Martin Abern

Attack on the National Miners’ Union Convention

Written: September 18, 1928
Source: James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism. Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 © Spartacist Publishing Company, 1992. ISBN 0-9633828-1-0; Published by Spartacist Publishing Company, Box 1377 G.P.O. New York, NY 10116. Introductory material and notes by the Prometheus Research Library.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Prometheus Research Library
Copyright: Permission for on-line publication provided by Spartacist Publishing Company for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.

We publish below Abern’s report as assistant secretary of the ILD on the organization’s activities at the September convention which founded the National Miners’ Union. The report was attached to the Political Committee minutes of October 12. Six hundred seventy-five delegates assembled in Pittsburgh on September 9, but they were unable to meet there. John L. Lewis had fought the “Save the Union” movement with every means at his disposal, including colluding with the coal companies in blacklisting supporters. Now his thugs violently attacked the Pittsburgh meeting. More than 125 delegates were arrested, and it was Abern as the on-the-spot representative of the ILD who organized the campaign to get them out of jail.

Dear Comrades:

The following is the report in brief of the defense work of the International Labor Defense, during the convention of the National Miners’ Union at Pittsburgh, September 9th-11th.

At the party fraction meeting on the Saturday night preceding the opening of the convention, it became clear from the reports that were given that difficulties were to be expected from the Lewis machine, and that preparations should be made to make certain that the convention would be held. Arrangements were made that the ILD representative should be on hand on the morning of the convention before the Labor Lyceum, to take the necessary measures for defense, in case the convention was prevented from opening at the hall that morning, and in case of arrests, etc.

I was at the hall on Sunday morning at 8 o’clock, and the struggle between the Lewis gangsters and the forces representing the new National Miners’ Union was already under way. During the course of the next half hour of the struggle, perhaps a thousand people accumulated in the street. The thugs and gangsters of the Lewis machine attempted to break down the doors, which were guarded by the National Miners forces. All their attempts to beat down the doors were unsuccessful due to the effective resistance of those who were defending the hall. Clubs, stones, blackjacks, knives and other weapons were being used by the Lewis thugs against the delegates. Stones flew in through the windows of the hall. I noted one individual on the outside, whose supporter he was I do not know, whose coat in the back was slashed clean, as if by a razor blade, and his back had a similar cut and blood was flowing freely. Provocation was to be noted on every direction, and whether there were not many bystanders who also received blows in the struggle is an open question; undoubtedly there were. The police did not arrive until almost 9 o’clock. At this time it must be mentioned that representatives of the National Miners’ Union forces had visited the Superintendent of Police the day before, and had informed him that they intended to hold a convention. The police authorities gave no indication that they were ready to defend the rights of the men to hold their convention. This is to be noted now, in view of the fact that the police did not arrive until long after the struggle had begun, and is an indication that the police were definitely aware of the fact that trouble was going to ensue, and that the police were definitely fighting on behalf of the Lewis gangsters. This, of course, was to be expected. During the scuffling it was to be noted too that the police made no efforts to prevent forces from the National Miners’ Union from being clubbed and beaten. The police clubs were by no means indiscriminate in their use, but quite definitely against the National Miners’ Union forces. They were using their clubs quite freely. I do not need to dilate much on this point in my report. I wish, however, to make this observation. The forces of the National Miners’ Union were protecting themselves effectively, and were beating back the thugs despite the fact that the latter were armed with weapons of all sorts. In my opinion, if the police had not interfered and taken the side of the gangsters, the forces of the National Miners’ Union would have routed these elements and the convention would have proceeded at the Labor Lyceum. However, the role of the police as the allies of the reactionaries naturally asserted itself.

A number of the National Miners’ Union forces and some of the gang elements were somewhat seriously injured, and taken to the hospital where they were given treatment, and then placed under arrest. One of these ten National Miners’ Union supporters, however, Calemeri, was beaten insensible. I visited him at the hospital at a later date and his memory was completely gone. The doctor was unable to give any definite word that there were possibilities of recovery.

