Does Liberty Consist in Two Dollars a Day Extra?


By HENRY A. WRISTON, President, Brown University, Providence, R. I.

Delivered at Class Day Exercises, Brown University, February 2, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 453-455.

THIS is a war in which public education in the grand features of strategy has been pursued upon a scale never before attempted. The newspapers fight every battle in prospect, they record every battle in detail, and they review every battle in retrospect. They employ not only reporters but experts; they supply maps and diagrams, explanations and explications. It is a poorly oriented person indeed who does not have some grasp upon the strategic concepts which are so vital to victory.

The most familiar of all the strategic concepts and of all the tactical maneuvers is the so-called pincers movement, I will not insult your intelligence by further developing an idea with which you are already familiar through readings and in which most of you are shortly to gain a direct experience of the first importance.

I want to speak this afternoon of another pincers movement by which a little band of men were encircled, cut off, and brought to surrender, defeated and discredited, and in a manner and by a method which seems to me an assault upon freedom everywhere in the world. The battle was fought without maps, without glamour, and, I am afraid, without hope.

By the law of the United States there has been "set up an order in that (bituminous coal) industry which is not without its resemblance to the Fascist order." That is a terrible thing to say. Being, as you know, a cautious man, I would not venture to say it upon my own responsibility. That is a quotation from an official document of the United States Government issued at the close of an inquiry launched by the President of the United States, participated in byboth branches of Congress and by the administration, richly supported by public funds and ardently pursued for many months. The statement was signed by men known as conservatives and as radicals, by exponents and opponents of the so-called New Deal. So far as I know, it has never been challenged, nor do I see how it is open to challenge.

The entire coal industry is organized under a closed shop union known as the United Mine Workers of America. No man may work either in the anthracite industry or in the bituminous coal industry without being a member of this union. That situation was promoted by the government of the United States; it was sealed by contract between the union and the mine operators; it was recognized, sanctioned, and enforced by the power and authority of the United States government.

That situation, I submit, gave enormous power into the hands of the union, but there was no requirement, either in law or in practice, that the union should have any democratic process; there was no requirement on the part of the government which conferred those powers that there should be the slightest attention to individual liberties. Competent testimony, if angry, is supplied upon that fact. One who was for many years a vice-president of the United Mine Workers made this comment: "There are the things that are going on, organized despotism, the devices used by Hitler in occupied countries are resorted to in the twenty puppet districts over which John Lewis has complete domination." Let us assume that because of anger the point is overstated. It presumably has a core of truth.

Now let us see what happened. The anthracite mine workers are a minority within the union. They had a tax laid upon them by the union. It was called dues, but we ought not to let names confuse us. It was a tax to which they had not consented. It was a tax which was withdrawn from their wages. It was a tax which they could not avoid without giving up their living, for failure to pay the tax destroyed their union status. The loss of union status under the closed shop agreement involved their discharge and they could not be hired by any other coal mine in the United States until re-admitted to the union.

They protested payment of that tax. They claimed that there was some $7,000,000 in the treasury, a claim which I did not see denied. They claimed that the tax was to be used not for their benefit, but to organize other people outside the mine industry in which they did not have a lively interest. I am not at this moment concerned either with the truth of those allegations or with their merits. I am concerned for the moment only with the fact that in a democratic society they were held as convictions by a substantial body of citizens.

These men felt that they had been taxed without representation and they sought redress of grievances. Those grievances may have been real or they may have been partly imaginary. A historical school in recent years has insisted that our forefathers were not fair to the British government in saying that they were taxed without representation. It has been rather the fashion to imply that John Hancock was nothing but an old smuggler, Sam Adams a ne'er-do-well, and Tom Paine a rabble-rouser; it has become stylish to insist that the monumental grievances of which they complained were grossly exaggerated. But I think that the verdict of history is that those grievances were deeply and passionately held; beliefs about them became the moving force by which liberty was advanced everywhere in the world.

Whether, therefore, the grievances of the anthracite miners were as real or as significant as they thought is an important matter but not the central issue. The central issue is thatnowhere in all the vast and involved bureaucracy which constitutes the executive government of the United States was there any one whom the miners could petition for the redress of grievances. Their quarrel was not with the employer. They could not appeal to the Conciliation Service, to the Department of Labor, to the National Labor Relations Board. They thought they could appeal to the War Labor Board, but that body, which has not been timid in the acceptance of jurisdiction, though sometimes feeble in the discharge of its responsibility, having gravely listened, gravely determined that they had no power to redress those grievances.

If there are grievances and no machinery exists to hear them and to redress them, revolution is the inevitable consequence. That was learned to the cost of the British Empire in 1776 and thereafter, to the cost of the French monarchy in 1789 and thereafter, and so it was in the mine fields of Pennsylvania. The men struck.

