.
Lewis had proposed that the miners be paid $1.50 a day more as portal-to-portal travel pay and the operators began what appeared to be some serious consideration of this compromise proposal. At this point, the WLB ordered the negotiations to end until the miners went to work. The Board’s labor members, CIO included, voted for this order. Aware that the operators were beginning to weaken, the UMW again pulled a truce move. The union’s policy committee voted a return to work on June 7 – but only “up to and including June 20” unless a satisfactory agreement had been reached.
The closer the miners moved to wresting an acceptable settlement from the mine owners, the more desperately the government tried to beat the miners down. Congress pushed through the first federal anti-strike bill in the country’s history, the Smith-Connally War Labor Disputes Bill, whose major provisions had been proposed by Roosevelt as early as November 1941. This drastic anti-labor measure evoked such protest inside labor’s ranks that both William Green and Philip Murray felt impelled to plead for Roosevelt’s veto.
Green, in militant language rare for him, wrote the President:
“The workers of our country would never become reconciled to this legislation. They would protest against it and rebel against it in the event it would become the law. This legislation is fascist in character.”
If timid Green had known how promptly and effectively the workers would rebel against the Smith-Connally act by their strike actions, he might have spoken less inciting words. Murray wrote Roosevelt that the bill would “set aside the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.”
PRIOR to passage of the anti-strike bill, demonstratively pushed through as a threat to the miners, Lewis and the operators had come to a verbal agreement on $1.30 a day for travel pay in the mines. At this point, Ickes announced he was levying a $5 fine on every miner who had participated in the June 1 to 5 strike. This would have represented a collective fine of more than $2,500,000. So immediate and violent were the miners’ reactions that Ickes speedily backtracked. In the face of hundreds of meetings of mine locals that voted immediate strike action, Ickes lamely explained he was leaving the collection of fines up to the individual operators – who promptly said they preferred to let bygones be bygones.
The Smith-Connally bill, although not yet law, emboldened the WLB members. This bill would give the WLB power to subpoena union leaders and make it a felony for union leaders even to advocate a strike in any government “seized” plant or industry. On June 18, two days before the strike deadline, the WLB turned down the agreement on $1.30 portal-to-portal pay reached between the UMW and operators.
The Board’s report claimed that the miners were getting sixty-five per cent more average weekly take-home pay in March 1943 than in January 1941, due to the greater average number of hours per week worked in 1943. This contention was based entirely on data furnished by the operators. Besides, even if true, it still left the miners earning only $42.97 weekly including more than three hours of overtime. The WLB majority announced that the portal-to-portal issue must first be handled by the Wage and Hours Administrator and the courts. But even if these decided favorably for the miners the WLB reserved the final decision.
Despite the fact that the Illinois operators had agreed to $1.50 and the Pennsylvania operators to $1.30 portal-to-portal pay daily, the CIO and AFL members on the WLB voted to grant only eighty cents a day for mine travel time. AFL Teamsters President Daniel Tobin actually hailed the WLB majority’s denial of portal-to-portal pay. The Stalinists, as usual, went all the way in aiding the administration’s and WLB’s campaign against the miners. The June 20 Worker printed a portion of CP National Secretary Earl Browder’s speech before the National Committee of the Communist party, in which he said that Lewis headed the CP’s list of “the main enemies at home” and that “our main task is to isolate John L. Lewis in America and in the labor movement and to make him so unpopular that nobody will dare have their names associated with him.”
The WLB’s labor members, including the CIO’s Van Bittner and John Brophy, ex-UMW officials now on Murray’s payroll, issued a statement that the no-strike pledge
“... must be carried out today as it was the day we made it. And further, since this decision has been rendered by a majority vote of the WLB, it is our position that it becomes the decision of the WLB and in this instance the decision of the Government of the United States.”
Thus, the representatives of the CIO and AFL sought to reinforce the position of the Board against the miners. These bureaucrats, who never consulted their own ranks on any issues great or small, bowed to “majority rule” in the case of a hand-picked government board, each and every one of whose employer and “public” members had demonstrated public hostility to the miners and their union.
