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David Coolidge

Our Correspondent Finds Miners Determined to Win

(10 May 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 19, 10 May 1943, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

PITTSBURGHAs this is being written, the miners are returning to work following the fifteen day “truce” arranged between their Policy Committee and the new coal czar, the Secretary of the Interior. As the chairman at one local meeting which I attended put it, “Mr. Lewis has granted Mr. Ickes a fifteen-day truce.” And as far as I could learn, this is the way the miners view the matter: it is only a truce.

The battle isn’t over yet. The miners haven’t the least intention of giving up their demands. They are determined about these demands, and it can be said plainly that they will never agree to any compromise that does not result in substantially higher wages and improved working conditions. On this matter of better working conditions, I will say more later.

It is necessary to emphasize that while the mine workers have formally agreed to the. “truce” and are back at work, they do not like this truce. Numbers of them that I talked to, individually and in groups, remarked that this thing has been going oh long enough: “We’ve already given them a thirty-day extension.”

From what I have heard in getting around from place to place, I am of the opinion that thousands of these miners really did not want to go back to work until they got their new contract.

Maintained Discipline

It is also important to emphasize as strongly as possible that, while they went back to work, they maintained the same superb discipline with which they began their action and the same discipline that kept them off the job for the four days from Saturday to Tuesday.

Even in Fayette County, where the return was somewhat in advance of other Western Pennsylvania counties, the movement was not as stated by the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph (Hearst), which paper carried the head on Monday afternoon, “Fayette Miners Troop Into Pits.” Even the most casual observation in Fayette County on Monday afternoon and evening revealed the fact that there was no danger of a jam at the mine entrance caused by men rushing back to work.

This was very clearly demonstrated by the fact that all through this region coke ovens, which bad been charged for pulling within 96 hours, had not been pulled by Monday night. At Allison, a miner told me that the ovens there would have been pulled sometime on Monday if the men had been at work. In discussing, the matter with the mine superintendent, however, the men had decided that they would carry out the instructions of their Policy Committee and return on Tuesday. Furthermore, the fact that Fayette County was ahead of other counties in getting going was due to instructions from the president of District No. 4, William J. Hynes, who went on the air Sunday night, immediately following Roosevelt’s speech, and gave instructions to return to work on Monday morning. The Pittsburgh papers which carried dispatches of the Associated Press and the United Press failed to inform their readers that this was the situation in District 4, made up of Fayette and Greene Counties.

In other counties, notably Washington and Alleghany, the miners held strictly to the Tuesday opening instructions. Meetings were held by the various locals and a vote was taken. While voting on the return was more or less a matter of formality, it was necessary to discuss the arrangement of the shifts; that is, which of the three shifts that came off at the beginning of the strike should be the first to begin work. At one local meeting which I attended, this matter consumed three-fourths of the time of the meeting.

Papers Distorted Facts

It can be said that the daily papers distorted the issues of the strike, fabricated events and deliberately lied. They acted precisely as they have in the past. It was their purpose, of course, to make the, reading public, far away from the scene, believe that the miners’ grievances were a sort of figment of the imagination, and that if it had not been for Lewis they would have continued at work. This is far from the truth!

It is no wonder that representatives of the daily papers were not tolerated in the mine fields if their presence became known. At one local meeting I was stopped at the door and told that I could not remain until I had been approved by the local’s president. I used the last number of Labor Action with the front page head “THE COAL MINERS ARE RIGHT” as my credentials. This was all that was necessary to prove that I was not there to “misquote and lie,” as one of the officers put it. One officer said to me that “if you had been representing one of the Pittsburgh papers we would have thrown you out on your head.”

Anyone who traveled through the region in the past few days would wonder just how the daily papers and the press associations did get the “news” which was carried by their papers. The reporters were not at the meetings, and they were not accepted by the miners individually. Even in talking to the men individually and in small groups it was clear that they were suspicious of anyone who looked like a newspaper man. Many of them told me so in plain words that could be easily understood.

