Warren G. Harding photo

Address to Congress on Railroad and Coal Strikes

August 18, 1922

Gentlemen of the Congress:

It is manifestly my duty to bring to your attention the industrial situation which confronts the country. The situation growing out of the prevailing railway and coal-mining strikes is so serious, so menacing to the nation's welfare, that I should be remiss if I failed frankly to lay the matter before you and at the same time acquaint you and the whole people with such efforts as the executive branch of the Government has made by "the voluntary exercise of its good offices to effect a settlement.

The suspension of the coal industry dates back to last April 1, when the working agreement between mine operators and the United Mine Workers came to an end. Anticipating that expiration of contract, which was negotiated with the Government's sanction in 1920, the present administration sought, as early as last October, conferences between the operators and miners in order to facilitate either a new or extended agreement in order to avoid any suspension of production when April 1 arrived. At that time the mine workers declined to confer, though the operators were agreeable, the mine workers excusing their declination on the ground that the union officials could have no authority to negotiate until after their annual convention.

A short time prior to the expiration of the working agreement the mine workers invited a conference with the operators in the central competitive field, covering the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and in spite of the union declination of the Government's informal suggestion for the conference, five months before, the Government, informally but sincerely, commended the conference, but it was declined by certain groups of operators, and the coal-mining controversy ended in the strike of April 1. It was instantly made nation-wide, so far as the organized mine workers could control, and included many districts in the bituminous field where there was neither grievance nor dispute, and effected a complete tie-up of the production in the anthracite field.

It is to be noted that when the suspension began large stocks of coal were on hand, mined at wages higher than those paid during the war, there was only the buying impelled by necessity, and there was a belief that coal must yield to the postwar readjustment. When the stocks on hand began to reach such diminution as to menace industry and hinder transportation, approximately June 1, overtures were initiated by the Government in the hope of expediting settlement. None of these availed. Individual and district tenders of settlement on the part of operators—in some instances appeals for settlement—were wholly unavailing. The dominant groups among the operators were insistent on having district agreements; the dominant mine workers were demanding a nation-wide settlement. The Government being without authority to enforce a strike settlement in the coal industry, could only volunteer its good offices in finding a way of adjustment.

Accordingly, a conference of the coal operators' associations and the general and district officials of the United Mine Workers was called, to meet in Washington on July 1. The designation of representation was left to the officials of the various organizations, and there was nation-wide representation, except from the nonunion fields of the country. Before the joint meeting I expressed the deep concern of the country and invited them to meet at a conference table and end the disputes between them. The conference did not develop even a hope. The operators were asking for their district or territorial conferences; the workers demanded national settlement on old bases. Appraising correctly the hopelessness of the situation, I again invited both operators and workers to meet with me, and tendered a means of settlement so justly inspired that it was difficult to see how anyone believing in industrial peace and justice to all concerned could decline it. In substance, it called on the operators to open their mines, on the mine workers to resume work at the same pay and under the same working conditions as prevailed at the time the strike began. In turn, the Government was to create at once a coal commission, or two of them, if preferred by all parties to the dispute, so that one could deal with the bituminous situation, the other with the problems in the anthracite field.

Among the commissioners were to be representatives of the operators, representatives of the mine workers, and outstanding, disinterested, and able representatives of the American public. The commission was to be instructed to direct its first inquiry to the rate of wage to be paid for the period ending next April 1, and then to enter upon a fact-finding inquiry into every phase of the industry, and point the way to avoid future suspensions in production. The disputants all indorsed the suggestion of a fact-finding commission. The anthracite operators promptly accepted the entire proposal. The mine workers refused to resume work under the arbitration plan. The majority of the bituminous operators filed an acceptance, but a considerable minority declined the proposal.

Under these circumstances, having no authority to demand compliance, the Government had no other course than to invite a resumption of production under the rights of all parties to the controversy, with assurance of Government protection of each and every one in his lawful pursuits. This fact was communicated to the governors of all coal-producing states, and with two exceptions assurances of maintained law and order were promptly given. In some instances concrete proof of effective readiness to protect all men, strikers and nonstriking workmen alike, was promptly given. But little or no new production followed. The simple but significant truth was revealed that, except for such coal as comes from the districts worked by nonorganized miners, the country is at the mercy of the United Mine Workers.

