60 Years Ago: Miners Challenged Union Manipulation of Strike Actions

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One of the characteristics of the miners’ strikes in the United States was their deep rooted confidence in their unions as defenders of the working class. While this was true during the 19th century during the ascendant period of capitalism, by the beginning of the 20th century with the onset of capitalist decadence the unions were gradually integrated into the state machinery through regulation of working conditions and guaranteeing labor discipline, only ‘demanding’ the most modest and limited benefits. During the early 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was a proletarian response to the change in function and operation of the established labor unions and worker’s parties when capitalism entered the period of decadence. Though once the counter-revolution gained the upper hand after the decline of the first revolutionary wave (1917-1927) in the latter half of the 1920’s, the unions regained their grip on the working class and were able, with few difficulties, to aid in the militarization of labor for the war effort of World War II.

After the Second World War, the US lived through an important upsurge in class struggle that often moved outside of the union stranglehold and asserted itself as a class with its own interests separate from those of the state. One such experience was the miners’ strike movement of 1949-1950.

How Did It Start?

Following the imperialist world war the United States emerged as a world superpower and the leader of the Western imperialist bloc, a position which required it to assert strict discipline at home and imposed on its workers the Taft-Hartley Act (passed despite a veto from President Truman) in 1947; mainly to curb organized labor’s power and introduce a major provision that established an 80-day ‘cooling off’ period for strikes that could supposedly create a ‘national emergency’. A long established tradition of ‘No Contract, No Work’ had become part of American labor, and there had been mass rank-and-file opposition throughout 1947 and 1948 to the Act- which caused swift action to be taken by the Truman administration (since Truman had won the 1948 Presidential election under the promise to repeal Taft-Hartley). All through 1949 there was a back and forth fight between the administration and the President of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), John L. Lewis. Although he is considered an important strategist, his actions against the US Direction of Mines always used the miners as a maneuverable mass in order to obtain some amelioration at the expense of any self-organization practiced by the workforce.

Two events that shook the miners were the wildcat strike of 62,000 Ford Rouge auto workers against speed-ups at the huge Detroit plant and the introduction of the ‘Continuous Miner’; a Caterpillar mining machine (called ‘man-killer’ by the miners) that would worsen labor conditions considerably (more dust, heat and danger of fires) and reduce the need for the current workforce to only one-third of its size compared to traditional mining practices.

Mid-September a strike had started as a result of an announcement by Lewis of the suspension of all payments by the UMWA Health & Welfare Fund because the coal operators were refusing to make their royalty payments and the Fund’s resources had been cut. It started in the largest captive mine in Barrackville and the state’s largest commercial mine, Grant Town, both in Northern West Virginia, where local union meetings were called. Almost immediately, union miners all over Northern West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania had followed suit. Roving pickets mushroomed throughout the area to halt all production and transportation of coal, including non-union operations. Many of the miners were armed. The strike spread throughout the whole of Appalachia- West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Ohio- with Western miners also walking out to make the strike total. Lewis ordered the 78,000 Pennsylvania hard coal miners as well as the 22,000 soft coal miners west of the Mississippi back to work, whereas on the next day United Steelworkers (USW) President Murray called a steel strike following the collapse of mediation talks with the government. This was the first time that coal and steel were on strike at the same time, with over 900,000 workers walking out. During those same summer and fall months auto workers at Ford, Chrysler and GM also went on strike. But the rejection of a joint strike fund by American Federation of Labor (AFL) President Green and the separate agreement at the end of October with Bethlehem Steel thwarted the possibility of a General Strike.

Workers Overrun Union Strategies

With the Eastern miners ordered back to work to their three day work week by Lewis, the rest of the miners felt isolated and so the Consolidation Coal Company brought a court action against UMWA to fight the three day work week. But when Lewis called the six Consol mines in Morgantown-Fairmont out, most of the other area miners spontaneously walked-out as well. When they were called back to work by Lewis, they voted against it. There was mass spontaneous picketing and every picket line was honored. “Monday, the day Lewis had ordered us to go back to work, came and went. Not only did we stay out, we began to spread the strike.” (p.20). Union bosses, like Urbaniak and Cappellini, who tried to regain control of the strike movement were booed and in the meetings the miners re-affirmed their determination to spread the strike throughout the country and to stay out ‘until hell froze over’. “This turning point, begun at the Sunday Grant Town meeting, reached irrevocable completion at the Thursday Monogah meeting. The rank-and-file were now in control of the strike.” (p.21). As soon as Truman invoked the Taft-Hartley Act the union could be fined for contempt of court and so too could every miner that would try to influence any other miner to stay out on strike. But activists found out that it is against the Constitution of the United States for a law to be passed against an individual. So the miners found the answer when the cable came with Lewis’ back-to-work telegram. They said, “We have all heard the telegram. I can’t tell you what to do, but they can’t pass a law against an individual. You can do what you want, but I can’t tell you I’m not going back to work until we have a contract! Meeting adjourned.” (p.22). So the miners reconvened with the legal decision and continued the strike, but now they had to organize themselves if they were to be successful.

