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Jack Wilson

Coal Retreat Is Dangerous Precedent

Though It May Have Been Required by the Situation,
It Has Ominous Implications for Future

(December 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 48, 1 December 1941, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A dangerous precedent for organized labor was set last week when the United Mine Workers of America strike at the captive mines, involving 53,000 workers, was ended with the issue of union shop submitted to a special three-man arbitration board.

Although this “settlement” was cheered by many CIO and AFL leaders, the fact is that the retreat of the UMWA and John L. Lewis, its president, has ominous implications for the future, since labor was forced to accept arbitration of a basic union right, the union shop, when this right should be recognized without any argument.

Even if this special board grants the UMWA a union shop in the captive, mines, as authoritative reports from Washington declare it will, the victory gained is hardly compensated for by the acceptance of a “no-strike, arbitration” principle in future union struggles.

Miners Were Ready

The resentment reported among the strikers and the thousands of sympathy strikers over the acceptance of the arbitration proposal indicates not only that they were willing to fight to the end for a union shop; but also that Roosevelt has lost his grip on the miners.

However, many factors operated to put the UMWA in a position where outright rejection of Roosevelt’s proposal was not feasible.

John L. Lewis’ past political blunders, his entire record of accepting arbitration as a means of settling strikes, despite his recent belligerent statements, placed him in a contradictory and insoluble position which weakened his power in the coal strike. The ferocity of the press campaign, including some labor papers, against the coal strike, were not sufficiently offset by the UMWA statements.

Within the CIO itself, the appeasers of Wall Street (the Hillman and Stalinist forces) stood ready to stab the UMWA in the back at the first possible opportunity, and thus weakened the struggle of the miners.

Of course, any progressive union leadership in a similar situation might have had to accept the Roosevelt offer. But its statement explaining the situation would be so clear that the entire CIO union movement would understand exactly what was involved in this dangerous precedent, even if its acceptance was actually unavoidable.

Where They Blundered

Here the UMWA leaders, by ignoring a factual analysis of the situation and by establishing as a main point to approving of the arbitration proposal that the miners were patriotic, blundered in not pointing out that the main issue was the union shop versus the open shop, and not the miners’ patriotism.

The miners did a good job in resisting the ganging up of the press and Congress and Roosevelt against their interests. Their solidarity on the picket line was proof.

And when scabs poured gunfire into the strikers, its only effect was to strengthen the determination of the unionists. It also showed how despicable the newspapers acted in this strike, for there weren’t any editorials in leading newspapers decrying or deploring the violence. Nor did the labor-baiting congressmen have any speeches to make about “lawlessness.” These speeches and editorials are reserved solely for use against unionists protecting themselves. Violence and lawlessness by scabs is perfectly acceptable to the gentlemen of the press and Congress.

It is very likely that there was established over the week-end a behind-the-doors agreement between top CIO officials around Phillip Murray and the Roosevelt regime, of which the coal arbitration proposal was one part. Certain minor concessions may be forthcoming from the Roosevelt regime in an effort to further isolate Lewis within the CIO and to soothe labor with bread crumbs.

But the coal strike illustrated that the fundamental issues dividing capital and labor can not be diverted for long into pacts, arbitrations, soft-soap and bland promises of something better in the future.

The SWOC, for example, still has on its agenda the matter of a closed shop in the steel industry. The struggle will continue.

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