Governors in various states reported that their operators and miners had no dispute and were eager to resume production. District leaders informed me that their workmen were anxious to return to their jobs but that they were not permitted to do so. Hundreds of wives of workmen have addressed the White House, beseeching a settlement, alleging that they know no grievance, and there is an unending story of appeals for relief where necessity or suffering were impelling, where a mere expression of need ought to find ready compliance.

At every stage, the Government has been a just neutral regarding wage scales and working contracts. There are fundamental evils in our present system of producing and distribution which make the wage problem difficult. In the bituminous coal fields are vastly more miners than are requisite to the country's needs, and there are 200,000 more mine workers than are needed to produce in continuous employment the country's normal requirements. By continuous employment I mean approximately 280 working-days in the year. In many instances last year men were employed less than 150 days, in some cases much fewer than that. In the overmanned sections men divide the working time, and high wages are necessary to meet the cost of the barest living. Interrupted transportation, sorely broken employment, the failure to develop storage against enlarged demands and inadequate carrying—all these present problems bear on righteous wage adjustment and demand constructive solution.

Because of these things, because of the impressions of many cases of unjustifiable profits in the industry, and because public interest demands investigation, and demands the finding of facts be given to the public, I am asking at your hands the authority to create a commission to make a searching investigation into the whole coal industry, with provision for its lawful activities and the bestowal of authority to reveal every phase of coal production, sale, and distribution. I am speaking now on behalf of mine workers, mine operators, and the American public. It will bring protection to all and point the way to continuity of production and the better economic functioning of the industry in the future.

The necessity for such a searching national investigation with constructive recommendation is imperative. At the moment the coal skies are clearing, but unless we find a cure for the economic ills which affect the industry and therein find a basis for righteous relationship, we shall be faced with a like menacing situation on next April 1 on the expiration of the wage contracts which are now being made.

The need for such investigation and independent consideration is revealed by both operators and mine workers in the provision in the Cleveland agreement so recently made. The Government will gladly cooperate with the industry in this program so far as it is the public interest so to do, but I have an unalterable conviction that no lasting satisfaction or worth-while results will ensue unless we may have a Government commission, independent of the industry, clothed with authority by the Congress to search deeply, so that it may advise as to fair wages and as to conditions of labor and recommend the enactment of laws to protect the public in the future.

The almost total exhaustion of stocks of coal, the crippled condition of the railways, the distressed situation that has arisen and might grow worse in our great cities due to the shortage of anthracite, the suffering which might arise in the Northwest through failure to meet the winter needs by lake transportation, all these added to the possibility of outrageous price demands, in spite of the most zealous voluntary efforts of the Government to restrain them, make it necessary to ask you to consider at once some form of temporary control of distribution and prices.

The administration earnestly has sought to restrain profiteering and to secure the rightful distribution of such coal as has been available in this emergency. There were no legal powers for price control. There has been cordial cooperation in many fields, a fine revelation of business conscience stronger than the temptation to profit by a people's misfortune. There have been instances of flat refusal. I rejoice to make grateful acknowledgment to those who preferred to contribute to national welfare rather than profit by a nation's distress.

If it may have your approval, I recommend immediate provision for a temporary national coal agency, with needed capital, to purchase, sell, and distribute coal which is carried in interstate shipment. I do not mean that all interstate coal shall be handled by such a federal organization; perhaps none will be necessary; but it will restore its capital to the Public Treasury and will be the instrumentality of guarding the public interest where private conscience is insensible to a public need.

This proposal does not relate to any possible employment in intrastate shipments. Price restraint and equitable distribution in intrastate shipments is a responsibility of the state's own government. In such voluntary activities as have been carried on thus far the federal Government has endeavored to reestablish the authority and responsibility in the states which was undermined in the necessary centralization of authority during the World War.

