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Arne Swabeck

The Labor Movement in the United States

(12 August 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 68, 12 August 1922, pp. 510–511.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Vehement strikes are sweeping the United States, constantly gaining in scope and intensity. The military forces are mobilized throughout the country, and the “democratic” government has been compelled to remove its mask of hypocrisy and come out openly in its true light, as an instrument of coercion in the hands of the dominant capitalist class. It now stands exposed as the chief organ of strikebreaking.

Coal miners numbering 665,000 have been out since April 1st, with no desertions from their ranks. 100,000 textile workers have been out since May, and on July 1st, 400,000 railroad shop workers laid down their tools, since followed by. large numbers coming from other railroad crafts in various parts of the country. Every local union of the Maintenance of Way Mens’ organization, comprising 400,000 members, demand that their officials act in accordance with the vote taken, of which about 95% were for the strike. Many thousands have left work, while the rest are preparing to walk out, action or no action by those officials.

Railway clerks and freight handlers, comprising about 150,000 members, as well as signalmen and dispatchers, two smaller unions, have voted to strike. Before this appears in print the total of striking railroad workers may have reached 1,200,000. In Chicago, street car men and elevated trainmen have voted unanimously to strike against a 25 percent wage reduction and changes in working conditions. In another large city, street cars are being run by soldiers. Sailors on the Great Lakes have taken a referendum vote on strike against a proposed 14 hour work day and a reduction in wages from $100 to $80 a month.

The Government as Strike Breaker

Following the sound policy of one war at a time, and incidentally moved by the looming coal shortage, the government has shown great anxiety for a settlement of the coal strike before the railroad strike assumes too large proportions. It presented a plan for arbitration, providing for the miners going back to work at the scale of wages obtained previous to April 1st, and a board of arbitration composed of three from the union, three from the operators and five to be chosen by the government, to make a final decision before August 10th. This scheme was quickly rejected by the miners’ policy committee, which is composed of delegates from all mine districts. The miners were not willing to resume work and leave the fate of their union in the hands of this tribunal. The trap failed. Many attempts have been made to induce the miners to accept separate settlements by districts and thus split their solid ranks. They were browbeaten by hired gunmen and state cossacks, harassed by injunctions and industrial court laws. Some of their leaders were arrested, while all the implements of modern warfare were held in readiness; but it produced no coal.

In several places the coal operators succeeded in bringing in strikebreakers to work the mines, and armed gunmen for their protection. Bloody clashes occurred with the striking miners, and many strikebreakers have paid with their lives, while others learned a valuable lesson.

Mine Owners Provoke Open War

At Herrin, a little mine village in Southern Illinois, the United States Steel Corporation attempted to operate one of its subsidiaries, a strip mine, on its notorious “open shop” basis. All union miners who had worked by persuasion of the union, to strip coal on condition that nothing be shipped, were discharged, and strikebreakers brought in, guarded by heavily armed men and equipped with machine guns. A strikebreaker veteran was placed in charge and they began shipping coal. On Wednesday, June 21st the striking miners sent a deputation to the mine to appeal to the men employed to join the strike. The guards, opened fire; the union men who were unarmed, fled; but not before two of their number were killed.

The news of the murder quickly spread through the county and added fuel to the smouldering fire of suppressed rage. The miners armed themselves and went for the scabs; a battle ensued, and when the smoke clouds cleared away, the imported strikebreakers and gunmen were either killed, wounded or missing, and steam shovels and railway cars were one mighty heap of ruins. The whole community stood solidly with the miners. To the American mine workers there is nothing new in such a bloody dash. They are trained from childhood in handling arms to defend themselves against company gunmen and stool pigeons; but it is the first time that they nave won such a sweeping victory and effectively served notice on the mine operators that any attempt to open the mines with non-union labor will be stopped.

Now the United States government has invited the mine operators to reopen their mines under federal protection. Of course, it cannot be expected that these gentlemen themselves wifi go down into the bowels of the earth and dig coal, but their first aim has been attained. The armed forces of the political state have become definitely committed to their union-smashing program, and the class struggle will be intensified on the American continent.

The Railroad Strike

The railroad workers are facing their supreme test. The forces new allied against them are so powerful that it will command every ounce of their energy and solidarity to bring this titanic battle to a successful conclusion. Last year, the Five Train Service Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Firemen, Conductors, Trainmen and Telegraphers had their wages cut 12½ percent, and the national agreement of working conditions for all railroad workers was abrogated. The rank and file voted to strike, the leaders prevented it on the plea that they could not fight the government, and they failed to establish any solidarity among the railroad crafts or a closer amalgamation of their forces. On July 1st, the U.S. Railroad Labor Board which was created by the government and has remained in authority ever since the railroads were returned to private ownership at the close of the war, ordered another wage cut averaging 10 percent, affecting 1,200,000 of the remaining 11 craft unions on the road, thus topping off $136,000,000 of their annual pay. The 8-hour workday and overtime rates have been taken away and piece work re-established in the shops. The government Labor Board stands exposed as a tool in the hands of the capitalist class to enslave and impoverish the workers.

One group of Maintenance of Way workers were cut as much as 23 cents an hour. It is significant to note in this connection that one railroad reports, for the first four months of 1922, a net operating income of $158,709,784 which is $10,000,000 in excess of their net income for the corresponding period of last year.

The government has issued a proclamation threatening prosecution to the full extent of the law for any interference with interstate transportation and the carrying of United States mail. The eastern section of the shopmen organization replied that the strike would go on until a settlement satisfactory to the men could be reached, even if every mail train had to stop running. Every railroad company maintains a large force of armed guards at the strike shop. Soldiers with machine guns and light artillery have been dispatched to the various strike points and placed at the gales of the shops. Several dashes have occurred between the workers and the military. The striking workers are determined not to give in to this kind of intimidation and the rank and file of the railroad organization, not yet effected by the wage slashes, are demanding strike in sympathy with the shopmen. The officials of the Maintenance of Waymen’s organization, afraid of entering the struggle, are pursuing the policy that led to nothing but defeat in the past, – that of attempting to gain favors by negotiating separately with the individual companies, while their membership are leaving the jobs by the thousands in spite of instructions to the contrary. The struggle is becoming ever more militant. The workers are rapidly becoming disillusioned as to the pretended American democracy. The impotence of the present leaders of the American labor unions stands out in bold relief. The A.F. of L. official family has nothing to offer but empty pledges of moral support and while it dare not line up openly with the ruthless master class, it fights tooth and nail against any closer amalgamation of labor forces.

However, the sentiment for amalgamation and the spirit of rebellion, in spite of a recent expulsion of a local union in New York City by the Gompers machine for alleged Communism, is increasing with such tremendous speed that leaders who attempt to resist this natural development will be crushed by the progressive wave in the American labor movement.

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