On June 19, the miners began to walk out. 58,000 of them beat the deadline. The next day all bituminous and anthracite miners in the country stayed away from the mines. This writer reported the strike for the Militant. I noted the difference between the frenzy in Washington and the newspaper headlines and the quiet, orderly conduct of the strike itself:
“PITTSBURGH, June 21 – Today has been like a peaceful Sunday in the scores of coal mining towns in this area. It has been hard to realize that in these quiet communities, set amidst sunny, rolling countryside marred only by the inevitable tipples and ugly slag heaps, one of the greatest and grimmest struggles in American labor history is in progress.
“There was no outward sign of conflict as the third nationwide wartime coal strike paralyzed the hundreds of mines in this vital Western Pennsylvania region. The mine workers just remained at home – to a man. There were no pickets. None were needed. Early this morning at a few key pits sleepy-eyed cameramen and reporters lounged around the collieries. They looked dejected and lonely waiting in vain for even one scab whose picture might be plastered over the front pages as a ‘back-to-work’ movement.
“Those whose ears have become accustomed to the daily noise and clatter around the mine works notice the silence. A big, burly miner with whom I was walking down the road in Library, Pa., site of one of the biggest mines of Mellon’s Pittsburgh Coal Co., stopped once and cocked his ear over to one side. A smile both sly and wistful crossed his face. ‘At last we can hear the birds sing.’
“All the tumult and shouting of this tremendous struggle are confined to the columns of the capitalist press, the halls of Congress, the corridors of federal buildings, and the hysterical strikebreaking Stalinist sheets and meetings. Here in the mining towns the calm and quiet are a sign of and a tribute to the unsurpassed solidarity and confident determination of every worker who goes down into the pits.”
Two days after the strike officially started Lewis once more announced a truce – this time until October 31 – and instructed the miners to return to work. A UMW Policy Committee statement said:
“This arrangement is predicated upon operation of the mines ... by the United States government and will automatically terminate if government control is vacated prior to the above-mentioned date.”
This announcement came just a few hours after the WLB had urged Roosevelt to employ “all powers of the government necessary” to put the Board’s decision on the miners’ case into effect. Roosevelt, in turn, issued a hysterical attack on the miners after they had already started to return to work following the latest UMW Policy Committee directions. He threatened to force the miners to work as military conscripts and stated he had initiated measures “to set up the machinery” to draft strikers into the armed forces and compel them to mine coal under military orders, subject to courts-martial for refusal.
Nothing could have been more calculated to infuriate the miners. It is estimated that forty per cent of the miners continued their strike for from four to six days after Lewis had asked them to return to work because of their indignation at Roosevelt’s threats and at the enactment into law of the Smith-Connally Act on June 25.
Roosevelt’s threats to force the miners to work under military regulations, as one UMW official in Pittsburgh told this writer (The Militant, July 3, 1943), was like “throwing gasoline on a hot fire.” This same report described a meeting of UMW Local 73, at Library, Pa., the day after the third truce was announced, and the bitterness of the workers at Roosevelt’s labor conscription law threat. One old mining veteran said:
“Going into a mine is no easy thing. Every time you go in, you never know if you’re coming out. If they want to pass such a law on us men, let ‘em pass it. We’ve worked in these mines and risked our lives and damned near at times had to eat grass and frozen apples to stay alive. But we’re still living and we’re still fighting.”
The bulk of the Western Pennsylvania miners voted not to return to work until June 28, six days after Roosevelt’s threat. It was a deliberate demonstration of defiance and contempt from men who had voted for Roosevelt in ’32 and ’36 and even in ‘40, after Lewis himself had broken with him.
On June 25, Roosevelt vetoed the Smith-Connally bill, but it was enacted over his veto within two hours by a Democratic Congress. Among other things, this bill made it a crime punishable by one year imprisonment and $5,000 fine to “coerce, instigate, induce, conspire with or encourage any person to interfere by lockout, strike, slowdown or other interruption with the operations of plants in possession of the government.” The bill authorized the “seizure” of plants for strikebreaking purposes, required prior notice and a thirty-day “cooling-off period” before all strikes and a provision for government-supervised strike votes.
BOTH Philip Murray and William Green, overlooking the fact of Roosevelt’s incitation and the role of his political colleagues in Congress, hastened to write messages of effusive thanks to Roosevelt for his veto and, as Murray put it, “to assure you that our organizations will maintain their no-strike pledge.”
