June 24, 2015

1946. The United Mine Workers Strike in Pittsburgh

District Leaders Stonewall Questions About the Walkout
United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis (seated in center) at South Park in 1952 (source)
Bill Downs


March 19, 1946

The good people of western Pennsylvania this morning are beset with confusion.

In every Pittsburgh streetcar and in the taxi cabs the conversation hinges on two things: the foreign situation and the coal strike.

Driving through the rich coal fields and their depressing mining communities, however, there is almost a holiday atmosphere; a laxity and relaxation—the miners standing on the street corners, the taverns full during the evenings. There is much talk of the coming fishing season.

But since the strike is now going into its fifth day, the coal diggers' wives are now putting the men to work in their gardens and at other household tasks.

It's estimated that the coal strike has already cost the nation eight million tons of coal.

But when you try to talk with union and company officials about solving the present layoff, there is this confusion that I spoke about.

To the union out here, the answer to my questions summed up are "John L. Lewis has spoken." The loyalty Lewis commands in his United Mine Workers is undiminished. The operators are more vociferous. They charge that the miner's union is acting in bad faith under bad leadership, and that this leadership has double-crossed them in the present contract.

Then the conversation usually gets back to whether there is going to be another war or not.

Out here in the coal and steel country there is a peculiar lack of urgency about the whole thing.

The economic "chain reaction" to the UMW pension strike is already being felt. A few steel mills are beginning to make precautionary shutdowns. The United Steel Workers union calmly explains that it expects layoffs to begin next week. On Sunday, railroad coal is cut 25 percent by government order. And if the shutdown continues, there will be other layoffs in industries ranging from coal to aspirins, nylons to synthetic rubber.

Bill Downs


March 20, 1946

There's nothing spectacular about the nation's coal strike.

Yesterday I went out to the struck mining town of Library, Pennsylvania, the site of a big Consolidated company mine only a half hour drive from Pittsburgh.

By mining camp standards, Library is comparatively neat and prosperous. The man I was looking for is named Tom Evans. I stopped at a filling station and asked where he lived. The attendant said: "Go up into the patch." The "patch" is where the miners live on top of a hill overlooking the town and the mine. Its rectangular, bleak houses are set in straight rows, giving the community the appearance of a military barracks. Fumes from a burning slag pile rise up to give the atmosphere a sulfurous pungency.

Tom Evans lives in the first house on the right going into the patch. He was standing outside when I drove up. I shook hands with him and his right hand was hard, but an old mine accident turned the last two fingers in. Evans was dressed in clean work clothes, and he and two other miners were simply standing and talking and relaxing, and apparently not quite knowing what to do with their free time during the coal miner's pension strike.

The men's faces had that pale, bluish look of men who work underground. They are suspicious of strangers.

"Well. We aren't doing much during this strike," Evans said. "Been too wet to put in gardens. We're just resting mostly. We're doing a lot of thinking about fishing."

What about the pensions that caused the strike?

Evans was reticent in answering. "We figure," he said, "that we have the pensions coming. Word came down to go out, so we got out."

I asked Tom Evans how the pensions would affect him, and got the rather astonishing news that he has been in the hard and soft coal mines of Pennsylvania for 53 years. I asked him how old he was.

"Sixty-two," he replied. But we went into the mines early in those days."

I pointed out that when the pensions go through he will automatically be eligible to retire on maybe 25 dollars a week provided for men over sixty with 20 years in the mines.

"I don't know," the miner replied. "I'm not interested in retiring. I'm healthy, and I still have some work left in me. Don't think I'm interested."

But Tom Evans is president of the union local and is leading the miners at Library in the strike...for pensions.

Bill Downs


March 31, 1946

This is Bill Downs in Detroit.

John L. Lewis' denial that he had nothing to do with "inspiring" the nation's soft coal miners to stage their pension walkout will be heard with wonder in the coal country.

I was in the western Pennsylvania coal fields a few days after the pension walkout began, and I inquired just how all the miners knew simultaneously when to stay home from work. This is what I found.

In Pittsburgh I saw John Busarello, district head of the United Mine Workers there. I asked Busarello just how news of the walkout was promulgated. The district leader said that officially all the district headquarters had received Lewis' letter reporting the failure to establish the pension plan.

Then I asked Busarello in these words: "And then word came down for the boys to go out, is that right?" He replied: "That's about it." But he stressed that technically this walkout is not a strike.

