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Illinois Mine Workers in Revolt

Rank and File Rebel Against Fishwick-Lewis Agreement; New Union Call Issued

(April 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 7, 1 April 1931, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Once again a scoundrel’s agreement has been made in the Illinois mine fields. The John L. Lewis and Fishwick-Walker cliques, with all their big and petty officials, have settled their little “differences” and agreed upon the place for each to take around the flesh pots.

Significantly enough this agreement was reached, signed and sealed in a capitalist court. The Fishwick-Walker combine is divorced from the so-called reorganized U.M.W. It has become the recognized Illinois district administration. Lewis withdraws his provisional officers from the district and is recognized as the head of the U.M.W. of A. – that is, whatever is left of it. And then, in an effort to prevent the expected wrath of the rank and file membership to become crystallized in an actual rebellion, the attorney in charge of this agreement, J. Londrigan, denounces any contemplated convention as “an act of secession and an open attempt to form a dual organization.”

The rank and file membership will now be expected to pay the enormous bills of a court litigation between these two cliques which began Oct. 1929. They will be expected to pay continued royalties to these mercenary officials who have been leaving behind them a trail of wreckage of a once splendid organization and of miners’ homes forced down to the lowest point of degradation. The bills are expected to be paid through the check-off from miners’ wages collected by the operators. The latter are to get their share of the reward of the spoils to accrue from the agreement through increased profits derived by further lowering of the miserable conditions of the miners.

Will matters pan out as these thieves contemplate? Hardly – Discontent is now seething, a rank and file revolt movement is on foot. Staunton has become the stronghold of the rebellious forces. Shortly after the consummation of the agreement, 300 coal miners from several points in Illinois met in Staunton, denounced the agreement, and decided upon the calling of a special convention. This to be held in St. Louis on April 15. Clearly enough there can be no alternative for this movement to consider seriously except a complete break with the corrupt officials and their whole line of policy of treason.

One year ago, on March 10, a widespread, healthy miners’ rebellion was frustrated and harnessed into delusive channels. The revolt was a healthy one in the sense that it strove already then for a complete break with John L. Lewis and the whole tradition of his corrupt administration. It was, however, capitalized by the Fishwick-Walker-Farrington combine, who, with their whole string of rapacious petty officials, succeeded in turning this movement into one for personal spoils. To make such complete diversion of a healthy rebellious movement possible this combine cleverly utilized the “progressive” front of Howat, Brophy, Hapgood and others. Howat, despite his long experience with the corrupt officialdom of the U.M.W. of A., allied himself with these old hands at the game of treason. Previously he had been an ally of the Communists and genuine Left wing forces but the weakened condition reached by the latter through a continuous blunder policy made possible the backsliding of Howat. He no longer needed any such alliances. The result of this period since the beginning of the rebellion a year ago, in which Howat played such a miserable role, are now epitomized in the sell-out agreement. It becomes a powerful object lesson of what the road of reformism actually leads to.

Alexander Howat, who was eased out of his office by the Lewis-Fishwick-Walker agreement, has now with the other Muste type of “leaders”, become one of the active sponsors of the present rebellion. A warning must be issued against this type of “leaders” who during the whole existence of the so-called reorganized U.M.W. of A. failed to fight the contemplated treason of the Fishwick-Walker administration. Thus they played the game of stalking: horses for the reactionaries, being in the Fishwick camp one day only to return to the camp of other reactionaries a while later. The miners will win out if they rely on their own class strength.

Where are the Communist party and National Miners Union forces now when this new rebellious movement is taking shape? Unfortunately their complete departure from the correct policy of building the Left wing within the existing mass movements, even though these may be under control of reactionaries, has brought them to a position of complete isolation – if not to use the stronger term – complete discreditment. The N.M.U. is non-existent as an organization in Illinois, and there could be no better proof of fatal results from a departure from correct policies. Today there is a splendid opportunity for a united Left wing to give actual leadership.

The misery of the conditions of the miners in the Illinois fields can hardly be described. Unemployment and stark misery stalks the coal producing territory. The Orient Mine No. 1, the biggest in the country, worked exactly 70 days during 1930. Several small strikes are now in progress in southern Illinois, fought tooth and nail by the union officialdom, by the coal operators, and by the state police. The mercenary combination the rank and file miners will henceforward find yet more solidly opposing them. Their road is not an easy one.

The National Committee of the Communist League (Opposition), in view of the situation now existing in the Illinois coal fields calls upon the coal miners to oppose with might and main the putting into effect of the Lewis-Fishwick-Walker agreement. We propose to the Communist party and the National Miners’ Union forces the establishment of a united front, of all Left wing elements in support and possible leadership of the present rank and file opposition movement. It should by all means be strengthened to bring a powerful delegation to the St. Louis convention on April 15. If at this convention there is a substantial delegation actually representative of the membership, the only correct road for the convention to take must be a complete break with the new unified clique of the officialdom, their policies, and their views. This should result in the formation of a new miners’ union on a class basis. Our N.E.C. has as its further policy the establishment of one union of all the coal miners of the country through the amalgamation of this new union to be formed with other sectional organizations opposing the Lewis-Fishwick-Walker machine, such as the new union organized in West Virginia and the National Miners’ Union. Such a union, in order to fulfill its role, must come about through this amalgamation on a definite class basis so that it will really be able to struggle against the operators under a militant leadership and give the necessary guarantees for rank and file control through complete union democracy and all the measures necessary to carry this into effect.

We urge the coal miners to make the experiences of the past, fundamental object lessons for the future. These experiences should be utilized as a warning against corrupt officials and opportunist careerists penetrating their ranks for the sole aim of acquiring office in order to become better agents for the operators. It is necessary that the coal miners also learn a serious lesson from the activities of Howat and the part he played by becoming a “progressive” shield for the underhanded treason of the Fishwick-Walker combination. The severest criticism and strictest vigilance will help in safeguarding against repetition. It is necessary that the Left wing demand from Howat as a condition of joint action of all forces of the opposition movement now developing in Illinois that he agree to this policy here outlined and that he be willing to cooperate with the Left wing, including the N.M.U. forces, for the realization of this policy.

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