So eager were these union leaders to represent Roosevelt’s action as a sign of his “pro-labor” attitude, that they overlooked the real point of his veto message – he had openly stated the bill wasn’t tough enough to suit him. He thought it had loopholes which still opened the way for strikes. In his veto message to Congress, he said he approved of seven of the bill’s nine points – including those that provided for government plant “seizures” to break strikes, a ban on strikes in “seized” industries, jail for strikers and strike “inducers,” fines on unions and impounding of union treasuries. “If the bill were limited to these seven measures,” said Roosevelt, “I would sign it.”
He objected only to the provisions that would permit strikes after a declaration of intention, a special vote and “cooling off.” These, he said, were ineffective anti-strike provisions or “irrelevant.” He also objected to the fact that his own special proposal – to place all workers between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five under the provisions of a labor draft law, a labor conscription act – was excluded from the Smith-Connally Act.
We can get some idea of the reaction to the Smith-Connally Act in the CIO ranks from the debate and decisions of the 1,800 delegates to the Michigan State CIO convention in Detroit a few days after the anti-strike law was passed. These delegates, representing 700,000 industrial unionists, adopted by a two-to-one majority a resolution “recommending to all of the affiliated unions and to the CIO that unless assurances that were made to labor are immediately and effectively put into operation, we consider our ‘no-strike’ pledge no longer binding ...”
This resolution was bitterly opposed by CIO National Organization Director Allan S. Haywood, representing Murray; John Brophy, head of the Industrial Union Councils Department of the CIO; UAW President R.J. Thomas; Michigan State CIO President August Scholle and all the Stalinist delegates. The Stalinists sought a reconsideration of the resolutions and on the fourth and final day of the convention they put on a demonstration of their personal affirmation of the no-strike pledge regardless of any convention decision. As individuals and groups they took the floor and repeated parrot-like the phrase that they would “follow Brother Philip Murray .in the no-strike pledge which he gave to our Commander-in-Chief.”
An additional response of the convention to the anti-strike law was the adoption of a resolution which, while still favoring support of Roosevelt, said this “can best be served by an independent labor party.” This resolution proposed a referendum vote by affiliated unions on whether or not they “favored setting up an independent labor party.” The vote for this resolution was 2,519 to 1,909, with the Stalinists again offering the bitterest opposition.
The convention also passed a resolution which declared that the Smith-Connally Act “made a mockery out of avowed claims that this is a war for democracy.” Stalinist floor leader Nat Ganley, business agent of UAW Local 155, asserted, “Regardless of what reactionary legislation is passed, this still remains a just, progressive war against fascism” and he asked how the convention could pass a resolution on the Smith-Connally Act “without praising our Commander-in-Chief who vetoed this bill.”
Emil Mazey, head of UAW Briggs Local 212, replied that “the only reason Roosevelt vetoed the bill was that it gave us the right to strike at the end of thirty days. Those who follow Roosevelt in Congress led in overriding the veto. The veto was only a smokescreen.” Even Victor Reuther, going along with the predominant sentiment, said: “It is not a war for democracy if we allow fascists to destroy our democratic rights at home.”
Most indicative of the sentiments of these delegates – representing workers in auto, steel, glass and many other CIO unions – was their overwhelming adoption of a resolution of unconditional support to the miners. In doing so, they brushed aside the attempts of the Stalinists to insert an attack on Lewis in the resolution. “You cannot pass on the miners’ question and ignore Lewis. You cannot win the war and strike as you damn please,” complained John Anderson, Stalinist President of UAW Local 155. To which one delegate replied amid applause: “If Lewis pulled the strike to protect the rank and file, hats off to Lewis.”
Following the Michigan CIO convention, the Murray-Hillman-Stalinist forces drew even closer together in their opposition to the militant ranks and in their enmity and fear of Lewis. A special meeting of the CIO National Executive Board was held in Washington, July 7 to 10. This meeting resolved to fight the Smith-Connally Act, which Murray had said set aside the Bill of Rights, by “a complete mobilization of the people in support of the war program of our Commander-in-Chief” and by reaffirmation of the no-strike pledge. When Emil Rieve and George Baldanzi, President and Vice-President respectively of the United Textile Workers Union, objected to an attack on Lewis and the miners in the no-strike resolution, they were subjected to fierce denunciation by the other board members. Murray raged particularly against the actions of the Michigan CIO convention and mysteriously hinted at “outside influence” at work.
The miners drew their strength from their own just cause, the solidity of their union and the support of millions of other union workers, like those in the Michigan CIO. They could ignore with equal calm the rantings of a Murray and the ultimatums of a Roosevelt.
