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   Vol. 69/No. 29           August 1, 2005  
 
 

There Is No Peace: 60 Years Since End of World War II   

How miners defied ‘no-strike’ pledge in WW II
 
Reprinted below are excerpts from an account of the 1943 strikes that the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) waged during World War II, successfully defying the strikebreaking moves by the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. Washington had imposed a wartime wage freeze and compulsory arbitration of all labor disputes through a War Labor Board (WLB). It had won a no-strike pledge from class-collaborationist labor officials, who backed the imperialist war effort. In defiance of these antilabor measures, coal miners went on strike over the coal operators’ efforts to increase hours and freeze pay.

When Roosevelt threatened to send in troops to break the strike, the miners stood their ground and faced down the government. Their victory opened the road to the strike wave that exploded in 1945-46.

These excerpts are taken from Labor’s Giant Step: The First Twenty Years of the CIO: 1936-55, by Art Preis. Copyright © 1972 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.
 

*****

BY ART PREIS  
There were many signs of the growing restiveness of the industrial workers as 1942 drew to a close and during the opening months of 1943.

The coal miners, for the most part isolated in small towns, were squeezed worst of all. When Pennsylvania anthracite miners started an unauthorized walkout on January 2, 1943, it was clear that they had reached a point of open revolt against economic conditions.

On March 10, the UMW opened negotiations with the Appalachian soft coal operators. Among the seven demands [union president John L.] Lewis and the UMW committee presented to the mine owners were: (1) retention of the existing 35-hour, five-day week in the coal mining industry; (2) inclusion of all time traveled from the pit entrance to the point of work and back to the surface as part of the paid work time; (3) a $2-per-day raise in base pay.

The UMW president cited the terrific accident rate in the mines due to lack of safety equipment: 64,000 men killed and injured in 1941; 75,000 in 1942; an estimated 100,000 in 1943, with the intensification of war production.

The mine owners brushed aside the UMW’s demands and the Roosevelt administration intensified pressure on the union to capitulate.

Roosevelt himself intervened as the April 1 mine strike deadline approached. He asked the operators on March 27 to agree to extend the existing contract beyond April 1 and make any subsequent wage adjustment retroactive to that date. At the same time he said that the dispute must be settled “under the national no-strike agreement of December 26, 1941” with “final determination, if necessary, by the National War Labor Board.”

The moral position of the miners was becoming stronger every day. The CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] and AFL [American Federation of Labor] leaders backed the miners’ demands and, for the time being, refrained from open attacks on the UMW’s threat to strike. Local bodies of the United Auto Workers and other CIO unions passed resolutions of unconditional support for the miners.

On April 22, the WLB announced it was assuming jurisdiction of the case. The UMW refused to appear before this “court packed against labor.” On April 24, WLB Chairman Davis announced that the board would consider the case only within the framework of the Little Steel Formula, which automatically ruled out any raises for the miners.

Miners in Western Pennsylvania and Alabama left the pits that same day, a week in advance of the truce deadline.

The United Press reported that 41,000 bituminous miners were already out.  
 
FDR as strikebreaker
The spreading coal strike forced Roosevelt to step forward personally to take public responsibility for leading the opposition to the miners. He telegraphed Lewis on April 29 that he would use “all the powers vested in me as President and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy” if the strikes were not ended by the morning of May 1. Roosevelt’s threat brought an immediate defiant reply from the mine workers. Nearly 10,000 Ohio miners left the pits. By the morning of Saturday, May 1, every union soft coal mine in the country was closed.

The national strike of the miners was not only the largest coal strike the country had seen up to this time. It was the largest single strike of any kind the land had ever known. It was carried out with a dispatch, discipline and single-minded determination that had never been surpassed in the American labor movement.

The press did surpass itself in the volume of vituperation, slanders and threats hurled at the miners and Lewis. Lewis was linked with Hitler in newsreels, on the radio, in countless newspaper cartoons. Union leaders joined the chorus of anti-labor forces who were screaming for nothing less than the destruction of the miners union under the guise of aiding the war for “democracy.”

On May 1 Roosevelt himself ordered government seizure of the struck coal mines under Solid Fuels Administrator Harold L. Ickes. Ickes “seized” the mines by promptly ordering the American flag to be flown over all mine properties and directing all mine owners and managers to run the mines as government agents in the name of the government—all profits to continue as usual. Ickes then declared the miners were working “for the Government” and ordered them back to work.

The miners didn’t budge.

It was during the first of the series of wartime coal mine strikes that the Communist Party revealed to what depths of treachery it could really sink in order to demonstrate to the United States capitalists how useful the CP could be to them if American capitalism would make some kind of permanent deal with the Kremlin.

The May 1-4 national coal strike brought the anti-labor, strikebreaking activities of the Communist Party to a peak of ferocity that the vilest capitalist enemies of the unions did not surpass. On April 29 the Daily Worker carried a front-page appeal by CP National Chairman William Z. Foster, urging the miners not to respond to their union’s strike call.

On the morning of June 1, some 530,000 miners refrained from entering the pits “without any special strike call being issued and with casual matter-of-factness,” as George Breitman, the Militant’s correspondent, wrote from the mining area around Pittsburgh.  
 
‘Can’t dig coal with bayonets’
Roosevelt, on June 3, threatened to call out the troops unless the miners returned to work by June 7. The miners merely shrugged and repeated their classic phrase: “You can’t dig coal with bayonets.”

By the time the official strike deadline, November 1, had arrived, all 530,000 coal miners were out, for their fourth official national wartime strike within one year.

Roosevelt was at the end of his rope. He could not arrest 530,000 miners. He could not force them to go down into the pits at bayonet point, and even if he could, they need not mine an ounce of coal. He could not jail Lewis and the UMW leaders, for the miners swore they would strike “till Hell freezes over” if Lewis were victimized in any way. The President again seized the struck mines and authorized Ickes to negotiate a contract.

The WLB on November 20 finally agreed to a contract acceptable to the union and contractors. This fixed the mine wage at $57.07 a week and provided $40 to each miner for retroactive payment for travel time.

The UMW Policy Committee ratified the new contract on November 3 and instructed the miners to return to work. They had cracked the wage freeze.

If the miners had not fought and won, if they had been defeated, it would have meant not only the crippling and possibly the crushing of one of the most powerful industrial unions—the UMW—but a demoralizing blow of shattering proportions for the auto, rubber, steel, electrical equipment, and other CIO workers. The government would have introduced new “formulas” to slash wages, increase hours of work and intensify the exploitation of labor in the name of patriotism and the “needs of the war.”

Instead, the miners’ victory opened a whole new wave of labor struggle, mounting steadily through 1943, 1944 and 1945, reaching a titanic climax in the winter of 1945-46.

The miners themselves were able to go on from victory to victory in the war and immediate postwar period, winning many new gains, such as health and welfare funds, retirement pensions and other conditions, which then became objectives of the CIO unions as well.
 
 
Previous article in the series:
Lessons from Spanish revolution in 1930s
Popular Front subordinated workers to capitalists, led to victory of Franco
 
 
 
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