Scholar, journalist, labor organizer, teacher, editor, and leading U.S. Communist in the 1930s reports on the Jim Crow-breaking multi-racial strikes by U.M.W.A. Alabama coal miners in the 1930s, a number of whose leaders were Party members.
‘Alabama Miners Smash Color Line’ by Myra Page from New Masses. Vol. 11 No. 6. May 8, 1934.
“THIS ain’t the end.” The heavy shouldered pickman shifts his battered knob boots, speaking slowly, half to himself. His fists rest on his blue overalls, above his knees. Eyes sharpened by long days of midnight below ground gaze up the valley, beyond stubby hills turning green and blue with early spring and spattered with hundreds of company shacks. He is measuring the mine and smouldering tipple. For three weeks, not a load of coal came up. But Monday, they’ll be back down the hole. Cheated, tricked. Heart-heavy, he weighs his words.
“Miners, take ’em where you will, are a stubborn lot. Once they get an idea, seems like all hell and high water can’t shake it out. That’s how it is, with us. Us Alabama miners, white and colored, got one fixed idea. Maybe we been a bit slow getting it, but there it is. We’re set on Union, and all that means. And nobody, be it Morgan or government or whatsoever-nobody’s gonna shake it out.”
These words of the pickman, Tom Larson, words as brittle and gleaming as the black diamonds he mines, have proven themselves, in record time. Less than a month ago, Tom spoke them, sitting on the rotting porch of his company shack. Their strike against company unionism and for real unionism had just ended, in what Mitch, super-imposed president of District No. 17, United Mine Workers of America, called “a tremendous victory.” Tom and many of the miners termed it “a downright mess.” On the face of it, they’d won plenty. In reality, they knew the companies had put one over. Evidently the bossmen had more tricks in the bag than the miners had counted on.
They were tricked into a no-strike, no wage-raise agreement, with a check-off system of union dues that would turn into a blacklist in the hands of the company. But they were not licked. Not by a long shot. Only, it took time to study it over, gather their forces, decide what to do.
Events have helped them to a quick decision. Today, Alabama miners are out again. This time, all are out. The big mines of the T.C.I. (Tennessee Coal and Iron Company,· a U. S. Steel subsidiary, Morgan interests) and the Republic (Mellon interests) that Mitch openly counseled against calling out, in the last strike, are shut tight. Moreover, the strike has spread to other southern coal fields, until fifty thousand miners are out, picketing, demanding full union recognition and an end to the lower wage rates (known as “differentials” in the N.R.A. codes which discriminate against southern labor). A bituminous coal miner in Illinois or Pennsylvania, under the Coal Code draws $5.00 a day, but if he works coal in Alabama, he draws $3.40. This is for skilled labor, other categories getting even less.
“Why ain’t a ton of coal mined in the south worth as much as one mined north?” the Alabama miners ask bitterly. And they think, at last, they have the answer. Poorer organization, and labor divided within itself. At the end of the March strike, the Washington administration felt it necessary to make overtures to the rebellious miners, trying to regain some of the N.R.A.’s lost prestige among them. So, on April first General Johnson with great gusto announced new code rates, bringing the southern miners’ schedule up to $4.60. Immediately the southern operators went into action, sending a protest delegation to Washington, and securing an injunction against the enforcement of the code.
At this, the miners walked out. And the sixteen thousand steel workers in the T.C.I., Republic and other big plants, having been secretly organizing and resisting company union schemes for some time, are now taking strike votes and preparing to join the striking miners. Also the T.C.I. ore miners are going out again.
If Roosevelt and other demagogues don’t succeed in stalling them off, what a major battle this will prove. Rarely has the country seen such a lineup-miners and steel workers against the big trusts, with all the forces of state aiding the latter.
Such a strike is an epoch-maker for the South. If is southern labor’s Samson, pulling with both hands at the very pillars of the whole system of exploitation and Jim-Crow which Morgan and American capitalist-imperialism have reared. The only thing which can compare with it, in impact and far-reaching effects, is the magnificent campaign waged for the freeing of the Scottsboro boys. This case, together with the organization of the militant sharecroppers’ union, numbering six thousand members, heralded the rousing of the Negro nation of nine millions enslaved in the Black Belt, and the welding of an unbreakable solidarity of the revolutionary workers with them, led by the Communist Party. Gastonia was the first unforgettable breaking the way to new paths in the South. Now, this general strike of Alabama miners, which comes at a time and against such forces that Washington, the nation’s press and Wall Street find it worthwhile to follow it closely- and interfere.
What gives this strike such significance? Foremost is the splendid unity of the miners’ ranks, white and Negro. This is something new in the South, until the last strike. In 1920, the companies set black against white, brought in raw farmhands and croppers, mostly colored, to break the strike. Today, three fourths of Alabama’s miners are Negro. And white miners are unanimous in their opinion, “The colored diggers are strong union men. Good strikers, too. Not a scab gets by ’em. Just let one of their race try it. Why, their women folks handle him!’ And with appreciative chuckles, they relate incidents they’ve witnessed.
Yes, in this strike, southern labor is using both its hands, all its strength, white and Negro.
This solidarity has not been easy to achieve. Life-long teachings in the controlled schools church and press, and the whole system of life in Dixie conspire against it. The officials of the United Mine Workers, to which the miners belong, openly compromise with the vicious Jim Crow practices, actually helping perpetuate the miners’ enslavement. Negro miners, although they are three-fourths of the membership in this district, are relegated to a second place in the union. None is ever elected president or secretary of a local union, not to mention district positions. The rather meaningless post of Vice-president is reserved for them, as well as one out of three places on any committees. This is deliberately devised, as one Mitch hanger-on explained to me, “to keep the n***rs satisfied and in their place.” Negroes are not permitted to work at some of the best jobs in the mines, such as machine operators.
