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Vol. 76/No. 19      May 14, 2012

‘The miners have proven
that it takes a fight to win’
(Books of the Month column)

Below is an excerpt from a program broadcast by Cuban station Radio Havana on March 27, 1981. The text of the broadcast is included in Coal Miners on Strike, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month. Copyright © 1981 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission. Breakers are by the Militant.

In 1935 the UMW was the largest and most powerful industrial union in the U.S. Coal miners were the only workers who successfully organized racially integrated locals in the South before 1900, and became the first industrial workers to establish the eight-hour day in 1898.

After it had been almost destroyed in the 1920s, the UMW reorganized itself between 1933 and 1935 and became the backbone for the founding of the CIO. Coal miners provided both money and organizers for a drive to unionize the nation’s basic industries. Miners were among the few workers who fought their employers openly during World War II.

There are two major UMW strikes in recent history of tremendous political importance. In 1969 and 1978 coal miners took on every issue of concern to U.S. workers: Health, safety, benefits, wages, inflation, and especially the viability of the rank-and-file movement in the survival of a strong trade union.

In February and March 1969, West Virginia miners led the way when 95 percent of the state’s 25,000 miners stayed out of the pits for more than three weeks. They forced the state legislature to pass a new coal mine health and safety law. …

The Black Lung Association, which rank-and-file miners formed in January 1969 to sponsor and push for the West Virginia law, soon became an advocate for the interests of working and retired miners within a union whose leaders had sold out to the companies.

The strike also inspired Joseph “Jock” Yablonski to challenge Tony Boyle for the union’s presidency. Running on the slogan “Boyle’s in bed with the coal operators,” Yablonski ran a strong campaign and vowed to continue the fight beyond the December elections. He was assassinated by Boyle-hired gunmen on the last of the year, but at his funeral, Miners for Democracy was formed. …

Revolution in the union

The 1972 MFD slate stood on a platform which called for election of district officials and executive board members, rank-and-file ratification of contracts, no firings for refusal to work in unsafe conditions, a full-time safety committeeman in each mine, national and district support of local disputes, no discrimination in hiring and firing, uniform enforcement of the contract, increased pensions for retired miners, and responsible management of the welfare funds. It also pledged to reduce the salaries of top union officials.

Boyle was ousted by MFD candidate Arnold Miller, a victim of black lung and a former miner, an electrician with twenty-four years on the job. A new regime set in.

In 1974, miners voted to ratify their contract for the first time in the union’s eighty-four-year history. …

In 1975, 80,000 miners struck. In 1976, 120,000 did—nearly every union miner east of the Mississippi. The 1976 strike was so effective that federal judges in Charleston withdrew their fines and injunctions, an event almost unique in modern labor history.

Then in 1977, miners struck again in protest over cutbacks in their medical benefits, so important in a dangerous industry centered in southern Appalachia, where hospitals refuse to admit patients without cash on the spot to pay for emergency care.

Then in 1978, the UMW strike emerged as the central class question in the United States. The coal miners were fighting for the very existence of their union and every other union in the nation.

The attack on the UMW was part of the offensive being waged against the entire labor movement. …

The biggest coal company, Peabody, is controlled completely by the Kennecott Copper Company, which in turn is dominated by the Morgan bankers and Guggenheims.

The next biggest coal company, Consolidation, is owned by the Continental Oil Company, a multibillion-dollar asset with holdings in Africa and other overseas lands. Continental was part of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company before the trust’s nominal dissolution in 1911. Its control is now divided between the Rockefellers and Morgan bankers, with the Pittsburgh Mellons having a secondary voice.

The third biggest company, Island Creek, is owned by the Occidental Oil Company. Then there are the big mining properties of the U.S. Steel Corporation, which was founded by J.P. Morgan, Bethlehem Steel, and many coal companies owned entirely by Exxon, Mobil Oil, Gulf Oil, and other oil giants, and the big utilities.

Miners face capitalist class

It was the amassed power of the monopolists that confronted the miners as they began their strike.

[The miners’] struggle of 1978 created a new situation in the trade union movement. It gave a real jolt to big business’s drive for take-away contracts. It blunted the vicious antilabor campaign launched against all labor organizations. By ignoring government attempts to break the strike with the Taft-Hartley injunction, it landed a warning blow at that dangerous piece of antilabor legislation.

[The] defense of labor’s basic right to strike had positive repercussions among workers in all industries. In the process of the strike, the need for public ownership of the mines and coal resources became a hot issue in the minds of many workers. Why should such vital natural resources be under the control of the big oil, utility, and steel companies, and the big bankers?

In 1978, the United Mine Workers of America’s strike brought out once again the well-known fact that under capitalism workers are forced to fight for everything they get. It’s either fight, or go backward. The miners have proven it takes a fight to win.
Related articles:
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Construction boss in NY ‘gets away with murder’
Texas flour mill workers’ rally marks 1-year strike
Iowa aluminum workers end 11-week walkout
No worker has to die!  
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