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Arne Swabeck

The Illinois Miners Convention

(April 1929)

From The Militant, Vol. II No. 8, 15 April 1929, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Once again the corrupt officials in control of the United Mine Workers of America, Illinois District, have succeeded, through a packed convention, to squelch the opposition and further secure their domination of affairs for the next immediate period. While this union, due to the terrific attacks by the coal operators and treasonable conduct of its policies, has been cracked wide open and in many districts completely destroyed, in Illinois it still remains in firm control of all jobs functioning on a semi-company union, basis.

The Weak Opposition

This convention (still in session at the time of this writing) showed the same manifestations as those of previous years. Despite the many expulsions of left wingers which have taken place and the outright packing with delegates representing nobody, there was considerable opposition to the bureaucrats, but it was entirely unorganized and even without a unified policy. So far its main fire has been directed against the corrupt practices of representation of blue sky locals, the election steals by the Fishwick machine last November, the union investment of $150,000 in a West Virginia “open shop” mine and the falsification of last year’s referendum vote on the wage cut agreement. On all of these issues the machine steam roller carried the day increasing its majority as it went along.

The Illinois agreement, signed by the officials last summer, is to remain in force until 1932. It contained a twenty per cent wage cut, practically abolished the tonnage basis on machine mining, and established what amounts to an arbitration commission to which the operators can appeal for further reduced day rates.

By a majority of 3 to 1 the rank and file defeated this agreement in referendum vote, but nevertheless it was declared carried. The result has been a further rapid mechanization of mining with a terrific speed-up system, a general reduction of the standard of living and increased unemployment. Although there are 12,000 less miners, production in 1928 increased by 340,000 tons over the previous year but with the average number of days worked by the miners reduced from 172 to 114.

The Status of the Left Wing

In return for this agreement the operators consented to retain the check-off system, the main instrument through which the control of employment is exercized. Thus the United Mine Workers and the Fishwick machine of officialdom, with all its filthy corruption, holds full sway in the Illinois coal fields. The National Miners Union, which today represents the left wing forces, has not yet been able to break or make an appreciable dent in this strangle hold. Nor has it by far shown sufficient energy in undertaking this task, despite the fact that conditions for growing revolt of the rank and file against the intolerable situation are not lessening but rather increasing,

While the whole leading and active stratum of the left wing has been expelled from the old union, new opposition has developed with great possibilities of growth, but it is as yet entirely unorganized and without a positive program.

Wherever isolated activities have been carried on for the organization of the National Miners Union the response by the rank and file has not been lacking, as evidenced by the recent activities in the South, in Franklin and Saline Counties. Naturally the function of locals organized is primarily the one of progressive groups within the old union fighting for the program of the new. It cannot be otherwise so long as the job control of the U.M.W. of A. has not been broken.

The Task at Present

Moreover it becomes necessary for the left wing coal miners, in view of the existing conditions – the absolute job control exercized by the Fishwick machine – to devise the most practical form of carrying on this parallel work of organizing the National Miners Union and simultaneously utilizing all these forces in an organized manner and with a unified policy to again take up and intensify the fight for the militant program within the old union. There is no other solution to the problem of replacing the old semi-company union filled with corruption to the point of saturation.

This will require that these locals of the new union, while compelled to a degree to hide their identity to avoid expulsion, must immediately take the leadership in the struggle to redress all the grievances of the miners growing out of the present conditions. These grievances are numerous. The pressure upon these workers is becoming ever more intense. Unemployment is growing, and the continual growth of opposition shows the readiness to fight. It is the duty of the left wing to put forward positive slogans for this struggle and build a solid organizational basis. In addition to the slogans already given of breaking the Lewis-Fishwick company union and building the National Miners Union, there should be such as fight against the speed-up system, division of work with abolition of the machine differentials, abolition of the check-off, cancelling of the company union agreement and the inauguration of the shorter work day (six hour day).

With the correct tactics and energetic organization work the possibilities for growing success in the Illinois coal fields are good.

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