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Rebel Miners in Action!

New Movement in the Anthracite Growing Rapidly

(March 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 13 (Whole No. 109), 26 March 1932, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Strikes are once again spreading through the coal fields. In the Pennsylvania anthracite region a large number of the black towering breakers are shut down as thousands of men have left the collieries. It is what in called an insurgent strike. The combination, of an insurgent movement and a powerful strike, has thrown both alarm and fear into the whole of the enemy camp. As it gained day by day during its first week it met the most terrific opposition from the united forces of the operators, the state cossacks and the United Mine Workers officials.

So far this opposition has not been able to stem the tide. While the state troopers are massed in the territory ruthlessly breaking up “insurgent” meetings and making wholesale arrests, more collieries join the movement.

First of all this strike is caused by the terrible unemployment, the widespread starvation and the operators demands that the collieries sign separate agreements with loss of conditions. Out of the little more than 100,000 miners in the territory at least 60,000 have remained unemployed ever since the crisis began, though largely as a result of increasing mechanization, speed-up and closing down of what is called unprofitable mines. But this is only one side of the picture. On the other hand the strike is an outright revolt movement against the corrupt administration of the U.M.W. One need but recall a few incidents which make up this recent history of rebellion.

Vote Stealing and Convention Packing

At the last elections held in district 1, the opposition slate headed by Maloney undoubtedly carried the majority vote; but to no avail. It was counted out. At the district convention following, this opposition again asserted itself but was squelched with strong arm methods. There is the one incident at the Silver Creek colliery near Pottsville in district 9 where on Feb. 21 a meeting attended by about 3,000 miners unanimously went on record to demand equalization of work, condemned their officials and demanded a special district convention. To these incidents can be added the last U.M.W. convention at Indianapolis where a packed audience steam rolled every demand and every grievance of the membership. This is, of course, nothing new in the history of the United Mine Workers under the Lewis regime but the constantly accumulating conflicts between the membership interests and the reaction of the officialdom is rapidly approaching a breaking point.

The outstanding demand of the anthracite rebel movement is the one for equalization of work. It particularly reflect the needs growing out of the acute unemployment conditions but it falls short of a program that can fully unite the employed with the unemployed. The movement itself is by no means a Left wing movement. It still harbors much confusion. Its leadership is not at all ready to break with the corrupt traditions of the union bureaucracy let alone to endeavor actually to found the movement on a class basis. But that only demonstrates the need of, and the possibility for real Left wing permeation.

Mine Strikes Elsewhere

We said before that strikes are again spreading through the coal fields and we can add that yet more are in prospect. The anthracite at this moment is merely the most outstanding case. In the Hocking Valley soft coal territory of Ohio a number of mine tipples have been idle since February 1st. Now this strike is also taking on bigger proportions, with more miners walking out in protest against wage cuts. As an indication of how drastic these cuts were one need but cite the example of the Hanna coal company announcing a reduction from $4.30 to $3.20 a day.

In both of these instances, in the anthracite and in the Hocking Valley, the coal miners are fighting a determined battle. The most splendid militancy is displayed on the picket lines. There has been no lack of perfidious efforts to undermine and to split their ranks. That is the job which the operators have assigned to their agents in the union office swivel chairs. But their other weapon is being wielded just as freely. In Pennsylvania the state troopers, in Ohio the national guard are applying the brute force to suppress the revolts.

Rumblings of New Revolts

Down in Eastern Kentucky and parts of Tennessee the coal miners have fought tenaciously against almost overwhelming odds. Yet, when a comparison is made the Northern oligarchs have been able to maintain themselves on an equal footing with the Southern bourbons in staggering the odds. These recent Kentucky and Tennessee strikes remained entirely isolated and could not hold out when the full weight of the brutal enemy forces began to bear down upon them. These workers are now compelled to drift back again to take up whatever work is being handed out on the same old starvation conditions, or worse.

