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B.J. Widick

In the Labor Unions

(26 May 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 36, 26 May 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Over the week end we were talking to a former coal miner from Harlan County, Ky., now working in a gum shop in Akron, O. He has had much experience in the union drives down there. One story he told illustrates in particular the feelings of the workers and gives a clue to an understanding of their militancy now against the National Guard terror.

In one of the earlier coal strikes in Kentucky, the miners had done an extremely effective job of keeping scabs out. So the operators called for and the governor sent in National Guardsmen.

This didn’t please the strikers one bit. They planned a little reception for the National Guard when it detrained.

No sooner did the train stop at the county seat than hundreds of coal miners, well-equipped to defend themselves, took positions about 100 yards away from the railroad station.

Guard Moves On

The captain of the Guardsmen stepped off the train and looked around with great anxiety. About this time, an old veteran of many strike struggles sauntered up from the strikers’ ranks.

He looked the captain over, and deliberately. The silence was oppressive and the atmosphere tense. Finally the miner drawled out, “You figuring on getting off the train here?”

“Why, yes,” the captain replied.

“Well, the boys told me to tell you in that case to be sure to be shooting when you get off because we sure as hell are going to be,” the veteran declared, and walked away.

The National Guard did not detrain. They went to a nearby town instead.

Similar in many respects is the attitude of the miners in the current strike. Anyone familiar with Harlan County will find nothing strange in the union statement on the shootings that took place last week.

Readers will recall that various skirmishes have been reported between the Guardsmen and alleged strikers. The union leaders denied that their men had participated in the battles for a very simple reason.

“Our boys could hit a mosquito at fifty yards and nobody can tell me that they fired fifty shots (as the Guard claimed) without someone being hit,” the union leaders said.

This is absolutely true. Using rifles since boyhood, the folks in Harlan County are noted for their accuracy. We are convinced that the shooting scrapes last week were put-up jobs by the coal operators and the National Guardsmen to seek to justify the strike-breaking terror of the Guardsmen.

Bloody Record

There has never been a more stirring chapter in labor history than the story of the Harlan miners’ attempts to organize unions. Fourteen operators are now under indictment for charges ranging from conspiracy to murder, to sluggings of union men, so bad have been the conditions there.

Bloody Harlan has a record of killings of union organizers and men unequalled anywhere in the country.

Despite all this terror, the United Mine Workers gained strength. It is powerful there now – unbeatable if the union leaders stick to their guns.

Last week the miners showed their contempt for the National Guard terror by trying to picket at the mines even though bayonets were thrust at their stomachs. And when a machine gun was mounted, unarmed pickets tried to get around it. Only the arrival of additional forces kept the miners back.

When one remembers that in Ohio strikes were called off in Norwood, etc., because of the mere threat of the National Guard, the splendid courage of the Harlan miners stands out even more strongly.

The Harlan strike is a great embarrassment to the apologists of democratic capitalism. The Daily Worker played it down last week. Here, union men can see capitalism stark naked, a rule by force.

Fortunately, the boys in Harlan County come from a grand school where they learned matchless militancy, dependence on one’s own strength, and dauntless courage. Watch them whip the operators.

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