Now I come to the pincers movement. The strikers were proceeded against by two powerful instrumentalities. The first was the Army of the United States. Let us not be confused because there were neither soldiers present nor firing. The Army was there just the same. For the President of the United States did not claim, when he ordered the miners to go back to work, that he was obeying his constitutional oath to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. He did not claim to be acting in any civil capacity whatever; he did not act in accordance with any law passed by Congress, or any rule adopted by any administrative agency, or any civil procedure sanctioned by a court.

His order was addressed to the miners as the Commander-in-Chief. It was a military directive and had implicit in it military sanctions, including the use of force. It was a confession that the civil government of the United States did not have at its disposal any instrumentality for the redress of the strikers' grievances. That was a pretty powerful pincer point to pinch men without funds, without national leadership, without avenues of publicity, and without resources.

But there was another element in the tactics of this situation equally powerful, perhaps even more potent. It is difficult to conceive an agency more powerful than the Army But the strikers said, "Let the soldiers come; you cannot mine coal with bayonets." The other jaw of the pincers was, in their minds, I conclude, more potent. The union operating under the sanction of law, threatened those men with expulsion. Technically it was expulsion from the union. Really it was expulsion from their living. They could not work in any mine in America. In many other strikes—against employers—the strikers have been promised food and relief that they might not starve. No one promised these men so much as a crust of bread. They were left without hope. How much option remained to the miners?

That power to take away not only a man's job but his occupation, to blacklist him from his livelihood, to exile him from his skill—the power is so vast that it should never be committed to one man, or any group of men, or any voluntary association of men. Such dominance over human life ought never to be controlled by a contract between industrial managers and union managers who may be in competition, but who may act in collusion. I am making no charge, but I am calling your attention to a very real possibility. That power is so controlling that it should not be exercised even by government itself except under careful restriction of law, with full judicial consideration and review. In this instance there were neither legislative restrictions nor any judicial process whatever; the whole matter was committed to theuncontrolled discretion of a small group of men—or, conceivably, an individual. That is the precise and explicit program of tyranny, and should have no place whatever in American life.

Let me remind you once again that I am not discussing the merits of the tax or the accuracy of the men's judgment as to the dimensions of their grievance. I am not saying that their action did not bring hardship upon the householder. All those things are important in other connections; they are quite irrelevant to the point at issue.

I am saying that we cannot talk about freedom everywhere in the world until we find means through legal processes and not by military measures and the threat of starvation to hear the redress grievances on the part of free-born citizens of the United States. And I am saying, with all the passion I can summon, that the government of the United States has no right to protect the property rights of the union in the dues of its members while neglecting, as it conspicuously did neglect, the human rights of those miners to the protection of the democratic process.

Since the passage of the Wagner Act, the moral basis for an industry-wide closed shop has disappeared, unless there is a rigorous regulation of the internal affairs of the union. To treat a union which covers a whole industry as though it were still a mere voluntary association without great powers is an anachronism. It has great powers; it must also have great responsibilities, and those responsibilities must be reflected in the law. There must be opportunity to review and redress the grievances of its members against its management just as there must be redress of grievances against industrial management.

When you get outside, you will hear it said that this is just an attack upon Labor and unions. I do not believe you will be deceived. Unions long ago became an essential element in American life, and if they had not gained strength andvigor, we should be worse off and not better. It is no service to the cause of labor or of unionism, however, to give them privileges without responsibilities or to assign them vast powers free of all regulation.

When you get outside, it will be emphasized that those miners had no substantial complaint; it will be argued that John L. Lewis is going to demand two dollars a day extra for them when next he bargains on their behalf. He stood right up to the War Labor Board and said he would demand this "wholesome" increase—without reference to the so-called "little Steel" formula. If a man gets two dollars a day extra, what difference does it make whether he has this fantasy called "liberty?" It is the cash that counts, and if Lewis delivers the cash on the barrelhead, the miners have no kick coming.

You are going out into a world which will tell you that if you have food and clothing and housing, and particularly if there is a separate bathroom for each member of the family, moral integrity and political liberty and freedom of thought and expression are not so important.

I am not suggesting that you should be careless of human want and human suffering and human need. I do not have much worry upon that point, for America has set a standard of philanthropy, a standard of hospital care unique in the world's history. You inherit, and I am sure will fulfill, that tradition. I am saying that if you got from this University what it had to give, a philanthropic attitude will not fulfill your obligation; humanitarianism is but the prelude.

The substance of your obligation is to develop within your own life and to exhibit in your speech and in your action a supreme devotion to the rights of men, to justice, to freedom for others to speak, to freedom for them to exercise their God-given rights as citizens. You will be concerned first of all to eschew hypocrisy and purge from our own national life the vices which we deplore in others.