The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

A Lawyer for the Union
– But What for the Miners?

Jan 31, 1983

On November 9, Richard Trumka defeated incumbent Sam Church for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) by a margin of more than two to one. Some leftists saw his election as a step forward for the miners.

For example, one week before the election, a story in the Militant, newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), had the sub-headline, “Trumka victory would strengthen workers’ hand against the bosses”. The concluding paragraphs of the article admitted that Trumka had certain problems, but nonetheless, overall the SWP saw his election as a clear step forward for the miners:

Trumka and his running mates have more of a history of militancy, and they appeal to the developing class-struggle mood among miners. But during the course of the election campaign, they have not sought to mobilize this sentiment in action or provide a direction for it.

In fact, some of their stated positions point in exactly the opposite direction, just as those of Church...

Nonetheless, a victory for the Trumka slate would represent a decisive ‘no’ to continuing the union’s current policies. It would place miners in a better position to fight back. That in and of itself would pose a more difficult problem for the energy industry in its drive to housebreak the UMWA.

Following the election, the Militant’s page-one headline read, “Coal miners’ election victory arms union for coming battles”. Its editorial began, “Coal miners struck a blow against the employer takeback drive and for union democracy when they voted overwhelmingly for a new union leadership November 9...”

What does it mean that the coal miners voted for Rich Trumka over Sam Church? Perhaps it is true that the miners will soon enter a new round of struggles. Only time will tell. But the election itself tells us nothing about this. One could imagine just as easily the opposite hypothesis: that the miners will now do nothing but wait to see what the new union regime will produce for them.

But let us suppose that the SWP is right, that the miners, encouraged by the election of Trumka, are preparing to fight. In this context, let us examine what Trumka proposed in the election campaign.

A Lawyer for the Miners

In his campaign, Trumka put a considerable emphasis on the fact that, in addition to having spent some time working in the mines, he had gone to college and, in particular, law school. Trumka argued that his education as a lawyer meant that he is “better qualified to be president” than Church is. He suggested that the miners would not have had to make so many contract concessions to the mineowners in 1981, when they struck for seventy-two days, if they had had a “good lawyer” heading the negotiating team for the union. His campaign literature quoted various UMW officials on specific negotiating experiences Trumka had, and contrasted them to Church’s negotiating record. UMW Secretary-Treasurer Willard Esselstyn was quoted as saying, “Rich has been a safety committeeman and International Executive Board member, in addition to having a law degree. What other qualifications could you ask for from a candidate for the UMW presidency?” In fact, quite a few. And first of all, the readiness to lead a struggle. The miners have often shown what qualifications were necessary, when they were ready to fight to defend themselves. In fact, some of the UMW officials themselves – some of those who came out of the black lung movement or the Miners for Democracy – had some of these qualifications. And even that wasn’t sufficient.

But the thrust of Trumka’s campaign was in just the opposite direction. According to Trumka, the key to a good contract is not the miners’ own militancy. No, it is to have skillful negotiators at the bargaining table. But then how does Trumka explain that virtually every union in every industry has given up concessions to the bosses in the last few years, unions which have plenty of so-called skillful negotiators at their disposal? For example, are Doug Fraser and the staff of the United Auto Workers (UAW) not as sophisticated or skillful as Trumka and his team? Don’t they have plenty of lawyers? But the UAW has been out in front in making concessions to the bosses.

In fact, in the past, when the bosses have given something up to the workers, it’s not because the workers put good lawyers at the bargaining table, but because the bosses feared the organized power of the workers.

The Miners in the Face of the Crisis

Even if we assume that Trumka is sincere, even if he truly opposes the miners making further concessions to the mineowners, he does not offer a way to the workers to build their strength and use it to confront the bosses.

Judging by their history, the miners know what it means to make a militant fight to defend themselves. They know that the workers cannot afford to depend on the framework of contracts to defend themselves. The miners engaged in literally thousands of wildcat strikes and slowdowns in the 1960s and 1970s. They enforced mine safety by refusing to work in unsafe mines. They defied the bosses, the government, and their own union officials. They traveled from the coal fields to Washington and Wall Street to protest and confront those who made their profits from the conditions that led to death in the mines. They know that they cannot accept the divisions between workers of different companies or between union and non-union miners when there is a fight that has to be made. The miners have often simply refused to respect bourgeois law and order which the bosses expect the working class to accept.

The only important example we have of a section of the working class beating back the bosses’ concession demands in the recent period was the miners’ strike of 1977-78. The miners struck for 111 days to resist those concessions. Against the advice of UMW president Arnold Miller and in defiance of U.S. President Carter’s invocation of the Taft-Hartley Act ordering them back to work, the miners stayed out to force the mineowners to back down.

