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Arne Swabeck

Miners of Illinois Fought Big Odds

(December 1929)

From The Militant, Vol. II No. 22, 28 December 1929, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Despite the splendid fighting ability displayed, the Illinois miners strike is practically over, broken up by the brute force of jailings, soldiers and machine guns mobilized by the bosses’ government on the command of the coal operators and their fellow capitalists. Acting in complete unison with them were their lickspittles who keep themselves in control of the United Mine Workers Union. The breakup was made so much easier because of the isolated basis of this strike, confined to a few localities, and by the utter lack of preparations.

Was Strike a Mistake?

To many workers the question will occur: “Was this strike a mistake?” To which we must say: No – a thousand times No. For the Illinois miners – which is also true for the working class in general – there is no other way out of the miserable conditions imposed upon them by the coal operators and the misleaders jointly, except through struggle. The miners struck for a chance to live. They fought courageously. Their leaders showed no fear in this fight. The experiences gained should mean one big step forward. They should be the basis to build on for the future. But it can become so only provided the many great lessons are taken advantage of.

First it showed clearer than ever before the readiness of the government with all its forces of coercion and suppression to come to the rescue of those who own and control the means of production and to be pitted against the workers when they fight for their vital needs. One more illuminating example of the fact that the government is owned and controlled by the capitalists and function in their interests only. The miners, even those who did not participate in this strike, are not the least in doubt that their conditions must be improved in order to make living possible. They have now seen once more, in the most glaring manner, that those officials of the old union, who by fair means or foul, constantly have themselves re-elected, act directly against any such possibility of improvements and do all in their power to defeat it.

The National Miners Union has proven itself as the only miners’ organization which will fight for their needs regardless of obstacles in the way. There will now be increased attacks upon it from the reactionaries. The operators will long remember the serious scare they received, and hasten more completely to affirm and uphold the wage cut, speed-up contract they have concluded with their faithful servants who keep themselves in office in the U.M.W.A. Blacklisting will likely be put into effect against the most active strikers in order to drive additional miners from the field and get rid of the militants. The miners will be told, often in terms of the right to a job, to return to the old union and its “leadership”. But it would be the greatest mistake to rely in the least upon them. They have proved themselves too definitely the tools of the operators and the defenders of the capitalist system to ever seriously contemplate any fights for the interests of the rank and file.

A Communist Scare Coming

There will be plenty of forces busy endeavoring to turn sentiment against the National Miners Union. But it should be remembered that it always takes a bitter struggle, and sometimes temporary defeats, to build a real working class organization. From the Lewis-Fishwick-Farrington machines, jointly with the coal operators, will be launched an increased campaign against Communism and against Communist leadership in the union. In any event for a worker to fall victim to such a campaign, to accept it, is to strengthen the hold that crooks and fakers gain upon the unions.

Communist leadership of the union means leadership by the most advanced working class section, the one which is most responsive to the true interests of the rank and file. That is always correct. But it must be established on the broadest possible basis with the constant active collaboration of all honest Left wing and progressive elements. Particularly must it be based on correct policies and that is not yet the case in the National Miners Union.

The strike, and what preceded it, is the best illustration of this contention. The lack of thorough strike preparations and concentration on outstanding strike issues failed to bring out the most decisive section in the southern part of the field. The campaign of artificial issues raised against Watt, the national president ending in his arbitrary removal, initiated by the Party leadership, almost split off and certainly discouraged the whole Staunton section. The representatives from that sub-district at the last N.M.U. Belleville district convention saw in that campaign only the worst features of machine rule. They objected, but to no avail, and thus it it became a campaign against them. Hence this section, which had been among the best supporters and the best fighters before, this time practically failed to respond.

Foster on Strike Strategy!

On the question of preparation for strikes of unorganized workers (which is the case in this instance) Wm.Z. Foster says in his pamphlet Strike Strategy:

”Less and less can the strike strategist depend upon the spontaneity of the masses to bring them into revolt against their exploiters, more and more he has to figure on substantial preliminary organization, conceived planfully and carried through almost like military strategy. Within the past fifteen years American employers have become, very able and skillful in checking spontaneous mass-revolts amongst their workers. To this end they have developed a whole arsenal of weapons which may be summed up under the general heads of concessions, of duplicity and terrorism”.

And further:

“In impending strikes of unorganized workers, conservative labor leaders habitually overestimate the importance of organization and underestimate the spontaneity of the workers. They smother the fighting spirit of the workers by a dry-as-dust campaign for excessive organization. On the other hand, a common tendency of left wing leaders is to underestimate the necessity for a certain degree of preliminary organization and to depend too much on the spontaneity of the workers. The result is abortive strikes. The history of the I.W.W. is full of such mistakes.” (My Emphasis. – AS)

This is as true now as when it was written, and it is precisely the policy which was not followed by the Communist Party leadership in the Illinois miners strike. For the miners it becomes essential to fight to correct such mistakes.

Fishwick’s “Progressivism”

The immediate result of the break-up of this strike will be a strengthening of the Lewis-Fishwick-Farrington control of the situation. That, however, can only be a temporary setback, because of the role played by this gentry itself. The Fishwick-Farrington combination in its present fight for the spoils with the Lewis machine is cunningly taking on a somewhat “progressive” veneer, hoping thereby to fool the miners into support for them. They have received favorable publicity by the Socialist Party, which since its New York election “victory” has become more ready to align itself with the capitalists and their hangers-on. The leading Musteites have already publicly cast their lot with this combination thereby showing that tho their coming into being was decidedly a reflection of growing working class dissatisfaction even within the conservative unions, these self-styled progressive leaders are already beginning to merge with the reactionary bureaucrats.

To the Left wing this can mean only one thing and that is, simultaneously with the building of the National Miners Union, to organize Left wing sentiment within the old union so much more energetically. Taking advantage of this latest exposure of the strike-breaking activities of the Fishwick-Farrington combination a genuine Left wing and progressive movement should be built of all favorable elements within the U.M.W. of A., where is still has a mass organization. All opportunities should be utilized to more effectively propagate united struggle of all rank and file miners for their interests, and thus help prepare for the next open battle.

Persistent organization work of building the National Miners Union and preparation for future strikes is now particularly necessary, not merely sporadically in certain sections but as far as available forces and conditions permit on a national scale. But above all correct policies are essential as a guide to correct action.

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