What Can the Unemployed Do? (Part. 2) – Paul Mattick

Source: http://aaap.be/Pdf/International-Council-Correspondence/International-Council-Correspondence-4-03b.pdf

I.C.C., Volume 4 Number 3, May 1938

Bootlegging of Coal in Pennsylvania

The first significant reaction to the depression on the part of the American unemployed was the wide-spread self-help movement in the years from 1930 to 1933[1]. Most of their organizations sprang up in the agricultural regions of the United States, primarily in the West. Those existing in cities were compelled to function by organized begging and by bartering their labor for life necessities. By 1933 most of them had disappeared. Besides these unemployed, trying the “American Way” of escaping their misery, there were others who tried new methods of self-help. Among these, the miners of Pennsylvania were the most successful.

Beyond the Confines of Private Property

Bootlegging of coal in Pennsylvania considerably agitated the capitalist world. People, unaquainted with the facts, wondered that “such things could happen”. The Coal Industry Commissions’s report to Governor Earle in 1937 stated[2] “that coal bootlegging is a social and economic phenomenon without precedent in this country. The bootlegger is expropriating other’s property to his own use, to keep himself alive. The nearest analogue is perhaps the industrial sit-down, that paralyzing new weapon of organized labor”. The economic issue involved comes here clearly to light as a class issue. For this reason the movement of the unemployed miners concerns all workers and warrants a closer investigation.

The taking of coal by miners, employed or unemployed, is a long established practice in the coalfields of the country. Unprecedented, however, is the open appropriation of coal for selling purposes. Taking coal from culm and refuse banks for their own use was always considered by the miners as their “right”. Always cheated by the coal companies, they felt that the coal remaining in the refuse banks actually belonged to them. This practice has been consistently but vainly fought by the companies for the last 30 years.

The depression hit the anthracite districts of Pennsylvania exceptionally hard, as the coal industry had been declining since 1926. In that year production amounted to 84 million net tons, which was reduced to 51 million by 1935. The number of workers employed decreased from 168,734 in 1926 to 100,539 in 1935. The total value of the product dropped from 466 million dollars in 1926 to 207 million dollars in 1935. The total wages fell from 256 million dollars in 1924 to 105 million dollars in 1935[3].

After 1927 most of the higher cost collieries were closed, an event which meant complete ruin for many mining towns, especially in the southern regions of Pennsylvania, in communities like Pottsville, Shamokin, Minersville, Shenandoah, etc., where no industry other than mining existed. As the general situation did not permit migration and as the relief given, when given at all, was inadequate, many miners had no alternative to starvation except bootlegging.

Bootlegging of coal as it is known today has been functioning since 1930. At first it consisted in an extension of the old practice of taking coal from breaches and outcroppings, though in increasingly larger quantities, part of which was exchanged in the nighborhoods for other commodities. From bartering, the miners soon proceeded to selling. At first all activity took place under cover of night, but experience extinguished the fears and soon coal was extracted and shipped in trucks by the same methods employed in legitimate business. After 1931 bootleg coal reached cities as remote as Philadelphia and New York, and today illegal mining, with its own techniques, marketing, and organization arrangements, is a substantial industry. In 1936-37, the bootleg industry produced and sold anthracite coal at the rate of 2,400,000 tons a year, or 5 per cent of the total output of all the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania. Consumers paid about $16,000,000 a year for bootleg coal. About 13,000 men were engaged in the industry, most of them being former miners and their sons, who made a living for about 45,000 people. During regular employment, most of these miners were members of the United Mine Workers of America.

The mines, or holes, are operated by groups of from 3 to 5 miners. The work is done on a partnership basis, but some holes employ workers for wages. In 1937 there were about 2,000 holes in operation. As the miners, for want of implements, cannot dig very deep, they have to abandon the holes after a few months and to develop new ones where coal is more accessible. The breakers employ about 4 men and work on the average about 119 tons per week. With a few exceptions, neither the miners nor the breakers are able to average a weekly income exceeding 14 dollars. The truckers and distributers have a higher income, some making as much as 70 dollars a week, but as the coal must be sold below the market price in order to be sold at all, profits even for the distributers cannot be very high. Bootlegging is possible only in certain parts of the State, where coal can easily be reached. Although a few enterprises, by pooling the savings of miners, have employed considerable machinery, in general the capital invested in implements is extremely small, and is often much below $100. The average working time in breakers and mines is about 40 hours a week.