Yet it was not the U.M.W.A. leaders who raised the question of full equal rights for the majority of the union membership, the colored miners, both in the pits and in the Union. The Communists and the militant U.M.W.A. Rank and File Committee were the ones to raise the issue, as well as other demands such as rank and file control in the union, real pit committees on the job, higher wages, and an end to cheating at the scales.
The miners know this. All the red scares which the corporations, union officials and some preachers raise up will not drive this out of the minds of the Negro coal-diggers. Scottsboro has shown them they can trust the Reds. (The I.L.D. is a mass power in the Black Belt. I’ve seen its initials carved in the asphalt of a T.C.I. company town.) Also, among the white miners, Jim Crow and anti-red propaganda is not meeting with the response the companies hoped. Not that there aren’t more prejudices and confusion here. Nevertheless, as far as solidarity in the union and against the boss goes, they are as one.
As one white miner, a non-Party man, expresses it, while others nod their agreement: “When we first begun to organize, the companies sent their low-bellies around, saying, ‘What are you forgetting yourself, white men joining up in same union with n***rs! Lowering yourself, calling a coon ‘brother’ …. We didn’t pay ’em much mind. First place, how you gonna have a real union, with more than half the miners left out? That ain’t sense. Another thing, when you’re down there, risking your neck, digging coal, you’re so gol dern smeared with company soot, who can tell who’s white or black?
“Anyways; when the company hires you on, it don’t care a damn what’s your color. All it worries over, how much coal can you load. All we diggers gotta worry ever, is sticking together, winning a laboring man’s rights.”
Already, there are a number of Communist Party members among the Alabama miners, both Negro and white, as well as among their wives. In the steel mills are more communists, helping the issue the T.C.I. shop paper The Blast and working to unite with the miners in their strike. These are the front ranks, the Communist vanguard of the Southern proletariat, rooted in the vitals of heavy industry.
This militant solidarity of the miners and the growth of Communist influence among them is not only giving Alabama Bourbons the jitters, but Wall Street and Washington as well.
There are other good reasons for their concern, equally revolutionary in their potent. Both Alabama coal strikes, coming as the climax of a chain of events, are heavy blows at the prestige of Roosevelt and the N.R.A. in the South. Illusions about the New Deal have been stronger among Southern labor than elsewhere. But, as Lenin once observed, in the course of struggle, workers often learn in a brief period what otherwise would require months, or longer. The miners found the N.R.A. regional Labor Board handing down a ruling which virtually denied them the right of collective bargaining. They found Roosevelt and the whole machinery upholding the low wage scale imposed on the South. The Board threatened them not to strike. They struck, anyway. General J.C. Persons, at Governor Miller’s orders, sent National Guardsmen against them and at the same time, this same General also a big bank official, became the “impartial chairman” of the negotiating committee set up by the authorities, composed of mine operators and U.M.W.A. officials. This was too raw. And Washington complimented “the handling of the strike.”
The miners were militant, bitter. They picketed, against their President Mitch’s explicit orders, they marched on other mines. But, confused by union official and government demagogy, they failed to spread the strike to the big captive mines, and let themselves be sent back under a no-strike wash-out agreement. They knew it. I attended their District Convention (until Mitch ordered executive session, to get rid of any “unreliables.”) The delegates and local unions had not been informed of the terms of agreement. “You know as much as we do,” they said. But they were not in the pits two weeks before the .call issued on the 5,000 Red leaflets distributed throughout the coal field had become fact: “Miners, Organize, Prepare for a Bigger Strike.”
This time, militant picketing is far more general. General Persons’ troopers protecting scabs are met with defiance. The shooting to death of a Negro miner, picket Ed England and the dangerous wounding of a fellow picket, a white miner, Gordon Bice, by deputy guns thugs and police has roused indignation throughout the struck fields.
Today’s papers, as I write this, carry headline news that “Pay Compromise Ordered by F.D.R. in Mine Strike: 50,000 Urged Return to Job at Once.” And the subhead states significantly, “Coal Operators Pleased.” Why not? The White House has openly championed their cause, as against the miners.
And President Mitch announces that “the miners will go along with the government.”
Will they? Whatever the outcome of the next few days, one thing is certain. As the pickman Tom Larson observed, “This ain’t the end.”
For Southern miners are hungry, living below the minimum, with many employed diggers having to receive the relief’s “pity slips” -if they can get them. Their. children get no milk, no fruit. They lack decent clothes and shoes. Most of them have to draw their wages ahead for groceries, in company scrip, known as “clacker,” and “Jugulu.” They sell the clacker for three bucks to the dollar, for with the cash they can get more at a chain store in town than with the full clacker dollars at the company commissary. From pay day to pay day, a miner barely sees six dollars in cash. The rest the company holds back for rent, groceries, and mining supplies. And the forty cents a day increase over the old schedule won’t make any real difference. The companies will continue raising prices, and the neatly itemized accounts the miner receives twice a month will total out the same. The miners will still be working an eight-hour day that stretches out to ten and eleven, because of the long distances underground to the face. Water will still be in the pits, with not enough loading cars, and weights that run “short” 700 pounds to a ton.
Above all, if Alabama miners return now, “they go without union recognition. Somehow the President seems to have overlooked this item. But not the miners.
Tom Larson’s words still hang there in the spring air, by Red Mountain: “We’re set on Union and all that means. Nobody, be it Morgan or government, or whatsoever – nobody’s gonna shake it out.”
The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1934/v11n06-may-08-1934-NM.pdf