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Arne Swabeck

The Labor Movement

The American Miners’ and
Railroad Workers’ Strike

(1 September 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 75, 1 September 1922, pp. 560–561.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

With the partial settlement of the miners strike, an important chapter, picturing one of the greatest struggles in the American labor history, has come to a close. This strike marked the beginning of the turning point in the class struggle in the United States. It entered upon a new stage. The method of passive submission to the arrogant dictatorship of the employers and of humble acceptance of one wage reduction after another, of longer working hours and general deterioration of working conditions, was discarded by the miners. They put the whole strength of their organized forces into active resistance. Their lead has since been followed by other organizations.

For two years the employers have been engaged in a deadly war of destruction of labor unions. Wages were greatly reduced both for organized and unorganized workers, and despite the high international exchange rate of the American dollar, they reached the starvation point. All important gains in working conditions won during the war, when there was a labor shortage, were ruthlessly abolished. Many unions were broken up. The American Federation of Labor in that period, lost over 900,000 members. In 1920 it reported a membership of 4,078,740, and at its last convention in 1922, only 3,165,635. The post-war depression offered an opportunity to the employers to put their union-smashing drive into effect. The workers, haunted by the spectre of unemployment had become submissive.

On April 1, 1922, with the expiration of, the prevailing agreement between the miners’ union and the coal operators, the latter refused to even consider a new national agreement. It soon became evident that the employers were determined to carry their war of extermination into the ranks of the miners. They insisted upon a 40 per cent wage reduction, and offered to enter into negotiations with the miners on a regional basis, each district by itself. They proposed important changes in working conditions, all in an effort to divide the miners into a number of small tractions. To this the miners’ organization, pursuant to the decision of their last convention, replied with a general suspension of work, both in the bituminous and anthracite fields. For twenty weeks the miners stood solid, bringing along with them out of the mines and simultaneously organizing nearly 100,000 miners from formerly unorganized fields, with little or no financial means at their disposal, daily facing starvation, the rank and file have withstood the vicious attacks of the operators, despite court injunctions and industrial court laws forbidding strikes, as well as ruthless treatment at the hands of gunmen, police and soldiers. Many attempts by the operators to reopen the mines on an “ open shop ” basis were frustrated by the miners. Herrin, Illinois, where all strike breakers and gunmen paid with their lives, served as a severe lesson that such tactics would not do. The miners throughout the struggle displayed a solidarity never before equalled in the American labor movement, and compelled the bosses to slow down on their vicious onslaught.

Since the beginning of the railroad shopmen’s strike, on July 1, the average weekly output of non-union coal dropped from 5,500,000 tons to 4,000,000 tons, which is less than half the amount being consumed, so it may be seen that railroads, public utilities and industrial plants were eating into their stock supply at an enormous rate. The government became apprehensive and offered several schemes for a settlement of the miners’ strike. On August 1, a survey revealed that 400 of the biggest industrial plants from which returns were received, had an average of only 20 days supply of coal. Some of them were only a few days from the bottom of their supply, facing a complete shutdown. The steel mills reported shutdown ot blast furnaces at the rate of a dozen a week, while some mills were facing a complete suspension of activities for lack of fuel. Even the great Ford plants reported a supply for only two weeks. Meanwhile the government’s apprehension had grown to alarm, further augmented by the increasing proportions of the railroad strike and the encouragement thereby afforded the miners. After its various arbitration schemes had failed, it threw off the mask of being a neutral observer. The strikers were roughly handled in the name of “law and order”, while all the weapons at the command of the capitalist state were used in an effort to break the strikes. This compelled the miners, the railroad workers and thousands of other workers, to realize the necessity of fighting the government as the tool of capitalist oppression.

The anxiety for a settlement of the coal strike was evidenced not only by the government but by the officials of the miners’ union, beaded by president Lewis, as well. He hastened for a settlement, evidently fearing the realities of the titanic struggle, which had now become more definite in character, and perhaps also moved by the heart-rending cries of the industrial captains for more coal. Now the miners in the bituminous fields are returning to work, retaining their old scale of wages, while the anthracite miners, composing about 120,000 men, continue the fight for their specific demands. President Harding will shortly appoint a commission of nine to inquire into wages and working conditions in the mines. This commission will most probably return a report justifying the claims of the operators for a reduction in wages, relying upon the miners being too tired for any further fighting.

