At the heart of the reports and discussions was the interconnection between workers and their unions in the coal and garment industries in the coal mining regions.
Miners from the northern and southern Appalachian coalfields, the booming western coal areas, the anthracite region of eastern Pennsylvania, and the coal-rich area of the lower Midwest came together to discuss developments in their industries and unions and chart a course for deepening communist work there. They were joined by garment and textile workers from many of these same regions as well as other cities across the United States.
About a year ago, the Socialist Workers Party decided to rebuild its presence in the coal mines and the garment and textile plants, as well as in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).
Along with rebuilding its presence in the meat-packing plants organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), these moves were made possible by the bottoming-out of the retreat by the working class in the face of a decade-long drive by the employing class to increase their profits. For some time, there has been convincing evidence that workers and family farmers are now willing to stand up and fight or are looking for ways to do so.
"The reality we face at the millennium is like the first line of Charles Dickens's novel, A Tale of Two Cities: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,'" said James Harris, a worker in a UNITE-organized warehouse in Atlanta. "The big-business media crows that we live in the best of times, the biggest and best economic expansion since World War II. But this push for increased corporate profits has been fueled by driving down millions of workers and small farmers in a way not seen for generations."
Jack Ward, an underground miner in the Midwest, reported to a joint meeting of the miners and UNITE fractions that there is growing resistance to the bosses' offensive in the mines and garment and textile shops, in factories and working-class communities around the country, and especially now among small farmers. Most of these struggles are scattered and often end in defeat or stalemate.
But in almost every case, he pointed out, there are individuals or small groups of fighters that arise out of these struggles determined to continue the fight. These workers and farmers are thinking about broader politics, are on the lookout for other fighters to ally with, and are open to reading communist books. This is true in every region of the country.
"The best example before us of this fact of politics today," Ward said, "can be seen among small farmers who are Black. They have fought for years against discriminatory practices that have led to many being driven off their farms. The recent settlement of their discrimination lawsuit against the government, which held the false promise of a solution, at first disoriented many. But as the scope of the government's duplicity in this settlement becomes clear, farmers are coming together again to press their demands." He proposed the socialist workers help build upcoming actions organized by the farmers to continue their struggle.
Ward described the social impact of the employers' offensive in the coalfields. "The bosses are closing down the union mines and opening up nonunion mines at a rapid clip. More coal is being mined with less workers. In most cases this means that wages are slashed dramatically, the pace of work is intensified, safety conditions in the mines have been weakened, and we're working long hours each week."
Contract labor is increasingly used as a way to drive down wages and conditions and divide miners, Ward pointed out. Some large underground and surface mines in the West and in the southern Midwest are run entirely by subcontractors. In other mines, contract workers are brought in to work side-by-side with miners employed by the mine company. The contract miners, of course, get sharply lower pay and benefits. Of all the socialists working in the mines at the meeting only one of them was making more than $10 an hour.
Jeremy Friend, a coal miner in Alabama, reported to the meeting of socialist coal miners held after the joint meeting that in nonunion mines in Alabama it is now common for new hires to be brought in as "independent contractors" for months and sometimes years before they are hired on as mine employees. These workers get no benefits of any kind, and the company avoids paying Social Security and unemployment taxes.
Especially hard-hit has been health care benefits, explained Fred Forrest, a coal miner in the Pittsburgh area. Thousands of miners are now working without medical insurance. "It is not unusual to hear fellow coal miners explain that they couldn't take a sick child to the doctor because they couldn't afford it," he said. The coal bosses continue their drive to overturn lifetime medical benefits won by union coal miners. The black lung programs are being gutted, he said, and hospitals and clinics in coal areas are being forced to shut down.
Forrest described a developing struggle to keep the Mann Hospital in southern West Virginia open. "This is currently the only hospital located in the three main coal-producing counties in southern West Virginia. There have been protests with up to a couple hundred people in front of the hospital demanding that it stay open," he reported.
"Just think what it means to miners in the area if there is an accident in the mine and someone has to be rushed to the hospital," he said. "Or what it means for any of the rural workers and poor farmers in the area who need immediate medical attention. They will now have to drive 50, 60 or maybe 100 miles."
The impact of the bosses' offensive is especially severe in the countryside, explained Ward. "As we get more people hired into the mines, we see firsthand the growing disparity between urban and rural living conditions." While the Clinton administration touts the low levels of unemployment nationally, some counties in the southern Midwestern coalfields now report unemployment rates over 10 percent, he explained. "Added to this, the deflationary pressures driving down the price of basic farm commodities are having a devastating effect on family farmers, who are being driven into poverty and off their land."
The attacks against coal miners and their union are beginning to meet with resistance, said Ward to the meeting of socialist coal miners. "There are stirrings underneath the surface that reflect the beginnings of a social movement in the coalfields and a fight for the life of the United Mine Workers union."
Ward pointed to the effort by mine workers in western Pennsylvania and southern Illinois to circulate petitions defending health benefits for miners as one reflection of this social movement. This campaign follows a series of mass meetings organized by the UMWA last fall to press the government and the coal bosses to maintain lifetime health care for miners. Others described meetings that are being organized in coalfield regions to respond to massive layoffs.