The public menace in the coal situation was made more acute and more serious at the beginning of July by the strike of the Federated Shop Crafts in the railroad service—a strike against a wage decision made by the Railroad Labor Board, directly affecting approximately 400,000 men. The justice of the decision is not for discussion here. The decision has been lost sight of in subsequent developments. In any event, it was always possible to appeal for rehearing and the submission of new evidence, and it is always a safe assumption that a Government agency of adjustment deciding unjustly will be quick to make right any wrong.

The Railroad Labor Board was created by Congress for the express purpose of hearing and deciding disputes between the carriers and their employees, so that no controversy need lead to an interruption in interstate transportation.

It was inevitable that many wage disputes should arise. Wages had, mounted upward, necessarily and justly, during the war upheaval, likewise the cost of transportation, so that the higher wages might be paid. It was inevitable that some readjustments should follow. Naturally these readjustments were resisted. The administrative Government neither advocated nor opposed. It only held that the Labor Board was the lawful agency of the Government to hear and decide disputes, and its authority must be sustained, as the law contemplates. This must be so, whether the carriers or the employees ignore its decisions.

Unhappily a number of decisions of this board had been ignored by the carriers. In only one instance, however, had a decision, challenged by a carrier, been brought to the attention of the Department of Justice, and this decision was promptly carried to the courts and has recently been sustained in the federal Court of Appeals. The public or the Executive had no knowledge of the ignored decisions in other cases, because they did not hinder transportation. When these failures of many of the carriers to abide by decisions of the board were brought to my attention, I could more fairly appraise the feelings of the strikers, though they had a remedy without seeking to paralyze interstate commerce.

The law creating the Railroad Labor Board is inadequate. Contrary to popular impression, it has little or no power to enforce its decisions. It can impose no penalties on either party disregarding its decisions. It cannot halt a strike, and manifestly Congress deliberately omitted the enactment of compulsory arbitration. The decisions of the board must be made enforceable and effective against carriers and employees alike. But the law is new, and no perfection of it by Congress at this moment could be helpful in the present threatened paralysis of transportation.

Happily it is always lawful and ofttimes possible to settle disputes outside of court, so, in a desire to serve public welfare, I ventured upon an attempt at mediation. Those who had preceded me in attempted settlements had made some progress. I submitted to the officials of the striking employees and the chairman of the Association of Railway Executives, in writing, on the same day, a tentative proposal for settlement. Knowing that some of the carriers had offended by ignoring the decisions of the board, and the employees had struck when they had a remedy without the strike, I felt it was best to start all over again, resume work, all to agree to abide faithfully by the board's decisions, make it a real tribunal of peace in transportation, and everybody serve the public. The barrier to be surmounted was the question of seniority. By the workmen these rights are held to be sacred, and unsurrendered by a strike. By the carriers the preservation of seniority is the weapon of discipline on the one hand and the reward of faithful employees on the other. It has been an almost invariable rule that when strikes have been lost seniority and its advantages have been surrendered; when strikes have been settled seniority has been restored.

In the tentative proposal which I sponsored it was provided that everybody should go to work, with seniority rights unimpaired, that there should be no discrimination by either workmen or carriers against workmen who did or did not strike. I realized that the proposal must carry a disappointment to employees who had inherited promotion by staying loyally on the job, and to such new men as had sought jobs looking to permanent employment, but I wanted the fresh start and maintained transportation service, and I appraised the disappointment of the few to be less important than the impending misfortune to the nation. It was not what I would ask ordinarily to be considered or conceded, but at that moment of deep anxiety, with the coal shortage gravely menacing, I was thinking of the pressing demands of the welfare of the whole people. I believed the sacrifice brought to the men involved could be amply compensated for by the carriers in practical ways. I believed that the matter of transcendent importance was the acceptance of the proposal to respect the Labor Board's decisions on the questions which formed the issue at the time of the strike. The public compensation would be complete in guarding by law against recurrence.

