The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) traditionally conceded to corporatism, despite the insistence that the union only recently drifted from a pro-worker ethos. The UMWA was founded “in 1890,” when “miners unions affiliated with the Knights of Labor and the National Progressive Union united.” The UMWA “represented all types of employees affiliated with the coalmine industry, and it worked in conjunction with the American Federation of Labor” to ignite militant action against harsh working conditions in the mines. The UMWA garnered a positive response from miners, who leveraged their power from the networks established by this new organization to push for “an eight-hour workday” in 1898; the popularity of the UMWA caused “many mine owners” to accept their plea. While the UMWA is responsible for many of the first labor rights achievements, its governance and interactions with coal miners serve the union officials while often leaving behind the workers integral to the union itself.
In this paper, I will discuss how the ideology of Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci frames the UMWA as an agent of bourgeois interest and present an analysis of why the UMWA fails to advocate for workers’ interests in the lens of these philosophers. Marx argues that machinery is a reflection of the society in which it operates; the necessity for machinery to exploit the worker to achieve a surplus must occur for a coal company to gain profit. In the case of the UMWA, the development of Fordism and the UMWA’s concern with high wages detracted from the movements within the workers they stated were most valuable, in accordance with Gramsci’s belief that increasing wages without any other revolutionary action would only support the company’s production.
Upon the election of one of the first UMWA district presidents, workers experienced a divide in ideology within the UMWA. During the election of John Nugent as the District 17 president in 1904, discontented union representatives in southern West Virginia separated from the UMWA structure. They infrequently attended UMWA meetings and “denounced” the union on the rare occasions they were present. The New River Coal Company funded Nugent’s salary, who abused his role as the West Virginia immigration commissioner to “encourage (European) miners to emigrate to West Virginia.” Nugent disregarded the government warning against immigration to West Virginia mines, which arose from their “extraordinarily high accident rate.” The union workers were displeased with Nugent; this deteriorated “the union spirit” and weakened the union, as the miners no longer believed in the integrity of the UMWA leaders.
“With the development of industry,” as Karl Marx and Friederich Engels note in The Communist Manifesto, the working class “becomes concentrated in greater masses,” and “the various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalised.” As the mining industry expanded and required more labor (and technology to assist in labor productivity), Nugent chose to neglect safety standards to gain profit. The progression of technology, according to Marx and Engels, “obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level. The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating.” As a result, workers “club together in order to keep up the rate of wages” in the form of unions from “taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie;” thus, a union can “compel legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers. Marx and Engels contend that “no class in civil society can play this part unless it can arouse, in itself and in the masses, a moment of enthusiasm in which it associates and mingles with society at large, identifies itself with it, and is felt and recognized as the general representative of this society.” As the coal industry demanded technological advancement, prominent workers’ associations found common goals to organize around. However, the inherent nature of bureaucracy that grew as the UMWA expanded founded its precedent as a union that capitulates to coal companies. Nugent relied on the prominence of West Virginia companies and his roles in state government to bolster his position as a union official. The positive sole economic impacts of coal give governments an incentive to promote coal profits over the well-being of workers. The election of Nugent represents the manipulation of the high-status roles of UMWA officials and how the disconnect between the union and the miners’ needs caused the working class to lose their optimism regarding the UMWA.
The 1912 strike in the Paint Creek mining district, noted as “one of the most protracted and bloody labor-management conflicts in American history,” exemplifies the separation of radical miners from the UMWA and their resulting newfound solidarity outside the union. Numerous unionized miners and “7,500 non-union miners on Cabin Creek, Kanawha and Fayette counties” stopped work and confronted the “coal operators, the mine guards, the state militia, the state courts, the governor, and even the UMWA.” Despite the prominence of the strike as successfully demonstrating the workers’ solidarity, the UMWA did not view the effort positively. Due to the displacement of workers, the UMWA was required to provide for their needs, and complained about the fiscal impact of the mobilization. Nugent was “questioned by the U.S. Senate investigating committee” in 1913 after the Paint Creek strike because he ignored safety regulations. However, he left his role to pursue an upper-level job at a Kentucky coal company and never faced the consequences of his actions as the immigration commissioner. Dissatisfied by the UMWA’s resistance and the complicity of Nugent and other officials in jeopardizing workers’ safety, a miner named Frank Keeney led his fellow workers to request aid from the Socialist party. The party published the workers’ struggles in the media and justified the miners’ militancy in “ the name of direct action.”
Despite the continued devotion of several UMWA directors, union members recognized the infrastructural corruption of the union and that “the causes that the UMWA promoted did not represent the primary interests and needs of the southern West Virginia miners.” Further, the insistence that the West Virginia miners “starved to death because of low wages” is incorrect, as “the softer coal and larger veins allowed the miners to earn more money in less time.” Low wages were not as prominent as the “high rate of injury and sickness” and the absence of transportation for miners and materials. Despite the common contention that high union wages always benefit workers, companies often trap workers by providing considerable wages under the principle of Fordism.