The Struggle against Bootlegging

The significance of illegal mining was very well recognized by the employing class. Not only the “expropriated” owners, but the entire bourgeoisie were horrified by the breakdown of “law and order”. They incessantly demanded action against the bootleggers. The liberal and labor press “excused” the illegal activity on the grounds that the bootleggers had no alternative and demanded that the bourgeoisie make legal provisions for the unemployed miners, so that the “excuse” could be removed. It is clear that the force of circumstance brought about this generally deplored situation, and it is also clear that the miners would prefer legal employment, as $14 a week is no real inducement to illegality, and as the dangers connected with bootlegging are very serious. Despite the absence of the driving bosses and of the speed-up system fatal to so many miners, still the absence of safety devices brings about a fatality rate in bootlegging three times as high as in legal mining. And though the miners, having lost their fear of punishment, no longer have a moral attitude regarding illegal mining, but simply go about earning their livelihood like the rest of this “god-damn” world, they are not to return to more “respectable” employment if it were available.

The first act of the coal operators against illegal mining was to arrest the bootleggers. Judges passed dollar fines, which, as everybody knew, could never be paid. Soon the miners demanded jury trials and seldom was there found a jury willing to convict the law breakers, since everybody outside of the companies knew the situation quite well and could not conceive and end of bootlegging by court action. Some jail sentences were executed, but were unable to influence the miners. Furthermore, there were not enough jails in existence to hold all the law breakers, nor was there money enough to feed the prisoners or even to pay the prosecution expenses.

The overwhelming majority of the people in the mining towns are miners. The bourgeoisie apparently doesn’t like to live where it exploits. The elected instruments of “law and order” in these towns could not easily turn against their electors, nor the storekeepers against their customers, the priests against the hands which feed them. Bootlegging was justified from the pulpits as well as in the court houses and certainly in the general stores, which awaited payment from their debtors. As all the non-producing elements in the mining towns had formerly depended on legal mining they now came to depend on illegal mining.

This attitude and necessity is explained, furthermore, by the concentration process in the coal industry. About 65 per cent of all the bootleg miners are working on lands belonging to one company, the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. The company closed the unprofitable mines in accordance with the ethics of capitalism – that is, by totally disregarding the social consequences of this act. The miners “deserted” by capital, found it easy to desert the capitalist cause. Throwing the unemployed miners on the local and state charitable organizations did not create much symphaty for the suffering capitalist enterprises. But just the same law is law, and the state machine represents the whole of the capitalist state, and not only the southern part of Pennsylvania where bootlegging flourishes. The actions of the miners had to be denounced in principle, even if they could not be stopped in reality.

In September 1932 the operators appealed for an embargo on bootleg coal and for police action. But the State pointed out that there was not available a police force large enough to cope with the situation. After all, Pennsylvania is not yet Spain. Mass murder is still a questionable method. The problem would still remain of what should be done with the unemployed if the police succeeded in stopping illegal mining. Somehow the workers would have to be fed, and considering everything it was more economical to let the workers “steal” their livelihood, than to serve them with relief. Furthermore, relief was so meager that bootlegging was unavoidable as a means of supplementing it. As a matter of fact, the coming of Federal Relief and the WPA did not stop bootlegging to any significant degree.

With their own private police force the companies continued to harrass the miners and truckers of the bootleg industry. But in 1933 there was considerable unrest in the mining areas. Demonstrations and protest movements led to a “dangerous situation”, and forced the operators to lay low again. Miners went on strike in sympathy with the bootleggers; other unemployed joined the forces of the latter; and equalization of work between the collieries was generally demanded. Against protests and appeals reaching as far as Washington, the Reading Coal and Iron Company shut more mines in 1934, and the bootleg industry could not help but expand. But still, law is law and bootleg coal distributors were arrested in Philadelphia and New York. By closing the distributive channels it was hoped to close the holes in the hills of Pennsylvania. The truckers then organized into associations and fought their cases in the courts. The miners also organized in the Independent Miners of Shamokin and Vicinity and in similar organizations. In April 1935, the Holstrom Bill, calling for the issuance of permits to coal haulers on state highways was introduced in the State legislature. Five thousand bootleggers marched on the Capital, Harrisburg, and the bill was withdrawn.

In 1936 the operators tried again to get governmental help to end bootlegging by police methods, but were once more turned down. The State initiated and investigation committee which was supposed to bring in with their report suggestions for a solution of the problem. So far, however, no solution has been found, other than Governor Earle’s suggestion of nationalizing coal. But neither the humanitarian Governor of the State of New York nor the still more humanitarian Mayor of the City of New Cork were willing to wait for Bolshevism in the coal industry, and bills were passed designed to stop bootlegging by regulating the sale of coal. However, bootlegging continued, though at a somewhat slower pace for a while, because of the temporary improvement of conditions, but now again on a larger scale.