The police patrol loaded the men into the wagons and took them to the police station. Then those delegates inside of the hall were made to leave the hall. Delegates who were merely watching on the streets were arrested. Later, as the committee knows, truckloads of delegates who came to the hall were arrested by the police, who were at the hall.

A few minutes before the fight was finally over, and the police had loaded the delegates away, and the hall was cleared, we proceeded to telephone various attorneys in order to take the necessary steps for the release of the men, that they might be able to participate in the convention at a hall that had been previously arranged by the proper committee. My idea was immediately to have a conference of attorneys to work out the best ways and means for quick action. The Civil Liberties representative was with me, but he was very doubtful as to what course the Civil Liberties Union would pursue and was not ready to take the responsibility, until he had communicated and had definite word from the New York office. I told him, of course, that we would proceed under any conditions, since the ILD was concerned with getting the men out.

Attorney Allan Davis was secured over the phone and he proceeded to get in touch with the police station. I also got in touch with a young attorney, Ellenbogen, not known as yet to the Pittsburgh comrades, but whom I knew through our previous contacts with Isaac Ferguson, and I knew that he had certain capabilities and connections. We held a conference with him and attorney Roe, at the latter’s office, where also representatives of the Civil Liberties Union, Nunn and Woltman, were present, and White and myself. Attorney Davis telephoned giving us some information as to the men who were arrested, but stated that he wished a $300.00 retainer fee. This of course was impossible and after a discussion Roe and Ellenbogen were retained with Ellenbogen to carry on the active work. Mr. Ellenbogen immediately got busy, visited the station, obtained the names of those who were under arrest and the charges that had been placed against them. It is important to note that the convention of the miners was charged with being a convention of the Communist Party and that in the charges all blame was placed against the National Miners’ Union. The police blotter records stated that the struggle was a faction struggle and that those inside the hall had piled up sticks and stones and taken the offensive. This is again confirmation of the fact that the police were in alliance with the Lewis machine and the operators and were doing everything that they could to break up the convention of the National Miners’ Union. The charge placed against the men was that of rioting, which constitutes a felony in the State of Pennsylvania. Consequently, despite all efforts, the police refused to set any bail for the men, and we were unable therefore to get any of the men out that day. However, arrangements were made for an early hearing at 8 o’clock in the morning. Our attorney, Mr. Ellenbogen, was of the opinion that heavy bail would be placed upon the leaders, if not all of the 22 who were first arrested, if the operators, the police and the Lewis machine were intent on framing some of the leaders immediately and keeping them in jail for the period of the convention. This placed us in a position of getting bail immediately and of arranging to get the main leaders out at once, since it was manifestly impossible to get all of the men out on bail immediately. Especially in view of the arrests which later took place at the various hotels where the miners were quartered.

At the conference with Nunn and Woltman, we also declared for a fight to establish the right of the convention to hold its conference in Pittsburgh. To work for this end, it was decided to organize immediately, that night, a delegation of liberal elements, preachers, lawyers, doctors, professors and other forces who would visit the Director of Public Safety and demand the right for the convention to hold its conference and to receive the fullest protection of the police. This of course was not to be organized in the name of the ILD but rather as a delegation of the kind outlined, “to protest in the name of the fair city of Pittsburgh.” This delegation was quickly gotten together, and the next morning they visited the Director of Public Safety and made very emphatic demands, to such an extent that the Director of Public Safety was compelled to declare that the convention could be held.

The fullest publicity was given to this conference in all of the press, and undoubtedly it at least had the effect of breaking down the open enmity towards the National Miners’ Union forces, and turning the tide against the Lewis machine and the police. This was to be noted subsequently in the attitude of some forces of the Pittsburgh press, particularly the paper The Pittsburgh Press, which declared that the forces whose desire is to hold a convention must have the fullest opportunity to do so, and that the police must not act as the allies of the Lewis forces. I do not detail on this, since it is merely one of the methods we employed in Pittsburgh, but it is an indication that the party should utilize and mobilize these forces more often in such struggles since they can exercise an indirect pressure and influence that we as the ILD or the party cannot hope to do in that manner. That this liberal delegation was mobilized so quickly is due mainly to the energetic efforts of Professor Nunn of Pittsburgh University, who is a live element and who should be utilized more than formerly by the Pittsburgh forces in their various struggles of this kind.

