A court order was obtained that put the union under the control of three receivers recommended by the governor and appointed by the court. The coal companies choose one receiver, one represented “the public,” and the last one came from the UMWA. This is what Cannon called “a sort of coalition government of industry” that reflected “the weakness of Socialists for bourgeois cabinets.” Socialist Willard Titus, a member of the UMWA’s District Executive Board, was appointed the union representative on the Board of Receivers, although he tried to resign. It did not escape the miners that the strikebreaking board included a member of their own union, “the United Mine Workers of America, which was the only body authorized to call off a strike of miners.”7Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928.
In late 1921, the UMWA suspended Howat, who had been an officer of the union for nineteen years, and revoked the charters of eighty-one locals. Howat’s attempt to enjoin Lewis in federal District court to prevent the suspension and revocations failed.8Perlman, Selig and Philip Taft 1935, History of Labor in the United States, 1896–1932, Volume IV: Labor Movements, New York: MacMillan, 473–76. Later that year, the UMWA also suspended the entire District 14 Executive Board over the slim pretext that forty miners had refused to arbitrate a dispute about working conditions and froze strike benefits. The suspensions were supported by the UMWA convention in September 1921 just before Howat was jailed for violating the 1920 KICA. Howatt spent the rest of the decade fighting his expulsion.
The entire labor movement was soon to learn what was happening to the miners of Kansas. As Cannon reported,
Last winter the Industrial Court summoned Alexander Howat, as district president of the union, to come before it to testify in a labor dispute. Not only did he and his Executive Board refuse to appear, but Howat published a statement denouncing the Industrial Court for attempting to interfere with the affairs of the miners union and to ‘chain men to their jobs like slaves.’ For this Howat and the other officers of the union were sent to jail for contempt of court. The coal miners of Kansas went out in a mass on a protest strike until their representatives were released on bond.9Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928.
Howart’s militancy made him an enemy of the UMWA leadership. He had been suspended just after being re-elected running unopposed and received the largest number of votes for any candidate in any election the District’s history.10Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 215. That miners in Illinois sent District 14 $100,000 in donations to support the strikes while the International sent nothing, an act of solidarity that demonstrated his growing popularity beyond the state. When Howatt had earlier run for the UMWA vice presidency he was defeated by ballot box stuffing and opposition from union organizers, board members, and other officials campaigning on behalf of Lewis. A few month later in February 1922, Lewis barely survived a challenge by Howatt at the UMW convention.
The Kansas miners could not be intimidated by labor law, UMWA retaliation, or judicial repression of Howatt and other strike leaders. “Since the passage of the anti-strike law, it has been the custom for the miners to walk off the job when occasion demanded, without waiting for a formal strike order from the Executive Board.”11Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928. In their October 2, 1921 strike declaration, District 14 miners vowed to not “dig another pound of coal until the doors of the Bastille…shall be opened.”12Goossen, Benjamin, Autumn 2011, ‘“Like a Brilliant Thread”: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfield, 1921–1922’, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 34: 211.
Thus began the Kansas miners war that would pit the miners and their families against not only the mine companies but also the state and their own national union.
The Birth of Labor Law
It is little understood today that labor law was intended to serve the interests of capital by transforming the state and unions into tools for disciplining insurgent workers. Although today we commonly demand changes in labor law to facilitate organizing and protect workers, labor law was never intended to serve the interests of workers and still doesn’t. Labor law was designed and continues to serve as a brake on worker organizing and class struggle by suppressing, diffusing, or redirecting it away from the shop floor into lengthy hearings, investigations, arbitration, mediation, lawsuits, and legal battles fought by experts, labor lawyers, and judges. Then, as now, labor law was a tool for dis-organizing, not organizing, workers.
Nothing demonstrates this more vividly than the 1920 CIRA. Under the guise of protecting the “public interest” from disruptive strikes, rather than corporate exploitation, the CIRA set up the KIRC composed of three judges empowered to investigate and settle labor conflicts,13Governor Allen had promoted the KIRC as a response to the nationwide 1919-20 coal strike. The court was designed to empower the state to intervene in class struggle to protect “public interests” which at that time meant the welfare of business and the state. Today, the “public interest” means something very different and is understood to mean the “people” rather than business and government. See p. 3 in Bowers, John Hugh 1922, The Kansas Court of Industrial Relations: The Philosophy and History of the Court, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. effectively a system of compulsory arbitration.14Berman, Edward March 1928, “The Supreme Court and Compulsory Arbitration: An Analysis Based on the Kansas Cases. The Present Status of the Kansas System of Compulsory Arbitration,” American Economic Review, 18(1): 19–20. The court was empowered to subpoena witnesses, issues orders, fix wages, and have its rulings enforced in the state courts. The KIRC enshrined into law some of the very tactics used by the Wilson administration to suppress the waves of WWI wildcat strikes. It banned picketing, strikes, and lockouts as a conspiracy of union members to impede operations and take over operations. This last accusation was no less than hypocritical since the state and mining companies were now empowered to take over the union.
In less than two years, the KIRC heard thirty-three cases, thirty-two of which were brought, ironically, by labor unions or unorganized workers who wanted a different outcome than what either the law intended or they expected to receive.15Bowers, John Hugh 1922, The Kansas Court of Industrial Relations: The Philosophy and History of the Court, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. According to Cannon, the KIRC was an innovative new strategy to channel and suppress workers’ struggles.
This alone went far to bring about the famous Kansas contribution to statecraft. The legislature was called into special session for the purpose of passing the Industrial Court law, which forever puts an end, legally, to all strikes in the state of Kansas. Unions are permitted, of course, but they must be strikeless unions. Disputes between employer and employees are legally to be settled by three judges of the Industrial Court appointed by the governor. Thus the function of the state, “to moderate the collisions between the classes,” reaches its ultimate in the state of Kansas. Even on the organized industrial field there shall be no active class struggle. An Industrial Court shall settle disputes ‘with justice to all concerned’ and without stopping production.16Cannon, James P. 1992 , “The Story of Alex Howat,” The Liberator, April. Originally published in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928.