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Arne Swabeck

The Thieves Fall Out in the Miners Union

(December 1929)

From The Militant, Vol. II No. 19, 7 December 1929, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The destructive fight now ravaging the United Mine Workers Union in the Illinois district between the John L. Lewis international administration and the Harry Fishwick district administration is proving to the hilt all the charges made by the Left wing and progressive forces during the years of struggle against these corrupt officials. One more serious blow is now being administered to the badly shattered remnants of this union, thus indicating a once glorious organization coming to an inglorious end. Now the question of building anew upon the ruins of the old becomes the real burning one.

What this fight really is about is rather difficult to ascertain. There certainly are no principles involved. But the Illinois section still has a dues paying membership bringing in a revenue for which both groups of per-capita absorbers are willing to go to bat. Both administrations have already mutually removed one another expecting the miners to pay the bills out of their starvation wages. Each administration has its paid scribes to edit its respective journal, hurling invectives at one another. In this respect, Oscar Ameringer of the Illinois section so far has the edge with such choice bits as referring to Lewis – “Deadest duck this side of the milky way; defender of the fat; marshal of the Meal Ticket Legion, sublime keeper of the swag; imitation Mussolini; the dud the carcass of Lewisism; union wrecker; traitor”.

Wrecking a Great Union

Nothing could speak more eloquently about the wreckage wrought by John L. Lewis in the U.M.W. of A. than the membership figures emanated from his own office. According to reports submitted by the Federal Bureau of Mines, 153,829 mine workers are employed in the soft coal fields of Pennsylvania (of course not working regularly). The U.M.W. of A. today has a dues paying membership of 1,374. In West Virginia 119,799 miners employed with 77 dues paying members. In Indiana 24,352 with 10,609 dues paying members.

In Ohio 35,543 with 1,061 dues paying members. In Kentucky 64,747 with 77 dues paying members. At the time when Lewis took office as president in 1921 there were a total dues paying membership in the soft coal fields, not including exonerated members nor the districts of Canada, of 365,740. In 1929 this membership in the same territory has dropped to 84,369 of which Illinois has 53,088.

The Fishwick administration in trying to outdo Lewis, now makes an open bid for the support of the operators by charging that Lewis did not have the courage to accept responsibility for an “orderly” retreat such as they claim the economic conditions demanded, but instead, they say, isued ihs slogan of “no backward step”. And yet there have been nothing but retreats and sell-outs, on both sides. In July 1928 Lewis made his infamous decision destroying the last vestige of a national union by ordering each district to obtain whatever terms on working conditions it pleased. In Illinois, Fishwick put through a substantial wage cut with a loss of practically all remaining union conditions and declared it carried in a referendum vote in which a later check-up showed that it was defeated at least three to one. The Fishwick administration is further taking steps toward a new national union of its own.

There could be nothing whatever ever inspiring to the miners no matter which side wins in this contest, which will be decided by the operators.

However, the pressure of economic conditions, of increased mechanicalization of the mines with increased speed-up, increased unemployment and deterioration of working conditions and the standard of living, is growing and driving them forward to seek their first solution in the building of a new union capable of fighting for their interests.

Possibilities of New Union

Thus the possibilities for building the National Miners Union are excellent. Yet, as reported in the last issue, the methods pursued by the Communist Party leadership threatens it with being still-born, almost creating a split situation before the union has taken on organized form. The delegates who walked out in disgust from the district convention held at Belleville, Oct. 27, were precisely the most substantial section of the delegates. They were non-Party members, representing mainly the Staunton sub-district which has been in the forefront during this long struggle against the corrupt old union leadership, the territory in which the most militant strike picketing was carried on last year and from which the most substantial locals joined the N.M.U. in a body. Fortunately, these delegates, although they left the convention, are still determined by all means to build the National Miners Union, a decision which members of the Communist Opposition were able to influence in a considerable measure.

What was the issue at the Belleville convention responsible for the delegates leaving. One of principle, program, form of organization, attitude toward the old union officialdom or the coal operators? No, the issue carried to the point of an incipient split was John J. Watt, the president of the N.M.U., known to the rank and file miners as one who earnestly endeavors to build the union and accepts its program.

An Issue Artificially Created

Whatever might be said about mistakes made by Watt, one thing is sure: His long time opposition to the entirely false methods pursued by the Party leadership in imposing a complete mechanical control upon this new union movement from its very inception has largely been both a very natural and correct one. It caused him to resign his Party membership about last summer (a reaction which Communists will not endorse). But the retaliation by the Party leadership to this step has become a far worse one; as a matter of fact, one which threatens the interests of the coal miners.

With a situation like the one now existing in the Illinois coal fields, when the main campaign should be the building of the new union on a mass basis, consolidation of its rank and file support, an energetic fight against the Lewis and Fishwick union wreckers, and against the coal operators to recapture lost conditions, the main campaign is made against Watt. To make a case, the Daily Worker is resorting to outright fabrications as, for example, that Watt is calling conferences in opposition to those called by the district organization, that the Staunton locals repudiated Watt, etc.

What Kind of a New Union

The question that must be answered by the Party leadership is – what sort of union is intended? A mass organization in which elements who are not Party members but willing earnestly to accept the militant union program, can participate and hold important positions, or a narrow union established only on the conditions of accepting a leadership holding Party membership cards, even if mechanically imposed? The former is the only possible form that can succeed, particularly at this juncture. This is proved by all working class history and by the very response of the miners, whereas the introduction of the latter narrow conception immediately led to a split situation only narrowly averted.

If these methods are persisted in by the Party leadership it can result in nothing but complete forfeiture of the present splendid possibilities; and, what is worse yet, the creation of a situation in which rank and file coal miners in large numbers, who are ready to give their utmost for the triumph of militant unionism will be driven to anti-Communism,

The National Miners Union has not yet reached a point of facing its greatest and most formidable enemy – the coal operators. It is perfectly well known that while the operators prefer their own trusted henchmen from the old union to the N.M.U., they many times more prefer no union at all. No moment should therefore be lost in taking up immediately the struggle for pressing everyday needs of the miners as a means of organizing and preparing them for the bigger fights to come. That will decide the leadership of the union. Only by applying a correct policy can the Communists prove the superiority of their conceptions and make themselves worthy of leadership.

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