Max Shachtman

Is the Government Owner or Custodian?

‘Nationalize the Mines’ –
Must Be Miners’ Demand

(July 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 27, 5 July 1943, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The indignation of the coal miners continues to be expressed by the continued refusal of tens of thousands of them to return to work in several of the country’s largest mining centers.

As Labor Action goes to press, work has not yet been fully resumed in the Pennsylvania anthracite and bituminous fields or in Alabama.

All reports agree that even those miners who did return to work following the decision of the policy committee of the United Mine Workers of America, went back full of resentment and anger at the refusal of the government, which backed the operators, to grant the legitimate and modest demands of more than half a million of the country’s hardest workers, engaged in, the most hazardous occupation, and compelled to work at below a subsistence wage.

The general reluctance of the miners to return to work without a better contract, and the outright refusal of tens of thousands of them to heed the back-to-work decision, ought to be ample reply to the mud-slingers and professional liars of the capitalist press who tried to interpret their fight as a mere “political maneuver” of President John L. Lewis.

The miners have showed beyond the possibility of debate that they were fully conscious of what they were doing and why they were doing it when they so unanimously responded on three different occasions to the strike call of their union.

Now that they have been forced back to work, however, they understand fully that nothing has really been settled. Nothing, that is, with the possible exception of the growing realization that “their government” is nothing but a government of the coal operators and the railroad magnates and bankers with whom they are linked.

The government stepped in to break the strike. The government stepped in to save the property and the tremendous profits of the coal operators, but not to protect the standard of living of the coal miners. The government stepped in to take over the mines only as “custodian,” that is, hold the mines for the operators while the government itself forced the miners to go back to work under the terms of the old contract which the operators, by themselves, sought in vain to stuff down the throats of the miners.

Now, as if to make it still clearer on whose side the government stands, the official mine “custodian,” Harold L. Ickes, has appointed Carl E. Newton as director of mine operations for the government. And who Is Mr. Newton? He’s president of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Co., one of the biggest coal haulers in the country, and as close to the coal barons as the House of Morgan is to Wall Street. Anyone who is in doubt as to how much good Mr. Newton is going to do the miners in his new job ought to have his head examined quickly.

At the same time, Mr. Ickes told the House Ways and Means Committee that the government had “no desire and no plans for the nationalization” of the coal industry and hopes to return the mines to full private ownership “at the earliest possible moment.”

In other words, the government stepped in only to savo the property and profits of the operators, and to batter down the demands of the miners for a decent standard of living.

In the meantime? In the meantime, the miners have no contract and have been given no increase in wages. With whom are they supposed to deal, with whom are they supposed to exercise their right of collective bargaining? With the operators, or with the government “custodian”? Or with neither one of the two?

The government, without saying so, recognized the inability of the operators to direct and operate the mines when Washington took them over as “custodian.” At the same time, the government says it will not direct and operate the mines, but will return them to the operators “at the earliest possible moment.”


That must become the demand of the miners. They know all that is needed to organize and carry on production. And once they gain access to the company books, they will find that it is the easiest thing in the world to get a wage increase that may hurt the bankers and railroad bosses, but will not impair the mining of coal in the least.


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Last updated on 12 June 2015