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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

(23 December 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 51, 23 December 1946, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Continued from last week)

Lewis is dangerous for labor not for the reasons given by the capitalist ruling class, its press, the liberals and the congressional “friends of labor,” but for the very opposite reason. They say he goes too far, he is not reasonably, he is power hungry, his acts will prompt anti-labor legislation, he is unpatriotic; and on and on. Lewis is dangerous for labor because he does not go far enough. His program is too narrow and his thinking is somewhat medieval. He has no educational program for his union, not even a trade union educational program such as the UAW and the ILGWU. He has no program for improving the social and cultural status of the miners. There is no housing program or a program for better schools, hospital facilities, recreational facilities, medical care. The miners and their families are left to rot culturally.

Lewis has no political program for the miners. He goes his personal way, supporting now the Republicans, later the New Deal Democrat Roosevelt and then back to the Republicans Willkie and Dewey. If the miners go along, that’s good, but if they do not, that is their business. With ail this the capitalist ruling class will agree. If Lewis did no more than this he would have the solid support of every proponent of “our system of free enterprise.” The capitalist exploiters are willing for the miners to remain in their hovels in the coal patches, without adequate schools and medical care and without civil rights and political opportunities. They have no objection to Lewis thundering out his annual demands. They are only against the miners and the rest of labor backing their demands with mass action; they are against the working class showing its power in the stopping of production and bringing the ruling class to its knees.

We Cannot Function with Outlived Ideas

Over against the capitalist ruling class, its deputies in the government at Washington, its yes men of the capitalist press and its most humble and loyal stooges in the ranks of the liberals, the Workers Party supports the demands of the miners and their strike waged in support of those demands. But we do not and cannot stop here. Neither can the miners and the whole host of the labor movement.

We call to the attention of labor leaders such as Lewis, Green, Murray and Reuther that they are not living in the year 1900. The political and economic situation today is not the same as 1900. The working class cannot function properly today with a 19th century program. Capitalism today is not the exuberant system of “free enterprise” which it was in 1900. The world is in such economic and political turmoil and uncertainty as never known before in the history of capitalism. Capitalism blunders and stumbles along, groping for a way out and some means to assure its salvation from decay and for some way out short of fascism. The world still reels from the impact of the last imperialist world war.

The peace makers talk peace in the open while their governments either pile up the atom bombs or explore the secret of their manufacture. The capitalist ruling class, sensing some sort of threat to its continued rule, tries to restore its world market, raises prices and piles up the hugest profits of its fabulous existence. It seeks to hold down what this class is pleased to call “labor costs,” or the “unit cost of production.” This means a lowering of wages and the standard of living of the masses. It seeks to pull the teeth of organized labor and turn the working class into a group of mere petitioners. Its chief and ever-willing weapon today is its government at Washington. At the same time of course this class carries on a struggle against its government whenever this government does not do its will. The government at Washington on its part, ever mindful of its’ obligations as the protector of the “real” interests of the capitalist ruling class, holds on to its wartime emergency powers, to be used primarily for the adjudication of “labor disputes” in such manner as will keep production going without giving in too much to labor.

It is in such a scene that the miners’ strike came, threatening to paralyze all basic production, transport and power. This threat could not but alert the government in the interest of the capitalist ruling class. It would not put it this way, of course. The government would say that its intervention was in the interest of production of the maintenance of law and order, of the constitutional rights and the rights of the public. The miners were not prepared by their leaders to face this concrete situation.

The strike came this time just as strikes have come before. The miners were totally oblivious as to what the strike really meant. It was only one more strike to them, called because they had no contract. The social and political implications in the strike were not clear to them. Suppose they did get their contract with some increase in wages and a betterment of working conditions? Suppose this occurs at the end of each contractual period? They will still be living in the coaltown shacks. The one-room school shanties will be there. Hospitals, medical care and recreational facilities will not be there. They will still be forced to buy in the company stores, Work in the criminally hazardous surroundings and live in daily denial of full civil rights.

Also, what will they do when faced with $3,500,000 fines, imposed by a capitalist court? Lewis writes to the miners that “the Supreme Court is, and we believe will ever be, the protector of American liberties and the rightful privileges of individual citizens.” This is an extremely reactionary piece of nonsense. It is bombast and the most fatuous Statement which could have been made in this situation. It is cut from the same piece of cloth as Murray and Reuther depending on Roosevelt, or the belief of Green that labor and the employers can get along together if the government will keep its hands off. There is one difference, however. Dependence on Roosevelt was induced by a situation in which, under a New Deal, labor had made material and organizational gains.

How Lewis can contrast the courts which only interpret the Constitution and acts of Congress, and say that they will protect labor, over against the legislative and executive branch of the government, is a mystery. This is a demonstration of the essentially medieval character of Lewis’ thinking. Labor can’t be protected by Congress and the President but it can and will be protected by the Supreme Court.