Yet, how far this is from settling the issues becomes very apparent in the added rumblings of new revolts. Such are coming from Illinois. There the coal miners were from, their recent opposition of the Edmonson rank and file movement again driven back into the folds of the U.M.W. It was a temporary setback but not a settling of the issues. By April first the Illinois miners' contract with the operators expires. The latter's efforts to reduce the present wage scale are presented in the open, and in the Southern section it is just as openly conceded that the miners will resist. Thus there may be another spontaneous rebellion in the offing having also a double direction. For while the thieving office squabbles between John L. Lewis, for the International, and John H. Walker, for the district, are not at all settled it cannot be expected that either will sanction a strike. Not even one against a wage cut.

Revolts Localized – Not United

All in all, a look at the mine fields at this moment give ample evidence of signs of stiffening workers resistance but as much proof also of the terrible weaknesses: of almost numberless spontaneous rebellions and strikes, localized, confused and, while militantly fought, still lacking both perspective and organization. This is precisely as true for the Kentucky and other sections, under the leadership of the Left wing National Miners Union, as it is for the U.M.W. revolt movements; and, for that matter, also for other independent unions such as the West Virginia organization headed by Frank Keeney. One characteristic nevertheless practically all of these movements and strikes have in common, and an important characteristic, namely the fact that they represent the unanimous but sadly divided efforts of the rank and file to direct their struggle equally against the operators and their corrupt agents of the U.M.W. bureaucracy. That alone should indicate the growing consciousness among the coal miners to the treacherous role of these officials and their growing readiness to combat them In other words it offers the increasing opportunities for the Left wing to find the common base for these movement and through them to unite for the common immediate objectives.

Of such steps there is no sign whatever. The official Communist Party, which is the potential force to give this direction, is, when considering this as the essential task, failing just as miserably as the other confused and opportunist groups. The National Miners Union, which it leads, has not yet at any time pursued a policy genuinely aiming at uniting the rebellious movements. It has thereby, in the same manner as the other groupings, been hemmed in within the localizing barriers of each separate struggle, confining itself purely to the spontaneous movement of the workers themselves, lacking perspective, failing actually to organize and losing ground so that it still commands only a few scattered, small and ill-functioning locals Under such conditions the militancy it displays, the working class and revolutionary propaganda it spreads, becomes entirely too much negated.

A National Perspective for a United Front

While the series of localized spontaneous miners struggles from the past to the present have certainly served to advance the miners to higher levels of experience and consciousness they have most often in their direct implication resulted in defeats and weakening of their organization. The John L. Lewis administration pursued that method as a deliberate policy to serve the operators. But it should have taught us all that when local strikes are so often defeated the object must be the national extension. With the present trend of the struggle, directed, and of necessity so, equally against the U.M.W. official treachery, the national objective must, of course, stand out so much more clearly.

But this is only one side of the question. The other is the need of the actual unification of the rebel movements. Here lies the real task for the revolutionary forces, for the official Communist Party. To talk about establishing “independent leadership” in these struggles, as it does, or to talk about furnishing a program for them without taking into account this burning question of the necessity of a speedy united front of the rebel movements becomes pure nonsense. To proceed to build committees of independent leadership within them endeavoring to struggle independently and in opposition to them is wrong. It is particularly erroneous to endeavor to build the National Miners Union within these rebel movements of the U.M.W. What is needed there is a Left wing of these movements, firmly established, working as part of, and with the movements, criticizing and fighting against opportunist leaders, and working in the closest possible co-operation with the Left wing forces in the National Miners Union. Proceeding from such a basis it should not become an all too difficult task to build a united front in reality of these various movements struggling in common for the common immediate objectives; to dislodge the influence and control of the Lewis machine and for better working conditions. In such a united front movement the Communists would certainly play the main role of leadership provided they pursue Communist policies. They could thus become a much more important factor in uniting the working class against the common enemy.

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