Later I went into the fields and talked with the miners. One man said that he and his fellow miners had quit work only after word had come down from district headquarters to walk out.

I could not determine how these alleged orders were dispatched, but in past labor crises, unions often set up code words which, telegraphed or telephoned, govern the collective action of the union members.

I have been covering the running story of industry and labor relations for a number of years now, and one thing usually happens in situations such as what is developing in the present dispute in the coal industry. During the legal infighting—the name calling and personality clashes on top levels—the persons most affected are overlooked. As tempers rise and coal stoppage becomes a matter of public welfare, the fate of the hard working miner, his pension, and his welfare will be shoved into the background.

But for the past three weeks now, the miners have not worked. No money has been coming in, and this is already beginning to be felt in his pocketbook and the family budget.

The words now flying in Washington are not putting meat on the tables of the coal miners in the field.

April 8, 1946

TO: Ted Koop

FROM: Bill Downs

Dear Ted,

I thought you would like to have this for the record in connection with the situation brought up by the charges of UMW's John Busarello. Here's the play by play:

I called the UMW District 5 headquarters in Pittsburgh on the afternoon of March 19. The strike was just about three or four days old at the time but very quiet. I introduced myself to Busarello, a pleasant, quiet-looking, grey-haired little man, and we talked for about fifteen minutes.

We agreed that things were quiet; that at the moment there was not much of a story. I said that I was looking for a new angle and was wondering how the UMW managed to get the word around to all the unions at the same time; that the job of contacting 400,000 men must be a big one. At this point, Busarello mentioned that technically there was no strike, and that all the district had received was Lewis' report on the pension situation.

At this point I was getting ready to go, having made myself known and seeing no story in the interview. As we were walking towards the door I said: "Then you received these letters, then the word came down for the boys to go out, is that right?" Busarello shook his head yes, grinned and said, "That's about it."

It is to be noted that this conversation took place on Friday, March 19, just ten days before John L. Lewis declared that he had nothing to do with "inspiring" the miners to take a walk. As a matter of fact, I discarded the interview as not newsworthy, although I figured if Busarello wanted to tell me the mechanics of promulgating orders to the miners he would have done so at my earlier suggestion. In other words, neither Busarello nor I considered the interview anything more than a friendly introductory talk.

The District Leader, in response to a request, recommended that I go out to Library, Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh Consolidated Mine there if I wanted to talk with some of the miners.

I went to the coal fields that afternoon and talked with a number of the miners, all of whom either by direct statement or inference confirmed that they had walked off the job under orders from the union.

However, again I want to stress that the story of how or under what circumstances the miners went off the job was still not a story at that time. My broadcast from Pittsburgh on the following day merely dealt with the mining town of Library, the color and quotes from Tom Evans. Busarello was not even mentioned (See March 20th b'cast).

I returned to Detroit and forgot about the incident until John L. Lewis' statement disclaiming any connection with the current walkout. I covered the last miner's strike and have dealt with labor unions closely for the past three years, and I know something about how they work. The more I studied the Lewis statement, the more I realized that I had a story. Not a big story, but at least what I believed and still believe to be the truth. I considered at the time and I wrote it that I could suppress my interview with Busarello, as offhand as it was at the time. As it develops, it would have been the easiest thing to do. But my job is to report.

The result was the March 31 broadcast on "News of America."

It is to be expected that Mr. Busarello would deny the remark he made. District leaders of the United Mine Workers are not by election. They get their positions by direct appointment from the Lewis office in Washington. Thus any subordinate in the union found digressing from the national union policy is in trouble. As I pointed out, at the time of getting the interview, neither Mr. Busarello nor I knew he was getting in trouble.

However, I resent the implication the head of District 5 has made on my reporting and my honesty. I also resent the implication on my intelligence that the whole story creates, because it has been my experience that the administrative personnel in the district offices of the UMW—all appointees—don't go to the toilet if they think their breaking water or wind might offend Lewis.

It may happen that the UMW may try to pin an "anti-labor" label on me. It occurs to me that we have ample rebuttal and one story in particular to counter any such charges. You remember during last year's coal strike I went to Charleston, West Virginia, and there did a color story on the living conditions in the valleys. And this story prompted the West Virginia Coal Operators Association to blast me for my reporting.

Evidently both the mine union and the mine operators have yet to realize that the truth is a two-way street.