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The New International, January 1947


Editorial Comment:

The Coal Strike Crisis

Return of the Injunction


From New International, Vol. XIII No. 1, January 1947, pp. 3–6.
Transcribed &; marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Blast furnaces tapered off production. Railroads went on reduced schedules. Freight movements were subjected to a priority rating. Electric power was curtailed and cities returned to war-time “brown-out” restrictions. Ford’s River Rouge plant laid off some fifteen thousand workers. A million unemployed were predicted on a national scale by week’s end. Schools closed down in many communities. Parcel post and express shipments were placed under size and weight limitations. Heat and hot water were rationed in many hotels and apartment buildings. A creeping paralysis had seized the vitals of American economy and was working its way out to the extremities. Few of the nation’s inhabitants remained totally unaffected.

The coal miners were on strike again!

As the tumult in Congress, press and radio reached its howling crescendo, an alert news photographer, with an eye for the dramatic, snapped John L. Lewis sitting in a hotel lobby, his square bulk filling out a lounging chair, hat pulled down to his famous eyebrows, casually reading a newspaper. The picture faithfully caught the “business as usual” demeanor with which the unperturbed and, apparently, unperturbable miners’ chief regarded the strike. If he gave any outward manifestation that he was even aware of the furies that raged about his head, it was only by way of deepening the scowl which bespoke his total contempt for his assailants.

His assailants in this crisis, however, were not to be ignored. Attorney General Clark had set the wheels in motion to secure judicial intervention. Federal Judge T. Allan Goldsborough had issued an injunction ordering Lewis to rescind his cancellation of the contract and to order the miners back to the pits. His failure to comply was followed by a summons to appear in court and stand trial on charges of contempt. During the trial, while his battery of high priced legal talent matched wits with the government attorneys, Lewis’ silence remained unbroken. He did not appear on the radio to answer the charges hurled at him and the union. He called no press conferences to explain the miners’ case. He sent no appeals to the organized labor movement to rally mass support. He made no effort to even state definitely what the miners were demanding beyond the general demand for shorter hours. It was only on the last day of the trial, when the verdict of guilty had been pronounced, that Lewis rose to speak out about the “deadly, brutal fifty-four-hour work week underground in American coal mines” and against the “ugly recrudescence of ‘government by injunction’.”

Judge Goldsborough passed sentence of $250,000 a day for the fourteen days during which his injunction was ignored, totaling three and a half million dollars, and a personal fine of $10,000 against Lewis. Organized labor rallied to the support of the miners. Both the AFL and the CIO spoke out in condemnation of the injunction and the fines. Militant auto union locals in Detroit spoke about a protest strike. On the other side, the capitalist press hailed the action as finally “putting Lewis in his place.” But no miner bestirred himself to dig coal. The economic paralysis induced by the strike remained unaffected. The showdown still loomed ahead.

Initiative Passes to Government

The initiative, however, was now in the hands of the government. The fine could be repeated as long as there remained a cent in the treasury of the United Mine Workers. The court ruling had placed a time limit upon the stalemate. The next move was plainly up to the miners’ union or, depending on what was done, organized labor as a whole. As the country held its breath, the strike was suddenly terminated by a statement from Lewis calling off the strike pending appeal of the injunction to the Supreme Court. Lewis had chosen to take notice of the state. The United Mine Workers were not a match for the United States government. The power to bankrupt the union could not be overcome by a continued refusal to mine coal. Lewis chose to retreat and transfer the battle entirely to the legal plane. A strike that was effective to the point of perfection was called off. The 100 per cent effective “pure and simple” economic strike proved itself totally unable to cope with the situation, which its own very effectiveness had created. This paradox signalized the changing character of the struggle between capital and labor in the United States as did few other events in the period since the war’s end.

How explain this paradox? Why should a union’s very power suddenly become its source of weakness?

Within the answer to this question lies the key to an understanding of the present stage in labor’s development and the direction in which it is moving. It indicates why labor cannot go on in “the old way” and illuminates the impending change of an historic scope which it will undergo.