Founder of the Italian Communist Party and Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci argued that Fordism, a “method of work and production,” established “a new type of worker, in whom a monopoly is created through high wages” through consistently developing quality machinery to surpass the “tendential law of the fall in profit.” Detailing “the historical origin of machinery,” Marx stated that “in North America the introduction of machinery was due both to competition with other countries and to lack of hands, that is, to the disproportion between the population of North America and its industrial needs.” Additionally, he did not consider “machinery an economic category alongside with division of labor, competition.” Rather, he argued that “the application of machinery” today “is one of the relations of our present economic system, but the way in which machinery is utilised is totally distinct from the machinery itself.”
Capitalizing on the popular notion that miners suffered from low wages, coal companies merely provided “high wages” to obtain workers with significant production potential and “contend with their competitors for those workers.” Fordism, Gramsci contends, “brings about a series of crises, each of which reproposes the same problems of rising costs.” “The introduction of new automatic machinery, i.e. the ultimate ratio between men and machines,” will continue to replace labor. The nature of the coal industry eventually impacted Southern West Virginia miners’ income; coal becoming easier to mine allowed the coal companies to profit as workers spent more time in the mines to gain more income. As industrialization expands, the world will eventually arrive at the “saturation limit.” At this point, “one has to take account of the rate of increase of population” that decreases as industrialization advances and the “production for the renewal of consumer and capital goods” develops. Gramsci contends that the “tendential law of the fall in profit” is “the cause of the accelerated pace observed in the progress of work and production methods and in the modification of the traditional type of worker” and is at the core of industry in the United States. As skilled workers became needed to operate machinery, high wages were necessary; the gradual decrease in miners’ wages arose from the structural failure of the mining community to support its labor. The coal companies fulfilled their goal of offering high wages to attract qualified laborers and could then avoid funding the coal community to improve the workers’ livelihoods. The coal companies could offer high wages, hire the level of skill needed to mine, appease the UMWA by establishing an illusion of caring for the workers, and avoid costs needed to improve conditions in accordance with the demands of the rank-and-file. Thus, the workers' bargaining power diminished; organizing outside the UMWA became many miners’ only choice if they aimed to improve their working conditions.
The disconnect of union miners from the UMWA leadership continued throughout the 1930s; the UMWA punished miners for the financial impact of “outlaw strikes” by charging them “a dollar per day, with fifty cents going to the company and fifty cents to the UMWA.” The wildcat actions, strikes that occurred without the union’s backing, “depressed coal production,” which decreased “the flow of royalties into the pension and welfare fund.” Mechanization in the mines also gained prominence; approximately “300,000 miners lost their jobs” as a result of “the continuous miner” invention. President John L. Lewis supported technology in the mines “until his retirement,” as he asserted that the replaced workers could merely transfer to other jobs. Preceding a 1939 contract, workers assembled to create organizations outside the UMWA they could rely on to trade essentials. Before the UMWA gained its status as the sole mining union, “workers organized societies that functioned like insurance companies” by providing for each others’ healthcare needs. In 1939, the Stonega Coke and Coal Company signed a contract with the UMWA that mandated the UMWA “as the exclusive bargaining agent for the miners.” The UMWA began functioning as the “voluntary associations” preceding the contract had; “in 1946, the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund was created,” as well as additional funds for healthcare and retirement. Arguably, the dissolution of informal labor organizations led to a simultaneous deterioration of workers’ unification. As previously stated, labor organizations outside the UMWA gave workers an avenue to push for their demands when the UMWA disconnected itself from miners’ needs.
Marx defines mechanization as a means “to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working-day, in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, it is a means for producing surplus-value.” Regarding how machines appropriate labor, Marx asserts “that where e.g. free labour or wage labour arising out of the dissolution of bondage is the point of departure, there machines can only arise in antithesis to living labour, as property alien to it, and as power hostile to it; i.e. that they must confront it as capital. The radical nature of the strike, combined with the revolutionary potential of grassroots-based societal associations, was a threat to the power of the UMWA. In 1968, a mine explosion from methane gas killed many workers; the gas harmed miners since the creation of the mine, and officials never took proper action. Thus, disapproval of the UMWA president Tony Boyle grew, and Boyle’s unpopularity raised questions when his opponent in the re-election, Joseph Yablonski, was killed along with his family. Preceding the incident, Yablonski contended that the UMWA utilized its financial status to promote Boyle, fund the “election campaign,” and maintain the notoriety of UMWA leaders. Three leaders “who worked for the re-election of Boyle” were convicted for using UMW finances for this purpose, and a Washington jury found in 1972 that Boyle had also used money from the UMW to promote candidates for political office. Workers’ union dues contributed to professional photographs of Boyle and UMWA leaders; “the total picture bill” amounted “to nearly $200,000 of UMW money in six years solely for pictures of officers.” Further, Boyle and “Secretary-Treasurer” Owens used $650,000 of the union’s money “to finance their own private pension plan,” and the mechanism for UMW record-keeping allowed this action to take place without publicity.
