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David Coolidge

An Examination of the Lessons We Must Learn
from the Miners’ Strike

Mine Strike Poses Question
of Labor’s Program

(16 December 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 50, 16 December 1946, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The miners’ strike is over. The coal diggers have been instructed by their leadership to “resume production of coal immediately until 12:00 o’clock midnight, March 31, 1947.” The instructions to return to work presumably mean that negotiations will go on and that if an agreement acceptable to the union is not reached by that time there will be another strike based on the position that “we do not work without a contract.”

In this sense the return to work can be called a “truce.” Nothing has been settled. The miners have no new contract, the mines are still in the hands of the government and the appeal of the union to the Supreme Court against the $3,500,000 fine of the lower court is yet to be decided.

In his statement to the union Lewis called the restraining order of the District Court, “the administration ‘yellow-dog’ injunction.” The Supreme Court is a “constitutional court” and derives its powers from the “Federal Constitution.” From this Lewis draws the conclusion, by some mode of reasoning which he does not explain, that “the Supreme Court is, and we believe will ever be, the protector of American liberties and the rightful privileges of individual citizens.” Out of “fitting respect due the dignity of this high tribunal” Lewis finds it fitting to call off the strike during its deliberations in connection with the appeal of his union. In addition to this “weighty” consideration, “public necessity requires the quantitative production of coal during such period.”

The capitalist press announced that Lewis “surrenders,” that he had “capitulated.” The New York Times in its editorial said that Lewis “yields” and that he deserved credit for only one thing: “for knowing when he was beaten.” The Times was indignant because Lewis “was not wholly repentant.” But the Times takes comfort because, while Lewis attempted “to bully the Federal Government and people,” he did not get away with it. “It is Mr. Lewis who has given in. And in his surrender a great danger passes. It is not likely that any future labor leader will try to do what Mr. Lewis failed to do.” And so the capitalist press rejoices in the return of the miners to work and in the firmness of the government in dealing with the situation.

Since nothing has happened except the return of the miners to work after their union had been fined several millions of dollars, it is important for us, the miners and all of labor, to inquire into what the real situation is in connection with this very important strike.

What caused the strike and what were the miners’ demands? The government was and is operating the mines under what is claimed to be the emergency war powers of the President. Under this arrangement last spring the UMWA and Interior Secretary Krug worked out what is called the “Krug-Lewis Agreement.” Under this agreement the miners got a pay rise of 18% cents, a yearly vacation ,and a welfare. While the Krug-Lewis Agreement was signed for the whole period of government control, it contained a stipulation that all provisions of the old contract which were unchanged would remain in full force as part of the contract of the UMWA with the Government.

The old contract said that if there was a change in Government wage policy after March 1, 1946, the UMWA might give notice that it wanted a new contract, that negotiations must begin within ten days of the notice and if no agreement was reached in fifteen days, the UMWA would call off its contract upon five days’ notice. This clause is, in effect, in the present contract with the government and was not invalidated by the Krug-Lewis Agreement.

The government, however, took a different position after a great deal of shifting and beating around the bush on the question. At first Attorney-General Clark supported the contentions of the UMWA in its interpretation of the legal terms of the Krug-Lewis Agreement. Later, under pressure, Clark reversed himself and held publicly that Congress authorized the government to take over strike-bound plants for the purpose of keeping them in operation, and that it was not the intent of Congress that the government should be forced to enter into negotiations with a striking union, demanding a new contract. The whole meaning of the position of the government was the contention that “you cannot strike against the government.”

This was the contention of the government before Judge Goldsborough of the Federal District Court, in its demand for an injunction. The court accepted the position of the government lawyers and issued a restraining order telling Lewis to issue instructions to the miners to remain at work. Lewis did not do this and in accordance with their custom of not working without a contract the miners walked off the job. It was his and the union’s refusal to obey the order of the court, and this alone; upon which the court based its action in levying the fine. The court did not go into the merits of the case, saying only that its order for the miners to remain at work had been disobeyed. It was this act which Judge Golds-borough characterized as “anarchy.” It would be the contention of the court of course that if the miners had, or believed they had, a grievance against the government, they should have remained at work and presented their grievance to the proper authority.

The importance of all this resides in the fact that the miners themselves did not understand what was transpiring and the reasons motivating the government and their leadership. They therefore proceeded as they had always done: “No contract, no work.”

