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David Coolidge

Autonomy Bid Loses in UMWA

(25 September 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 39, 25 September 1944, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

CINCINNATI – At the time this is being written, the thirty-eighth constitutional convention of the United Mine Workers of America has been in session for four days and the most important of the questions to come before the convention, except for the report of the committees on scale and constitution, have been disposed of. The really controversial matters – the autonomy issue and the Roosevelt-Dewey election question – were disposed of a day before the convention recessed over Saturday and Sunday.

Before I take up the autonomy and political questions I want to remark that this is perhaps the only labor convention taking place this fall in which the no-strike pledge does not enter. Nobody here seems to be conscious of the fact that there is such a thing as a no-strike pledge. There has been no mention of it in the convention either from the platform or from the floor. Also there has been no report from the battle fronts by officers who had to travel to Europe to discover the sentiment of the soldiers on strikes and the production needs of the armed forces. To this must be added the fact that there was no telegram of greetings from the President. There have been no speeches by cabinet officers or assistant secretaries or members of Congress! No photograph of Roosevelt is on display. There is only one of John L. Lewis. The flags of “our allies” are absent; one sees only the United States and Canadian flags. There are two bands, the Monagh, W.Va., and the band of the Canadian miners. After the usual opening speeches of local officials on the opening day, the only “outsider” to address the convention was a representative of the United Service Organizations.

Autonomy Issue

The autonomy issue came before the convention in the report of the Resolutions Committee on the third day of the sessions. Percy Tetlow, provisional, president of District 17, West Virginia, reported that there were 138 resolution dealing with the topic, 86 in opposition to autonomy and 52 in favor. The committee recommended that

“upon proper presentation of substantial requests for autonomy in any district or districts, the International Executive Board shall take into consideration such requests and with due consideration for the protection or advancement of the rights of our members in such districts and the stability and efficiency of the organization, shall be authorized at its discretion to instruct any such district that substantial autonomy is granted ...
”Under the precise supervision of the International Executive Board the district shall meet in district convention and adopt a constitution ... provide for the nomination and election of district officers, except president and secretary-treasurer; and otherwise provide for district self-government ... The only exception to the above recommendations are the offices of presidents and secretary-treasurers in such districts, who shall continue to be selected by the International Executive Board and designated to hold such offices subject to international and district laws until such time as the International Executive Board shall provide otherwise.”

This was only a reaffirmation of the policy established by the conventions of 1938 and 1940 and reaffirmed in 1942. The reasons given by the committee for reaffirmation, and also the reasons given by Lewis in his speech on the question, are extremely interesting, despite the fact that they are somewhat irrelevant and beside the point. “We believe,” said the resolution, “that the above suggestions fully meet the needs of the situation, are protective of the rights of the membership and at the same time give to the international organization that small measure of advisory supervision that is conducive to the proper discharge of the obligations resting upon the international organization.” Furthermore, inherent in the resolution was the position that the present set-up is necessary to protect the organization in facing the “competitive problems arising out of producing and marketing coal.” The connection was also made with the problems of government control over wages and problems of the post-war period.

Bureaucracy, Democracy

In his speech on the subject, Lewis went into more detail. He said: “This is not a question to be decided in emotion or amid excitement, because it is a cold, mathematical, business proposition for the United Mine Workers to consider.”

Lewis then went on to say that while some locals in a district may desire autonomy, the majority of locals may not “and the overwhelming number of local unions and the overwhelming number of our membership do not lightly accept the suggestion that their district union be turned over, sometimes, to men without the necessary experience to operate it properly.”

Lewis then recited events that had taken place in certain autonomous districts. There was District 26 in Canada, where the officers “affiliated their union with the Red Trade Union Communist International and repudiated their contractual agreements with the coal industry. I threw them out of office on the toe of my boot. ... In District No. 10, Washington ... those officers ... either got scared or they sold out, and they negotiated a wage reduction, contrary to the policy of this union, with the coal operators of that state. Well, what was I to do? Have that contract taken for a base for a general wage reduction in this country?”

Lewis said that there was more to the autonomy proposition than meets the eye. “I don’t think our membership should get excited. I don’t think they will, and I am sure they will not follow behind some prancing windbag with a tin whistle trying to imitate the Pied Piper of Hamelin!” This was evidently a reference to Ray Edmundson. Lewis intimated that the autonomy move in part was a desire for jobs. “I think it is too bad, but it cannot be helped, that apparently in some districts there are just not enough offices to go around to meet the demand.”

When the vote came on the resolution, out of 2,500 delegates only about 100 voted for autonomy for the districts. Someone on the platform said that there were only thirty-eight votes for, while I read one estimate of fifty. But with a rapid count there were certainly nearer to a hundred voting for autonomy. Twenty-five delegates from fifteen different locals asked that their votes against the motion of the Resolutions Committee be recorded in the minutes.

