Lewis vs. The People

The man who ran the coal mines in wartime says the U. S. must break the power monopoly of John L. Lewis

HAROLD L. ICKES March 15 1947

Lewis vs. The People

The man who ran the coal mines in wartime says the U. S. must break the power monopoly of John L. Lewis

HAROLD L. ICKES March 15 1947

Lewis vs. The People


The man who ran the coal mines in wartime says the U. S. must break the power monopoly of John L. Lewis

THE CHANCES are better than ever that this spring the United States will witness another coal strike with its attendant disastrous effect upon the economy of the nation and its sickening reverberations upon a world struggling to rehabilitate itself after the most disastrous war in the history of mankind.

The American coal mines, as this article is being written, are still in the possession of the Federal Government. And there seems to be little disposition on the part of the Government to rid itself of them, if indeed it knows how to do this. Thus, the coming coal crisis will mean that the coal

miners, led by the arrogant John L. Lewis, will strike against their government.

This would be the third strike during the last year by the coal miners. They struck in the spring of 1946. The Government took over the mines and gave what Lewis termed the best contract that the miners ever had had. It included such things as portal-to-portal pay, a welfare fund, and about $60 for a 40-hour week. Last fall Lewis tried to reopen the contract to demand more, but he met with a stand so strong on the part of the Government that after a 16-day strike he suddenly gave in and called it off after the U. S. District Courts had

levied a fine of $3,500,000 against the union and $10,000 against him.

The causes of Mr. Lewis’ sudden impulse to call off the strike were numerous. The most important of them was that his intelligence or his espionage system failed him.

Mr. Lewis and the mine workers can, if they wish, stand a strike of considerable length if and when they are prepared for it. But last fall Mr. Lewis guessed badly as to the probable course of the Government. He was under the impression that it would give in immediately in the face of a strike threat. When it didn’t, he was compelled to improvise in frenzied fashion and eventually he gave in—at least temporarily. In the coming coal crisis Mr. Lewis will not be so likely to be mistaken and the men will be more ready to stay out on an extended strike than they were just before Christmas.

There is a chance that Mr. Lewis will be prevailed upon by circumstances not to call a strike this spring—the circumstances being that the date that he has set tentatively—March 31—will find the labor legislation which has Continued on page 8

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been already introduced into the U. S. Congress just about ready for final action.

The gamble that Lewis faces is whether a new strike in the spring will net him and his miners more power and prestige than they stand to lose by the repressive labor legislation that would result from a strike.

If such labor legislation is enacted it may prove to be the first real check upon the strangling power which Lewis holds over the economy of the United States—the power that derives from his monopoly over the production of the coal necessary to run the railroads, generate much of our electric power, turn the wheels of our factories, manufacture such basic materials as steel and cement, in addition to much of that part of the drug industry which is based upon coal tar derivatives. There is also the question of coal for heating houses.

Every Mine a Closed Shop

THE DEALINGS with Mr. Lewis under the stresses of war throw an illuminating light upon present coal difficulties and their probable outcome.

The monopolistic control which Lewis exercises over the coal industry was consolidated on the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. It was that day that a three-man arbitration board, Lewis, Benjamin F. Fairless, President of United States Steel, and Dr. John R. Steelman, then a labor department conciliator, decided that the last remaining large coal-producing mines outside of Lewis’ jurisdiction, the so-called captive mines of the U. S. Steel Corporation would become closed shops. The vote was two to one with Dr. Steelman, appointed by President Roosevelt, siding with Lewis.

This decision which put practically all of the coal mines of the United States under the control of Lewis was to haunt the country all during the war. As Solid Fuels Administrator I became the unhappy inheritor of the trials and tribulations devolving upon the country as the result of John L. Lewis’ absolute and heavy-handed control of the coal miners and the intransigence of the operators during a period when we simply had to have coal for our allies and ourselves if we were to continue to live in a civilized world.

Only the urgent necessity for coal in order to get along with the war against the foreign dictators prevented the Federal Government from clipping the wings of its own soaring bird of prey, John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America.