Ranks Held Solid

This is the real story of how the men returned to work and what they thought of the way the daily papers were handling their strike. Despite the fact that the men wanted to work because they need the money, they maintained discipline and kept their ranks solid. Hundreds of deserted pits attested to this. Sunday afternoon and all day Monday, in five or six countries, I saw only two men “trespass on company property.” This was at one mine of the Pittsburgh Coal Co., where two men were pushing a mine car up the tracks.

In trying to discover the reasons behind this solidarity and determination, I talked to many miners about wages, working conditions and prices in the company stores. While conditions may vary a little from place to place, and company to company, conditions are fairly general for the whole bituminous field.

While it is known that deductions are made from the miners’ pay for such items as powder, caps and light, it is not known that this is a rule and just how much it amounts to. At the Pittsburgh Coal Co., the largest producer, a miner must pay out of his wages eight cents a stick for his powder. He uses from five to ten sticks a day. He is charged eight cents each for firing caps and may use four or five a day. He pays eight cents a day for his light, whether or not he works.

Everyone knows that there is slate in coal deposits and that the slate is waste material. Miners do not get paid for the first twelve inches of slate. Slate and deductions for powder, caps and light reduce his pay. A man who is rated at eight or ten dollars a day can have his income cut to six or eight dollars a day after paying for his powder, caps, light, and putting in his time shooting down eleven and a half inches of slate, for which he is not paid, with powder which he has paid for. Add to this the fact that they do not work a full year, and it is easy for anyone except a captive reporter of the daily press to understand why the miners did not flock back to the pits.

A loader for the Pittsburgh Coal Co. has a rate of eighty-seven cents a ton. He can load about ten tons a day. But for one reason or another, he may not get the coal to load. Or, as explained to me by some men at one mine, the pumping system may not work or may be inadequate. Then they must work in water, which not only endangers their health but makes it impossible to load the coal and get the daily ten tons. These are some of the reasons why the miners do not make enough money to live on.

The matter of prices at the company stores in the mine patches is another grievance. This, of course, is the basis of the rapid rise in the cost of living in the mine field. Dozens of miners talked to me about the high cost of living. At one company store, a rather elaborate and gaudy affair, a sort of department store, I saw sweet potatoes at two pounds for 35 cents; ordinary apples, two pounds for 29 cents; and some wilted spinach, two pounds for 29 cents. The miner who was conducting me around said that “common (white) potatoes” had advanced in the last three months from sixty cents to ninety cents to $1.10 a peck. In thirty days, cabbage advanced from nine cents to nineteen cents a pound.

Their Attitude Toward Lewis

These things that I report here, are what make the ordinary miner act as he does. These are the ordinary everyday things they talk about when you discuss the strike with them. They want more money because, with the high prices, they can’t live on their present incomes. They want better working conditions, because present physical conditions in the mines cut down their incomes, jeopardize their wealth and endanger their lives.

I talked to them about John L. Lewis and Roosevelt’s speech. Most of those that I talked to were not much impressed with the speech. Because to them the speech didn’t seem to bear on their daily lives in the mines and mine communities. They have an idea that Roosevelt can do something for them, but they now expect him to act in their favor. However, they will be disappointed if they do not COMPEL him to act that way, because he certainly has no desire to do so. I came across a few miners in Fayette County who expressed great confidence in Roosevelt. One man also said that the reason that Lewis was willing to confer with Ickes was that “he seen he was swamped.”

As far as I could learn from the men that I talked to, there was no heat for or against Lewis. He is their recognized leader and they take his instructions in a most forthright manner. They seem willing to obey and abide by whatever action is taken by the Policy Committee. It was clear, however, in their meetings and in conversation, that they expect an increase in pay. They are confident they will get it. At one meeting the chairman said: “We have already won, a victory.”

One thing that seemed to give a great deal of satisfaction Is their belief that they have successfully side-stepped the War Labor Board. They believe that Ickes, the official representative of their “new employer” will find a way around that will produce at least a portion of the increase they are demanding.

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Last updated: 23 May 2015