The Meaning of it all

The existence of the bootleg industry tells a manifold, far reaching story. First it illustrates in a concentrated way all the idiotic arrangements prevailing in present-day society. Coal is a social necessity, but as a natural resource it exists only in limited quantity. There is no sense in wasting coal or labor power engaged in its extraction. Technical development has allowed for greater productivity in the mining process, though the workers exploited more intensely, did not profit much, if at all, from the technical improvements. But in the bootlegging industry technique has ceased to exist; coal is again extracted in the primitive manner of the middle ages. It is also extracted without regard to the near future of coal mining, which is incidentally of concern to the capitalist owners, who would extent as much as possible their profits from the mines. The bootleg holes weaken the rock and dirt formation above coal veins that lie further down, and when abandoned they constantly threaten the deeper legitimate workings with flooding. But today this is primarily a problem for the legal owners of the mines, though in the last cannot for lack of investment funds be employed sufficiently by the botleggers, and those existing in the deeper legal mines lose part of their value because of new dangers caused by the encroachments of the bootleg holes. Safety engineers have thus labored for nothing; the results of their work are hampered by the present situation, which means so many more broken bones and crushed skulls for the miners.

As far as the much bewailed breakdown of the legal process is concerned, that shouldn’t even worry the capitalistic minded worker. For it only seems as if the workers have escaped exploitation by capitalists; in fact they are more exploited than before, though no longer by particular firms but by the prevailing system of capitalism of which the particular firms are a part. The complaining coal operators are not so much concerned about the fact that the bootleg mines are operated in opposition to established property principles, but they see in this activity the re-appearrance of a capitalist form of “unfair competition”, with which they have to reckon. Since bootleg coal is sold at a lower price than legally mined coal, it cuts into the markets of the coal companies which are already considerably shrunken. The monopoly position of the concentrated coal enterprises will be threatened if bootlegging increases. Whatever the latter gain, the former will lose; more mines working on small profit margins will be closed, and more bootleg mines will spring into existence. The competition largely eliminated by capital concentration threatens to return through this kind of expropriation.

However, this fight against capitalist monopoly is fought with unequalweapons. The primitive working methods have to vie with the highly developed technique in the functioning mining enterprises. To undersell legal operators today results in a meager wage of about $14 a week. New and improved methods of production in the legal mines, will lower the income of the bootleggers until nothing is left. The pressure brought about by bootleg competition will help to force down the wages of the “legal miners”. To hold their jobs they must help maintain their companies’ profits and will finally discover that bootleg competition disturbs their own interests as well, that is, as long as they think in capitalistic terms. Thus, if bootlegging increases considerably, the unions, to keep themselves alive, must also turn against it, in order to keep wage rates on a basis which allows for their existence. Bootlegging increases or re-establishes competition among the coal producers, as well as among the miners themselves. And here too all the odds are against the bootleggers. Because they are always forced to undercut the regular prices established by general competition or by monopoly prices, their income will always be lower than the income of other workers. The technical backwardness and other restrictions characteristic of their means of operation, outweigh by far the profit yields pocketed by the individual capitalists, as has been proved by the previous history of bootlegging. Illegal mining then presents no way out of the miseries for the unemployed miners, for it is not enough to escape particular exploiters and still remain in the capitalist society. The latter determines the life of the workers; the former only the place of exploitation. Only as long as their competition is not a serious one can it assert itself. If bootlegging should become a real menace to private industry, the operators will eventually drive the bootleggers out of business, even without the forces of the state and the law, but merely by way of ordinary competition, wage cuts, improved techniques and increased speedups. That this has not been done as yet only illustrates the fact that the problem is not considered as of first importance so far. The troubles and losses involved would at present cost far more than could be gained by the attempt to eliminate the bootleggers. Therefore only those means which could be obtained for nothing were used to check the movement and keep it within limits. Then too, since coal can only be extracted near the surface at certain restricted places, the geographical limitations of bootlegging induces the operators to wait and win rather then to strike and succeed.