Autonomy Issue Not Solved

The vote in the convention cannot be taken as a gauge of the sentiment of the delegates on this question. The Edmundson autonomy campaign had such a bad odor that even rank and file delegates who were for autonomy hesitated to carry on a fight for fear they would get smeared with the bad-smelling Edmundson brush.

It was very clear that the Edmundson group was not a pure and simple autonomy group and that non-union, anti-Lewis and anti-UMWA forces were interested in the struggle which Edmundson was engaged in.

One can agree that the Edmundson fight was not a real autonomy struggle. One can agree with all that Lewis said about the history of defalcations, ineptitude and inefficiency on the part of some district officers in the past. One can agree that the coal operators are interested, for their own purposes, in dealing with autonomous districts. One can agree that it may be difficult now to find efficient officers for all the districts.

Yet this is no reason for such a non-democratic, medieval and unprogressive attitude as that appearently held by the leadership of the union. The significant thing that the statements of Lewis proved is that there is a crying need for educational work in the UMWA. Lewis’ speech only demonstrated that among this magnificent, loyal and courageous group of workers there is a tragic lack of education in the principles of trade unionism, its history and the many problems of capitalist society that the miners are confronted with.

The International should spend some of the $10,000,000 in its treasury to educate the membership by a sound and progressive program of trade union education in all of its many phases.

Political Action

There are some other aspects of the autonomy, issue that I will discuss in a later article. This will include the role of the Negro delegates on this question and more on the Edmundson affair. Right now it is necessary to

get to the resolution on political action. This is a very strange resolution. It was presented to a convention after the president of the union and the Mine Workers Journal had already endorsed the Republican Party and its presidential candidate.

The same situation exists in the CIO. Before any of its affiliates had held their national conventions the top officers of the CIO had already endorsed the Democratic Party and its candidate, Roosevelt.

Despite the fact that Lewis and the UMWA official organ had already endorsed Dewey and the Republican Party, the resolution called for no endorsement. After vigorously and correctly flaying Roosevelt for six triple-spaced pages, fifteen lines of the mimeographed resolution are devoted to the praises of Dewey and the Republican Party. Very naively the sponsors of the resolution tell the coal diggers and the country that “the labor plank of the Republican Party’s platform promises labor the recognition and representation that belongs to labor. It promises economic freedom and to abolish all policies that lead to regimentation, the freezing of wages and binding men to their jobs.” The only assumption that one can make is that the officers of the UMWA believe that the only alternative to the anti-labor acts of the Roosevelt Administration is to swallow whole the “promises” of Dewey and the big business Republicans. There was one resolution in the convention for a Labor Party, but of course the Resolutions Committee recommended “non-concurrence.”

Plugging Hoover’s Dewey

“Dewey has not met the expectations of the betrayers of labor, the misleaders of labor, or the Communists who dominate the CIO and the Political Actionites. Such leaders are appendages geared to the Roosevelt Administration and, in many instances, old-world ideologies, and are ready and willing to sacrifice the economic freedom of the American way of life if need be to promote their personal welfare.”

What do these mysterious and cryptic sentences mean? Who are the betrayers of labor whom Dewey has disappointed? And why do the officers of the UMWA persist in the lie that Communists dominate the CIO? The CIO is dominated by Philip Murray and Lewis should know this. And who are the “Political Actionites”? What are the old-world ideologies mentioned in the above quoted paragraph? The most harassing, oppressive and strangling “old-world ideology” that labor is confronted with today is capitalism, the capitalist state and a capitalist government. This is an “old-world ideology” which was imported into this country directly from England. It is the only ideology dominant in this country. This ideology is sponsored, defended and accepted by both Roosevelt and Dewey, and by Republicans, and Democrats.

The 1936 convention endorsed Roosevelt and the union contributed a huge sum to his campaign. To be sure, the resolution says that Roosevelt “was given the endorsement as an individual candidate. The Democratic Party was not included.” This is pure nonsense. The CIO leaders will say today that they are not including the endorsement of Hague, Kelly and Bilbo in their endorsement of Roosevelt. But what do Hague, Kelly, Bilbo and the rest of the Democratic Party leaders care about this? We suppose that Lewis and his supporters will say that they are only endorsing Dewey and the Republican Party labor planks. They are not endorsing Taft, Mellon, Pew, the Republican Party politicians who are at the same time owners of coal mines and fascist and semi-fascist elements who are on the Republican bandwagon? Yet, as a matter of fact, a change only from Roosevelt to Dewey is merely a swing from one boss party to another. Support of either party is detrimental to the best interests of labor.

The convention is not over as this is written and I will resume this report in the next number of Labor Action.

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