The transition from informal workers’ groups to a centralized organization that only claimed to represent workers’ needs gave the UMWA the financial status to promote its interests. Boyle manipulated miners’ pensions and ignored “mine health safety practices;” thus, healthcare providers drastically increased their prices. Although the coal industry flourished at the time, a 1968 contract led by Boyle only provided “a wage improvement” and neglected “the 40-cents-per-ton” contribution “to the Welfare and Retirement Fund,” even though they did not revise the provision in sixteen years. Representatives from the union told “small mineowners” to “sign the contract and pay what you can” to obtain support for the contract, all while establishing an operation to mislead workers. “Paper enterprises” that “could sign union contracts but never mine coal” contributed “in royalty payments,” allowing the UMW to state “that royalty payments were being made to the Welfare and Retirement Fund.”
Boyle died in prison “while serving three consecutive life terms” for “ordering the murder of Yablonski.” Since Boyle’s death, corruption within the UMWA is rarely discussed, likely due to the low nationwide participation in unions and the coal industry; national employment in the coal industry peaked in 1950 at almost 400,000 workers and gradually rose until post-1980 when mining saw a prominent decline. However, accounts of UMWA bureaucracy deprecating union militancy continue; in 2021, Warrior Met Coal company workers went on strike over their pay not matching their long hours; the miners work “seven days a week, twelve hours a day” for a company “steered by a conglomeration of hedge fund managers who hire local executives” to enforce their rules. Reportedly, the UMWA “agreed to the inhumane conditions under which Warrior Met’s miners worked prior to their strike. The union now works to keep the strike isolated to Warrior Met’s mines.” Further, “UMWA officials, headed by District 20 Vice President Larry Spencer, physically assaulted and threatened the lives of two members of the ‘Dixieland of the Proletariat’ podcast, falsely believing them to be representatives of the World Socialist Web Site,” which the union officials contended released inflammatory and untrue information about the UMWA.
Whether the traditional structure of the American trade union is a proper mechanism for collective action is addressed by Gramsci. Workers should not dismiss the UMWA as an entirely counterrevolutionary workers’ association; the status of the UMWA allowed workers with similar interests to connect and organize independently. Still, the UMWA should face criticism for its failure to improve the conditions of workers beyond their wages, sacrifice workers’ needs for their financial security, and integrate workers’ cooperatives for their benefit. As firms claim that workers “are capable of doing a certain job even when they have no wish to accept it” and manipulate “high wage levels to ‘select’ workers in rationalised industry,” trade unions cannot exclusively focus on improving wages. As indicated in the case of workers receiving high union wages while still suffering due to the coal companies, “by putting forward these scientific or pseudo-scientific schemes,” firms “may tend to ‘force’ all traditional crafts to let themselves be rationalised without having attained a wage that would allow them an appropriate way of life.” Gramsci defines the “real social danger” as that “the current wage scales are based especially on the need to recover muscular strength.” Gramsci believes that “the introduction of rationalisation without a change in the way of life” can result in detrimental consequences on the health of workers.”
As to how unions should organize in the face of technological advancement, Marx’s explanation of how machinery appropriates labor must be employed. Marx notes that “the analysis and application of mechanical and chemical laws” allows “the machine to perform the same labour as that previously performed by the worker” where science is ingrained in the industry to produce capital and the “machinery itself already provides great capabilities.” Marx attributes the replacement of workers by industrialization to the “division of labour,” as it “gradually transforms” labor to be “more and more mechanical;” eventually, “a mechanism can step into their places.” Machinery cannot operate as a force to promote workers’ autonomy; when utilized by the capitalist, the purpose of machinery is to reduce the cost of production and lower wages. Trade unions may provide social benefits for the workers, and the UMWA certainly performed as a vehicle for mobilizing many miners’ concerns. A President of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, stated that “the final goal of American trade unionism” is to “progressively acquire joint control starting off from the individual factory and going on to industry as a whole, the culmination being a sort of parliament.” The coal industry commands the proliferation of capital; trade unions are not inherently detrimental to the workers’ cause, but developing the “parliament” controlled by trade union bureaucracy as defined by Gompers detracts from the revolutionary spirit of grassroots labor action.
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By Kassidy S.