While the union and the government were contesting the issue, the coal operators were sitting it out. No doubt there were all sorts of behind the scenes negotiations going on by emissaries of Lewis, the government and the operators. Also the operators were not in unanimity about what to do in the situation. It seems that their final decision was to let the government carry the ball and give Lewis and the union a drubbing. They made no demand for returning the mines to the coal corporations.

Meaning of the Facts for Whole of Labor

The above are the pertinent facts in connection with the strike. These facts are relevant to an understanding of the situation. What is more relevant, however, is the meaning of the facts for the miners and for the whole of labor. We have to answer the question: “What means this strike?” What is its significance? What can and should labor learn from this ordeal through which the miners are passing today? Correct answers are imperative if labor is to understand and be able to chart its future course.

In the first place, the strike fulfilled in superlative degree the chief requirement of a strike: it stopped production. Coal was not produced except in extremely small quantities in relatively few non-organized mines. There was no question of scabbing. Picket lines were not necessary. The operators made no attempt to operate the mines. It was admitted by all the capitalist press that production had stopped and that there was no indication of a “back to work” movement. The operators and the press did not attempt to stir up a return to the mines, as has been their custom in days past. While Truman finally decided to go on the air and appeal to the miners to return to work, no one, except possibly Truman, believed that the coaldiggers would return without an order from Lewis.

It is necessary to point out, in addition, that this strike not only stopped production of coal but that it was on the way to halting production in other basic industries, the operation of the transportation systems and the power plants. No more could be demanded of a strike from a formal and tactical viewpoint. Production was halted and slowed down. The miners were again exhibiting a magnificent solidarity. The whole labor movement was rallying to their support in the form of a struggle against the injunction. A conference of all labor organizations was projected. Inter-union solidarity was developing. While this inter-union solidarity was not on a par with the solidarity within the ranks of the UMWA, it was something new in the recent history of the labor movement in the U.S. The AFL supported Lewis and the harsh Criticism of Lewis inside the CIO was considerably muffled.

This miners’ strike was an outstanding manifestation of the tremendous actual and potential power of an organized working class. The capitalist ruling class was helpless to keep coal production going. The government could not get coal produced. The capitalist press very plaintively admitted that no one could “force men to work.”

This brute fact renders the cackling attitude of the capitalist press somewhat ludicrous, when its headlines bellow about the “capitulation” or the “surrender” of’ Lewis. This fact also makes one feel like vomiting on reading the feeble bleating of The Nation for December 7. This “liberal” weekly declared that “Mr. Lewis’ act of defiance is as disproportionate to his immediate aims as his power is incompatible with the functioning of democratic society.

That point cannot be driven home to him by the action of government alone. As long as organized labor lends him support, however nominal, he will be a martyr or a hero, whatever the courts decide.” This weekly “friend of labor” then praises the scab members of the Washington Newspaper Guild, who have “taken the lead in condemning the resolution adopted by the CIO convention in defense of Lewis.” This is merely a continuation of the position taken by The Nation in 1943 when its editors wrote that “no matter what the grievance of the miners, they had no business to strike.”

Dangerous Because His Program Is Inadequate

We say again that this strike was an illustration of the power of the working class: an illustration in real life of the teachings of revolutionary socialism that labor is the chief of the productive forces; that the capitalist economy cannot operate without the working class. No matter what the size of the capital invested, the number and competence of directors, finance committees, executive committees, “hardworking, square-jawed executives,” etc. Machinery, technology, patents, “management,” capitalist courts, Congress, the man in the White House, and all the paraphernalia of capitalist society could not produce in the face of the dogged determination of 400,000 miners to stay away from the pits.

This was where the strike stopped, however; with the cessation of production. It was a well-planned and thoroughly organized economic struggle! You demand a contract with certain provisions; if a contract is denied, that means that the operators do not agree to granting the demands; in such a situation you stay home and away from the mines.

But while the miners looked at the strike in the above mentioned simple terms, this strike, as are all major strikes today, was far more than the economic struggle which the miners considered it to be. It was a political strike. The capitalist ruling class understands this, but the miners do not. The whole capitalist class, its government and all its retainers were arrayed as a class against the miners.

If Lewis understood this, he has kept his knowledge a deep secret from the miners and everyone else. If he understands these things, he is once again displayed as an extremely reactionary and dangerous leader of labor. The same holds for Murray, Green, Reuther and the other top leaders of labor, because they too were not prepared to grapple with present-day labor problems which were exposed so clearly in the struggle between the miners and the government. What we say applies particularly well to Lewis, however. It it he who leads his union into the most resolute labor struggles; even in wartime!

(Continued next week)

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