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The Miners’ Convention

Ravages of Lewisism; the Position of the Communist Groups

(October 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 41, 8 October 1932, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

October the third undoubtedly turned the attention of thousands of miners toward Gillespie, Ill. Even from far away Nova Scotia, where the miners have completely broken with the Lewis regime, taken matters into their own hand and organized the Amalgamated Mine Workers, greetings go out to the constitutional convention of the Progressive Miners of America. That is understandable. Illinois represents almost the sole solidly organized miners section of some real substance left in the field. But whether this constitutional convention can make a serious beginning toward the solution of the all important problems, remains to be seen.

The mine fields today in an organizational sense present a picture of frightful devastation. In 1921 when John L. Lewis was solidly entrenched on his throne in Indianapolis the U.M.W. of A. reached its highest point of growth with a total membership of 515,243. By Dec. 1928 the number, including Canada, had been reduced to 172,632, of which 83,446 were in the anthracite and 53,088 in Illinois. Reports from the U.M.W. of A. of actual membership have been very scarce since; but obviously the drop has gone considerably further downward. In other words while in 1921 about 75 percent of all the soft coal hoisted was mined by union labor there is today less than 10 percent of the total tonnage union mined. What a frightful trail of destruction!

How the Miners Were Eliminated

The method of its accomplishment becomes somewhat clear when one recalls how John L. Lewis in the 1922 strike betrayed the 60,000 miners of the Fayette and Somerset counties in Pennsylvania. These miners had just been organized but were in the settlement left to shift for themselves and disappeared as an organized factor.

Frank Farrington, who was then President of the Illinois district, charged’ John L. Lewis with having received bribes to the tune of $750,000 from interests closely associated with the Pennsylvania and Kentucky operators, to break the strike. This accusation was made in repayment for the Lewis’ charge against Farrington of having received $27,000 to break the 1919 Illinois strike. Undoubtedly both, gentlemen were entirely correct. And certainly both instances exemplify, though these alone only ih a small measure, what the miners had to endure during this kind of a regime.

To the uninitiated it may appear as if the present break in Illinois occurred purely on the question ot the wage scale, that is, the maintenance of the basic $6.10 a day scale or the sell out agreement of Lewis-Walker for the $5.00 a day scale. This is only one of the manifestations. To the miners, though, it becomes a quite important difference when one considers that an employed miner in the soft coal field is quite lucky to average about two working days in a week, aside from the large number totally unemployed.

The fundamental cause is naturally far more deep-seated. It is the very question of union organization which is involved, and in that sense thousands of miners may justifiably turn their eyes toward the Gillespie constitutional convention. In that sense also the responsibility of that convention becomes a far greater one.

The Parties and the Miners

It is not at all strange that the Socialist party officially takes the position of neutrality and non-interference in the break the Illinois miners have made with the Lewis-Walker clique. That was to be expected. First of all, and this may be the smallest consideration, that position enables them to have their members in both camps to fish for votes and support in both directions. But essentially this cover of neutrality enables the Socialist party to give its support in reality to the reactionary camp and help stem the Leftward tide of the new movement. That part of its role will become Increasingly clear with future developments.

But there should be no less concern over the attitude of the official Communist party. From a letter issued by Joe Tash, the U.M.U. and party organizer in the Illinois field, dealing with the foundation conference of the P.M. of A., we take the following excerpts: “However, it should be obvious just from a glance that the leadership of the conference succeeded in putting over another betrayal of the Illinois miners ...” And further, “This further means splitting the ranks of the miners and defeating the splendid unity of the Illinois miners. It is the same policy that Walker and Lewis are known for and which smashed the U.M.W.A. as a fighting union ...” If this be true, then there could be no distinction between the new union and the old gang. In that respect the party is duty bound to change its attitude. It is duty bound to turn its attention toward the unification and further development of all the progressive forces, maintaining its criticism of the conservative and reactionary elements within them, but to support the movement in its rebellion against the Lewis-Walker crew.

Those Who Condemn a “Split”

The Right wing Lovestone group chips in its bit with regard to the Illinois miners situation. It says in sum and substance in an editorial in the Workers Age of Sept. 24, that any idea of uniting the anti-Lewis groups outside of the U.M.W. A. would be false and share the same fate as the N.W.U., and that a new union should not have been organized. In other words, according to this advice the Illinois miners should be driven back again to the U.M.W.A.

Is this reactionary attitude any better than that shown by the Socialist party? Not one whit. The figures cited above, giving the present status of the U.M.W.A., in addition to the well-known long series of betrayals by of its officialdom, prove, if anything, that conditions have long been rotten ripe for a definite split away from this corrupt clique. But up till now the subjective factor, the membership itself, was not sufficiently matured to carry it through. Attempts were made, but mostly on a false basis. Now, it appears to be conclusive, and at least with prospects of heading in the right direction.

Unity of the mine workers throughout the field is the essential problem. That can no longer be accomplished within the bounds of the remnants of the U.M.W.A. controlled by a reactionary clique of capitalist agents of the Lewis-Walker types, whose objective is exactly the opposite. The place of the revolutionists is undisputably with the rebel movement, fighting for its necessary Leftward direction and for unification outside of the deadening grip of the reactionaries.

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