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Chapter 25 - Struggle and Lose: Struggle and Win

The steel strike was over. That is, the men were forced back to work. Only in bible stories can David conquer the giant Goliath. But the strike in the steel workers’ hearts is not over.

Back to the forges, to the great caldrons, to the ovens, to the’ flame and the smoke go the “hands.” But their hearts and their minds are outside the high fences-fences that shut in the worker and shut out justice.

The strike is not over. Injustice boils in men’s hearts as does steel in its caldron, ready to pour, white hot, in the fullness of time.

Meanwhile in Kansas, legislators, subservient to the money powers, were busy making laws. They wanted the workers to be life serfs of the old days, attached to their job, and penalized when they left or struck. Governor Allen signed the bill of slavery. The law was called by a fancy name and given a fair face. It forbade the workers striking. It made striking a punishable offense.

A coal strike was coming on. Governor Allen said Kansas should have coal even if the workers did not have justice. Coal was more important than those who dug it. The coal operators said so too.

Throughout Kansas, striking for better conditions, more adequate wages to meet the high cost of living that the war had brought about, for anything in fact, was forbidden, and he who called a strike must go to jail.

President Howat of one of the districts of the United Mine Workers sent for me to come arouse the workers to a sense of their slavery. I went about speaking on the Industrial Slave Law, explaining to the workers just what it meant to them to have the right to strike taken from them by law.

President Howat was indicted and sentenced to jail for calling a strike, a strike voted for by the rank and file. Because he resisted the law he was called a rebel.

In the early part of 1922, the United Mine Workers held their convention. I attended. Questions of wages and agreements were discussed. The operators in the central bituminous coal fields and the union officials had been enjoined from making an agreement with one another by Judge Anderson. Miners dig up coal for the money kings and judges dig up decisions and injunctions. But the judges get better wages.

The question of whether the strike for April 1st, unless the operators signed agreements, should be called by the Convention or left to a vote of the rank and file, was before the assembly.

Howat and his friends wanted the Convention to set a strike date immediately-April first. The conservatives, led by president Lewis, wanted the body of miners themselves to vote on the issue.

Everyone was howling and bellowing and jumping on his feet and yelling to speak. They sounded like a lot of lunatics instead of sane men with the destiny of thousands of workers in their hands.

Although I sympathized with Howat, I felt that the National President should be obeyed. I rose and pushed my way to the platform. I stood there waiting for the men to become quiet. They did so. It was very still. I said:

“Boys stop howling like a lot of fiends and get down like men and do business. You are wasting time here; wasting time that ought to go to your families and babies. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! Quit this noise!”

Some one called “Speech!”

“This is not the time for me to speak,” I said. “It is time for you to act. Trust your president. If he fails we can go out and I will be with you and raise Hell all over the nation!”

After that the Convention got down to business and voted to leave the matter of striking to those who had to do the sacrificing: the rank and file.

The operators refused to meet the miners, broke their sworn agreement that they would do so. There was nothing to do but strike. The rank and file voted it.

In Kansas, against the law, the miners nevertheless went out. Governor Allen ordered them back, just as the slaves of old used to be ordered back into the cotton fields. Again they refused. Refused to desert their brothers and produce scab coal. The Governor called upon the soft collar fellows, the rah-rah boys from the colleges, the drug clerks and undertakers, the ex-soldiers and sailors who were out of work, waiting for their bonuses, – and these mined the coal. A lark it was for them. A day’s picnic. They could afford to take the job with light heart and no conscience for it was but a brief job . . . not a lifetime to be spent under the ground. They would not pass on their shovel and lamp to their sons, so it was no matter to them that they left the job a little better for those who were to follow.

The government, under Hoover, opened up scores of scab mines. Non-union coal was dumped on the market. The miners believed that the Federal Government was against them. They set about organizing the non-union fields. I went here and there. I went to West Virginia. Thousands of dollars had been spent in that field. I went among the women in the tent colonies on the hills.

The story of coal is always the same. It is a dark story. For a second’s more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the color of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty-a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window-for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.

Next page: Chapter 26 - Medieval West Virginia