“My Trusting Employees”

ALTHOUGH their country was at war, neither . the operators nor the miners were willing to suggest concessions that might make possible a new operating contract when the existing one expired on April 30, 1943. The result was a strike, an event that must have brought joy to the hearts of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. Late the following morning President Roosevelt signed an order taking over the bituminous mines in the name of the Government and designating me as administrator. Subsequently, John L. Lewis indirectly requested that I receive a delegation of “my trusting employees,” and on Sunday morning, May 2, Mr. Lewis, accompanied by some five or six of his meek lieutenants, came to my office.

In the light of later events the first remark made by Mr. Lewis before we had even taken our seats was significant.

“Would you object,” he asked, “if Dr. John R. Steelman should meet with us? He is waiting for word.”

My reply was that Dr. Steelman (he is now assistant to President Truman) was an employee of the Labor Department, that the Department of the Interior preferred to handle the matter on its own authority. Secretary Perkins, of the Department of Labor, told me quite some time later that Dr. Steelman had called her by telephone that morning to ask her if she would have any objection if he did participate in our conference. Her very proper reply was that the Continued on page 50

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Lewis vs. The People

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matter concerned the Interior Department and that the Department of Labor should not volunteer. Even this, apparently, had not deterred the ingratiating and opportunistic Dr. Steelman from trying to force himself into a conference where he might be of further service to John L. Lewis.

Throughout this conference, Mr. Lewis insisted that, since I was in charge of the mines under orders from the President, I must necessarily have the power to negotiate a contract. If I denied this once, I denied it a dozen times, pointing out the executive order gave me any of the power which continued to reside with the War Labor Board. Then at 20 minutes to one o’clock, looking Mr. Lewis squarely in the eye, I said: “Mr. Lewis, your government is asking you, through me,

to send your men back to work for a period of two weeks.”

I saw at once that this had a disturbing effect. Lewis talked inconclusively and repetitiously, apparently to give himself time for reflection. So at a minute or two before one I repeated the formula. This time he said that he would have to consult his policy committee which was in New York. I remarked that he could catch the two o’clock train which would get him back to New York at six and I asked him if he would be willing to send a telegram in advance calling his group together at a stated hour. It had been announced that the President would go on the air that night at 10 o’clock to give his views about the coal strike and I was anxious that an order should go out from Lewis instructing his men to go back to work before the President should go on the air.

Lewis agreed to my request, and I

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gave him my unlisted house telephone number and asked him to call me as soon as his policy committee had come to a conclusion. In the meantime, President Roosevelt worked on his speech for that night, but I was never asked to read a draft of that highly important statement nor asked to make any suggestions about it.

Where Was Lewis?

It was only 10 minutes before 10 o’clock when Lewis rang up from New York. He informed me that he had been delayed in returning to New York and had not reached there until nine o’clock. This meant that he had left Washington at five o’clock, three hours later than 1 had suggested.

There has always been an unanswered question in my mind. Where had John L. Lewis and his reflexive attendants spent those intervening three hours? Certainly not in looking at the Washington Monument. I have always suspected that they had gone into a prearranged huddle with Dr. John R. Steelman to tell him what had transpired in my office and to ask the advice of this eager ally who had already demonstrated his value, as he was to do again in the future.

In any event, Lewis’ news that night was welcome. I had asked that the men be sent back for two weeks in the belief that in that time I would be able to orient myself to a situation that was new and strange to me. Lewis told me that the policycommittee had agreed to 15 days and that he was issuing a statement calling upon the miners to return to the pits the following Tuesday.

Immediately I talked with Mr. Byrnes at the White House. Notwithstanding that the situation had been greatly changed by Lewis’ decision, President Roosevelt made no alteration in his speech that night and he dealt with Lewis and the strike in very firm terms ending with what amounted to an order to the men to report for work the following Monday morning. The miners did not go back to work until Tuesday as ordered by Lewis.

There is no reasonable explanation why President Roosevelt made this speech when he knew that Lewis had agreed to my proposal. And I, as a subordinate is occasionally required to do, was left no recourse except to cover up the President.

By strenuous efforts the miners and operators finally agreed upon a contract, and although there were intermittent strikes, eventually I got rid of all of the mines by fall.

But on November 1, 1943, after another strike, the President at Hyde Park signed an order by which 1 again found myself the unwilling custodian and operator of the bituminous mines. Information as to the President’s action came to me late in the afternoon from Mr. Byrnes at the White House. I protested vehemently. I had promised my wife and myself that I would not again allow myself to be placed in a position of great responsibility without commensurate power.

