Original Document
Original Document
Daniel Allen, "Mine War in Pennsylvania," The Nation (August 16, 1933), 176.

Fayette County, Pa., August 6

FROM the H. C. Frick mines in Fayette County the coal strike has spread swiftly and spontaneously into Washington, Westmoreland, Greene, and Alleghany Counties. The entire soft-coal and coke region has been affected; 70,000 miners have struck and as many as 150 mines have shut down. Passing up and down the Monongahela River, one sees the unsmoking shafts, the huge steam shovels drawn up, the coalwagons and trains bunched motionless, and along the highways into the mine country the long lines of the pickets. There they sit and stand and walk in small compact groups at the entrances to the mines, or trail for long stretches on the road, sticking to the narrow dirt sideways. This is a rank-and-file strike, a picket strike, and the hagglings of their leaders seem here spurious and irrelevant.

This strike is like the war in China: it has never been declared. John L. Lewis had agreed to wait till the code was issued. Local leaders have been discouraging the walkouts. "But we just had to walk out," they tell you all along the line. The H. C. Frick mines have always been antiunion. Men who attended union meetings found themselves on an unsought furlough. In the past few years the miners here and elsewhere have been so ill paid that many who were working had to be put on relief. They got nothing for dead time–for work, that is, other than the actual loading of the wagons–and they could be put to such work for entire days. There was this business of slack wagon and dirty coal, where they didn't overload or "hump" their wagons enough and were docked, or where some of the dust still clung to the coals and they got nothing for the mining and loading. Men known for their union activity were assigned to posts where, crowded together and jammed close to the wagons, they couldn't help having slack wagons. When, lately, operations in idle mines were being resumed, the men were still being docked for one thing or another, with money off for insurance, for back rent, for back relief, and back taxes. Storekeepers in Brownsville tell me of sixty-nine-cent pay envelopes. The union then became a bread-and-butter necessity. It was no matter of propaganda and organization. The men; were driven together. It had to be the union or nothing. The checkweighman grievance, however keenly the men feel about it, is subordinated to the recognition of the union, and they resent the efforts of John L. Lewis to make this grievance the big issue on which alone to settle the strike. "We'll take one dollar a day if once we've got union recognition."

I was in the lines with the strikers when they received the news of the Washington agreement. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of the next day, Saturday, speaks of the "lusty cheers from the throats of the tired pickets for Roosevelt, Pinchot, and the New Deal." I didn't hear any cheers. "It's funny they know all about the strike being over, and we don't," was what they said. It would not be over till they had union recognition. Lewis's signature was of no account.

They find the unaccustomed words difficult–recognition, code, recovery. They are slow of speech. But they do not resent my questioning them sharply, insistently. Among the younger men, some no more than boys, there are those who speak freely and brightly. "What right has Lewis to settle a strike he refuses to call?" A sign bears the words, "This is 1933, not 1922," harking back to the time when Lewis is said to have sold them out. "For how much?" is the grim question. But this time it is different. It is their strike. Much has been made of their patriotism. They do look to Roosevelt and the New Deal. The idea of an Administration favorable to organized labor has won them over. In their own immediate neighborhood they know the impossibility of a partnership of capital and labor. There in Washington it may be. But Roosevelt is on probation. He will have to show himself a labor man.

It is easy to see how a corrupt and reactionary leadership has been able to gain the support of these men and to keep it. Most of them have a strong feeling of inferiority. When I question them, it is hard getting past their inevitable, "I don' know nothin' 'bout that." For intricate dealings with the companies and representations to the outside world they feel a glibber speech and a more worldly experience are needed. A divergence of interests is even taken for granted. They can tolerate a great deal. But they are learning. There is a desire stirring in the ranks now to oust their present leadership when they have succeeded in establishing the union. They will in one breath speak of loyalty to their leaders, local and national, and in the next ask what sort of leadership it can be which disclaims responsibility for a rank-and-file strike. The strike has produced its own leaders, strong, close, cautious, bitter men; such a one is Martin Ryan at Colonial No. 3 and 4. A sense of solidarity with their fellow-workers in other fields is developing among the men. The Leith miners helped call out on strike the girls at the Berkowitz Shirt Company in Uniontown. A word about the dairymen's strike in New York State sets them tingling. They have been able to catch a glimpse of insidious interrelationships about them. Certain newspapers are banned as company sheets. Over at the Mellon-controlled Pittsburgh Coal mine at Crescent, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had distributed gratis its headline celebrations of the formation of a company, or "Amos-and-Andy," union. At Colonial No. 3 where Padorsky had been murdered by deputies, cameramen were present when deputies sneaked up over the mound above the road and pelted the pickets with stones. This picture was not taken. The men remember these things and have begun to resent newspapermen. They are quick to detect a hostile or a patronizing attitude. They refused indignantly to pose with beer jugs for a New York Daily News correspondent. "This is no goddam beer party," they said. "We'll give you a strikers' picture, that's all we'll give you."

Louis Padorsky's funeral came the day after Lewis agreed to call the strike off. The roads to Brownsville are long lines of cars and demonstrating marchers. The talk in the procession is all of the strike settlement. There are the timid and the militant. I ask a young miner from a Hillman Coal mine what would be the result of another Lewis sellout. "The National Miners," he answers shortly. "We'll go back," somebody else says, "if the President of the United States tells us to go back." And a third, "We ain't goin' back till we got recognization of the union." "We aren't Bolsheviks," the first miner tells me, and he points to the wooden houses on their brick bases, the porches with their inevitable swings and rocking chairs, and he points to the rolling brown and blue and green of the hills and valleys and the pinkish mist of the mountain ridge on the horizon, and he asks me, "Do we look like Bolsheviks? Does this look like Bolshevik country?" And he sets his jaws stubbornly, "But we want the right to live like human beings."

The operators, the Administration, and the labor leaders are plenty worried over the mood of the men. They have reason to be. In the towns the people tell you the miners mean business as never before. The left-wing National Miners Union is everywhere urging the men not to quit till the strike has been genuinely won. Will the men go back? They may, they may already have gone back by the time this is published. But all around me I hear, "This strike is just beginning." If they do not go back what will happen to President Roosevelt's merry partnership of capital and labor? The class struggle has not yet been exorcised.

Credit: Courtesy of The Nation
Back to Top