On the centenary of a great strike, Tom Wood explores the background and outcome of the dispute
On 1st April 1922, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) began a coal strike that spread nationwide. Approximately 600,000 miners went on strike, comprising 500,000 unionized miners and 100,000 non-unionized. So effective was the strike that by mid-May of the same year the United States had a severe coal shortage to contend with. The simple truth was again demonstrated that not a light turns on, not a wheel turns and neither is a shovelful of coal mined without the kind permission of the working class.
The strike was called largely in response to the attacks employers had made on the wages of the miners. Employers had attempted to argue that a reduced wage would lead to cheaper coal and thus an increased demand. This would in turn lead to greater productivity in the mines and thus more work for the miners. All of that for a cut to their wages!
However, demand does not create its own supply. As Ellis Searles, who had been an editor of the UMWA journal, stated in 1922, a “cut in their wages would not give the miners more work. It would not stimulate the sale of coal, for there is no demand for coal that could be stimulated by any such means.”
In the mines where wage cuts had been enforced, productivity did not increase, because wage cuts did not lead to an increase in demand. However, employers were still happy to press on with the cuts, which were simply about increasing the amount of profit the bosses got. As Searles correctly pointed out, a “reduction in the wages of coal miners would mean nothing except a further shrinkage in the already pitifully small incomes of these impoverished people and increase profits for the coal companies.”
Thus, to challenge the greedy ambitions of the big coal bosses, the members of the UMWA had no choice but to engage in struggle. Fittingly, the strike was called on the anniversary of the introduction of the eight-hour day in the mines. Overnight 600,000 mineworkers downed tools and an almost complete suspension of work was reported by the union headquarters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, as well as other unionized districts.
The courage and sacrifice of the miners was astounding as collectively they stood to lose out on wages amounting to $2,000,000 every day they were out on strike. However, they could rest assured that their sacrifice was causing devastating losses for the coal bosses as 12,000,000 tons of bituminous coal and 300,000 tons of anthracite coal were being lost daily.
“The main issue is wages” said one newspaper at the time and this was reflected in the demands put forth by the workers. Bituminous miners wanted to retain their basic pay scales as well as the removal of differentials in wages within and between districts so that some would get increased wages while no one would receive a reduction. They also demanded the establishment of a six hour day, five day week, double pay for Sunday and holiday work, and time and a half for overtime. Wages were also to be received weekly and the wage contract was to be in place for two years. Anthracite workers wanted a 20% increase in their wages for tonnage workers and a $1 a day advance for day labourers. They also wanted the eight hour day to include all workers, a ‘consideration’ day wage for miners whose wage was reduced by abnormal working conditions and increased pay for overtime work. This was to be honoured in a contract lasting two years.
Attempts were made to keep the supply of coal going through the utilisation of typical strike-breaking techniques. Mines without unions remained open and non-unionized labour was drafted in. However on 18th July 1922 these tactics were proven to be useless as the US Geological Survey issued a report concluding that non-union mining operations would not suffice in producing an adequate supply of coal for the whole nation.
Smear campaigns had begun against the UMWA in 1919 when approximately 400,000 members went on strike. The state attempted to criminalise the strike through invoking wartime measures that made it illegal to interfere with the production or transportation of necessities, while the employers spread libels that claimed Russian revolutionary leaders Lenin and Trotsky were behind the strike and were secretly financing it.
Thus the UMWA had strike-breaking, scabbing, propaganda, and slander to contend with. But it remained resolute as it faced down coal operators such as F. C. Honnold, the secretary of the Illinois Operators Association, who stated that he did “believe the strike will be settled until the miners are badly beaten.”
At around the 19th week of strike action on the 15th August, the UMWA put out a statement declaring that they were “fighting the battle of all organized labour. Success of the miners’ strike in this instance means the preservation of all that is dead to the labour movement.” However, it was in August that the strike came to an end.
The conclusion of the strike was in no doubt hastened by the Herrin massacre. This tragic event took place on 21st/22nd June in Herrin, Illinois, in a coal mining area, where a local mine owner reneged on an agreement to observe the strike. This decision was made because the price of coal went up due to a fall in supply and this prompted the mine owner to hire non-unionised labour to produce and ship the coal.
Union members were enraged by the breaking of the agreement. So, on 21st June, armed union members shot at the strike-breakers and laid siege to the mine. The owner had hired armed guards of his own who fired back and killed three union members. The following day, union members gained the upper-hand and killed the superintendent and 18 of the 50 strike-breakers and guards.
Capitalism, in its pursuit of profit and wretched cruelty, turns worker against worker. This was displayed in its naked horror in Herrin. This tragedy prompted labour negotiations to start between US Secretary of Labour James J. Davis and US Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover on 1st July.
Near the end of August 1922, huge numbers of bituminous miners and operators met in Cleveland, Ohio to begin negotiations. It was agreed that bituminous miners would have their pre-strike contract extended to 1st April, 1923. The bituminous miners were able to pressure the anthracite coal industry to extend their contract to 31st August 1923. Obviously, these terms fell short of what the mine workers set out to achieve through their industrial action, but they nonetheless managed to prevent wage cuts. So after 114 days on strike the miners began to return to work, starting with most of the 90,000 Illinois coal miners returning to work on 23rd August.
The events of 1922 hold many lessons for the labour movement today and should serve as an inspiration for every union as we enter the coming period of industrial struggle. The courage, sacrifice and bravery of the miners cannot be understated. They endured nearly five months of strike action, without faltering. They displayed immense cross-sector solidarity as bituminous and anthracite miners stood united against the coal operators. They demonstrated that there is power in a union and that the union’s strengths lies in its boldness and the ability to take mass, militant action.
They also recognised their position in the labour movement and that their victory, or defeat, would be shared by workers at a national level, even if the dispute did not broaden into a more general strike. These lessons, examples, and inspirations should be carried forward to help bring about the socialist transformation of society.
Tom Wood is a graduate in History with Political Science and International Relations from the University of Birmingham, a member of the Labour Party and of Unite.
Image: United Mine Workers of America: Local Union No. 4425: In union is power; Justice to all (Greggs, Pa.) (1937), https://www.flickr.com/photos/pennstatespecial/7930578032/in/photostream/, licensed https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
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