The Spark

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

The American Mineworker's Strike

Jun 1, 1978

The coal miners' strike, which lasted from December 6, 1977 to March 27, 1978, certainly was one of the outstanding events in the working class history of the past 10 to 20 years. It might even have been the beginning of a turning point in the history of the labor movement.

Not that the miners, after a 110 day strike, got total satisfaction concerning their demands. Far from it! Neither is it simply the fact that it has been the longest and most important strike ever, a strike conducted on a national scale, in a union that has the longest and the richest struggling tradition in the whole of the U.S. labor movement. The miners and their union, the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America), behind their leader John L. Lewis, were one of the essential pillars of the CIO, created in the thirties after a wave of struggles in the American working class. During the forties, and especially during World War II, the miners led the greatest number of strikes and confrontations with the government itself, still behind Lewis and the UMWA, but quite rapidly out of the CIO.

The important thing in the strike was that the miners showed that when the workers get organized and are determined, they can overcome the bosses and the U.S. government itself. They also showed, at the same time, that they could overcome their own union bureaucrats, who, on this occasion, really demonstrated that they were the allies of the bosses and of the government. What is also important is that the miners revived once more the old tradition of struggle of the American working class, which appeared to be lost or forgotten for years. And, in so doing, the miners have aroused throughout the country a feeling of solidarity amongst the workers. One of the essential weapons of the working class is indeed the consciousness it has of being a class, distinct from other social classes, and with interests directly opposed to those of the bourgeoisie. In the United States, the authorities, including the union bureaucrats, have done all they could to strip the working class of this elementary class feeling — and one could have thought they had succeeded. The miners' strike, by the interest it aroused, the lessons it taught, and the feelings it revived or even gave birth to among the working class, has undoubtedly changed quite a few things.

A Strike Wanted by the Coal Bosses

The confrontation and the strike itself were welcomed by the bosses. Besides, everyone knows that a great part of the mines are controlled by the big oil companies who, it seems, had foreseen for quite some time the possibility of an oil crisis, and had prepared for a certain reconversion.

These bosses wanted first of all, to reexamine the contract signed with the union in 1974, at a time when the energy crisis had renewed the importance of coal. And even more than that, they wanted to challenge quite a few gains the miners had won since the forties. Coal seems to have an interesting future in the United States. Carter has proposed that between now and 1985, the production be doubled — it approaches 680 million tons today. There is much profit to be made. And those profits would be even bigger, if production could be increased, if the miners' gains could be reduced, and more than anything, if social peace was maintained in the mines.

In that conflict, the bosses' aim was even higher than the miners'. It really looked as if the American bosses wanted to use them as an example, to launch a general attack against the better organized unions of the working class. The negotiation of the miners' contract was the first on the agenda, preceding those of the railroad workers in 1978, and the auto workers and teamsters in 1979. To overcome the miners and to force them to give up the gains they had won over the last 10 to 40 years meant a big victory and the possibility to do the same with the other powerful unions. Everyone knows that in the United States, salaries and working conditions are regularly negotiated on the scale of a whole union by the bosses and the union who sign, generally every three years, a contract which will be practically legally binding for the three following years.

The choice of engaging in a show-down with the miners during this period of general economic crisis was not a mere coincidence. The bosses probably thought there were a number of factors which favored them instead of the miners.

First of all, the miners' union gave the impression of being in decline. Its membership had gone down to 160,000, whereas in the forties it was 500,000. A significant number of mines are not in the control of the unions, especially those in the west, which are the most modern ones and where productivity is the highest. (Concerning those mines, let us mention that the closed shop system which is general in the United States, implies that, either the union is officially recognized, and therefore all miners become members of it, or it is not recognized, and has no rights whatsoever, and no members.) In 1977, according to the bosses, the UMW miners extracted only 50 percent of U.S. coal production, whereas in 1974 they had mined 70 percent of it. It is true that in 1977, UMW miners led frequent and important strikes.

What motivated the bosses next was that the UMW had just finished an internal electoral campaign which saw various factions of bureaucrats strongly oppose each other. Arnold Miller, who is the UMW leader, had not obtained the majority of votes, and was elected only because he had two opponents. So, the bosses only had to deal with untrusted and divided bureaucrats.

Lastly, the bosses had put aside in advance enough coal stocks for three or four months. This allowed them to face the strike calmly, sure as they were that the miners — who never in their history had such a long national strike — would give up before lack of coal became a problem. On December 15, 1977, 10 days after the beginning of the strike, a representative of the bosses cynically stated to the New York Times, in reference to the miners' declaration that they were ready to wait as long as necessary: "Just let the strike reach New Year and then it will be another story."

