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David Coolidge

Unsolved Issues in the Mine Workers Union

(2 October 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 40, 2 October 1944, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In connection with the biennial convention of the coal miners, I wrote last week about the autonomy scramble and the resolution on political action. It is necessary to add a few words on these two important questions. In the first place it is clear how that the attitude of the UMWA leadership in relation to autonomy for the districts was only part of a more general attitude. This more general attitude was the belief of Lewis and the other leaders that at this time a high degree of centralization is necessary in the International during the post-war years.

For instance, the convention accepted the recommendation of the Constitution Committee that international and district officers be elected for four-year terms instead of two, and local officers for two-year terms instead of one as at present.

Furthermore the constitution was amended to have the next “constitutional convention” in 1948 and the next “scale and policy convention” in 1946. This means that for at least four years the membership of the UMWA will not be in position to deal with any matters which require Constitutional change or sanction. Just what is “policy” and where any proposed policy conflicts with the constitution presumably is left to the wisdom of the international board for decision.

Autonomy Issue Will Go On

It is my opinion that the autonomy issue will not down in the UMW. As the miners acquire more and more grasp of the fundamental issues facing all labor in the country and begin to learn that if the union is to maintain its strength and prestige, it will be necessary for the present leadership to be strengthened by new people arising out of the ranks. This will not occur under the present method of procedure and the present somewhat bureaucratic set-up, no matter how benevolent, efficient and determined it is to protect the interests of the coal diggers.

One unfortunate situation in the UMWA is the seeming conviction of a large part of the membership that the miners stand alone, as far as the rank and file of the workers in the country go. This, of course, is not true and it does the miners no good for the leadership to foster among them such a distorted picture of labor in the United States. Furthermore, the opposition of Roosevelt and the Roosevelt government to the UMWA is being overstressed and overemphasized. I mean the opposition of Roosevelt is overemphasized in the sense that it is not being made clear to the miners why the Roosevelt government has been so tough on the miners.

It is certainly not clear to the rank and file miner that the Roosevelt government acted as it did in 1943 because the UMWA was the only labor union which was challenging the government and the capitalist employers. The Roosevelt government attempted to break the UMWA because this union by its actions was upsetting the wage-freeze applecart and in fact repudiating the no-strike pledge. Its leader, Lewis, unlike Murray, Green and Thomas, did not rush from mine to mine exhorting the men to return to work.

The mine strikes of 1943 were political strikes; they were strikes that might have brought the whole labor movement into rapid and militant action.

Strike, a Political Fight

A capitalist government will not tolerate political strikes, if it can help itself, not even in peacetime. The fact which the miners must learn sooner or later is that the same treatment would have been handed out to the automobile workers or the shipyard workers if they had done the same thing. It is a safe guess to say that if the automobile workers had walked out in a mass, as did the miners, and Thomas had acted in the same way that Lewis did, the attitude of Roosevelt and the government would have been worse than it was with the miners. The Roosevelt government attempted to bust the UMWA because it feared that the actions of he miners would inspire other workers to follow suit.

For the miners to believe that what was done to them was occasioned by some personal dislike of Lewis on Roosevelt’s part or in a fit of petulance by Davis, “the little patent lawyer,” is to miss what is really important and fundamental in the whole situation. And for the UMWA to attempt to solve the problem by flying into the arms of Dewey and the Republican Party is a tragedy from which these workers will suffer for years to come.

The Republican Party, if it had been in office, would have acted precisely as did Roosevelt. When dealing with a militant and fighting union, coal operators, automobile manufacturers or steel companies do not function as Republican or Democrats but as capitalist employers. They do not look to see whether the name is UMWA, UAW, AFL or CIO. They do not care whether the leader’s name is Lewis, Green, Murray or Tobin. They consider only what is being done, what action is taking place and act accordingly to protect their class interests. I say again that the government was not concerned with Murray and Green because Murray and Green were bootlicking around the White House while the miners were, to a man, refusing to “work without a contract.”

The steel workers’ contract expired last December and they asked for a seventeen-cent increase. They did not get it. They remained at work and are still at work. Why should Roosevelt, the steel companies and the capitalist press be worried about Murray and the steel workers? Capitalist employers and capitalist Presidents do not concern themselves to try to smash unions that give them ho trouble.

The miners and all other labor organizations have to learn and understand that it is the strength of the labor movement and not its weakness that makes capitalist employers and capitalist governments organize campaigns of union wrecking. The UMWA began a struggle last year. They have not completed that struggle yet. They will have many more days of “refusing to work without a contract.” This is recognized in the scale resolution approved by the convention and which contains the following wage agreement proposals:

  1. All explosives, cables, detonators, batteries, fuses and all accessories used in blasting be furnished by the employers without charge to the mine workers.
  2. To limit the number of supervisory and technical employees exempted in the wage agreement and provide for their proper classification in the wage schedule.
  3. To insert in the next agreement a provision requiring the employers to furnish union-made tools and explosives.
  4. 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.