The War Labor Board called on Roosevelt either to force Lewis to sign the WLB-dictated contract or to seize the UMW treasury as a punitive measure and cancel the checkoff of union dues. The Board, including its labor members, also demanded that Lewis be prosecuted under the Smith-Connally Act. A federal grand jury was convened on July 14 at the behest of the Western Pennsylvania operators and federal agents were sent into the mine fields by Attorney General Biddle to investigate charges under the anti-strike law. “Unauthorized” strikes, which followed the WLB threats, continued in some instances until July 5.
WHEN Roosevelt was asked on July 9 what he would do to force Lewis to sign the WLB’s contract, he finally conceded he could not force Lewis to do so. A day later, Edward R. Burke and R.L. Ireland, Jr., leading spokesmen for the operators, revealed they were at the point of capitulation when they said that Roosevelt’s statement proved “Mr. Lewis, through his defiance of the Government, had gained his point.”
During the four-month period of uneasy truce, the Roosevelt Administration and its WLB did all in their power to prevent and upset any and all agreements between the United Mine Workers and the operators that provided for pay increases in any form. In the middle of July, Lewis had announced that an agreement had been reached and a contract signed with the Illinois Coal Operators Association for $1.25 daily portal-to-portal travel pay, fifty cents of it retroactive to October 24, 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect. With other provisions, including extra hours, this would have raised the Illinois miners’ pay by $3 instead of the originally-demanded $2 a day.
With this contract in writing and signed by the Illinois operators, Lewis discontinued his boycott of the WLB. On August 3, Lewis appeared personally before the WLB hearing and defended the Illinois contract. On August 25, this “court stacked against labor” flatly rejected the Illinois pact and called the portal-to-portal agreement a “hidden wage increase.” The Board members were emboldened by Roosevelt’s August 16 executive order which provided drastic sanctions against striking unions and strikers – including the withholding of “any benefits, privileges and rights” – in industries “seized” by the government, like the coal mines.
Even the right-wing Social-Democratic New Leader, strongly pro-war and pro-Roosevelt, complained in its August 21 issue that Roosevelt’s sanction order was “the high wave of reaction.” It lamented: “The President appeared to serve notice that he has come to an open break with the New Deal.” (Later, on December 28, he himself was to declare that the “New Deal” was over.)
Once more the UMW officials and the Illinois operators went into a huddle. They finally agreed on a contract providing $2 a day more for a five-day week with overtime allowances, omitting the portal-to-portal issue. Fuel Coordinator Ickes took this occasion to announce ending of the mines “seizure” on October 13. The fiction of government operation was removed. Promptly, the miners began striking without any instructions from Lewis and the UMW policy committee. Some 22,000 Alabama and 3,500 Indiana miners were the first to defy the Smith-Connally Act and Roosevelt’s executive sanctions.
Lewis wired the strikers and asked their locals to meet and vote to go back pending a WLB ruling on the revised Illinois contract. The WLB threatened the miners with sanctions and the penalties of the law. The Indiana miners reluctantly returned; the Alabama miners refused.
“According to reports from the striking areas,” said the October 19 New York Times, “the miners were refusing to attend meetings lest they incur the penalties of the Connally-Smith Act and they had somehow set up some form of a ‘silent understanding’ with each other whereby they did not even need to speak, but would act as individuals as long as their wage grievances were not redressed.”
Lewis had hinted that the WLB might bring forth a favorable decision. But new groups of strikers – in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois – followed the lead of the Alabama workers. The WLB again “poured gasoline on the fire” when it rejected the second Illinois pact on October 26. By the time the official strike deadline, November 1, had arrived, all 530,000 coal miners were out, for their fourth official national wartime strike within one year.
Now Roosevelt was at the end of his rope. He could not arrest 530,000 miners. He could not force them to go down in the pits at bayonet point, and even if he could, they need not mine an ounce of coal. He could not jail Lewis and the UMW leaders, for the miners swore they would strike “until Hell freezes over” (this was a considerable extension of their jurisdiction) if Lewis were victimized in any way. The President re-”seized” the struck mines and authorized Ickes to negotiate a contract. The Ickes-approved contract gave the miners $1.50 a day more – $8.50 a day. Where the miners previously made $45.50 for a 42-hour week, they would now receive $56.74 for a 48-hour week. The WLB on November 20 finally agreed to a contract acceptable to the union and contractors. This fixed the mine wage at $57.07 a week and provided $40 payment to each miner for retroactive payment for travel time.