I told Byrnes that I should at least have had an opportunity to discuss the matter with the President and tell him just why I did not want to take the mines over again. His reply was that a release had already been given out at five o’clock at Hyde Park and that there was nothing left for me to do except to be a good soldier and go along. So I went home sheepishly to confess to Mrs. I ekes that I had not been able to make good on the brave promises that I had made to both o us.

However, the President had included in this latest order a clause giving me power to work out with Lewis a

contract “within the framework of the finding of the War Labor Board on the contract between the mine workers and the Illinois operators.”

Private Huddle

At this stage, dispensing with the assistance or advice of others, Mr. Lewis and I came together for two brief periods of 15 minutes each in my office. I never found a man more satisfactory to deal with than was Mr. Lewis on these occasions. He could forget the poses that apparently he feels it necessary to assume, either in a public gathering or in a conference participated in by a number of people. I quickly found that he could be simple, direct and sincere.

Later, the miners signed an agreement with the operators, and by June 15 of the following year (1944) every mine except one had been returned to the owners, this one being held for technical legal reasons. But apparently peace in the cdal industry was too good to be true. Unrest and uncertainty continued, until on Monday, April 9, 1945, the President, at Warm Springs, again signed a direction to me to take over the mines.

My course as the Solid Fuels Administrator was not made easy by my lack of power to negotiate a contract and by the predilection of certain members of the War Labor Board to make all the trouble that they could. Certain members of this Board at times seemed more concerned about their powers and prestige than they did about the production of coal, which had to be brought out of the ground if we were to win the war. The Board at times was just as arbitrary and dictatorial as John L. Lewis himself. In fact, on occasion, it could be much more whimsical.

Further complications grew out of the fact that some influential members of the Administration appeared to be more anxious to destroy Lewis as a union leader than to win the war. As one of the most prominent ones said to me once, “Why go to so much trouble to defeat Hitler, putting up with a dictator of our own?”

At one time, in June of 1943, the situation became so confused that I decided thaï I must have a clarification from the President. One morning, when I -thought that he would be in his office, I began to put in calls for him. The operator kept putting me off. Later in the afternoon, I renewed my efforts. The White House operator adopted the formula that the “President would be able to talk in 15 minutes.” After this had gone on for some time, I called Miss Grace Tully, the President’s secretary. I related how I had been trying to get the President, without avail, and asked her to take a message to him. What I wanted to know was whether the President wanted me to smash Lewis or to dig coal.

Phone Call From F. D. R.

About nine o’clock that night the President called me up at my home. He explained that he had not been able to take the telephone that afternoon because Joseph E. Davies had just returned to Washington and was giving him a report on his mission to Moscow.

“Harold,” said the President, “I don’t quite understand the question that you have put to me through Grace.”

My reply was, “My question is a very simple one; do you want me to mine coal or do you want me to smash Lewis?”

There was a perceptible pause, which convinced me that I was right in asking for an answer to this question. Then he

began to fence as he was always so well able to do. - He went through the motions of discussing whether it would be possible to mine coal and destroy Lewis, too. In the end he said to me that he wanted me to mine coal. On this assurance, I went ahead and, significantly, I found that at once I was having less trouble with the War Labor Board. Apparently, those gentlemen had become aware that at last I had a clear mandate from the President.

After Roosevelt’s death, President Truman, in September of 1945, wanted me to go to London as the head of a delegation to renegotiate the AngloAmerican oil treaty. When I returned early in October, I found that once more the bituminous miners had thrown down their picks and shovels. Their boss, John L. Lewis, disclaimed responsibility even although there was a contract that Lewis himself had signed under which the miners ought to be hard at work because “they never violated a contract.”

The blame was placed upon District No. 50, composed of the supervisory officials of the mines that were out on strike to force recognition of their union by the operators. Since District No. 50 was part of the United Mine Workers and had been conceived by John L. Lewis, and . brought up on a bottle and still controlled by him, Mr. Lewis’ attitude seemed a little disingenuous. It was just a case of John L. Lewis’ right hand refusing to permit his left hand to know what it was doing. So John L. Lewis’ miners who “never struck when under contract” in effect had their jobs taken away from them by John L. Lewis’ District No. 50. Nor could poor, honest, conscientious John do a thing about it.

