1922 Coal Strikes


As with the railway strike, so with the dual strike of the United Mine Workers in both bituminous and anthracite fields-the difficulty in reaching a settlement seems more and more not to be so much on the question of wages, the nominal cause, as in fixing the method of deciding that and other questions now and in the future. It is because the disputants in the soft-coal field have partly yielded on the latter point that district or local agreements have been signed and that soft coal is being mined in increasing quantities.

In brief, the miners want National agreements, the operators district agreements; the miners want contracts renewed from time to time after bargaining between unions and operators; the operators want to provide a method of arbitration in which outsiders should take part.

When the unions struck five months ago (technically speaking, the anthracite men did not strike, but stopped work during conferences), the issue was whether wages should be cut, kept as they were, or raised. The demand for a raise was preposterous; the men didn’t expect to get it. The argument for reducing was that coal industries must take their share in the general deflation needed to put business on a sound basis. The public generally accepted this belief; the men insisted that present wages were not beyond a fair living wage. The soft-coal men laid weight on the unsteady conditions of work. To many miners 150 days was a year’s work. The public agrees that over-production and over-manning has produced a bad industrial state in the soft-coal field.

Conferences, suggestions, pleas from the President, have not yet brought settlement into view in the anthracite field. Meanwhile anthracite is not being mined, cold weather is near; the condition of things is alarming.

The Cleveland agreement, which has helped the bituminous situation, allowed operators to open their mines on the wage scale of April 1 and to make contracts up to next April 1. The United Mine Workers in this field abandoned their contention for National collective bargaining. Only 60,000,000 out of 400,000,000 tonnage was actually covered by the agreement, but the movement has spread. It provides for resumption of work at the old wage scale of March 31 last, with the check-off of union dues and the appointment of an advisory fact-finding commission at a joint conference in October to report on a new contract to another joint conference in January, 1923, which will endeavor to settle finally the basis for agreement for April 1, 1923.

Well-informed judges of coal conditions believe that the soft-coal dispute has been broken. They attribute the spread of-the Cleveland agreement idea to the eagerness of operators to sell coal at high prices instead of letting the nonunion coal producers get the top of the market. They believe that the mine workers were influenced in this settlement by the hope that it would lead to unionizing coal districts now non-union.

The worst feature in the history of the strike in the soft-coal district has been the planned and cold-blooded slaughter of strike breakers at the mines in Herrin, Illinois, regarded callously by the people of the place, and as yet unpunished. President Harding, in his address before Congress, spoke of this as “a butchery of human beings wrought in madness.”

The anthracite situation has baffled all attempts of settlement up to near the end of August. Both sides seem indifferent to the issue of humanity. One caustic critic avers that the men are interested in high wages, the operators in high prices, that both will probably get what they want and “Mr. Peter Public will pay.”

The latest failure to agree was the breaking off of a conference between miners and operators at Philadelphia on August 23. The operators proposed to use the present Anthracite Conciliation Commission as a body with arbitrary powers to determine the wage scale, with provision for three outside umpires to decide in the event of deadlock. This was rejected by the miners in pursuance of their fixed policy of rejecting any outsiders as arbitrators, as that would commit them against the ultimate use of the strike as an economic weapon. Even “recommendatory arbitration” was refused flatly.

The settlement in the bituminous field was helped by the fact that the nonunion bituminous – coal mines were in operation and the owners and miners were profiting by the high prices due to the strike in the unionized mines. The continuance of the strike in the anthracite field, on the other hand, is made possible by the fact that the whole anthracite field is organized, and that practically all men whom the law allows to mine the coal are members of the union, so that there are no men who can legally take the strikers’ places.

Congress is moving quickly on some at least of President Harding’s coal measures. The House on August 23 passed a “fact-finding bill” in accordance with the President’s wishes, including the exclusion of miners or operators from the proposed commission, all of whose members should stand for the general public interest. It then took up a bill that, if passed, will give the Government power to buy, sell, and regulate the sale and distribution of coal. Already Secretary Hoover, the InterState Commerce Commission, and the Government authorities generally, have taken measures to control (so far as the laws allow) the priority of coal shipments and its fair distribution, and to prevent profiteering in the desperate emergency that will be on us in a few weeks. Homeowners have been advised to arrange to use bituminous coal for fuel when possible. A Federal Distributer, Mr. H. B. Spencer, has been appointed.

There has been a growing and now urgent call from the public for the establishment of a permanent National Coal Commission to take up the work of any “fact-finding” commission and to provide such regulation of the industry as will prevent such strikes and disputes as those still going on. The Outlook has long advocated such a step. Bills by such men as Senators Calder, Frelinghuysen, and Borah and ex-Senator Kenyon have been introduced and “shelved.”

The coal business is the people’s business. The joint telegram from five State Governors to the President suggesting that the Government might find it necessary to seize and operate both mines and railways is a sign of the tlmes. Twenty years ago President Roosevelt planned, but did not threaten, to do that very thing if the coal quarrelers did not listen to reason; he had a General selected to command the troops and to operate the mines like a receiver in bankrupt proceedings.

If we are to have normal economic conditions, there must be recognition of the fact that the people’s interest in fuel is basic and must not be ignored. Two months ago President Harding summoned fifty operators and miners to the White House. He said to them: “You should settle this matter in frank recognition of the mutuality of your interests. If you cannot do that, then the larger public interest must be asserted in the name of the people, for the common good is the first and highest concern.” We italicize the last clause and commend it to the earnest attention of all disputants and wranglers. We repeat what we said a month ago. “Supreme over every other interest is the interest of all the people.”

Source: The Outlook, 6 September 1922