But Trumka saw something else in this successful defense. He complains that the miners’ long strikes, including this one in 1977-78 which allowed them to defend themselves against the mineowners’ concession demands, hurt the UMW financially and discouraged non-union miners from joining the UMW. He proposed that selective, rather than industry-wide, strikes on contracts would be more effective.

This sounds like the proposal of someone who would prefer to dispense with strikes altogether and place all the miners’ chips on the card of negotiations, if he could. In fact, in relation to the problem of organizing non-union miners, Trumka argued that the key was to rely on the union officials’ bargaining table skills. He said, “The best organizing tool is a good contract”. In other words, for Trumka, the miners ought to give up the very weapons which have given their negotiators something to bargain with when they have been at the table. It would be tragic if the miners accepted the perspective he offers.

A Fight of the Whole Working Class

Certainly the miners could ignore Trumka and choose to fight in the next period. If they do, they have a tradition of struggle, which gives them a certain direction. But the struggle is more difficult today than ten years ago. The capitalist economy is in a deep and general crisis. In the past, the bosses may have thrown some crumbs to the working class, including the miners, in order to have them shut up. But the capitalists cannot afford the same crumbs today. Indeed, for the last few years, they have demanded that the workers give up a substantial part of what they had won before.

This attack is across the board, directed against the entire working class. And a fight by one section of the working class, no matter how militant, will run into more obstacles. And yet the workers don’t have the tradition to address their problems as a class, or even to see themselves as a class. In the past, when the workers have fought, they have generally done so, one section of the working class at a time.

There have been a few strikes in the last period, reflecting a certain militancy on the part of the workers, including the air traffic controllers, the Iowa Beef workers, and the Canadian Chrysler workers. These strikes showed that some section of the working class are ready to make a fight. But in each case, the workers fought on their own, without trying to spread the fight to other section of the working class. The defeat of the air traffic controllers showed most clearly what a disaster could come of even a militant strike it did not spread to other sections of the working class or, at least, win their active support. Moreover, even when one section of the working class has defended itself one time, it’s no guarantee it won’t be forced to come right back and make the same fight again. In this kind of time, the bosses are not hurt so badly on the economic level as are the workers by a strike, and they can keep pushing the same demands. In 1981, the miners had to strike again against the mineowners’ same concession demands, this time for seventy-two days. But this time the militancy of the miners wasn’t enough, and they were forced to make significant concessions.

All this does not mean that the workers have to accept defeat. But it does mean that in addition to making a determined and militant struggle, the workers are going to have to find the way to mobilize their strength as a class.

Could the fight of one section of the working class be taken up as their own by other workers? We saw in 1978 that many workers across the country took a great interest in the miners’ strike. In the course of their 111-day battle to hold off the bosses’ concession demands, the miners turned to other workers for support. Many workers across the country had followed the course of the strike. When the miners finally made an appeal, they sent money and food and even organized caravans of support that traveled to the coal regions. Some of the union bureaucracies felt a pressure from their members and sent money to the miners.

We could see again this past fall that many workers watched the Chrysler workers as they rejected the company’s demands and considered whether to make a strike. More than before, a wide range of workers see that all the workers face the same problem. It is the next step, to see that they have to stand together to solve it.

Today it is increasingly clear that every section of the working class is under attack. When the workers are under attack as a class, they can come to see more easily that the interests of the different sections of the working class are tied together and are finally the same.

The working class will improve its prospects to win to the degree that it sees, as the miners have in the past, the necessity to refuse to play by the bosses’ rules. The workers cannot wait for their contracts to expire before fighting. They cannot agree always to stay within the law. They have to develop their own means to organize and fight to take what they are owed. Given their tradition, the miners are as likely as any section of the working class to begin such a fight and, if they do, to attempt to spread it.

Trumka, of course, proposes the opposite. He urges the miners to rely on the lawbooks and to restrict their strikes. The perspective he offers denies that part of the miners’ past which holds the key to the workers’ future.

If Trumka’s perspective is wrong, it is tragic for revolutionaries, like the SWP, to say to the working class that Trumka’s election will help the miners to struggle. In 1972, the SWP said something similar about Arnold Miller, who had come out of the miners’ fights on black lung disease to become UMW president. A few years later, in order to wage the fights they saw necessary, the miners had to oppose Miller. If Miller, who came out of a struggle, came to oppose the miners’ struggles, what can the miners expect from Trumka, who announces today in advance that he wants to limit the struggle of the miners?

Perhaps the miners will choose to make a fight now. If they do, they could lead the working class to resist the bosses’ attacks. But they will have to bypass the likes of Trumka in the process.