During the whole day on Sunday, delegates to the convention were being rounded up at their hotels and arrested and charged with inciting to riot. Lewis men accompanied the police to the various quarters and pointed out the delegates, and also attempted to provoke fights, to make it simpler for the police to have an excuse to arrest the delegates. In once instance, the Negro delegate Charles Fulp was badly beaten up and then he was charged with assaulting and resisting an officer! During the course of that Sunday, almost 125 delegates were arrested, thus posing a big problem for immediate action for the ILD.

I held a conference with Ellenbogen on the policy and tactics to be pursued at the hearing the following morning, and it was agreed to carry out the policy along the lines of the ILD. The Civil Liberties Union was out of the picture in the matter of defense. The Civil Liberties Union declared that they did not wish to follow a policy of bailing out these arrested miners but were interested in fighting out the issue for the right to hold a convention. While we, of course, proposed to carry on the struggle to hold a convention in Pittsburgh, we proposed to do it simultaneously with the immediate problem. We were concerned with getting the miners out of jail so that they could participate in the convention at the earliest moment; consequently, it was our intention to procure bail, to get the men out as fast as possible. The entire work, therefore, was left to the ILD.

Upon action of the steering committee, I also attended the convention of the miners union at East Pittsburgh on Sunday night, and addressed the convention on the work of the ILD, and what was being done to get the men out of prison, and gave them greetings and endorsement. I also took up other matters at the convention, as per the instructions of the steering committee.

On Monday morning, together with Attorney Ellenbogen and others, I attended the hearings at Police Station Court 1. The miners were brought out, indicted and given a hearing. There were two hearings; the first hearing was, as the magistrate put it, called to weed out the “good” ones. A number of the miners were thus released. During the entire proceedings, the magistrate indicated quite clearly that his sympathies were on the side of the reactionary Lewis officialdom, and that he would do everything he could against the new union forces. He attacked the Communists, the reds, the Bolsheviks, etc., viciously and declared that non-citizens had no business in this country, etc., etc. It was the usual kind of tirade against the labor movement put on by the stupid and ignorant capitalist police officials.

Representatives of the Lewis machine including lawyers, a number of officials, as well as an even larger number of Lewis gangsters, were present. The Lewis supporters were, of course, immediately released. It was obvious that an understanding had been arrived at beforehand.

The magistrate inquired of the delegate miners, whether they had any money and whether they were able to support themselves. Since naturally very few of them had, I had arranged for the attorney to state that every man would be taken care of during the course of his stay. Thereupon the magistrate stated, “All right.” To avoid further attempts of the Lewis gangsters to gang up on our supporters, I arranged for the miners, as fast as they were released, to be taken in taxicabs to the National Miners Relief Office, and there also provided with money for food.

During the second hearing, the same day, the men after some questioning were either released, had fines placed upon them or were remanded to jail for the grand jury or federal hearing. The fines ranged from $5.00 to $25.00. Although it is generally the policy of the ILD not to pay fines, in this instance, it was agreed by the party committee that this be done, in order that we be able to get the miners, if possible, to the convention at the earliest possible moment. Therefore I paid the fines as fast as I was able to raise the money.

All of the men, therefore, of the 125 were released, except those who received fines. Some paid their fines immediately out of the money they had with them and the rest were taken out by me in the afternoon. Three men remained in jail, remanded to the grand jury according to the court on $1,000.00 bail, charged with rioting (and assault and battery upon an officer, in the case of Fulp). We proceeded to raise bail, but because of technical conditions it was not possible to get the men out that night. However, during the course of the night and the next morning, there was further consultation between our attorneys and the magistrate and other individuals, and in the morning these three were also released with a small fine placed against one of them. Of the 125 arrests that took place, every man was released outright or fines paid, within a space of 24 hours, with the exception of the three that had to remain an extra day.