So, as soon as the negotiations of the new contract started, the bosses showed their cards. They wanted the union to give up all the gains it had won in the past: safety measures in the mines, defense of their standard of living, holidays, pensions. And on top of that, they had in mind reinforcing the anti-strike clauses. However, what the miners especially wanted was to strengthen their right to strike.

The 1974 contract had set up an arbitration procedure for the miners' complaints regarding non-respect of the contract by the bosses. On whatever subject, and especially on safety which is one of the big problems in the mines, those workers who considered that the contract was not being respected and wanted to file a grievance, had to go through that procedure, instead of going on strike. This procedure, whose aim was to limit as much as possible the right to strike, exists in practically all unions.

Needless to say, this procedure can be very lengthy. The miners had some examples of cases which were still unanswered after three years. Moreover, out of 400 complaints registered in one district, for example, only 30 were settled favorably for the miners.

Those were the simple reasons why the miners continued to use their traditional and most efficient weapon, the strike, to get satisfaction. During the last three years, the number of wildcat strikes remained high, and even increased.

Therefore, the bosses claimed the right to kick out immediately any miner who took part in a picket or who simply supported it.

The Miners Overcame the Bosses, the Government, and the Union Bureaucrats

The negotiations which begun in October 1977 went on with a lot of interruptions. On the other hand, the strike — which began on December 6, 1977 — went on and on, upsetting the bosses' hopes. At last, on February 6, 1978, Arnold Miller signed an agreement with the bosses. He described it as "excellent" and "by far the best agreement negotiated for the past two years in any important industry." In fact, he had given in to the bosses on every single subject, to the point that the UMW negotiation committee, made up of union bureaucrats, refused to present it to the miners. They were afraid it would arouse the miners' anger. As a matter of fact, in 1972, when Miller got elected against Boyle (his predecessor, a real gangster who was later convicted of having ordered the murder of one of his opponents), the miners demanded that the contracts be approved by a vote at the rank-and file level. Up to that point, contracts were simply decided between the unions and the bosses, with no other kind of procedure.

Then, a campaign against the miners' strike was set up, accusing them of endangering the country's economy, of depriving millions of Americans of electricity or heating, and even of depriving two and a half million people of work. This propaganda was accompanied by power restrictions and layoffs.

Carter started to speak of enforcing the Taft-Hartley Law, which had the power to force strikers whose actions threaten the economy of the country to go back to work for at least two or three months.

Besides, he hesitated, because on three occasions in the past the miners had refused to obey injunctions issued by judges on the basis of this law.

In the meantime, he did his utmost to get a new contract signed by the bosses and the union bureaucracy. And at the end of February, Miller reported back to the miners with new proposals. By now, all those involved had exposed their plans.

On one side, Carter left his threat of enforcing the Taft-Hartley Law, or even sending the troops in the coal fields, hanging over the heads of the coal miners.

On the other side, he flattered the miners, approved their "sense of justice," and behaved as if he intended to exert strong pressures on the bosses. The latter, playing their part of the game, protested against these pressures, which would have led, so they said, to a total "capitulation" to the "unreasonable demands" of the miners.

In fact, the new proposals were not so different from the first ones. They eliminated the clause forcing the miners to choose between working on Sundays or being fined, but they maintained most of the bosses' demands, including the right for them to fire those who participated in unofficial strikes.

This time, the union bureaucracy, in agreement with Miller, pulled out all the stops in order to get the contract approved by the miners. There was a large-scale propaganda campaign and special TV broadcasts to convince the miners (all of which was paid with the money that should theoretically have been used to help the strikers). But the contract was rejected by two thirds of them.

On March 6, 1978, Carter invoke the dispositions of the Taft-Hartley Law. The miners received the injunction to go back to work on March 10. Out of 160,000 UMW members ... only 60 went to the pithead. And on March 17, a Washington federal judge decided to revoke the injunction he had ordered under the terms of the Taft-Hartley Law, justifying his decision by saying: "Anyway, the miners don't care what I do."

A Bad Contract ... but the Miners Have Not Been Defeated

The miners showed that the government was powerless in the face of their determined attitude. In the meantime, their cause had become the cause of every American worker.

The farmers were the first to help the miners, supplying them with foodstuffs. In March, under rank-and-file pressure, the big auto and steel unions decided to give a contribution to the miners' union.

