Labor History in 2:00

June 21 - John L. Lewis Pushes Back Against Starvation Wages

June 21, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1943. 

That was the day United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis issued strike orders at the nation’s mines, calling out more than half a million miners. 

The third general coal strike in three months defied the wartime ‘no strike’ pledge. 

Miners raised several demands, including wage increases, an end to the dangerous third-shift and portal-to-portal pay. 

High wartime inflation only worsened miners’ already low wages. 

Early that spring, Lewis denounced the mine owners, the War Labor Board and the Little Steel formula, used to calculate wartime wages.   

He warned the Formula meant starvation for workers and the end of collective bargaining.  

By April, President Roosevelt ordered wage freezes. 

Miners began walking out of the pits, even before the strike call, as soon as the War Labor Board handed down their decision on June 19. 

The Board had rejected ALL of the miners’ demands. 

The UMW responded, stating, “No member and no officer of the United Mine Workers of America would be so destitute of principle and so devoid of honor as to sign or execute such an infamous yellow dog contract.” 

Though the UMW were forced to call off the strike the next day, some miners continued to stay out in protest. 

Four days later, Congress passed the dreaded Smith-Connally Act, dubbed the ‘slave-labor’ bill, in response to the strike. 

Throughout the summer, miners across the country would rage against the government for threatening them with conscription and jail time if they dared refuse the terms of the decision. 

By November, the miners would walk out a fourth time and finally win many of their demands, at least from the War Labor Board.

 

 

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