The proposal was rejected by the carriers. Though the rejection did not end all negotiation, it left the Government only, one course— to call the striking workmen to return to work, to call the carriers to assign them to work, and leave the dispute about seniority to the Labor Board for decision. When negotiation or mediation fails, this is the course contemplated by the law and the Government can have no chart for its course except the law.

To this call a majority of the carriers responded favorably, proposing to reemploy all strikers except those guilty of violence against workmen or property, to restore the striking workmen to their old positions where vacant, or to like positions where vacancies are filled; questions of seniority which can not be settled between the employer and employees to go to the Labor Board for decision. The minority of the carriers proposed to assign jobs to workmen on strike only where the positions were vacant. Neither proposal has been accepted.

Thus the narrative brings us to the present moment, but it has not included the developments which have heightened the Government's concern. Sympathetic strikes have developed here and there, seriously impairing interstate commerce. Deserted transcontinental trains in the desert regions of the Southwest have revealed the cruelty and contempt for law on the part of some railway employees, who have con-spired to paralyze transportation, and lawlessness and violence in a hundred places have revealed the failure of the striking unions to hold their forces to law observance. Men who refused to strike and who have braved insult and assault and risked their lives to serve the public need have been cruelly attacked and wounded or killed. Men seeking work and guards attempting to protect lives and property, even officers of the federal Government, have been assaulted, humiliated, and hindered in their duties. Strikers have armed themselves and gathered in mobs about railroad shops to offer armed violence to any man attempting to go to work. There is a state of lawlessness shocking to every conception of American law and order and violating the cherished guaranties of American freedom. At no time has the federal Government been unready or unwilling to give its support to maintain law and order and restrain violence, but in no case has state authority confessed its inability to cope with the situation and asked for federal assistance.

Under these conditions of hindrance and intimidation there has been such a lack of care of motive power that the deterioration of locomotives and the noncompliance with the safety requirements of the law are threatening the breakdown of transportation. This very serious menace is magnified by the millions of losses to fruit growers and other producers of perishable foodstuffs, and comparable losses to farmers who depend on transportation to market their grains at harvest time. Even worse, it is hindering the transport of available coal when industry is on the verge of paralysis because of coal shortage, and life and health are menaced by coal famine in the great centers of population. Surely the threatening conditions must impress the Congress and the country that no body of men, whether limited in numbers and responsible for railway management or powerful in numbers and the necessary forces in railroad operation, shall be permitted to choose a course which so imperils public welfare. Neither organizations of employers nor workingmen's unions may escape responsibility. When related to a public service the mere fact of organization magnifies that responsibility and public interest transcends that of either grouped capital or organized labor.

Another development is so significant that the hardships of the moment may well be endured to rivet popular attention to necessary settlement. It is fundamental to all freedom that all men have unquestioned rights to lawful pursuits, to work and to live and choose their own lawful ways to happiness. In these strikes these rights have been denied by assault and violence, by armed lawlessness. In many communities the municipal authorities have winked at these violations, until liberty is a mockery and the law a matter of community contempt. It is fair to say that the great mass of organized workmen do not approve, but they seem helpless to hinder. These conditions can not remain in free America. If free men can not toil according to their own lawful choosing, all our constitutional guaranties born of democracy are surrendered to mobocracy and the freedom of a hundred millions is surrendered to the small minority which would have no law.

It is not my thought to ask Congress to deal with these fundamental problems at this time. No hasty action would contribute to the solution of the present critical situation. There is existing law by which to settle the prevailing disputes. There are statutes forbidding conspiracy to hinder interstate commerce. There are laws to assure the highest possible safety in railway service. It is my purpose to invoke these laws, civil and criminal, against all offenders alike.

The legal safeguarding against like menaces in the future must be worked out when no passion sways, when no prejudice influences, when the whole problem may be appraised, and the public welfare may be asserted against any and every interest which assumes authority beyond that of the Government itself.

One specific thing I must ask at your hands at the earliest possible moment. There is pending a bill to provide for the better protection of aliens and for the enforcement of their treaty rights. It is a measure, in short, to create a jurisdiction for the federal courts through which the national Government will have appropriate power to protect aliens in the rights secured to them under treaties and to deal with crimes which affect our foreign relations.