Workers Assert Their Own Class Perspectives

The ruling class was stunned by this loophole in the law and tried by all means to quell the strike and to starve out the miners and their families. This was the reason why so many miners’ wives participated in an important role during the mass picketing and the organizing of relief to the neediest families. Because the strike was declared illegal, “all established avenues of aid dried up or cut off, the top priority became massive relief to help the miners and keep the operators from starving us in defeat.” District officials tried to sabotage the setting up of a miners’ relief committee that would seek help from workers of other industries who were sympathetic to the miners and were anxious to help. Once the relief committee was approved in Grant Town, WV, “committee members were appointed to go out and get aid from other workers throughout the country (…) The following week, two miners headed East to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, and two others went North into Ohio and Michigan. All were totally committed to winning the strike, and no more effective speakers could have been sent out to do the job.” (p.25-28). One should not forget that, “the local press and company stooges tried to whip up anti-Red hysteria, accusing the strike leaders of being Communists or dupes of Communists and charging that Reds and outside agitators were infiltrating and taking over the leadership of the strike.” But the rank-and-file stood firm and defended their strike and relief committees. “The red-baiting and accusations took a particularly vicious turn when a van of relief collected in New York by a teachers’ union, the American Labor Party and the Progressive Party came into the Barrackville local union. Those who brought the good and clothing came with movie cameras and lights to photograph the delivery, and they in-turn were photographed and their visit reported in the local press (…) many blacks accepted the relief. The implication was that they were somehow un-American for accepting the ‘Red’ food (…) The press attacks became so vicious that many local union presidents publicly denounced the acceptance of any ‘Red’ food, some even declaring that ‘Red’ food sent to their locals should be dumped into the river.” (p.28). “It was in Detroit that autoworkers organized a city-wide relief program to help the miners with the giant Ford local 600 spearheading the effort. Food and clothing to fill five huge trailers were donated by the workers and others, including students, who contributed generously to the appeal.” (p.30). Another characteristic of how class solidarity works was shown “When the miners cheered the 12 tons of food that the auto workers had sent, and a check for $1,000 from United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 600, and another $333 from Local 155, Joe Hogan (UAW) rose to say that the auto workers didn’t come ‘to get thanks from the miners, but to give thanks to the miners for their splendid fight,” which was not only on behalf of themselves but helped the whole labor movement.” (p.30). William Massey of the relief committee concluded: “Our victory shows what can be done when we fight together.” (p.30). “The relief committee, in operation for only two weeks, got over $6,000 in cash contributions from workers in other industries, plus the relief truck caravan. The relief pipeline was open. The operators and the government were not going to starve us into submission.” (p.31).

Not only did the miners win this strike but the experience they went through widened even further the gulf between the rank-and-file and the top of the unions, in the person of John L. Lewis. The next year, in 1951, a wildcat strike erupted in Northern West Virginia, where the miners demanded seniority rights; they knew that the ‘Continuous Miner’ would cause an enormous amount of layoffs and they wanted the seniority system to have protection from automation. “The wildcat strike centered on Consol’s 13 mines in Northern West Virginia, but quickly threatened to spread as miners from other areas began to plead for us to come and pull them out because they faced the same situation. So intense were the feelings of those of us on strike that we forced Lewis and Consol to negotiate a seniority protection clause without first going to work. This was the first time a provision was won while workers were on strike.” (p.31). Under the renewed pressure of these very militant wildcat strikes, the bosses from the mines and the unions had to give in. Recognizing the threat of these militant workers, the bosses chose to give-in in order to prevent these experiences of self-organization spreading through the wider working class.

Lessons For Today

The pamphlet from News & Letters from 1984 concludes as follows:

“Lewis and the operators had clearly understood the revolutionary implications in the 1949-1950 rank-and-file movement. That became the last great strike Lewis ever led, and never again directly involved the rank-and-file in any contract negotiations. All subsequent contract talks were held in secrecy, and we first learned of new agreements when they were reported in the press (…) Within 10 years, from 1950 to 1960, the nation’s miners were slashed from 500,000 to less than 175,000. The whole of Appalachia became a permanently depressed region for two decades.” (p.32).

“The historic significance of the 1949-50 strike, however, was not only that the miners had revealed the course of the strike that they were far ahead of their leaders (…) they had also demonstrated that to achieve their ends they had to create their own organization- the mass meeting. They made their own decisions, carried them out in opposition to the power of the government, coal operators, a hostile press and their own union leadership, and at the same time had directly involved broad segments of the working class in the nation. To some, many of the things the miners did seemingly spontaneous, as though the actions came from nowhere. Just the opposite was true. The spontaneity of the miners flowed from their own repeated collective thought and action that preceded their ‘spontaneous’ activity.”

We can only add that this experience, as many others confirm, of the working class since the onset of capitalist decadence can only achieve temporary victories and a rise in its class consciousness through self-organized struggles. It is the only way of developing its collective capacities of solidarity and the perspectives of a class that has the capacity to overthrow capitalist social relations. It has to rise up and affirm its historic role of freeing humanity from class based societies and capitalism (whose only solutions to its crisis of overproduction are austerity measures and war). The working class has a communist perspective for humanity, because in its radical struggle lays the germs of a strong solidarity and class consciousness that are totally opposed to the logic of capitalist society. Now that the working class in the United States is reacting to the crisis and austerity measures, it is very useful for the working class to remember its own capacities for self-organization and solidarity, largely unknown to the present generation.  


JZ  12/12/10



(1) The Coal Miners’ General Strike Of 1949-1950 And The Birth Of Marxist Humanism In The US by Raya Dunayevskaya.


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