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Vol. 73/No. 41      October 26, 2009

How miners won fight
against WWII no-strike laws
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Labor’s Giant Step, one of Pathfinder’s books of the month for October. The book describes the first 20 years of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and how its rise in the mid-1930s transformed the labor movement in the United States. The piece below is from the chapter “How the Miners Won.” In 1943, the United Mine Workers (UMW) waged several strikes for a pay raise and decent working conditions, challenging the government’s no-strike laws and wartime wage freeze. President Franklin Roosevelt, backing the bosses, ordered government seizure of struck coal mines May 1, and ordered the miners back to work, to no avail. Copyright ©1964 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

No sooner had the miners returned to work after their first strike in early May than [Harold] Ickes, the administration’s agent in charge of the seizure, announced that the miners would not negotiate with the ostensible new operator of the mines, the government, but only with the regular owners.

On May 17, the UMW Policy Committee announced an extension of the strike truce until midnight, May 31. This was done at the special request of Ickes. The WLB [War Labor Board] that same day denounced Lewis for “defying the lawfully established procedures of the Government.” The operators simultaneously announced that the WLB had “forbidden” them to resume negotiations with the UMW.

As the date for the new strike deadline approached, there were plenty of indications that the miners’ sentiments were shared by wide sectors of American workers. In Detroit, some 30,000 Chrysler and Dodge auto workers struck for four days in protest against an 11-month accumulation of grievances and demands. In Akron, Ohio, some 50,000 rubber workers struck for five days when the WLB conceded only a three-cent increase after a year’s delay. These strike actions were smothered by the combined efforts of the WLB, army and navy officials, FBI, the raging press and radio and, above all, the top union leaders of the CIO United Auto Workers and United Rubber Workers. Indeed, the UAW and URW leaders publicly upbraided their striking members.

The successful strikebreaking by the government and union officials in the auto, rubber and other strikes during the interim of the coal mines truce, further emboldened the operators to sit back and wait for the government to smash the miners and their union. On May 25, the WLB had denied the miners all their major demands, making only two minor concessions.

The operators began to get the point when the truce deadline, May 31, passed. 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.

Roosevelt thundered at the striking miners that they “are employees of the Government and have no right to strike.” Ickes telegraphed the union that Lewis “cannot escape responsibility for the cessation of work.” But Ickes conceded that “there are a few powerful operators who from the beginning had deliberately opposed any compromise which might lead to a reasonable settlement.”

What was decisive, however, was the attitude of the miners, their belief in their rights, their understanding of their organized power and their strategic position in the economy. George Breitman, in a May 26 dispatch from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, to The Militant summarized the results of his numerous interviews with miners in the important UMW District 4:

“The question I asked was: ‘Do you think you will obtain a substantial portion of your demands?’ And always the answer was an unhesitating yes. When I asked why, their answer generally went like this:

“‘Because we’re the only ones who can mine coal and they’re not going to make us do it unless they give us enough wages to do it right and feed our families on at least the same standard we had before the war. You know you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.’”

Roosevelt, on June 3, threatened to call out the troops unless the miners returned to work by June 7—and, as [Saul] Alinsky noted in his biography of Lewis, the President no longer referred to “my friends, the miners.” The miners merely shrugged and repeated their classic phrase: “You can’t dig coal with bayonets.” Roosevelt added a further threat—miners of draft age who did not respond to his order would be reclassified for military service. This made no impact either… .

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 employers’ postwar plan to turn the war veterans against the workers and smash the unions was never able to get going.

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.

Above all, the miners demonstrated as never before the fact that nothing can produce coal—or any other form of wealth—but the labor of workers. When the miners said “you can’t dig coal with bayonets,” they were saying that organized labor, united and determined to defend itself and its rights, is invincible. That is why, in hailing the miners’ victory, The Militant of November 13, 1943, said:

“The miners strikes of 1943, taking place in the midst of the Second World War, will forever remain a landmark in the history of the American class struggle.”
Related articles:
Tire workers in France fight frame-up by bosses
UK: hundreds mobilize against right-wing thugs
New Zealand strikers challenge dairy bosses
UK sanitation workers strike against wage cuts  
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