The essence of the paradox consists of labor’s organized strength, specifically its numbers, on the one hand, and labor’s social and political primitiveness, on the other. The paradox can, in a sense, be rephrased to say that organized labor has more strength than it knows what to do with.

To say that there are fifteen million organized workers in the United States today makes little impression when recited as a bald fact. To fully comprehend the tremendous implications of this fact it is necessary to grasp it in reference to historical retrospect and perspective. Those who have been part of the American scene since 1935 when labor began its steady expansion have difficulty in gauging the extent to which the emergence of a powerful trade union movement has brought

about what bourgeois sociologists have recently come to refer to as the “imbalance” between capital and labor. What they have in mind, of course, is that the “balance” that prevailed before 1935 has been upset. It is only by knowing what that “balance” consisted of that one gains a true measure of the change that has taken place. In a pamphlet issued by Brookwood Labor College in 1932 on Our Labor Movement Today, written by Katherine H. Pollak, the situation is summarized in the following words:

The most striking thing about the American labor movement in 1932 was not, however, its different shades of belief but its very small place in the American scene. The great masses of the American workers in steel, in autos, in oil, in food industries, were not touched to any degree by any of these movements and had no organization whatever to protect them against the widespread unemployment and wage-cutting that swept America.

The difference between the bare two million members of the American Federation of Labor in 1932 and the fifteen million organized workers represented by the AFL, CIO and independent unions today is more than a mere numerical one. If the Hegelian law of the change of quantity into quality has validity, it certainly is true in this instance. The two million organized workers in 1932 represented the peripheral odds and ends of the American proletariat. Today, the few million workers in industrial occupations not in trade unions represent the peripheral odds and ends of the class. In this sense, the reality contradicts what Rosa Luxemburg sought to establish in theory about the trade union movement when she maintained in her pamphlet on The Mass Strike that the trade unions could never organize more than the elite of the proletariat, always a minority.

Strikes Without Picket Lines

Taking note of this development, the last convention of the Workers Party (June 1946) dealing with the American scene stated:

Never, in any country, have the trade unions been such a powerful force as they are today in the United States. The social weight and political significance of fifteen million organized trade unionists is only beginning to be comprehended, even by the Marxists. Its effect upon class relations in this country is profound. The labor movement represents a five-fold increase over that of the period immediately following World War I. The weight of such a movement thrown into the scales of the economic struggle in a period of high employment is overwhelming. The fact that the largest mass strikes were conducted without more than token picket lines in industries notorious for their bloody resistance, speaks for itself. The powerful bourgeois propaganda campaigns about the “unfairness” of the Wagner Labor Act and the tremendous drive being developed for legislation that will cripple the effectiveness of the unions indicates the inability of the capitalists to deal effectively with the labor movement in economic struggle at this stage. Nor has the expansion of the trade union movement run its course. On the contrary, all indications point to the continued growth of the trade onions in this period. (Resolution on the United States)

Since the “no strike” policy was lifted after V-J Day, there has not been a single important strike called which has failed to completely paralyze the industry in which it took place. Auto, oil, maritime, steel, railroad, telephone, telegraph – the list is almost endless – have in turn been brought to either a complete stop or a degree of reduced activity as the union leaderships determined. The strike call alone has been sufficient to produce the stoppage. This is a far cry from the period when every strike call was a test of the union’s ability to bring out the men and when every strike was a venture that jeopardized the very existence of the union.

Compared to the completely changed status of labor as a force on the American scene, its social and political progress appears microscopic. Despite a whole series of advances in program and policy over the labor movement of 1932, the basic philosophy of the trade unions, including the CIO, is only a slight advance over the “pure and simple” trade unionism or wage consciousness sired by Samuel Gompers. The measure of success is still primarily the weekly pay envelope of the worker. Such policies as “Wage increases without price rises” have until now been identified only with the auto workers, the vanguard of the vanguard, and even they have embarked upon this course only a year ago.