As the men were being released and taken to the National Miners Relief Office, the police also set out to drive the delegates out of town, and declared that they could not remain. I immediately arranged for a conference of attorneys, of Porter of the Civil Liberties, Ellenbogen and others, to visit the Director of Public Safety, and the Chief of Police, and declared that we would resist any attempt to take the men out of town, that they had a perfect right to remain. It was stated finally that the men had a perfect right to remain in Pittsburgh as long as they pleased, so that this fact was also established. Nevertheless, under cover and through other pretexts the men who were released from jail were continually harassed by the police, and undoubtedly, though I do not have specific knowledge, many men were whisked out of town in this fashion. The police remained in the office of the National Miners Relief and at the railroad stations for quite some time, but later in the evening, I noticed that they had been removed. This second conference of liberal elements also served to establish, in the civil rights sense of capitalism, the right to hold a convention.

From a financial standpoint, the proceedings during those few days cost the ILD over $600: $250 for legal fees to Ellenbogen, fines, cost of food and taxis. The ILD will have to pay the entire amount itself, since the Civil Liberties Union regards itself as in no way obligated, since the cases were handled from the viewpoint and methods of the International Labor Defense.

I discussed, before leaving Pittsburgh, what the Civil Liberties Union might do in respect to some of the assaults. It is quite possible that the Civil Liberties Union will enter suit against the police who beat up Fulp. Its value will of course be mainly moral, if it is carried through.

In connection with the series of solidarity meetings which will be held by the National Miners’ Union, both the ILD and the Civil Liberties Union will undertake to see that these meetings are held, and will take all necessary steps toward this end.

To summarize, I am of the opinion that the ILD carried on a very successful fight in Pittsburgh, and that the results speak for themselves. The changing attitude of the press is of significance for the future work, prestige and standing of the National Miners’ Union in that territory. The operators, the Lewis machine and the police made a determined effort to smash the holding of the convention, and to smash the formation, in fact, of the union itself. They were completely unsuccessful despite their extreme methods of terror. They were unable to prevent the holding of the convention. They were unable to establish, even after their own methods and fashion, the illegality of the movement. They were unable to drive the forces away. At the earliest moment, the solidarity mass meeting by the union in Pittsburgh should be held, to establish there openly and strongly the stand of the National Miners’ Union and its victory over the Lewis machine. The union forces should immediately notify us when this will be held, so that we can take the necessary steps from our angle.

I also proposed to comrade White, the ILD secretary of Pittsburgh, that this was the period to try to gain organizational as well as political advantages for the ILD. I propose, therefore, that he organize immediately an affair or meeting on the strength of the work of the ILD in Pittsburgh in this convention struggle, and thereby also, in addition to the political and organizational possibilities, be able to raise the much-needed money to meet the cost of the cases. I proposed to comrade Jakira, the district organizer, that he give the fullest cooperation in this respect. It will be shameful to overlook this situation and not get results.

In my opinion, also, it is necessary to make a change of secretary for the Pittsburgh local. While comrade White is a good revolutionary and has the best of intentions, I do not believe that he is capable of meeting the situation of labor defense as it confronts us in Pittsburgh and vicinity. This was to be noted during the course of the struggle in Pittsburgh during these few days as well as from viewpoints and opinions which were given to us by various sources. The Pittsburgh local and vicinity should be one of the strongest sections of the ILD, yet it is one of the weakest. This can be remedied. If it is necessary to give additional reason on this matter, I will do so, but I think that the members of the Political Committee who were present at Pittsburgh and others will realize that everything that I am saying is absolutely correct and that a change is essential, and immediately. I also propose that the Polcom immediately authorize the National Office of the ILD to take steps to replace comrade White by another secretary.

* * *

P.S.: I understand that Calemeri, who is yet confined at the Passavent Hospital and whose memory is at present destroyed, is one of the best of the left wing forces. I visited him at the hospital and, while the doctors declared that they are not certain of recovery, it is quite possible that the efforts of the psychiatrists and other attentions may bring his memory around again. If so, he could be effectively used by the National Miners’ Union forces at various meetings, in view of his experiences, and I propose this suggestion to the committee.