To this must be added the statement of Lewis that the time has come for the miners to refuse to work in a mine that is not considered safe.

This is a militant program such as has been adopted by no union in any convention that has been held so far. But do Lewis and the rank and file militants among the miners have any childish illusions that such a correct and militant program will endear the UMWA to Dewey and the Republican Party?

It would be very embarrassing to Governor Dewey and to Lewis also for the Governor to be asked in a public meeting what he thinks of these UMWA proposals. It would be embarrassing to Lewis, because Dewey could not support such proposals any more than could Roosevelt.

In an important sense these proposals are anti-capitalist in that they would tend to promote the militant solidarity of labor. Furthermore, the implication in paragraph (c) is that the UMWA plans to organize the duPont empire and the companies making mining tools and machinery.

A highlight of the convention was the exchange of telegrams between the Interior Department and the UMWA. We only have space for some of the best paragraphs from these replies of the convention.


First Telegram to Ickes

The Secretary of the Interior
Washington, D.C.

Your telegram addressed to the president of this union has been referred to the delegates of this convention for action and reply. We do not like the anonymity of the message. We think you should sign your name to messages bearing your title ... We note what the message says about the legal strike of supervisors at certain mines. We have been trying to be helpful on this matter; and our officers, too. The trouble as you know is the pulling and hauling of the various government agencies, all at cross purposes, and each issuing orders that conflict with the other. We think one of the main troubles is that Park Avenue fellow, the big industry patent man, named Davis, who always has his knife out for our union and our officers. He is always having the President sign something which causes more trouble. The clerical, technical and supervisory employees in the mines are getting a rotten deal from the government. This, of course, follows the rotten deal which the government gave to all the coal miners in 1943 and 1944 ... YOU know, Mr. Secretary of the Interior, the coal miners are doing a job producing coal to win the war; they are buying bonds, too. We hope you will study the record on these facts. With nearly 300,000 less men employed in the anthracite and the bituminous industries, we will produce this year nearly 45,000,000 tons more than was produced in the war year of 1918.

This brings up another question about how our men are being killed off in the coal industry. The records of this convention reveal that there were more than 276,000 casualties in the coal industry in the four years 1940–43, inclusive. The ratio of accidents is increasing and in this year of 1944 every ton of coal will be smeared with mine workers’ blood. The President is now seizing a lot of coal mines, and you, Mr. Secretary of Interior, are supposed to be operating them. We know that this government seizure and operation are a farce and is merely a device on the part of the President and the coal operators to defeat the aims of the coal miners and to deprive them of their rights. We think, however, that as long as you purport to operate these mines you should keep them safe. The United States Bureau of Mines, which is under your orders, have authority under a federal statute to inspect that mines at will. As government operator of coal mines, you have the authority to instruct coal operators to make immediately effective each and every order and recommendation of the inspectors of the United States Bureau of Mines. Why not do so and save the lives of some human beings, so that we can continue to produce coal for the war effort? We urge you to order a rigid forthwith inspection of each coal mine which the government has pretended to seize and ask that you publicly direct the coal operators in these mines to make the safety findings of the federal inspectors effective. This will help a lot and will restore confidence to thousands of mine Workers now who have ho confidence in the non-union supervisors, who are joining with the coal operators and agencies of government to fight our union.


Second Telegram to Ickes

Honorable Harold L. Ickes
Secretary of the Interior
Washington, D.C.

Your wire. You do not seem to understand that our telegram to you was adopted by the unanimous standing vote of 2,700 delegates elected by the mine workers of the nation in their home communities. This convention is the supreme authority of the union. We are the employers of John Lewis and he is responsive to our orders. While this convention is in session we will answer his telegram if we elect to do so. When we go home you can move in on him if you desire, but watch your guard and protect your wind – protect your wind. We think that he will go around you like a cooper around a barrel. We told you in our message that we are trying to be helpful. Our officers too.

Your suggestion that we do not keep our agreement is an insult to every mine worker in the nation. We have an unbroken record of fifty-four years of meticulous observance and punctilious regard for the sanctity of contracts. Your statement that the mine workers could produce more coal is based on absolute ignorance of mining practice and is a display of personal malice unbecoming a cabinet officer.

No, Harold, our message was not political. Bread and butter are not political. Dead men in coal mines are not political. The tears of women and the cries of children around blasted mine tipples are not political, Harold. They are elemental human considerations that the shallow vaporings of professional politicians cannot hold in check.

The mine workers of this country, through this convention, are asking for fair treatment from you who are a public officer grown fat in public office.

Do they get it, Harold – do they get it?

Signed – Thirty-eighth constitutional Convention, United Mine Workers of America

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