The matter has been before Congress on many previous occasions. President Tyler, in his first annual message, advised Congress that inasmuch as "the Government is charged with the maintenance of peace and the preservation of amicable relations with the nations of the earth, it ought to possess without question all the reasonable and proper means of maintaining the one and preserving the other."

President Harrison asked for the same bestowal of jurisdiction, having encountered deep embarrassment which grew out of the lynching of eleven aliens in New Orleans in 1891. President McKinley, dealing with a like problem in 1899, asked the conferring upon federal courts jurisdiction in that class of international cases where the ultimate responsibility of the federal Government may be involved. President Roosevelt uttered a like request to Congress in 1906, and President Taft pointed out the defect in the present federal jurisdiction when he made his inaugural address in 1909. He declared that "it puts our Government in a pusillanimous position to make definite engagement to protect aliens and then to excuse the failure to perform these engagements by an explanation that the duty to keep them is in states or cities not within our control. If we would promise, we must put ourselves in a position to perform our promise. We can not permit the possible failure of justice, due to local prejudice in any state or municipal government, to expose us to the risk of war which might be avoided if federal jurisdiction were asserted by suitable legislation by Congress."

My renewal of this oft-made recommendation is impelled by a pitiable sense of federal impotence to deal with the shocking crime at Herrin, Illinois, which so recently shamed and horrified the country. In that butchery of human beings, wrought in madness, it is alleged that two aliens were murdered. This act adds to the outraged sense of American justice the humiliation which lies in the federal Government's confessed lack of authority to punish that unutterable crime.

Had it happened in any other land than our own, and the wrath of righteous justice were not effectively expressed, we should have pitied the civilization that would tolerate and sorrow for the Government unwilling or unable to mete out just punishment.

I have felt the deep current of popular resentment that the federal Government has not sought to efface this blot from our national shield, that the federal Government has been tolerant of the mockery of local inquiry and the failure of justice in Illinois. It is the regrettable truth that the federal Government can not act under the law. But the bestowal of the jurisdiction necessary to enable federal courts to act appropriately will open the way to punish barbarity and butchery at Herrin or elsewhere, no matter in whose name or for what purpose the insufferable outrage is committed.

It is deplorable that there are or can be American communities where even there are citizens, not to speak of public officials, who believe mob warfare is admissible to cure any situation. It is terrorizing to know that such madness may be directed against men merely for choosing to accept lawful employment. I wish the federal Government to be able to put an end to such crimes against civilization and punish those who sanction them.

In the weeks of patient conference and attempts at settlement I have come to appraise another element in the engrossing industrial dispute of which it is only fair to take cognizance. It is in some degree responsible for the strikes and has hindered attempts at adjustments. I refer to the warfare on the unions of labor. The Government has no sympathy or approval for this element of discord in the ranks of industry. Any legislation in the future must be as free from this element of trouble making as it is from labor extremists who strive for class domination. We recognize these organizations in the law, and we must accredit them with incalculable contribution to labor's uplift. It is of public interest to preserve them and profit by the good that is in them, but we must check the abuses and the excesses which conflict with public interest, precisely as we have been progressively legislating to prevent capitalistic, corporate, or managerial domination which is contrary to public welfare. We also recognize the right of employers and employees alike within the law, to establish their methods of conducting business, to choose their employment and to determine their relations with each other. We must reassert the doctrine that in this republic the first obligation and the first allegiance of every citizen, high or low, is to his Government, and to hold that Government to be the just and unchallenged sponsor for public welfare, and the liberty, security, and rights of all its citizens. No matter what clouds may gather, no matter what storms may ensue, no matter what hardships may attend or what sacrifice may be necessary, government by law must and will be sustained.

Wherefore I am resolved to use all the power of the Government to maintain transportation, and sustain the right of men to work.

Warren G. Harding, Address to Congress on Railroad and Coal Strikes Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/329277

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