President Truman has unfortunately chosen to take issue with John L. Lewis on the topic: "Who is stronger--the government or Mr. Lewis?" If both sides have the courage to go through with the contest, there is no question as to its outcome--John L. can beat anything, weight for age, at any distance.
Nobody on the American scene is as obnoxious to so many people as John Lewis. He is a dictator in his own union and hated by large parts of it, and he is a scrofulous nuisance to the public at large. But the members of the United Mine Workers gained unionism in generations of bitter and bloody strikes, and they will follow even John L. through the seven circles of hell rather than let anybody break one.
What can the President do about it? It has been suggested that Lewis be tossed into jail. The men stay out. No coal is mined. Then, of course, the government can throw the men into jail. No coal. Or if he wishes, Mr. Truman can draft all the miners. But if they still refuse to go into the mines, shooting them will get him no coal, and the nation must go without heat, steel, railroad traffic, and the other necessities of industrial life. If he tries to send the Army in to do the work, labor violence and mining accidents will reach an all-time high.
In addition, the justice of such actions is uncertain. Although the government has taken over the mines, the profits revert to the owners. A strike called in the mines now may be a strike against the government in a juris fictio, but in reality the UMW will be going out for higher wages from the operators. And, since all controls have been taken off, there is no case that the government is upholding policy. The criminal part of it is that Lewis, confident of his own strength, has refused to bargain fairly with the government.
A strong union in a utility cannot be beaten if it is determined to win. The conditions of employment in the mines are such that the UMW is one of the most closely knit unions in the nation, and experience has shown the men the cost of refusing to follow their leaders. With considerable justice, they place their union over the welfare of other citizens and will be quite willing to paralyze the national economy.
The basic reasons for dissatisfaction among the miners lie in the fact that the coal industry is not a going concern in this country. In the marginal and submarginal mines, men work irregularly and only two or three times a week; the casualties in mine accidents are appalling, because the industry does not have the money to modernize and make safe the places where the men work. Most of the miners live on company property in little, dirty towns and have contact with the outside world only through their union; they have no essential security in job or home. Under present conditions, even the best mines will shorten a man's life by almost two decades.
With the mines and their operators in this country in complete chaos, these factors cannot be dealt with privately, and the only hope for industrial peace in the coal fields lies in government nationalization of the mines. Through such a step, most of the irritants which lead to strikes can be avoided, and the men will not have the dangerous feeling that their difficult and dangerous labor is solely for the profit of others.
Nationalization is not a panacca. The cry of the press and of business that unions cannot strike against the government is the dreadful wail of King Canute. Over the last 100 years there have been over 5,000 strikes against federal, state, and municipal governments; so long as the injustices of private enterprise are carried over into public works, the worker has a right to strike. But in those utilities which are vital to the national economy, it is the duty of the government to correct conditions which imperil the operation of the utility. And the conditions which create the current blind obedience to a demagogic and dangerous leader are deeply rooted in the facts of private ownership. If Mr. Truman cannot succeed in bluffing Mr. Lewis, then he will be sowing the wind. And the nation shall reap the whirlwind until such time as he screws up his courage to the sticking point of nationalization.