What Bootlegging means for the Workers

The most important lesson to be drawn from the Pennsylvania miners concerns their action as such. That this act ion cannot solve their problems either of today or tomorrow has no bearing on the question. The miners did not act because they thought their action would solve their problems, but because they did not see any other way to turn. There was no organized propaganda nor encouragement by organizations which induced them to enter bootlegging. They simply did what they were accustomed to do, though on a larger scale. All the complexities involved in the question of bootlegging, which occupied government commissions for months, resulted from the simple process of their taking more coal than before to exchange for food. The problems of all workers are here, so to speak presented in a nutshell. All that is really necessary for the workers to do in order to end their miseries is to perform such simple things as to take from where there is, without regard to estahlished property principles or social philosophies, and to start to produce for themselves. Done on a broad social scale it will lead to lasting results; on a local, isolated plane it will be either defeated, or remain an unsuccessful attempt unable to serve the needs of the working class. When the large masses face a similar general situation as the Pennsylvania miners faced in their specific case, we have every reason to assume that they will react in the same way. The bootleg miners have shown in a rather clear and impressive way, that the so much bewailed absence of a socialist ideology on the part of the workers, really does not prevent workers from acting quite anticapitalistically, quite in accordance with their own needs. Breaking through the confines of private property in order to live up to their own necessities, the miners action is, at the same time a manifestation of the most important part of class consciousness, – namely, that the problems of the workers can be solved only by themselves. This class consciousness grows out of the need for action, and the contradiction of capitalism, and not from the ideas and the ability of smart leaders. That the other self-help organizations, which we discussed previously, did not teach such a positive lesson to the workers, is not due to the fact that the workers involved therein were less “class conscious”, or more “patriotic”, but because in their territories there was still a chance to get along in the “American Way”, thus there was no necessity for them to act as “unpatriotically” as the Pennsylvania unemployed. But the one as weIl as the other form of these movements, shows very clearly that men do what they can do and what they have to do, and think accordingly.

Nationalization of Coal

The case of the Pennsylvania miners is also an indication of certain general social and economic trends. First there is the concentration process of capital, here expressed in the fact that the majority of the miners of Southern Pennsylvania were subordinated to one large company. Then we observe the decline of profitability – only the most productive mines could be operated profitably, and whole towns were suddenly without possibilities for living. Next we see here the total absence of the possibility for migration, for wherever the miners could have gone, they would have discovered what they had left behind. To condemn the companies is easy and we certainly do not object to this, but it is rather pointless. To demand that these companies be abolished is also senseless, for they have already abolished themselves. No solution can be found locally. The workers demand work, the capitalists, profits. Neither of these demands can be satisfied, for both are not determined locally but by national and international conditions. The hopelessnes of the situation brings about the demands for the nationalization of coal, which would mean that the government would assume control of mines and their production. Then the price of coal would be fixed according to what production and distribution plus administration would amount to. But this describes only the most favorable conditions, for if coal could not be sold at such a price, it would have to be sold at a loss, the deficit to be made up out of the general tax income. That would mean practically that the rest of the population, that is, all the workers, would have to pay for the privileged position obtained by the coal industry.

Coal is not produced in the quantities possible, for such a production would not yield profits. Yet, there is no shortage of coal on the market. Either the coal production will be cheapened and sold abroad below the world market prices and so make miners idle in other countries, or, unsold, it will be piled up and after a while force the restriction of production, regardless of the nationalization of the industry. It is not possible to expect a general up-swing of capitalist production from the lowering of coal prices alone, nor is it possible, in the long run, to dig holes in the earth to produce mountains of coal on the surface. Only if the general capitalist conditions improve with a progressive accumulation, can the demand for coal be raised sufficiently and unemployment mitigated. But the nationalization of coal is only another expression for the relative stagnation of the capitalist accumulation process. On the basis of such stagnant conditions, the nationalization of coal can lead only to further nationalization of more, and eventually of all industry in a re-organization process, which permits the continuation of the capitalist forms of production and distribution despite diminishing profits. But this other temporary solution is already “Bolshevism” and presupposes social-upheavals to an extent dangerous to the whole exploitative system as such.

The demand for the nationalization of coal in America is possible only by way of compensating the owners of the industry. In this manner a solution is presented for many individual capitalists, whose unprofitable mines are also unsaleable. The nationalization would largely mean state support to capital. And as the compensation would have to be paid out of the socially created products, it would mean th at the workers have to solve once more the difficulties of their exploiters. All theory surrounding the question of nationalization boils down to nothing more than wage cuts for the workers. But even this would not solve the problems of the miners, for their continous employment presupposes a general and progressive unfoldment of capitalism, whereas the subsidies and wage cuts indicate the opposite trend. Whatever will take place, the nationalization of coal offered as a solution, is, even in advance, in need of a solution itself.

(To be continued in the next issue. Next chapters: Organizations of The Unemployed. – The New Deal in Welfate.)

[1] See the previous issue of Living Marxism. Vol. IV, No. 2, March 1938, pp. 59-61.

[2] Bootlegging or Illegal Mining of Anthracite Coal in Pennsylvania. Anthracite Coal Industry Commision, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1937. All facts following are taken from this report, which may be considered the most reliable study so far undertaken.

[3] Taken 1926-100, the number of workers declined from 100 to 60, the output from 100 to 60, the total value of production decreased from 100 to 44, the wages from 100 to 41, which illustrates that no technical or rationalizing improvements of real significance were made during these years, most of them falling in the crisis period. The stagnating character of the coal industry comes here clearly to light, hence also the efforts toward its nationalization.

All transcriptions were done by Felipe Andrade. Did you find any mistakes? Suggestions? Send e-mail to:
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