When I talked to President Truman upon my return, I decided to give him some advice based upon my own I experience as Administrator of Solid j Fuels. 1 told him that in no eircum| stances should the Government again take over the mines. I said that this was a technique that could not be made to work successfully again. The President confided that Secretary Schwellenbach of Labor had given him thesame advice.

Life and Death Power

I also observed to the President that I had long been of the opinion that sooner or later Lewis would have to be curbed. I told him then and again later that this was a better time than any that might occur in the future. President Truman looked a little dazed at this declaration but he did not dissent. I added that in that fight he should himself assume vigorous leadership, but, failing this, that he should select someone else to head up the fight while giving to him every support and full powers to do whatever was necessary.

It should now be apparent that the life and death power which John L. Lewis holds over the American economy is not going to be broken by any injunction, or, in fact, by piecemeal efforts of whatever sort. There must be a concerted attack on the problem by all of the agencies of government with all of the powers at their command and it must be a carefully planned attack, well thought out. Furthermore, it goes without saying that the shearing of this Samson is not going to be any 10-minute haircut. It will be a longterm proposition,

From the long-range point of view, there are several things that the Government can and ought to do. It should demand and receive the power to take over and to operate the mines in peace as well as in war. Its seizures in the past have been made under its war powers.

Since Mr. Lewis has a virtual mono-

poly on power—the 600 mil ion tons of bituminous coal mined each year by members of the United Mine Workers fuel our power plant, railroads and industry—steps should be taken to break this monopoly. New hydroelectric developments, such as the St. Lawrence seaway, ought to be started. Natural gas, which is now flared and simply not used in the southwestern United States, should be brought to market in larger quantities. The recent decision to transport gas in the Big Inch and the Little Inch pipe lines is a step in the right direction. These lines were built during the war to bring oil to the East Coast to fuel the allied ships carrying supplies to England.

The Government cannot operate the deep shaft mines without coal miners. The job is too difficult and dangerous, but it can operate strip mines without coal miners and it should be prepared to | do this if and when the country is faced j with another nation-wide coal strike. Twenty-one thousand strip miners annually produce 100 million tons of j coal, while 370,000 underground miners j are producing 500 million tons. Mini| mum needs can be met with strip mine j production. United States Army ! Engineers or Seabees could, with | proper mining engineer supervision, ! operate the strip mines. With necesj sary equipment and expert supervision, ¡ plus increased personnel (and surely the j Government could provide more than ! 21,000 men) the strip mines might well increase their output from one hundred to at least 125 million tons a year.

Power Blueprint

Strip mine coal is not as generally utilitarian as certain deep mine cdals, to be sure, but it can be used by utilities and railroads. The railroads now require 125 million tons of coal annually; the utilities 72 million. If these two biggfest coal users would, as they could, reduce their needs and make a more sagacious use of coal, neither would find it necessary to curtail operations to a serious degree.

The government should proceed to prepare a blueprint of the coal that it can produce from strip mines and from mines worked by other than United Mine Workers. It should also compute the amount of coal that would be the equivalent of natural gas made available by the “Big and Little Inch” pipe lines and from the development of the St. Lawrence Waterway and other hydroelectric power projects. The mere threat of such a program would cause John L. Lewis, who is “like a cock who thought the sun had risen to hear him crow,” to lose serme of his domineering arrogance.

A bountiful nature has laid much coal near the earth’s surface that the Army’s engineers and road builders could strip for the nation. Members of the United Mine Workers of America could be taken over as government employees. Failing this, other labor could readily be found because strip mining is more akin to road building of canal digging than it is to traditional coal mining. The government should pay the highest wages available to members of the United Mine Workers of America in appropriate categories, while the conditions of work, hours of employment and sanitary and safety devices could, as they should, conform to the highest standards. Then, when Mr. Lewis insisted that his miners should cool their heels for four months, or eight months, he might be permitted to have his humane way.

It is just possible that the existence of actual competition would somewhat dilute the uncritical disposition of the miners to exalt, unduly, their leader and would-be martyr, John L. Lewis, if