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Sharon Smith

Letter from the US

Burying the bosses

(October 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 168, October 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘This country and the world wasn’t meant to be ruled by big business ... It was designed to be ruled by working people. Those are the people that make the world’

On 10 May, several months after the national contract expired, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) called 4,000 miners out on selective strike against the biggest coal companies’ bargaining group, the Bituminous Coal Operators’ Association (BCOA). Since then the strike has spread to include 17,000 miners.

The miners are not demanding higher wages. They are fighting for their jobs and ultimately for the survival of their union. During the 1980s the productivity of union miners increased from 1.4 tons per hour worked in 1979 to almost 4 tons per hour today. Meanwhile, coal companies have tried to undermine the union by shutting down union mines and opening up new subsidiaries using non-union labour. This practice, known as ‘double breasting’, combined with higher productivity, caused the number of working union miners to drop from 138,000 in 1980 to only about 50,000.

The stakes are high on both sides. Even the biggest coal companies have been forced to admit they are losing substantial sums of money, forcing them to raise prices. Higher prices could cause utility companies to buy their coal elsewhere, though the owners appear willing to lose some money in order to weaken the union.

But the bitterness shared by nearly all union miners toward the coal companies has deepened their resolve to stay out as long as it takes to win their strike. Local 1820 president Bob Stine, who has worked for 22 years in the mines of southern Illinois, summed up the sentiment on the picket lines:

‘We’re not asking for anything we don’t deserve. We deserve job security. We deserve a good healthcare plan. We’ve worked for it. We made Peabody $263 million last year. Production was up 200 percent, and yet they kept laying us off. Peabody just doesn’t give a shit about us. They’re just trying to find another way to break this union so they can make more money than they’ve already made. The bottom line is they’re just big union busters. That’s what they would love to do, but they aren’t going to get it done.’

Although a few mines are operating staffed with management personnel, most of the coal operators haven’t tried to run the mines with scab labour so far. If they do, past experience has shown that the miners will face armed thugs and possibly troops protecting the strikebreakers.

But if the miners succeed they will set an example for the entire labour movement in the US. A victory for the miners holds the potential to begin to reverse the continuous setbacks suffered by workers for the last 15 years.

This would not be the first time that miners showed the way forward for the rest of the labour movement. Skilled and unskilled miners came together in 1890 to form the UMWA – the very first industrial union in the US – pre-dating the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) by several decades. In 1943 the UMWA struck three times in defiance of the Second World War no-strike pledge agreed to by labour leaders. Not even President Roosevelt’s threat to use the military to open the mines was enough to stop the miners. And even though the miners’ defiance of the no-strike pledge was roundly condemned by union leaders, thousands of rank and file workers in the auto, steel and rubber industries all followed their example by going out on strike in June 1943.

Even during the period of relative labour stability in the 1950s and 1960s, miners struck at a rate of three times the national average. Although UMWA president John L. Lewis authorised only two strikes during the 1952–1964 period, UMWA members averaged just under 200 strikes per year. In 1969 virtually every miner in West Virginia took part in an all-out strike to win government compensation for black lung disease. In 1970, the strike spread to involve 40,000 miners in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, forcing the government to recognise black lung as a disease.

In the late 1970s miners struck at an even higher rate than before. In 1976 after federal courts imposed injunctions against the UMWA, an unauthorised strike spread to nearly all mines, forcing the federal court to withdraw all the injunctions. In 1977 alone there were two million strike days in the mining industry.

In 1978, however, the tide began to turn against the miners. In a showdown with the coal companies the miners struck for 110 days. They defied President Carter’s attempt to use the Taft-Hartley Act to force them back to work, but they were unable to force the operators to back down.

The miners fought important struggles during the 1980s to try to stave off employers’ attacks. In 1989 Pittston miners went on strike for 11 months and – after a three-day occupation and a solidarity strike joined by 30,000 miners – they were able to prevent the company from busting their union.

The miners recognise that their present struggle could be decisive – not only for themselves, but for all workers. Gerald Poenitske, also a member of Local 1820, told Socialist Review:

‘At this point in time for labour it is a very critical time. Without any kind of decent coming together of workers, we’re all going to be working again for nothing. You’re going to have the rich, you’re going to have the poor. Without the labour movement, without the unions, we’re not going to have anything in this nation.’

But the potential to win exists, particularly if it spreads into an all out strike against the BCOA. Moreover, solidarity has spread internationally. In June 1,000 members of the United Mine Workers of Australia at two Peabody owned mines walked out in support of the miners’ strike. And in August 750 workers at the Ever Ready Battery factory, owned by Hanson plc, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, staged a one day solidarity strike.

Of the international solidarity, 23 year old UMWA member Ray Montgomery said:

‘It just leads you to believe that we have more support than the companies think we have. This country and the world wasn’t meant to be ruled by big business. It was designed to be ruled by working people. Those are the people that make the world.’

Messages of solidarity and contributions can be sent to: UMWA Illinois Relief Fund, Box 95, Marissa, IL 62557, USA.

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