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Illinois Miners Revolt Spreads Thru State

Thousands of Miners on Strike against Lewis Machine and Wage-Cuts

(August 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 32 (Whole No. 130), 20 August 1932, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Illinois miners’ struggle has sustained its first victim. Joe Colbert, president of Local 303, Orient, Illinois, was murdered in cold blood by Lewis-Walker gunmen firing from an automobile in front of his home.

Joe Colbert was known as one of the staunchest militants. He held a long record of fight against the corrupt Lewis machine. He acted as chairman of the miners revolt mass meeting at Benld, Ill., at which the present strike found its organizational initiation. Colbert held his post in the ranks to the last. He died fighting. All honor to the fallen militant!

The Illinois coal fields are again seething with revolt spreading throughout the various sections and directed against the most brazen official treachery yet recorded. A powerful rank and file movement has sprung up in which the young militant miner Gerry Allard is one of the leading spirits, gigantic mass meetings have been held from which marches are being organized to close down the mines which reopened under the operators’ reduced scale of wages.

Since April first, the Illinois miners have been on strike refusing to retreat from the basic wage scale of $6.10 per day formerly obtaining. The operators called it a suspension and meanwhile prepared to have their trusted agents in control of the union, John L. Lewis and his handmaid, “weeping” Johnny Walker, make all arrangements ready for the treacherous sell-out. A new contract with a reduced basic wage scale was offered. It was submitted to a referendum and defeated by a vote of more than 20 to 1. But this did not at all deter the official leeches. They had more ways than one to attempt to defeat the will of the rank and file and pursue their deadly work of destroying the union. So they arranged to have the tabulated tally sheets of the referendum vote stolen, declared an emergency, signed a new contract providing for a $5.00 a day basic wage scale and manipulated a counterfeit referendum vote, which they now “confidently expect to be carried.”

Life of Union At Stake

It is this new outrageous action which gave the signal for the present revolt movement. The rank and file is once more taking matters into their own hands. They know only one method and when set into motion they do not hesitate. Their method is the one of militant fighting fully recognizing their class enemy. In that lies their strength. They have learned from many bitter experiences that the union officials have long ago become part and parcel of the enemy class, ready, at every favorable opportunity, to do its bidding and yet, these officials, skillful in the art of treason, have succeeded again and again to circumvent their militancy and to inflict heavy defeats upon them step by step reducing the union. Now it is the very life of the union itself which is at stake.

The Illinois coal fields harbor the last stronghold of the United Mine Workers of America, and practically the last of the organized miners’ movement which, thoroughly proletarian in composition, has established such a glorious tradition in American labor history. It is due to the indomitable spirit of the rank and file, despite wreckage of treason inflicted upon them, that they have been able to preserve an organization. But the biggest job still lies ahead of them.

There can now be no thought whatever of further preserving the union until that job is finished, until the whole crew of corrupt officialdom is completely cleaned out. In this sense the movement must be clear on its double aim, viz: To defeat the attempts of the operators to further reduce the now miserable standard of living prevailing and to clean out, root and branch, their agents in the official union positions.

Extent of Present Movement

There are good indications that such is actually the aim of the present movement. Despite the great confusion deliberately provoked by the whole method of defeating and betraying the referendum vote, the opposition to the sell-out is rapidly organizing. Reports at this stage of developments are still somewhat unclear, but it appears that everywhere the local unions are meeting and deciding to reject the put-over agreement and to prevent the mines from resuming operation by throwing strong picket lines around them. In rapid succession the locals are falling in line with most of the sub districts remaining solid on strike.

A mass meeting in Benld had an attendance of 10,000 revolting miners, similar big meetings have been held in Springfield and elsewhere. At the time of this writing miners are marching upon Taylorville where the Peabody Coal Company is making desperate efforts to reopen its four mines. Though the miners march without arms this company has already succeeded in making a virtual armed camp out of their little community. One press dispatch says: “Businessmen and members of the American Legion wore recruited into a hastily formed home guard to repel any invasion.” This town was also the scene of military forces moving in rapidly during the ill-fated strike of the National Miners Union in 1929.

