Workshop Talks: 1949 coal miners’ general strike today

From the May-June 2015 issue of News & Letters

by Htun Lin

It is becoming clearer to all, even to the rulers, that capitalism is not sustainable. All scientific data points to climate change, yet they continue to extract coal and petroleum at an unprecedented pace. We workers see from the inside that capitalism is coming apart.

We’ve seen the explosion at BP’s Deep Water Horizon. Scores of coal miners are trapped inside mines—from China to Turkey to Russia and Chile—as workers continue to die in the process of production for capital.

1949-50 STRIKE IN THE U.S. STILL RESONATES

The 1949-50 Coal Miners’ General Strike is historically significant, not only because it highlights resistance to the early stage of automation, but because the miners’ self-activity signified what Raya Dunayevskaya called “The Emergence of a New Movement from Practice That Is Itself a Form of Theory” (“Miners inspired Marxist-Humanism,” March-April N&L 2015). In this new movement against automation, miners dared to ask, “What kind of labor should humans do?” They thereby contributed to the philosophic birth of Marxist-Humanism.

Dunayevskaya referred to this workers’ movement as “the dialectic of the 1949-50 Coal Miners’ General Strike.” With the founding of News and Letters Committees as organization and newspaper, and the writing of her first book, Marxism and Freedom, Dunayevskaya dug deeply where Marx had—into the dialectic: the active side of philosophy as a living, moving force from subjectivities below.

Dunayevskaya emphasized: “To me, the Miners’ General Strike seemed to touch, at one and the same time, a concept Marx had designated as alienated labor and the absolute opposite to it, which Marx had spelled out as the end of the division between mental and manual labor.”

MARX KNEW WHAT MINERS FACED

“Indeed, the todayness of Marxism shone through brilliantly in the miners’ attitude to a passage I had read to them from Marx on the ‘automaton’: ‘The lightening of the labor, even, becomes a sort of torture since the machine does not free the laborer from work, but deprives the work of all interest.’” Dunayevskaya noted that, “Even the fact that the miners did not know that the above passage was from Marx created a translucence when they insisted that the man who wrote that must have been in their mine, it was so perfect a description of automation…”

Here I see the worlds of the coal miner, the dockworker, and the healthcare worker intersect. That translucence exists for dockworkers today, who have witnessed their ranks decimated by automation, which their labor leaders called progress. It also exists with us healthcare workers.

Marx’s premonitions on the “automaton,” where the machine does not free the laborer but rather tortures her, “transforming and depriving the work of all interest,” is just as pertinent in today’s healthcare assembly line as it is in manufacture or mining.

AUTOMATION IS A ‘MAN-KILLER’

In 1949 miners called the continuous miner a “man-killer.” In healthcare today, the din of alarms and bells from electronic equipment that caregivers are tethered to causes loss of interest and prevents the healthcare provider from keeping up with the machines.

“Man-killer” would also be what it does to both patients and workers. Management has brought in marketing consultants to “teach” us to provide more “compassionate” care, only because they know that inside the system there is none. We have seen them cook the books to hide real denial of care. Healthcare workers, seeing that kind of work-life as unsustainable, decided to walk off the job, to reject—in the same way miners in 1949 rejected—the “ man-killer.”

That healthcare workers went on strike in spite of the largest existing Labor-Management Partnership, and that dockworkers struck despite ILWU officials considering automation as progress, recalls the day in 1950 that miners continued their strike despite the order from UMW head John L. Lewis to return to work.

As Andy Phillips, who as a striking miner proposed rank-and-file caravans from other unions to support striking coal miners, put it: “To some, many of the things the miners did seemed spontaneous, as though the actions came out of nowhere. Just the opposite is true.  The spontaneity of the miners flowed from their own repeated collective thought and action that preceded their ‘spontaneous’ activity.”

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