The UMW Policy Committee ratified the new contract on November 3 and instructed the miners to return to work. They had cracked the wage-freeze and broken through the barrier of the Little Steel Formula. Except for a reduction of fifteen minutes in their lunch time, the contract was virtually the same as the second agreement reached with the Illinois operators. Of the total increase, $1 to $1.25 a day was an actual increase in terms of the previous work-week. The rest of the increase was due to more hours of work.
AS THE final mine walkout was going into full swing on November 1, Philip Murray was calling the CIO convention to order in Philadelphia. Murray made an unrestrained attack on Lewis and intimated that the miners, the men who had first raised Murray to a position of influence in the labor movement, were nothing less than agents of Hitler and the Japanese Mikado. A round of tirades against the miners followed Murray’s slanderous attack, with the Stalinist elements thrusting themselves to the forefront of this onslaught. Frederick Myers, Vice-President of Curran’s Stalinist-controlled National Maritime Union, on November 2 called the struggle of the miners “the greatest treason against America.”
Murray had opened the CIO convention by his attack on the miners and by pushing through a resolution reaffirming the no-strike pledge “without qualification or condition.” But when word was received that the miners had won, that they had cracked the Little Steel Formula ceiling, then Murray and his lieutenants were in a dither. They knew Lewis’s prestige would rise high among the CIO workers. Quickly, Murray introduced a resolution to open a labor drive for higher wages, above the Little Steel Formula. He even had the impudence to call on the coal miners (whose magnificent struggle had already penetrated the Little Steel Formula ceiling) and the railroad workers (who at that moment were taking a nationwide strike poll) to join with him in the fight – non-strike, of course – for higher wages.
Although the United Mine Workers was no longer in the CIO and the CIO leadership had bitterly attacked the mine strikes, the wartime struggle and victory of the coal miners was of incalculable importance for American unionism, particularly the CIO. In a way, it may be said that the CIO had two “Gettysburgs,” the Flint General Motors sitdown of 1936-7 and the 1943 coal-mine strikes, although during the latter the CIO leaders were sniping from the enemy lines.
Until the miners fought back in 1943, the war brought with it one measure of repression after another, and ever-increasing assaults on the living standards and liberties of the workers. The ruling class looked on the war as their supreme opportunity to destroy union contractual conditions and even unionism itself.
We have only to ask ourselves, “What if the miners had not waged their fight?” or “What if they had lost?” to realize the enormous stake the whole American labor movement had in the outcome of the miners’ battles. If the miners had not fought and won, if they had been defeated, it would have meant not only the crippling and possibly the crushing of one of the most powerful industrial unions, the UMW, but a demoralizing blow of shattering proportions for the auto, rubber, steel, electrical equipment, textile, glass and other CIO workers. In the wake of a miners’ defeat, the corporate interests and their government agents would have fallen like a ravenous wolf-pack on the most vulnerable unions. The government would have introduced new “formulas” to slash wages, increase hours of work and intensify the exploitation of labor in the name of patriotism and the “needs of the war.” The defeat of the miners would have become another and more convincing pretext for the union leaders, like Murray and Hillman, to give away the workers’ rights and conditions and to restrain every impulse of the CIO workers to fight back.
Instead, the miners’ victory opened a whole new wave of labor struggle, mounting steadily through 1943, 1944 and 1945 and reaching a titanic climax in the winter of 1945-46. The employers’ postwar plan to turn the war veterans against the workers and smash the unions was never able to get going. The miners themselves were able to go on from victory to victory in the war and immediate postwar period, winning many new gains, such as health and welfare funds, retirement pensions and other conditions, which then became objectives of the CIO unions as well.
Above all, the miners demonstrated as never before the fact that nothing can produce coal – or any other form of wealth – but the labor of workers. When the miners said “you can’t dig coal with bayonets,” they were saying that organized labor, united and determined to defend itself and its rights, is invincible. That is why, in hailing the miners’ victory, the Militant of November 13, 1943, said:
“The miners’ strikes of 1943, taking place in the midst of the Second World War, will forever remain a landmark in the history of the American class struggle.”
1*. This is a chapter from Labor’s Giant Step, a history of the CIO, which Art Preis, for many years labor editor of the Militant, is now completing.
Last updated: 21.12.2005