Like most miners today, many of the socialist miners are working in nonunion mines. "The bosses use temp agencies and contractors to keep the union out," explained Harriet Melor, a coal miner in the western coalfields. "But union miners are in all of these nonunion mines and they talk about the union." Socialist coal miners noted that in the mines where they work there are a number of young miners in their first jobs, as well as experienced miners, many with union experience.
"With this New Years conference, we can celebrate our success in rebuilding a presence in the coal mines," said Ward. "We have gotten into both underground and surface mines in five of the main coal centers and all signs point to our fraction of communist workers growing substantially in the coming months. This will put us in a good position to participate in the struggles unfolding today and the bigger ones that will surely come."
A separate meeting of socialist garment and textile workers continued the discussion begun in the joint meeting on the connection between garment workers and coal miners. Diana Newberry, a sewing machine operator and a member of UNITE, works in a shop located in the coalfields near here. She and another socialist sewing machine operator started talking to coworkers about a front-page story in the local newspaper about a coal miner who had been killed in the Canterbury mine not far away.
"We found out," Newberry said, "that we had coworkers who had relatives who were working in that mine and others that knew the miner who died." The mine closed a few days later. Nonunion now, the mine had been organized by the UMWA in the 1980s.
"A couple of coworkers talked about the fights at that mine led by the UMWA in the mid-80s. We found coworkers, who we had never before talked to about the role of unions, who spoke up in discussions in the lunchroom about the importance of unions," she said. Much of the activity and statements by the officials of UNITE are focused on protectionist schemes such as their "anti-sweatshop" campaign. In the union, among garment and textile workers, and student youth, the union tops portray workers in other countries as victims of greedy corporations, not as fellow fighters. The campaign draws workers and young people in this country deeper into believing our problems can be solved by working together with our bosses and their government.
Recently some 1,300 UNITE members waged a four-day strike at 12 New Jersey dye houses. Andy Buchanan, a textile worker in New Jersey, quoted a UNITE official from a newspaper article published shortly before the strike took place. The official said that textile workers there can't compete with China or even with North and South Carolina.
At the meeting the garment workers discussed that taking such questions up is central to functioning as communists in the union. "The goal of the unions and the struggle of working people is to eliminate the dog-eat-dog competition that capitalism foists upon us," said Greg McCartan, a textile worker from Boston. "We can raise with workers a perspective of revolutionary struggle to form our own government and overturn capitalism," he said.
"The 'threat of Chinese imports' theme by the union officialdom aids Washington in its long-term drive to overturn the workers state in China," McCartan raised. "Explaining the conquests of the Chinese revolution and why we need to defend it against Washington is part of our job in the unions."
Jorge Ledesma, a sewing machine operator and UNITE member from Newark, described getting out to a picket line by Teamsters at the Overnite trucking company along with two textile workers, one of whom has recently met socialists on the job.
After participating in classes on communist politics at the local Pathfinder Bookstore, joining socialists selling the Militant to dye workers during and after their strike, and joining in several picket lines, he told the socialists that he could "see how to build your party now."
Lisa Potash from Chicago told about a shop floor struggle around piece-rate wages, pointing to the opportunities for workers to join together to fight to transform the unions as they enter into struggles and build ties among themselves.
Tony Prince, a garment worker from Cleveland, discussed how he was part of organizing solidarity with steelworkers at Armco. "We translated a flyer and got a good number of signatures on it. Workers contributed $30 to give to the strikers when we went to the picket line," he said.
While socialist workers seek to work in shops and mills organized by UNITE, they are also getting hired at nonunion shops where there are no UNITE-organized plants. Several participants spoke to the opportunities to discuss the same politics on the job, and the fact the union question is posed. Janet from Houston said that many workers have been in union shops and that the drive by the company to speed up work and cut wages means "workers at the shop where I work come into daily conflict with the bosses."
A Militant Labor Forum on Saturday night entitled "Capitalism's World Disorder and the Prospects for Socialism in the Twenty-First Century" was given by Norton Sandler, a member of the national committee of the SWP.
Participants in the coal miners and UNITE fraction meetings also discussed the campaign to sell Capitalism's World Disorder. For the last four months communist workers have been working to get the book in the hands of fighters through individual sales, street tables, protest actions, on picket lines, and sales at plant gates.
Out of this work they get referred to get orders from bookstores, outlets, and libraries where fighters buy their books. Meeting participants voted to propose the campaign be extended until the end of February since the effort has proved useful in finding workers, farmers, and youth interested in the perspective of revolution.
It will also allow communist workers a chance to take advantage of the soon-to-be released Spanish-language and French-language editions of the book. This extended effort could incorporate distributing more widely Pathfinder's two newest titles about the Cuban revolution: Making History and the upcoming Che Guevara Talks To Young People.
Paul Cornish, a warehouse worker in a UNITE-organized distribution center and a member of the Young Socialists from Atlanta, described how he and other socialist workers had gone to the Teamsters Overnite picket line in Atlanta. Through political discussion and active follow-up they sold a copy of Capitalism's World Disorder to one of the pickets.
Cornish also described how socialist workers in Atlanta had participated in a recent fund-raising dinner by some farmers in Georgia who are planning a factfinding trip to Cuba in February. The farmers are also active in the fight against the racist discrimination of the United States Department of Agriculture that has forced thousands of farmers off their land. At the dinner they met a young Black woman who the next day came to the Pathfinder Bookstore. She bought Capitalism's World Disorder and is now attending some classes based on the book.
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