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Chapter 9 - Can the Coal-Miners of the United States Get Justice Through Political Action?

JUST as the American seamen have their "Seaman's Bill" (or Seaman's pill, as it is usually called) and have spent $40,000.00 up to date in a vain attempt to have its questionable benefits enforced, according to the financial reports of their decaying craft union, so the coal-miners also have their "coal-miners' bills," which also deserve the name of pills, bitter rather than sweet. There are such laws as the 8-hour law, the anti-script law, the company store law, the mine-sprinkling law, the check-weighman law, etc. And just as with the sailors, the union of the mine workers is spending a good deal of its time and money in a more or less fruitless attempt to have these and other similar laws or "pills" enforced and administered.

These and many other laws would undeniably confer some small benefits on the miners, if it were possible to enforce them, which in the main it is not. But even if every one of them were enforced to the last letter, the miners' lot would not be made endurable. Eight hours a day in a coal-mine is entirely too much. And the average income of the coal-miner is not sufficient to keep him in decent food, clothing and shelter, let alone wife, children and other dependents.

From these undeniable facts the adherents of political action only draw the conclusion that the coal-miners have either not used the right kind of political action, or that they have not used it to a sufficient extent. Republicans and democrats, union labor and socialist politicians, are all after the coal-miners to vote for them more solidly, and things will be set right. They all try to make the miners forget the fact that the laws mentioned have all come into existence on account of the pressure exerted by the miners through their union, through their strikes, through their protests,—in short, through their direct action on the economic field, or from fear of more strikes, and not by voting for "friends of labor." Those laws merely register in the legal codes the slow and painful progress made by the miners through their organization, slow and painful because they have not organized right, because they have not adopted the right principles, methods and tactics, and because they have allowed their union, partially, to slip under the control of their employers' tools and hirelings or into the hands of ignorant, ultra-conservative and unprogressive leaders who lack the courage and the ability to lead them to victory. Frequently the law put on the statute books, instead of conferring an advantage upon the miners, is put there for the purpose of acting as a stopper with which to check more advanced demands. When the miners come with more far-reaching demands than those permitted according to these "labor laws" it is pointed to as illegal. Thus, the pretended labor laws are mostly a delusion and a snare with which to dupe the workers into inactivity. They do not deserve the name "labor laws," but, like all other laws, they are capitalist laws. The Industrial Court Law of Kansas is another good sample of them. There are a great number of official government reports, covering thousands of pages, which are actual "mines" from which one could dig out scores of instances with which to verify the above assertions about these so-called labor laws. We repeat the statement, that where such laws are not directly acting as a damper on union activities and as a false alarm by which to attract the miners' attention to the political field, they are at best ineffective even if enforced—which they seldom are.

But even if they were enforced and were effective, such laws should not be allowed to raise any false hopes in the minds of the miners that they will be able to achieve anything worth while through legislation, or cause them to slacken up in their efforts at organizing, and organizing right.

The miners might try the political way as much as they please, they have no show of capturing political power locally or influencing legislation in state and nation to any appreciable extent. To tell the miners to vote, and vote, and vote is to deceive them.

Anyone who knows anything about the coal-miners, also knows that the great majority of them have no vote, which also applies to most wage workers. Comparatively few of them are white Americans. The majority are foreigners or Negroes. The foreigners largely come from south-eastern Europe, Mexico or other countries where illiteracy and ignorance are dense. Few of these speak English enough to become citizens. As for the Negroes in the Eastern and Southern mines, their right to vote is illusory. The Ku-Klux-Klan and their friends have the civil rights of the Negro in their vest pockets.

In short, there are comparatively few miners who have a vote, and of those who, have a vote, a great number lose it by having to frequently move from one mining camp to another, which makes it impossible for them to fill the residence qualifications prescribed by law.

As to the chances of the remaining voters to exert any appreciable political influence in their own favor, we will say that they are very slim.

On this subject allow us to quote at length from a decision of The Supreme Court of Colorado. The quotation is borrowedfrom the postscript in Upton Sinclair's book King Coal, which was written soon after the great coal strike in 1913-1914. In addition to throwing light on political action, this supreme court decision gives us the finest possible picture of the industrial feudalism prevailing in the United States and the serfdom of the workers. We quote :

In the elections of November, 1914, in Huerfano County, Colorado, J. B. Farr, Republican candidate for re-election as sheriff, a person known throughout the coal country as "the king of Huerfano County," was returned as elected by a majority of 329 votes. His rival, the Democratic candidate, contested the election, alleging "malconduct, fraud and corruption." The district court found in Farr's favor, and the case was appealed on error to the Supreme Court of the state. On June 21, 1916, after Farr had served nearly the whole term of his office, the Supreme Court handed down a decision which unseated him and the entire ticket elected with him, finding in favor of the opposition ticket in all cases and upon all grounds charged.

