BY DAVID SALNER AND ESTELLE DEBATES
MORGANTOWN, West Virginia -Forty-five people gathered June 28 at the Pathfinder Bookstore here for a meeting that marked the reorganization of the Socialist Workers Party's political work in the coalfields of West Virginia and western Pennsylvania. This reorganization includes the decision to close the branch of the SWP and the Pathfinder Bookstore in Morgantown.
Longtime supporters of the party and a number of young people who met and worked with the socialist movement here in the recent months attended the meeting. More than $350 worth of books at 75 percent off were sold that day, as activists continued to stop by as late as 10 p.m. to make some final purchases. Throughout the week, fighters for Black rights, woman's rights, and union activists had stopped by the bookstore, cleaning off the shelves. Two high school students from Washington, Pennsylvania, and one young worker from Pittsburgh bought a total of 80 books. They spent an entire afternoon talking with SWP and Young Socialist members while picking out additions to their libraries.
Diana Newberry, a member of the Young Socialists in Morgantown, opened the program by introducing the featured speaker, Paul Mailhot, a member of the National Committee of the SWP. Mailhot lived in Morgantown during much of the 1980s and was active in the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union at the Morgan Shirt Factory, which closed last year.
"We may be leaving Morgantown, but not our work here," said Mailhot. The political work among miners, youth and other working people in the coalfield area will continue through the work of the Pittsburgh branch of the SWP, located just one and a half hours north of Morgantown. The party members from Morgantown will be reinforcing that branch, as well as those in Birmingham, Chicago, Cleveland, and Seattle.
Mailhot noted that the party earlier had a branch in Morgantown from 1947 to 1951. Its members included coal miners. The SWP and the Militant newspaper championed the exemplary struggle of the miners during World War II, who stood up to the bosses and the government, taking strike action several times in spite of the no-strike pledge agreed to by the union officialdom. The party won respect and recruits among mine workers for its stand in solidarity with these struggles.
The decision for the party to expand into Morgantown and other areas was based on the postwar upsurge by labor that culminated into a strike wave in 1945-46, bringing hundreds of thousands of workers into political activity. Despite this upsurge, the petty-bourgeois labor officialdom was able to consolidate its hold on the unions by 1950, a process that was hastened by the capitalist economic expansion coming out of the war. The good times made it possible for workers to win modest but real wage increases and "fringe benefits" without increasing conflicts with the employers. In the early 1950s the socialist movement carried out a necessary regrouping that meant retreating from a number of cities and also eventually giving up a national structure for socialists doing work in the trade unions.
"Today we are also consolidating our forces," Mailhot said, "but what we face is a completely different political situation. The openings to do political work, to attract workers and youth to communist politics, and to build the Socialist Workers Party are greater than they have been in decades. But in this region of the country and some others we are spread too thin to take advantage of them.
"We live in a world today where the capitalists' confidence in their ability to rule has been shaken," the speaker said, "as they are driven to continue their assault on the working class through austerity and war. However, this is also a world in which the working class has started to make its own moves." He pointed to the recent elections in France, Britain, and Canada where workers went to the polls to "vote no to the idea that sacrifice will lead to prosperity" as evidence that the working class is not defeated.
"'When you look around the world from Europe, to Argentina, to the ending of 150 years of British rule of Hong Kong, you see a trend. The United States is part of the same trend line," asserted Mailhot. "When workers are given an opening to fight, you can see the potential," he said, pointing to the June 21 rally of tens of thousands of workers in Detroit to support newspaper workers whose strike was led to defeat by the labor officialdom. That rally was a magnet for workers who had been involved in strikes across the country, including UMWA members who struck at Pittston Coal Co. in the early 1990s. He also took note of the strike currently under way at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, where 4,500 workers have maintained solidarity on the picket lines for nine months without a single crossover. Mailhot went on, "These are small but important developments where workers can get experience for the bigger battles that lie ahead." A number of people in the audience had just come from the picket lines at Wheeling-Pitt that day. The SWP organizes itself to be in the best position possible to join these struggles and to build the type of party that can help lead the working class to power and begin to run society in the interests of the toiling majority.
Mine workers' history of struggle
"We came to Morgantown in 1977 to become part of a showdown that was shaping up in the nation's coal mines," Mailhot said. In response to the 1974-75 worldwide recession, the rulers dealt blows to the rights and living conditions of working people.
In 1977 the coal bosses association provoked a fight with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), counting on "the desperately weak position" of the union as one Wall Street magazine put it at that time. What resulted, however, was a 110-day strike in which the ranks of the mine workers voted down two concession contracts. The miners also stood up to President James Carter's aid to the coal bosses when he ordered them back to work using the Taft-Hartely Act, declaring a "national emergency." The miners' slogan was "Taft can mine it - Hartley can haul it," reminiscent of the militancy of the 1943 strike slogan, "You can't mine coal with bayonets."