Such a reactionary and anti-labor outlook will only push the miners and all labor farther away from the road over which we must go. Not by appeals to capitalist legality as established by a capitalist court, even the sacrosanct Supreme Court, but by working class political action; that is, by working class political action oriented toward working class legality. Working class legality can only be established under a workers’ government in which workers have their law-making bodies, their own administrative branch and their own workers’ courts. Lewis not only puts the cart before the horse, but his position obscures the real issues involved. He also tells the workers that the capitalist courts, the most reactionary arm of the capitalist government, will be a friend to working men and women. This has not been our experience with the courts and the police.

Are we saying here that this strike should not have been called? Not at all. We are saying something far more important. We are saying that the miners cannot continue with the over-simplified formula: “No contract, no work.” They cannot and must not continue to do this without understanding all the things which we have been saying: without understanding the political situation and the political nature of the strikes which they engage in.

Political Organization Indicated as Need

The miners must rise out of the political slough of despondency. They and all of labor must proceed to political organization and political action. The Workers Party says to those miners and other workers who read Labor Action that economic organization is not enough. The union is not enough. The miners have a powerful union and this union has demonstrated again and again that it can tie up the economy and stop production. It can and has raised wages and improved working conditions. This is as it should be, but it is not enough. This last experience of the miners should teach this. Their union cannot combat the capitalist ruling class and its political arm: the government at, Washington, including the capitalist courts.

The miners and all labor must have a program for keeping production going under the control of the workers and, eventually, by workers’ control in a socialist society.

Such demonstrations of economic power as just displayed by the miners, without a program and an organization for taking hold of the economy and the government, will only lead the capitalist ruling class and its government to prepare for taking the harshest measures against labor. Labor cannot resist these attacks with its economic organization only. For such political resistance labor must have a political organization: a party of labor ready to become the government and assume the total leadership of the nation.

Miners Were Not Prepared Properly

We are not here supporting those labor bureaucrats who talk to labor very militantly about keeping quiet lest the militancy of the workers bring down upon the head of labor reprisals from the ruling class government. We oppose such a craven and cowardly attitude from any labor leader. We say that labor must fight, it must strike, it must engage in mass strikes.

But we say, also, that we must be in a position to combat any and all measures which the capitalist ruling class and its government take against us. The miners and the rest of labor are not prepared today for carrying through such a struggle as Lewis led his union into. Lewis has capitulated and the union has retreated. Retreat is often or usually necessary to some degree. There is nothing wrong about a union retreating. What was wrong in this strike was that the union was not prepared either for the advance nor for the retreat which Lewis ordered.

We say that the miners were not prepared properly for the strike. For instance, aside from the nonsense which Lewis utters about the Supreme Court, he says that the country needs the coal. Didn’t Lewis know this when he called the strike? Didn’t he know that industry must have coal if it is to keep going? Didn’t he know that the mines were under government control? Didn’t he know that the Department of Justice would resort to the courts? Was he ignorant of the fact that the capitalist monsters would put on their three-ringed circus about freezing children, hospitals with no coal, schools closing for lack of coal, trains suspended and all the rest of the capitalist appeal to prejudice and ignorance? How did Lewis expect to wage this battle to which he called the miners? Merely have the miners and their families sit it out in their miserable shacks? Take a holiday and go hunting?

It is to the everlasting glory of the miners that they will sit it out, that they will hold the line, that they will remain firm even though they go hungry and freeze on the bleak hillsides. But they deserve something more, much more than this. They and all the working class deserve and must have food, clothing and shelter in abundance. They deserve and must have wholesome and nutritious food, decent and sanitary homes, paved and light streets, schools, hospitals, culture, health, peace and freedom. They deserve the life of a human being. They have the power to get all of this and more. All that is needed is for this potential political power to be made actual.

The miners are back at work without a contract. We suppose that later they will get their contract and a few gains. But they were not prepared for the sudden and “dramatic” about-face of their leader. They did not participate in this decision.

We Must Assume Our Responsibilities

What comes next? The case is still in the courts. The $3,500,000 fine stands. Suppose the Supreme Court should reverse the little judge Goldsborough? Suppose the government returns the mines to the capitalist banks which own them? What will the miners do on April 1 if they have no contract? Should they strike, the government will step in again. What then? Will they simply demonstrate once again that labor has tremendous economic power, that production can be stopped? This will get labor nowhere.

The magnificent spirit of the miners, their courage and their fortitude must not be frittered away by a mere repetition of the recent strike. Surely workers must strike. Of course, we must fight on the economic level. But we must move ahead to independent working class political organization and political action. This is the only effective way now to give force to our economic demands.

Labor must not walk into any traps laid by the capitalist ruling class, nor into the swamp prepared by those who believe that labor needs only its unions to win, nor fall into the conservatism of those who prate that, “you can’t strike against the government.”

Labor can and will have to strike against the capitalist ruling class in whatever form this class confronts the working class. But labor can do this only if we are prepared and organized to take the responsibility for operating industry, leading the nation and governing the nation with and through a workers’ government.

These are the imperative and pressing lessons which labor can and must learn from the miners’ strike.

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