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David Coolidge

What Does the Extension of the Mine Truce Mean?

WLB Out to Whip Miners, But It Faces Solid Union Ranks Ready for Action!

(24 May 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 21, 24 May 1943, pp. 1 & 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The attempt by the coal operators, government officials and the daily capitalist press to defeat the mine workers and to wreck their union proceeds with increased vigor and determination. The whole boss class in the United States is engaged in this campaign and its chief weapon today is the War Labor Board.

The latest tantrum of the WLB was its “order” to the coal companies and to the UMWA to resume collective bargaining negotiations. The board, however, did not stop here. It issued a “directive order” as follows: “The board instructs the operators not to proceed with collective bargaining until both parties are ready to proceed under the auspices and instructions of the division of the board. No other agency of the government is now authorized to direct otherwise.”

In the light of such an order, it is important to ask just what kind of collective bargaining this WLB has in mind? If the WLB has even the slightest interest in the resumption of collective bargaining it would not be putting on the present show. The brute fact is that if it is collective bargaining that the WLB is interested in, it should have directed the coal companies to resume negotiations with the UMWA. It was the companies that stalled negotiations by refusing to make any concessions whatsoever.

There is reason to believe that the coal operators knew in advance that they would be backed up by the WLB. Every proposal made by the miners was rejected by the operators. They stood pat on their decision to grant nothing. Theirs was an “I don’t know nothin’” attitude. They said on a large scale what every little jackleg foreman has been saying for over a year: “Take it to the WLB.”

WLB Bombast

What does the WLB mean by resuming negotiations “under the auspices and instructions” of the board? What instructions will the board give the miners and operators even before they resume negotiations?”!)? the board has authority to give instructions, then why hasn’t this board the authority to decide the case now and make an award? We ask this because negotiations went on for several weeks, and broke down because the operators refused to make any concession whatsoever, no matter from what direction the proposal came. The coal companies stood pat and demanded unconditional surrender from the UMWA.

This little board knows all of this and if, as it says, the board alone has the authority to handle this case, then why doesn’t the board handle the case in a responsible way? At present this WLB gives the impression that its chief interest is only to whip the UMWA into submission.

What did the WLB mean by its demagogic, inane and bombastic statement about Lewis “defying the lawfully established procedures of the government of the United States ... this defiance challenges the sovereignty of the United States in time of war and gives aid and comfort to our enemies.” This board calls itself, in some sense, a judicial body. But the above quoted screech sounds like it came from a cheap Hearst editor, a Pegler, or a Stalinist hatchetman.

The UMWA is a real union of a half million militant workers who know that they have just grievances. They know farther that they are being given the runaround by the employers and the WLB. They know that posing this fight as a patriotic struggle against Lewis is primarily an attempt either to destroy their union as a militant organization of workers, or to force it into impotence as they have almost succeeded in doing with other unions such as those, under the leadership of Green, Murray and the Stalinists. The employer members of the WLB and their controlled stooges, the “public members,” are aided and abetted by their labor lieutenants on the board.

No matter what any individual miner thinks about Lewis, if he has any intelligence at all he knows that Lewis is not the issue – but hunger, misery, unbearable working conditions and a concerted attempt to wreck the union. The miners are resolved, and they are right, that this, shall not be accomplished by the operators, by the WLB – nor by the two working together.

What Is the Issue?

In its “unanimous statement” (which means that the CIO-AFL members voted for it) the WLB says: “the issue now confronting the the nation in this dispute is whether Mr. Lewis is above and beyond the laws which apply to all other citizens of the United States.” This is not the issue, and this board knows it. There are several issues. The main issue is whether or not the wages of the miners, which average around $35 a week, shall be brought up to the $46 average for aircraft, $51 for automobile workers and $61 for ship workers. This is what the miners are primarily interested in, and the miners are right.