Money was collected everywhere. As the administration, in revenge, decided to stop the food vouchers that were being given to the miners' families (as well as to millions of poor people in the whole country), caravans left industrial centers such as Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore and went to the mining regions, bringing money, clothes, food and all that had been collected by union militants.

Even Meany, the AFL-CIO leader, who openly adopted pro-government and anti-miner positions, approving the Taft-Hartley Law enforcement, had to change his position because of the wide-scale disapproval amongst trade unionists, and he in turn, had to express very timid protests against the government's attitude.

The whole campaign of the government, the bosses, and the union bureaucracy to isolate the miners from the rest of the population and the working class had totally failed, placing the responsibility for the increasing difficulties and of unemployment on them.

Finally, Miller reported a third time with a new draft of the contract to the rank and file.

Though the bosses have given up some of their pretenses, this contract was far from satisfactory to the miners.

The system of free medical services for the miners, which dates back to the forties, will actually be wound up, as was decided by the companies last July. The miners will have to pay a $200 premium each year (the bosses would have liked it to be $700). Private health insurance schemes will be introduced as a replacement. The 30-year old system of clinics controlled by the unions but entirely paid by the bosses is also threatened.

Retirement pensions will not be uniform as the miners demanded. Those who retired after 1976 will receive $425 a month, while those who retired before this date will only receive $275.

The working and safety conditions may get worse since a productivity deal will be made in every mine (but it must first be approved by the local union). On the other hand, the term of apprenticeship for new miners is cut from 90 days to 45.

Finally, concerning the miners' grievances over the interpretation of the contract, the complicated arbitration procedure will remain.

Certainly, the miners have obtained a 39 percent raise for the next three years (but wages were not the main problem and compared to the present rate of inflation of nine percent a year, this is not a very important raise). In fact, the miners have only contained the bosses' offensive and forced them to abandon their most outrageous demands. They also have, in fact — and this may be the most important thing — prevented the imposition of new limits on their right to strike. But minimizing the losses cannot be called a victory. And the miners will have to struggle again in the coming period in order to defend their living, working, health, and safety conditions.

Many miners, on the other hand, are conscious of the terms of the contract since 43 percent of them voted against it.

The strike did not bring the miners full satisfaction. But its importance cannot be simply examined from this point of view. Its significance is certainly far greater with respect to the level of consciousness of the American working class, since it has shown the possibility to get organized against all their enemies — the bosses, the government, and labor bureaucrats.

These enemies moreover are conscious of this fact. They pose clearly the problem of how it is possible to reduce the miners' power.

Thus, from the very beginning of the strike there was much talk of the "weakness" of the miners' union. The press meant that the union bureaucrats were unable to hold their troops in hand. For example, there was Arnold Miller's inability to impose the first two contracts he had signed with the bosses. There was also the bureaucrats' inability to prevent wildcat strikes during the last few years. Finally, there was their inability to prevent the miners, during the last strike, from addressing the "non-unionized miners" outside the UMWA officialdom and from persuading them to join the strike.

Thus, for some time now, an idea has been repeatedly mentioned in the press: that of a necessary fusion between the UMWA and another more powerful union. Obviously, union bureaucrats have given this idea a lot of thought, as have the bosses and the government.

For a while, the possibility of a fusion between the UMWA and the USWA (United Steelworkers of America) was considered. Now, this idea seems to have been abandoned because the USWA has internal troubles over the reelection of its president. A large faction grouping bureaucrats who follow Sadlowski has been formed, with the aim of profiting from the rank and file's discontent (as did the faction which led Miller to the UMWA's presidency). So, it is not quite sure that this union would succeed in keeping tight control over the miners. On the contrary, the entrance of the miners into a unified union could hasten the crisis inside the USWA and reinforce the most militant elements and tendencies.

Today there is talk of a fusion with the UAW (United Auto Workers). This union has for the moment no problem with its rank and file. It also has a rich experience in terms of halting and breaking struggles.

But it's far from certain that the UMW will enter this union either. And if this does happen, the planned operation may fail. The result, after all, could be the opposite: that is, the miners could pass on their experience with struggles to the auto workers, and together, they could demonstrate the benefits which the American workers would gain from breaking the corporatist shackles of the present union structures. This is, without doubt, one of the reasons why the bosses, the government, and the union bureaucrats hesitate in proceeding any further with the operation.

In any case, all these discussions show that if American bosses are not afraid of the unions, if on the contrary they consider them tools at their service, the fact remains that for a time they really feared rank-and-file miners.

Class Struggle #53, June 1978