The decision is long—about ten thousand words, and its legal technicalities would not interest the reader. It will suffice to reprint the essential paragraphs. The justices say: "We find no such example of fraud within the books, and must seek the letter and spirit of the law in a free government, as a scale in which to weigh such conduct." And let it be noted, this "crime without a name" was not a crime of passion but of policy; it was a crime deliberately planned and carried out by profit-seeking corporations of enormous power. Let the reader imagine the psychology of the men of great wealth, who ordered this crime as a means of keeping and increasing their wealth!

The court decision first gives an outline of the case, using for the most part the statements of the counsel for the defendant, Farr; so that for practical purposes the following may be taken as the coal company's own account of their domain :

Supreme Court Decision

Round the shaft of each mine are clustered the tipple, the mine office, the shops, sheds and outbuildings; and huddled close by, within a stone's throw, cottages of the miners built on the land of, and owned by, the mining company. All the dwellers in the camp are employees of the mine. There is no other industry. This is "the camp." Of the eight "closed camps" it appears that practically the same conditions existed in all of them, and those conditions were in general that members of the United Mine Workers of America, their organizers or agitators, were prevented from coming into the camps, so far as it was possible to keep them out, and to this end guards were stationed about them. Of the eight "closed camps" one of them, Walsen, was, and at the time of the trial still was, enclosed by a fence erected at the beginning of the strike in October, 1913. Rouse and Cameron were partly, but never entirely, enclosed by fences. It is admitted that all persons entering these camps and precincts were required by the companies to have passes, and it is contended that this was "an industrial necessity."

The court then goes on as follows :

The federal troops entered the district in May of 1914, and the testimony is in agreement that no serious acts of violence occurred thereafter, and that order was preserved up to and subsequent to the election, and to the time of this trial.

It was under this condition that in July, 1914, the Board of County Commissioners changed certain of the election precincts so as to constitute each of such camps an election precinct, and with but one exception where a few ranches were included, these precincts were made to conform to the fences and lines around each camp, protected by fences in some instances and with armed guards in all cases. Thus each election precinct by this unparalleled act of the commissioners was placed exclusively within and upon the private grounds and under the private control of a coal corporation, which autocratically declared who should and who should not enter upon the territory of this political entity of the state, so purposely bounded by the county commissioners.

With but one exception all the lands and buildings within each of these election precincts as so created, were owned or controlled by the coal corporations; every person resident within such precincts was an employee of these private corporations or their allied companies with the single exception; every judge, clerk or officer of election with the exception of a saloon keeper, and partner of the defendant, was an employee of the coal companies.

The polling places were upon the grounds, and in the buildings of these companies, the registration lists were kept within the private offices or buildings of such companies, and used and treated as their private property.

Thus were the public election districts and the public election machinery turned over to the absolute domination and imperial control of private coal corporations, and used by them as absolutely and privately as were their mines, to and for their own private purposes, and upon which public territory no man might enter for either public or private purpose, save and except by the express permission of these private corporations.

This right to determine who should enter such so-called election precincts, appears from the records to have been exercised as against all classes; merchants, tradesmen and what not, and whether the business of such person was public or private. Indeed, it appears that in one instance the governor and adjutant general of the state, while on official business, were denied admission to one of these closed camps. And that on the day of election, the Democratic watchers and challengers for Walsen mine precinct, one of which was Neelley, the Democratic candidate for sheriff, were forced to seek and secure a detail of Federal soldiers to escort them into the precinct and to the polls, and that such soldiers remained as such guard during the day and part of the night . . . .

But if there was any doubt concerning the condition of the closed camps and precincts, and the exclusion of representatives of the Democratic Party from discussing the issues of the campaign within the precincts comprising the closed camps, it is entirely removed by the testimony of the Witness Weitzel, for Contestee Farr. He testified that he was a resident of Pueblo, and was manager of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company; that Rouse, Lester, Ideal, Cameron, Walsen, Pictou and McNally are camps under his jurisdiction. That he had general charge of the camps and that there was no company official in Colorado superior to him in this respect, except the president; that the superintendent and other employees are under his supervision; that the federal troops came about 1st of May, 1914, and continued until January, 1915. That in all those camps he tried to keep out the people that were antagonistic to the company's interests; that it was private property and so treated by his company; that through him the company and its officials assumed to exercise authority as to who might or might not enter; that if persons could assure and satisfy the man at the gate, or the superintendent that they were not connected with the United Mine Workers, or in their employ as agitators, they were let into the camp. That "no one we were fighting against got in for social intercourse or any other"; that he and officials under him assumed to pass upon the question of whether or not any person coming there came for the purpose of agitation. That Mr. Mitchell, the chairman of the Democratic Committee as he recalled it, was identified with the agitators, ran a newspaper and was connected either directly or indirectly with the United Mine Workers; that Mr. Neeley, Democratic candidate for sheriff, was identified with the strikers, and that he would be considered as an objectionable character That the company did not permit men to come into the camp to discuss with the employers certain principles, or to carry on arguments with them or to appeal to their reason, or to discuss with them things along reasonable lines, because it was known from experience that if they were allowed to come in they would resort to threats of violence. They might not resort to any violence at the time, but it might result in the people becoming frightened and leaving, and they were anxious to hold their employees . . . .