Though the CIO has interested itself in a rounded program of social, political and economic demands, its policy of operating within the framework of bourgeois politics reduces the program to mere declarations of opinion about which it can do nothing beyond legislative lobbying. The organization of the PAC is a distinct advance over Gompers’ formula of “Reward your friends and punish your enemies,” but only in the sense that it seeks to cast a solid class vote on a national scale. Instead of endorsing the individual “friend of labor,” PAC endorses the Democratic Party, or a wing of it, as representing the pro-labor bloc. This powerful force of fifteen million organized workers remains the gigantic “tail” which is wagged by the organized machines of professional bourgeois politicians.

However, compared to the philosophy of the CIO, and even to that of the railroad brotherhoods and some of the more progressive AFL affiliates, the philosophy of John L. Lewis has not budged an inch beyond the most narrow and orthodox Gompersism. Adam Smith’s doctrine of laissez-faire never had a more fervent advocate and consistent practitioner than Lewis. He sees eye to eye with the National Association of Manufacturers in their stand upon “free enterprise” and against government “meddling” in economy. (Few now realize that as late as 1932 the AFL opposed unemployment insurance on the grounds that it would make workers “wards of the state” and rob labor of its independencel)

”Free enterprise” means, for Lewis, the right of the miners to get all they can. It means the “miners first, foremost and always and let everybody else look out for themselves.” The beginning and end of the UMW program is “More money and less hours.” The institution of the union health fund a year ago, seemed to represent a breach with this policy. But this program also was based upon the concept that it concerns only the miners and the operators and that the miners would look after their own.

As an essential and inevitable corollary of this economic philosophy, is Lewis’ attitude that the more restricted the functions of government, the better. His brief honeymoon with the New Deal was not based upon its general program of political intervention in economy and social reform but rather upon the policy of “hands off” while labor organizes the mass industries. Basically Lewis’ philosophy is closer to the Republicans and his life-long allegiance to that party is not accidental. His support of Roosevelt in 1936 marks his sole departure from the fold.

Nature of Public Opinion

From Lewis’ point of view, a coal strike is a private economic duel between the miners and the operators and interference on the part of anyone else is completely unwarranted. When this concept is carried into practice in an industry like coal, its effects are devastating. Only a strike in electric power, communications or railroads could affect the entire economy more seriously. A coal strike cannot avoid being the “business” of more sectors of the nation than miners and operators. The effect of “public opinion” is, therefore, an immediate and decisive factor in determining the outcome of the strike. By its nature, a coal strike that effectively shuts down all production cannot be a protracted struggle. The weight of public demand will force one or the other side to yield; in the last analysis, by forcing the government to intervene. The consolidation of “public opinion” is therefore crucial. But from Lewis’ point of view, “public opinion” has no business getting involved. He does not, therefore, crook a finger to effect it.

The nature of the much-discussed “public opinion” must, of course, be thoroughly understood. There is a real public opinion and a fake one. That is, there is the genuine interest in and concern for the outcome of a coal strike on the part of the people of all classes and there is the “public opinion” manufactured and interpreted by the capitalist press. If Lewis’ contempt were solely for the latter, it would be magnificent in its dimensions and worthy of a revolutionist. But, unfortunately, Lewis’ lack of interest in what other workers think, let alone white collar workers, farmers and small business people, is on a par with his attitude toward the press.

The result of Lewis’ strategy, if it can be called such, is to irritate all classes with repeated national crises due to coal strikes without posing a bold program which promises to resolve the situation in a long-run sense. The tremendous sympathy for the miners which extends beyond the working class and into the middle class, is therefore frittered away and a wide-open field created for reactionary propaganda to mobilize opinion against the miners. In this sense, the procedure of Lewis is a specific instance of the historic effect of reformist struggles upon class relations. Such struggles pose no bold solutions and aimlessly seem to repeat the same round of stalemate, crisis and compromise until the middle classes, and even sections of the working class, throw up their hands in despair and seek the man or movement that promises to use a “firm hand” in imposing a solution from on top upon the contending parties.

