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David Coolidge

Five Labor Conventions:

Lewis Keeps Control in the Miners Union

(October 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 10, October 1944, pp. 312–313.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The coal miners came together in Cincinnati early in September for their first meeting since the great strikes of 1943. At the time of the convention, despite the fact that the WLB had rendered its decision on the wage scale, including portal-to-portal pay, and the mines had been returned to their private owners, there were many grievances that had not been adjusted. There were back wages due. The question of mine safety and the passage of a federal mine safety bill was uppermost in the minds of UMWA membership. While the convention was in session a communication arrived telling that more bodies had been recovered from the Powhattan mine in Ohio, where a most tragic “accident” had occurred.

Aside from these grievances the convention convened in the midst of a presidential campaign. The fact that Roosevelt was a candidate for re-election was in itself enough to make the November election a paramount issue. The miners came to Cincinnati bitter and convinced that this Administration had directly and deliberately attempted to wreck their union.

The Issue of District Autonomy

An equally important question was the autonomy issue which this year had been intensified through the activities of Ray Edmundson, formerly the appointed president of District 12 in Southern Illinois. This was really the first event of the convention that could be called a contest. Edmundson had resigned as the appointed president of District 12 and it was reported that he had gone back to work in the mines. He appeared at the convention, held a caucus of his forces and announced that he would withdraw as a candidate for UMWA president against Lewis if Lewis would consent to the restoration of autonomy to the twenty-one districts where today the president and secretary-treasurer are appointed.

I do not know all the facts nor the most important facts in connection with the Edmundson campaign. It is clear however, that it was in no sense a movement primarily to restore autonomy to the twenty-one districts. Two pages in The New International are not sufficient for any details in connection with this or other important questions, so only the barest outline can be given. There is every reason to believe that the autonomy grievance was seized on by anti-Lewis forces outside the union to wage a reactionary struggle against Lewis and the UMWA. Coal operators may have been involved. Roosevelt Administration forces were probably active in this alleged autonomy move. There is concrete evidence for the position that Browder’s Communist Party Political Association had very jubilantly joined the Edmundson caravan and had as its representative the secretary of the committee, a miner from West Virginia.

Events at the convention confirmed any suspicions that one may have had in advance that this so-called autonomy movement had other purposes. Edmundson’s right to his seat as a delegate was challenged. His eligibility was challenged on the ground that he had not worked in the mines during the period required by the union constitution. His right to a seat was challenged on the ground that he was not in good financial standing in his local. None of these challenges was accepted and no one rose in the convention, not even the secretary of the Edmundson committee, to defend Edmundson’s right to a seat. It semed clear that the “autonomy” movement had been initiated mainly as an anti-Lewis campaign and that the legitimate demands of locals for autonomous districts was used in a way that could benefit only those forces bent on a career of weakening the UMWA.

This created an extremely unfortunate situation for those militants, progressives and democratic elements in the union which came prepared to wage a correct fight for the restoration of democratic rights to the districts and locals. It also gave Lewis the opportunity to use irrefutable facts “in the matter of past delinquencies of elected district officials in the most demagogic and undemocratic manner. While no sensible person will deny that the coal industry and the political, economic and social conditions in the coal fields create great difficulties for the union it does not follow from this that the perpetuation of rule by the national officers is the answer to the dilemma. The only cure for this situation is a combination of vigilance and competency on the part of the leadership, trade union and political education of the membership and the deliberate practice of internal democracy in the union. This is the answer, and neither Lewis nor anyone else will be able to find any other answer to this question. The autonomy question will arise again. It will continue to rise, and this is as it should be. The issue cannot be met by an increase in bureaucratism nor by the perpetuation of economic and political ignorance.

The Miners and the Elections

This was also evident in the discussion around the resolution On Political Action. Here was a resolution in which Roosevelt was soundly and correctly castigated. But in the same resolution Dewey was just as enthusiastically praised. At the end, however the resolution stated that the union should follow its traditional policy and refrain from making an endorsement. The fact is the resolution did endorse Dewey. But this fact was detected by only a few of the delegates. No delegate rose to question the propriety and the right of Lewis and above all the UMWA Journal to come out with an endorsement of Dewey before the convention and without the consent of the membership of the international.