There was but one attempt to hold a political meeting in the closed precincts. Joseph Patterson, who attempted to hold this meeting, testifies concerning it as follows: "Was at a political meeting at Oakview. Jones, the superintendent, stated that witness should come to the office that night, before he went to the school house, for the purpose of the meeting; when witness arrived at the meeting there were about 6 or 8 English-speaking people and 12 to 14 Mexicans. The superintendent, Mr. Morgan and Mr. Price, were outside of the door most of the time. Witness noticed that the first few fellows that came toward the school house, the superintendent stopped and talked with them and they turned back to the camp. This happened several times. As soon as they talked with Morgan they turned back. After he saw that, witness went into the school house and said that it was no use to hold any meeting; that it seemed that nobody was allowed to come. This meeting was supposed to be in a public school house on company property. Had to get permission from the superintendent of the Oakview Mining Company to hold said political meeting.

It appears from the testimony that in these closed precincts many of those who voted were unable to speak or read the English language, and that in numerous instances, the election judges assisted such, by marking the ballots for them, in violation of the law . . . . Such voters were not choosing candidates, but, under the direction of the companies, were simply placing the cross where they found the particular letter R on the ballot, so that the ballot was not an expression of opinion or judgment, not an intelligent exercise of suffrage, but plainly a dictated coal company vote, as much so as if the agents of these companies had marked the ballots without the intervention of the voters. No more fraudulent and infamous prostitution of the ballot is conceivable.

The plain purpose of the formation of the new precincts was that the coal companies might have opportunity to conduct and control the elections therein, just as such elections were conducted. The irresistible conclusion is that these closed precincts were so formed by the county commissioners with the connivance of the representatives of the coal companies, if not by their express command.

There can be no free, open and fair election as contemplated by the constitution, where private industrial corporations so throttle public opinion, deny the free exercise of choice by sovereign electors, dictate and control all election officers, prohibit public discussion of public questions, and imperially command what citizens may and what citizens may not, peacefully and for lawful purposes enter upon election on public territory.

. . . This bold denial (of the right of peaceful assemblage) was an inexcusable and corrupt violation of the natural and inalienable rights of the citizens. . . . A careful reading of the record discloses the rejection by the district court of so much palpably pertinent and competent testimony offered by the contestors, as to force the conclusion that the trial judge was influenced by bias and prejudice. . . .

For the foregoing reasons the judgment of the court in each case before us is reversed . . . etc.

So far the decision of the Supreme Court of Colorado.

"What a triumph for justice and democracy!" our politicians will exclaim. But that is cant and hypocrisy, as we all know. The reversal of this election leaves no more trace behind than the customary raids on bootleggers. The practice of browbeating the miners continues everywhere, in one form or another.

Upton Sinclair, who has studied the situation thoroughly, has this to say on the subject:

The defeat of "the king of Huerfano County" is but one step in a long road which the miners of Colorado have to travel if they ever are to be free men. The industrial power of the great corporations remains untouched by this decision; and this power is greater than any political power ever wielded by the government of Huerfano County, or even of the state of Colorado. This industrial power is a deep, far-spreading root; and so long as it is allowed to thrive, it will send up again and again the poisonous plant of political "malconduct, fraud and corruption." The citizens and workers of such industrial communities, whether in Colorado, West Virginia, Alabama, Michigan or Minnesota, in the Chicago Stockyards, the steel mills of Pittsburgh, the woolen mills of Lawrence or the silk mills of Paterson, will find that they have neither peace nor freedom, until they have abolished the system of production for profit and established in the field of industry what they are supposed to have already in the field of politics—a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

And so says the I. W. W. We must have an industrial administration and industrial democracy. The coal-miners have nothing to hope for from political action. What little they have gained they have taken through their unions, either directly by forcing concessions from the coal companies, or indirectly by exerting such pressure on those in power that they have been compelled to record their demands and their gains in the law books, in order to put an official brake on the further efforts of the miners.

Besides, even if the workers had complete political control, it could not abolish wage slavery and make them their own masters. This they can do only by means of their unions, which must be made the basic unit of society.

Every mine should be a branch of the Coal-Mine Workers' Industrial Union of the I. W. W. Every person working in or around a coal-mine should belong to such an industrial union, no matter what his occupation in or around the mine.

By sticking solidly together in that manner we shall be able to force further concessions from the bosses, and the politicians will fall all over themselves trying to keep up with us in recording and reflecting our gains in the law books. From day to day we shall, through our union, wring the control of the mines and of coal production and distribution out of the hands of the coal capitalists, until we one day shall be ready to take over the whole industry, in behalf of the people, and separate the coupon clippers and their hired slave drivers from control and ownership.

On to Chapter 10

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