The employers’ organizations throughout the country are demanding new, and for them, more suitable labor legislation. President Harding has asked Congress to remain in session to deal with this problem,, and it is considered possible that at least new teeth will be put into the Transportation Act.

It must be said for the miners’ strike that it represents a great and wholesome contrast to the shameful retreat in November 1919, when the president of the miners’ union, Lewis, was able to defeat the aspirations of the rank and file on the plea that “we cannot fight our government”, because of an injunction issued against the proposed strike, and on the further plea of solidarity with those who had accepted his orders and remained at work bringing those back who had actually gone on strike. Not that Lewis and his lieutenants have become more radical, but that the rank and file have become more determined to fight in face of all obstacles, to secure human living conditions and recognition for their organization.

The railroad shopmen’s strike is the climax of many insults heaped upon the workers, and also bears out the contention that a turning point has been reached in the class struggle in America, with the workers resisting actively the onslaughts of the capitalists. The government Railroad Labor Board put into effect several wage reductions, cutting one group of workers at a time. The companies practically abolished the eight-hour day, set up company unions, re-established piece work, and the practice of farming out work to other concerns in order to escape certain provisions in the Transportation Act. On July 1, another wage cut was to take effect, reducing the average weekly pay for skilled and unskilled shop workers by 12 per cent. This cut is not to effect the train service organizations until a more opportune time should present itself. 400,000 shop workers laid down their tools. Their ranks were rapidly increased with workers from other railroad crafts who joined the walkout in spite of the strenuous efforts of their officials to hold them in check. Their numbers soon grew to about 700,000, and the effect is now being strongly felt in rolling material needing repair and accumulating at an enormous rate. This strike has been marked with perhaps greater ferocity than the miners’ strike. Military forces with armed gunmen were placed at all shops to protect strikebreakers, many clashes occurred, and many workers belonging to the unions not on strike walked out in protest, in some cases even leaving the trains standing on the line, and in many instances forcing a withdrawal of the military protection. The rank and file of the non-striking railroad unions are making an ever stronger demand for a strike in sympathy with the shop workers, and the chiefs of the five train service brotherhoods are now busy in the attempt to mediate in this gigantic conflict.

It was of course not according to the desires of the railroad union officials that this strike came into being. In conventions previously held, they pleaded with the rank and file not to oppose the “open shop” drive of the companies or at least to localize the strike to roads that had shown especial aggressiveness. But it could not be stopped. The strike vote was unanimous and the officials dared not retreat.

Coming simultaneously with the miners’ strike, it led, in many instances, to joint action by the workers of both organizations, and the effect became so much stronger throughout the country. But at no time was any unity of leadership effected or even attempted. Several conferences were held between officials of the miners’ union and the shop crafts organization. It produced only “friendly understandings” which are of little use when brought up against the realities of the class struggle. The 16 standard railroad organizations failed as miserably as in the past to effect a united front within their own ranks. While the six shop crafts and the stationary firemen are now bearing the brunt of the attacks of the solidly united railroad companies, the remaining unions are standing around, or held in line by their officials, waiting for their turn to be trimmed.

Yet these two strikes, perhaps the greatest ever witnessed on the American continent, have served to definitely establish the left wing movement, not only within these two organizations, but throughout the American labor movement. It is now growing by leaps and bounds. The many wounds of past dual and secession movements are rapidly being healed, and the progressive, thinking workers have completely discarded such fallacies. They are becoming class conscious, their whole conception has been revolutionized. These great conflicts have served to show to large numbers of the American workers that the bitter struggle against the exploiters cannot be fought with the antiquated weapons of craft unionism, but that a constant remoulding of their weapons is necessary. They have formulated a definite and concrete program of amalgamation of craft unions into industrial units, which is now being propagated by the left wing organized movement from coast to coast, and has made big inroads, especially among the railroad workers, where despite the present disunity of leadership, the trend towards closer affiliation has become visible and several organizations have already taken the first steps towards amalgamation.

Thee great conflicts mark a definite turning point and the beginning of a conscious struggle for power by the workers in the United States.

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