The rebel movement is feverishly organizing its forces knowing that quick and decisive action is imperative. It has entrusted the leadership to an elected policy committee. Petitions have been placed in circulation among the local unions calling for a special state convention to abrogate the put-over agreement, and, as inevitably must follow, to clean out the traitorous officials. Meanwhile John L. Lewis is doing his bit for the operators sending proclamations to the miners’ locals that “picketing and mass meetings must cease”, and that opposition leaders are to be penalized. In this he is in complete accord with the agencies of the capitalist forces, including the government. It is reported that the young militant leader Gerry Allard was “quickly cut off the air by radio station WEBQ when he launched into a vehement attack on union officers who supported the $5.00 agreement.”

This was under date line of Aug. 12th. The reports are that Gerry Allard and his wife, Irene, have been arrested in West Frankfort. Such, of course, are the celebrated capitalist methods – to strike the heavy blows at the militant leaders. There need be no doubt that a powerful answer will be given by the rebel movement.

Illinois, Scene of Many Revolts

The history of the Illinois coal fields is replete with rank and file revolts dating back to the days of the Verdin battle and even farther. Here was often found the backbone of the fight to break the stranglehold of John L. Lewis upon the union. But this is yet an unfinished task because of the various ways in which the miners were time and again switched off the path by their resistance being insufficiently organized, by leadership which faltered in the decisive moments or by other groups of corrupt elements capitalizing on the situation leaving the miners to suffer new disillusionment.

In the above is contained a serious Howatt combination, ostensibly in opposition to Lewis, proved a disastrous deception and illusion. The revolt led by the Edmondson-Musteite combination, which lacked backbone and a clear progressive program, failed utterly. But the results in both of these instances is to be accounted for in large measure by the failure of the Left wing under the official party leadership to penetrate these movements and its subsequent complete isolation.

Now the Illinois miners are marching again. The deep-seated discontent is again flaring into a mighty flame. Tenacious struggles against the lowering of the standard of living are in progress also in the Indiana coal fields and the Mahoning Valley, Ohio.

In the above is contained a serious lesson of what the revolutionary forces must not do. It is the policy pursued by the official party which led to isolation and impotence of the Left wing. Its mistakes in this respect began with the stupid boycott of the revolt movement which found its expression in the Walker-Fishwick-Howatt combination, and repeated toward the Edmondson-Musteite-led revolt. The serious consequences of these stupid tactics are not to be measured alone by the shortcomings and failures or betrayals of the revolt movements but more so by the isolation and final disappearance of an organized Left wing movement.

Duties of the Revolt Movement

It, is yet time, however, to make good in a measure on the mistakes made and to regain the time and opportunities lost. The present revolt movement has a very serious duty to perform for the success of which the Left Opposition supporters in the Illinois coal fields will bend all their efforts.

To make the present strike state-wide is, of course, imperative. That is the direction of the present movement. In this the Illinois miners are now carrying the brunt of the burden of leading the working class as a whole forward in resistance upon the attacks on their standard of living. Closely bound up with this must be the completion of the long overdue task of cleaning out the treacherous officials and saving the union from destruction.

However, as once more a situation exists of the miners battling separately in several territories with their several organizations struggling alone for their life preservation, the creation of a united front is more pressing than ever. There is now an opportunity for the Illinois revolt movement to perform a real duty by leaving no stone unturned to endeavor to unite their immediate aims and their immediate struggle with those of the National Miners Union, with the Miners Union of West Virginia with the battling miners in Indiana and Ohio.

But these are objectives the complete fulfillment of which can be conceived of alone on the basis of creating a strong Left wing, conscious of its task within this movement. This is the duty of the hour for’ all revolutionary miners.

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