Another issue is to discover what the WLB means when it says that that the “defiance” of Lewis is “the only thing that stands in the way of the working out of a new contract for the mine workers by orderly, peaceful procedure in accordance with the order of the NWLB ... and the national stabilization policy under the Act of Congress of October 2, 1942.”

This is sheer nonsense or worse. How about the operators? What did they do at the time when “orderly, peaceful procedure” was in progress? What did they think of the “sovereignty of the United States in time of war”? Have the operators given any “aid and comfort to our enemies”? The board is strangely silent on all of this.

Despite all of this, the UMWA has agreed to extend the “truce” to May 31. This extension was granted at the request of Mr. Ickes, who wrote to the UMWA expressing the “hope that by this action the way will be open for immediate collective bargaining conferences.”

The union assumed that this statement meant that Ickes had some intention and authority, as “custodian of the mines,” to initiate collective bargaining procedures. The WLB contested this and the very next day the papers carried a letter from Mr. Ickes to the union saying that, “as I told you on Sunday, May 2, the President’s executive order does not give me the power to negotiate a contract with the United Mine Workers nor do I have the power to institute collective bargaining conferences between the mine workers and the owners of the mines. In addition, I have said from the very beginning, any contract must have the approval of the WLB.”

What Are Ickes’ Powers?

This is plain and clear enough, but where does it leave the miners? What is the meaning of the extension of the “truce”? What is the status of this “truce” today? The miners did not resume the temporarily suspended strike because Ickes requested that they continue production, hoping that “by this action the way will be open for immediate collective bargaining.” Were the miners double-crossed by Ickes? If so, why should they continue at work until May 31?

The mines all over the country are plastered with signs saying that they are “United States Property.” But in the quotation Ickes talks about the “owners of the mines,” meaning the coal companies. Ickes says further, in his letter to the UMWA, that he is “eager to restore the mines to private possession ...”

The mines are government property and they are also the property of the coal companies. The miners’ are working for the government and at the same time they are working for the coal companies. Ickes is the custodian of mines which are U.S. property, and the workers in these mines are working for the government. Presumably then they are working for and under Ickes, representing their new employer, the government. But the WLB says “nothing doing”; the operators, who no longer own the mines, and the miners, who no longer work for the coal companies, are to appear before the WLB, and be told how to proceed with collective bargaining.

In his letter, Ickes capitulates to the WLB but he doesn’t say that he has no authority to negotiate with the UMWA. He says that he has no power to “negotiate a contract” or to “institute collective bargaining conferences between the mine workers and the owners of the mines.” Ickes also says that “any contract must have the approval of the WLB.”

What are Ickes’ powers, anyhow? Does he have any powers? How can the UMWA discover what they are if he has any? If the miners are working for the government and Ickes represents the government, then why can’t he negotiate a contract with the miners, even though it must later “have the approval of the WLB”?

Furthermore, we would like to ask by what authority some coal companies attempted to levy fines on the UMWA in connection with the strike? Does Ickes have anything to say about this? Does the WLB?

On the Alert!

What we want to emphasize, and what the miners had better get clearly in their heads, is the fact that they are in for a thorough walloping from Ickes, the WLB and the real owners of the mines (the coal companies) if they waver for one instant. The position of the UMWA is impregnable. They have a considerable amount of “public” support. They have the suppprt of the overwhelming majority of the workers, especially the membership of the CIO. They are only opposed, in the ranks of labor, by the top leadership and the Stalinist jackals and jackasses.

The miners must keep their ranks solid -as they have so magnificently done up to now. They have set the example for all of American labor to see and follow. When they do this, all of their enemies combined cannot defeat them. Their demands are just. They have demonstrated, as the operators have’ not, willingness to adjust the grievances by genuine collective bargaining. They kept the “truce” even after their union was unjustly attacked by the WLB as an organization which “gives aid and comfort to our enemies.”

But enough is enough! The UMWA must keep on the alert. The miners must maintain discipline and eternal vigilance. They must stand by for action!

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Last updated: 23 May 2015