Friday, March 31, 2017

The American Miners' Strike (1947)

Editorial from the January 1947 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Lesson for Industrial Actionists
There never was a better time than the present for the American miners to demonstrate just how much effect a strike can have. With little unemployment and an almost unlimited demand for coal they were as favourably placed as they have ever been or are likely to be. Yet they failed. They came out on strike to the number of some 400,000 on November 20th, and they remained out for 16 or 17 days, though towards the end the American Government claimed that the miners were drifting back to work in considerable numbers. When they returned to work it was on the same terms as when they came out.

The mines, though privately owned, have been operated by the American Government since last spring. John L. Lewis, the Miners’ leader, was demanding that the miners should receive for 40 hours’ work the same pay as they are at present getting for 54 hours, to compensate for the increased cost of living. Mr. Arthur Webb, American correspondent of the Daily Herald (November 21st, 1946), cabled:—“The Government wants to force Lewis to keep the men working and to enter negotiations with the mineowners for a revised contract, although the pits are still being run by the State. But Lewis says that the Government must agree to his terms before it hands the mines back to private enterprise.”

At that time, when the strike was just beginning, Mr. Webb was vastly impressed by the power of Lewis and the miners: “ For although the United States boasts that it is a Republic, it is still ruled by ‘King Coal’—and Lewis is the man behind the throne.” 

What was it then that caused this potentate to surrender? He surrendered to those who really govern America, the ruling class who are in possession of the machinery of government—the Democratic Party President, and the Republicans who gained a majority in the recent election and who backed the President’s action against the miners.

The strike is the workers’ only weapon under capitalism, a useful weapon but strictly limited when it meets the power of those who control the State. The President had applied for, and obtained, a court injunction holding that Lewis’s action in calling the strike was illegal. The court sharply backed up its order by fining Lewis £2,500 and his union £875,000 for contempt of court.

Faced with this what did the “man behind the throne” do? He paid the £2,500 into court and his union paid the £875,000 into court (Daily Herald, December 12th, 1946). And the next day, without consulting the miners, he ordered them back to work at least until March 31st, so that negotiations can go on with the Government or with the owners. In the letter to his members he informed them that the union representatives would “act in full protection of your interests within the limitations of the findings of the Supreme Court of the United States” (Observer, December 8th, 1946, italics ours). Political power had defeated industrial action.

The emancipation of the working class will not come by industrial action but only by gaining control of the machinery of government, through the vote, for the purpose of abolishing capitalism and establishing Socialism. The American workers, like the workers everywhere have not yet learned this lesson. At the recent American elections the great majority of them, being non-Socialists, voted for the two parties of capitalism, Republicans and Democrats. Neither represents working-class interests, though the self-styled leaders of the workers pretend that one party is less “reactionary” than the other and more deserving of support by the workers. Many trade unions helped the Democrats in the elections, while others helped the Republicans. The “Call" organ of the reformists “ Socialist Party,” offered as one reason why the Democrat, President Truman, went all out to break the strike that he was emboldened to do so by the recent electoral victory of his political opponents, the Republicans (“Call,” New York, November 25th, 1946). Yet Lewis, as the Daily Herald reports (November 21st, 1946), himself supported the Republicans and helped them to victory. It illustrates on the one side how the capitalists in rival parties unite when it is a question of defending their interests against the workers, and on the other the futility of the workers voting their exploiters into power in the hope that they will share in the benefits of their masters’ electoral victories.

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