Miners Need Social Program

Not only is coal one of the few key industries where this process works itself out with such devastating results, but it is also one of the few industries in which “more money” contributes least to the solution of the problems of the workers involved. The problem of the miners is a social problem in the fullest, most rounded, and most direct sense of that phrase. Neither $75 nor $150 a week will permit the miners as individuals to overcome the obstacles to decent living, health, education, entertainment, housing, etc., represented by the coal communities. This is the case throughout the coal fields and advanced sections like southern Illinois differ only by degree with the really primitive coal communities that survive in West Virginia, Kentucky and parts of western Pennsylvania.

What the UMW needs is a bold and comprehensive program of reorganizing the entire coal economy as the basis of a new existence for the miners and their families. The basic demand must be for the nationalization of the mines and workers control of production. Upon this bedrock demand must be developed a full program of town and village planning, sanitation, housing, schools, community centers, roads, consumers co-operatives, a people’s cultural movement, and other projects necessary to give the miner a full and rich life to compensate for the hours spent underground. Such a program must, of necessity, be a political program. It cannot be realized by mere strike action. It must be fought for through a Labor Party, of which the UMW could be the initiator and spearhead in the coal-producing states. Such a Labor Party could quickly take over the municipal and county administrations in the coal fields and utilize them as points of support in the mobilization of the workers’ political might.

But the entire philosophy of Lewis militates against such an orientation. Though the situation in the coal industry makes it possible to rally the most widespread popular support for the slogan of nationalization and, even, for workers’ control, Lewis probably represents the most intransigent opponent of government ownership in the labor movement. To what extent his views are held by the rank and file of the miners is difficult to say since there has been no occasion to test out their sentiment. The farce of “government seizure” and the injunctive process has, no doubt, strengthened whatever prejudices exist among them against nationalization. If they confuse “government seizure” with genuine nationalization, it is only because of the attitude of the leadership toward nationalization and the absence of a revolutionary voice in the UMW to offset Lewis’ reactionary views.

A campaign to win the miners for the slogan of nationalization must, however, take into account the miners’ experience with “government seizure.” The situation reveals clearly why the slogan of nationalization is dangerous when used without the accompanying demand for workers control of production. The miner feels that his experience has shown him that his lot does not change when the government takes over. Even if he were convinced that genuine nationalization would mean the replacement of the operators by government appointees he would validly demand to know how that would change his status on the job. He may even argue, in line with Lewis’ outlook, that the union can lick a single operator or the association but cannot lick the government. In this instance, as is increasingly becoming the case throughout the world as a result of the tendency toward statification, the decisive question is not nationalization but control of production. It is the democratic voice of the workers in direction of the economy that changes their status, not the replacement of their owner-employer by a government bureaucrat.

It would have been possible to popularize the concept of workers control of coal production in the recent strike, despite the as yet undeveloped stage of political struggle in this country. The UMW would have found a widespread response had it boldly proclaimed “we will take over the mines and assure adequate coal supplies to the nation.” Here at least would have been a program which the laid-off auto worker in Detroit, the freezing apartment-dweller in New York, the browned-out shop-keeper in Philadelphia and the delayed suburban commuter would have felt offered a way out.

Background of Injunction

The “government seizure” of the mines last spring was a temporary solution to an insoluble deadlock. The entire reconversion program threatened to stall and collapse with a prolongation of the strike at that time. The government was unable to break the strike. Yet it could not sit by and permit the economic consequences the strike set in motion to develop to their full. The only alternative was to force a settlement upon the operators by means of “government seizure.” When the miners again went out last month, the hand of the government was forced once more. The miners’ strike was the opening gun in an inevitable second round of strikes in the mass industries brought on by the rise in prices within the last six

to eight months. To again back down and grant the miners their demands would have set a pattern for the rest of the unions. The mines were still “seized” and the wage question was directly up to the government. The area of maneuver had been reduced. The administration quickly realized that the chips were down. It took up Lewis’ challenge and began to fashion its counter-attack – the injunction.