The strikers reached out for and found solidarity from others and were able to block a concerted union-busting assault and strengthen their union. Mailhot pointed out that the strength of the 1977-78 strike resulted from a revolution in the UMWA. This revolution was made by rank-and- file miners in what became known as the Miners for Democracy, which developed out of the battles in the late 1960s and early '70s to protect miners' health and safety.
For miners, the mid-1960s marked the beginning of the end of a 15-year period of devastating unemployment and mine mechanization. The workforce dropped from 400,000 in the late 1940s to 125,000 by 1964. The miners were also saddled with one of the most corrupt bureaucracies, headed by UMWA President W. Anthony Boyle. The death of miners to black lung disease or in mining accidents was considered entirely acceptable.
By the early 1960s hiring began to pick up in the mines. Increasingly this hiring included young veterans who had been in Vietnam. "The rank-and-file's aspirations began to surface as confidence grew that a fight could be waged to improve the health, safety, and standard of living of the miners," said Mailhot.
Struggle for union democracy
The 1968 Farmington Disaster, in which 78 miners died in a Consolidated Coal Co. (Consol)-owned mine close to Morgantown was a turning point in this development. The day after the blast, while the families of the trapped miners kept vigil, Boyle congratulated Consol for being "one of the better companies as far as cooperation and safety are concerned."
The UMWA president's response convinced many that they would have to take the fight into their own hands. Rank-and- file miners went out on a series of strikes and rallies led by the Black Lung Association. Through their actions they forced through important legislation. This victory gave confidence to miners and others. It gave momentum to the developing fight in the UMWA for health, safety, and union democracy.
Mailhot pointed out that when the party came to Morgantown in 1977, "We joined in the fight of the miners. We did this most effectively by getting hired in the mills, garment shops, and eventually the mines and being active in the unions." This was an important part of the SWP rebuilding a national structure to organize socialists in the trade unions.
"Members of the SWP and the Young Socialist Alliance came here to be part of a struggle and openly campaign for it as socialists. From the moment we set up the branch we supported the mine workers' strike by getting speakers on campus and at union meetings. We rallied support for mine workers in the Militant, and we ran socialist election campaigns."
Mailhot pointed out how the response by mine workers to one campaign showed the Socialist Workers were able to win a place and win respect in the union, even when their ideas weren't always popular. "Bill Hovland was the party's candidate for statewide office in 1982 at the Kitt mine, when the company fired him," Mailhot said. "The company thought they could use the fact that a lot of workers opposed Hovland's socialist views to fire him and deal a blow to the union. Hovland won his job back as part of a fight by the miners against this attack and others by the coal bosses.
"Today we often take for granted the fact that supporters of the Militant can stand in front of a mine portal and distribute the paper." Mailhot said. "But this was a right that we along with other miners had to fight for against the coal companies and some conservative-minded workers.
"The SWP was part of efforts by women to win and defend their rights to jobs in the mines. These struggles led to the formation of the Coal Employment Project, in which we remain active today," said Mailhot. That weekend, party members from Morgantown and elsewhere were attending the 19th CEP-sponsored National Conference of Women Miners and Supporters taking place that same weekend in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. A collection at the meeting and a dinner beforehand raised $380 toward their expenses.
Mailhot pointed out that mine workers contributed mightily to the demise of nuclear power in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "The capitalist class had plans," he said, "to build nuclear reactors across the United States to increase their profits and erode the bargaining position of the mine workers union. Many environmental activists would be surprised when we would tell them that the largest antinuclear organization was the United Mine Workers."
He pointed out that by the early 1980s, the SWP had been able to use the strength and experience it had gained in Morgantown to expand to other coal centers - Charleston, in the southern West Virginia coalfields, and Price, Utah in the Western coalfields. From its base in Utah, socialist workers and youth traveled to talk to miners and sell subscriptions to the Militant throughout the Western coalfields. In Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming they met up with miners who are Navajos, Chicanos, and who came from the eastern coalfields in search of work.
"Today nearly every member of the SWP who has worked in the mine has been laid off," said Mailhot. Northern West Virginia has been hit particularly hard by mine closings in the last two years. "Miners are aging, but coal remains an important industry," Mailhot noted. "So the coal bosses will need to reach for young workers who can handle the working conditions they intend to impose. But they don't want the traditions of the UMWA intact when the youth come in. They will continue to go after the union and try to tame it.
"We leave here with a pledge," the speaker concluded,
"that we will continue to be a part of all the struggles of
the miners and other workers in the region. And that when
the new generation is hired into the mines we will be part
of that just as we were in the past."
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