It is a moot point as to whether or not the convention would have voted to endorse Dewey. There were many delegates who were convinced that had the vote been taken, the overwhelming majority would have been for Dewey. We cannot say anything on this except that if Dewey had been endorsed it would certainly not have betn a pro-Dewey but an anti-Roosevelt vote. In a measure too it would also have been an anti-PAC vote and an anti-CIO vote. One of the tragedies of this situation is that far too many of the miners have the feeling that the CIO is against them. Many of them actually believe that the sentiment of the rank and file in the CIO is against the miners. Of course, nothing is farther from the truth and the leadership of the miners commits a crime against the UMWA, the CIO and the interests of labor when it does not make every effort to dispel this very dangerous illusion.

Role of the Negro Delegates

It is necessary to say something on the role of the Negro delegates at the convention. It seemed that there were fewer Negro delegates than at the 1942 convention. Their main interest seemed to be in the autonomy issue. The overwhelming majority of them were opposed to district autonomy. This was strange and disturbing: Negroes opposed to internal democracy in a union and standing against the democratic rights of a union membership! When the matter was discussed with them, however, the whole problem of Jim Crow in the United States stared one in the face. One was confronted with the results of decades of discrimination, insult and segregation. In the minds of these Negro delegates, their opposition to autonomy was itself a part of the struggle for democracy, that is, part of a struggle for their democratic rights in the union, a struggle against discrimination.

They were not talking about their national officers, their district officers or about the general situation in the international. They know better than that. They know their union and its history on this point. They were talking about individual white members of the various locals and groups of such individuals in the various locals. This attitude was held most strongly by Negro delegates from the South. These Negro delegates said that they would get more, that is, more recognition, under the present set-up than under autonomy where district officials are elected and where such elected district officials would have the power to appoint people to important paid posts in the district. What they meant was that the white members would, as a rule, confine their support to white men running for office and that white men would be favored in the making of appointments. To what extent this is true I cannot say. All I can say is that the Negro delegates who opposed autonomy were firm in their convictions on this point.

This issue of course is not confined to the miners. It is a problem of the whole labor movement: North and South; AFL, CIO, railroad brotherhoods and UMWA. And just as is the case with all the other crucial problems of the labor movement, it can only be answered by more education of labor, more struggle together on a militant program and more political education and working class political action.

The Question of Strikes

To these adverse criticisms it is necessary to add extremely important praiseworthy considerations. The first is that the convention of the UMWA was the only convention in which no discussion of the no-strike pledge was necessary. The miners had given due consideration to that problem by four strikes in 1943 in which the whole international had participated. Lewis told the convention that on the matter of mine safety it would be necessary for the miners to consider refusing to work in any mine they considered unsafe. The convention instructed the scale committee to include in the coming wage negotiations that: “all explosives, cables, detonators, batteries, fuses and all accessories used in blasting, be furnished by the employers without charge to the mine workers.”

Furthermore, “to insert in the next agreement a provision requiring employers to furnish union-made tools and explosives.” Also, “that it will not be a violation of the wage agreement for the mine workers to cease work to prevent shipment of coal to a consumer whose employees are engaged in a legal strike.”

This, of course, means that the miners are not committed to a no-strike pledge; that if they ever had one they have already repudiated it. It means that the UMWA is committed to proceed with the organization of the duPont powder empire and other sections of the chemical industry. It means further that the UMWA is committed to the organization of machine tool companies supplying tools to the mining industry.

Finally it is worth while to comment on the fact that Lewis remains the undisputed leader of the mine workers, and with their consent. This does not mean that every miner is fully satisfied with the Lewis leadership or that Lewis is not a bureaucrat. What it does mean is that when the miners look at Murray, Thomas, Green and the rest, they know that Lewis stands head and shoulders above the field. They may be for Roosevelt or for Dewey, but it is always Lewis and Roosevelt, or Lewis and Dewey. It’s Lewis first. No one should make a mistake about this or try to fool himself.

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