Were the injunction to signalize a return to the period of “government by injunction” that prevailed before the Norris-LaGuardia Act was passed in 1932, it would be fraught with profound implications for the nature of the class struggle in the coming period. However, the injunction against the miners introduced a procedure which went beyond the most reactionary injunction of the past. The heart of previous injunctions was that it enjoined a union, or its leaders, or specified individuals, or “all and sundry,” from interfering with the operation of a business or coming within a mile of the premises, or publishing information about the existence of a strike, or visiting the homes of non-strikers, etc. In other words, the burden of the injunction stated what a union could not do Such an injunction today would be meaningless in most industries, above all in the coal industry. The object of such an injunction is to protect scabs and facilitate the imprisonment of strikers, especially the strike leadership. Today, it is difficult to find the labor supply to replace strikers, aside from the fact that union consciousness is much higher and workers who are willing to scab far fewer. To find any considerable number of scabs to operate the mines is a sheer impossibility. Here we again see how labor’s growth has forced the class enemy to use different tactics.

The government was helpless unless it was able to secure an injunction which told the union what it had to do. The injunction against the UMW, therefore, ordered the union to call off the strike. A violation was punishable by fines. The repetition of fines made possible the bankrupting of the union. What defense does a union possess against such an injunction? As mere collective bargaining agencies, none.

The injunction can be fought by a nation-wide campaign of mass pressure. That is why the Workers Party advocated the formation of local joint labor councils of AFL, CIO, Railroad and independent unions to organize such actions as demonstrations and demonstration strikes. But this road can become an exceedingly dangerous one. It can lead to a premature joining of the issue between the classes in this country with catastrophic results for labor. From what began as a purely economic strike the situation could be transformed in the twinkling of an eye into a general strike. If the crisis arising from the coal strike was paralyzing the country and creating an impasse that could not be resolved within the confines of strike action, a general strike could have catapulted labor into a crisis on an incomparably higher level, with much greater stakes involved. In this case, a devastating defeat for labor was the greater likelihood.

A general strike is a challenge to the ruling class in the most fundamental sense. It challenges its very right to rule. Every general strike on a local scale has plainly demonstrated this. Where would a general strike under the leadership of Lewis, Murray and Green have led, given the present weakness of the revolutionary forces in the United States and the low level of class consciousness? The General Strike in Great Britain ended in an orderly retreat, followed by the passage of the crippling Trades Dispute Act. A defeat of a similar strike movement in the United States at this time could have far more ruinous results.

This does not at all mean that labor may not be forced into a situation in this country where the general strike is the preferable and sole alternative to demoralizing capitulation. The aimless strikes for limited demands and the resulting irritation of the classes can precipitate such a premature showdown. But Marxists must gauge it from the long-range point of view, not from the utterly irresponsible concept that every sharpening of class conflict, at all times and under all conditions, must receive the support of the revolutionary wing of labor.

The injunction against the miners represents the third decisive event in the unfolding development of class relations since the end of the war. The first was the strike of the General Motors workers, with their advanced program of price control, and the resulting intervention of the administration with the “fact-finding” swindle. The second event was the railroad strike with Truman’s demand of an hysterical Congress that the railroad workers be drafted and sent to work under conditions of forced labor. The coal strike, the injunction and the fine against the UMW represent the third event. Coupled with the defeat suffered by the Democratic Party in the recent elections and the concomitant shipwreck of the PAC strategy, the resulting upsurge of “third party” talk, the impending revisions of the Wagner Labor Act, the coal strike crisis has signalized, more than the preceding events, that American labor has entered its hour of decision. The “old way” no longer suffices. Wages and economic strikes are ever less the answer. The issue is shaping up to a major test between the classes. It is inevitable that it assume an ever increasing political form. The Goldsboro injunction may go down in history as the American counterpart to the Tiff Vale decision which completed the break between the British trade unions and the bourgeois parties and marked the beginning of the Labor Party as the voice of the entire trade union movement. We repeat: American Labor has definitely entered its hour of decision.

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