Unions before the Bar: Historic Trials Showing the Evolution of Labor Rights in the United States

By Elias Lieberman | Go to book overview

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The High Cost of Contempt (1946-1947)

UNITED STATES V. JOHN L. LEWIS

I

The coal industry was for a long time a "sick industry." Competition was keen and employment irregular. In the 1920's the coal market, especially because of the use of oil as fuel, was shrinking. According to the leaders of the United Mine Workers, a miner at the time could not expect more than 215 days' work during a year and his earnings during the working period were far from sufficient to maintain his family during the entire year.

Help came to the United Mine Workers in the year 1932, when the Norris-La Guardia Act was passed by Congress. This act outlawing yellow-dog contracts opened many mine fields to union organization. But the union at the time did not have the wherewithal to engage in organizational campaigns. With the beginning of the New Deal, however, the picture changed. John L. Lewis, president of the union, immediately launched an intensive organization drive which swelled union membership and brought the union into areas previously barred by injunctions or by the activities of local police.

In the early fall of 1933 the miners employed in the "captive mines" (mines owned by the steel mills mining coal for their own use and not for the general coal market) went out on strike and by a large majority designated the miners' union as their bargaining agent. The owners of the captive mines refused to deal with the union, though they were willing to deal with the individuals chosen as the "elected representatives" of the employees. A face-saving compromise was contrived by the National Labor Relations Board,

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