“You Can’t Dig Coal With Bayonets”

Today’s post comes from Michael Hancock, a research and writing intern at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

Part of the legacy of World War II is rallying cries and imagery associated with “loose lips sink ships” and “we can do it.” On the home front, coal miners coined their own slogan when the government threatened to call up the troops to act as strikebreakers to end their labor dispute, declaring: “You can’t dig coal with bayonets!”

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“Sacrifice for Freedom” poster, ca. 1943. (National Archives Identifier: 640355)

While most labor unions adhered to a no-strike pledge during World War II, John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers (UMW), told President Franklin D. Roosevelt that his men were working under unfair conditions and would not be bound by any such pledge. Despite President Roosevelt’s appeals to miner’s patriotic responsibility to keep up coal production during wartime, 500,000 miners struck in April 1943.

On May 1, 1943, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9340, which placed coal mines under the control of the Federal Government. But even with the mines under government operation, the miners continued to fight and eventually won wage increases and pay for travel from the shaft head to the coal face.  

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“The President of the United States on May 2, 1943…” poster, ca. 1943. (National Archives Identifier: 640355)

Coal was critical to the war effort. As one of the largest raw material industries, coal was used to power locomotives; produce iron, steel, and electricity; and keep Americans’ homes heated. Without an abundant supply of coal, Americans at home and abroad would suffer. For many, a large labor dispute surrounding the coal industry was an impediment to victory.

When striking miners ignored his order to return to work, President Roosevelt ordered Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to take over and operate all mines in which a strike or stoppage had occurred or was threatened. Secretary Ickes sent telegrams to 4,300 bituminous mine operators and 450 anthracite operators ordering them to continue production as “operating managers for the United States.”  

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“Order for Taking Possession” poster, ca. 1943. (National Archives Identifier: 640355)

Coal output was of vital importance, and the personnel to accomplish the requirements were sorely needed. Congress passed legislation on May 6, 1943, making it a crime to instigate a strike in war plants or mines that had been taken over by the government. Those who challenged it were prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

According to an article that ran in the Wilkes-Barre Record on August 31, 1943, 27 miners were given suspended sentences and three years of probation after pleading “no contest” to fomenting strikes in government operated mines.

The need for men on the battlefields was great, but the need for men in the mines was just as significant. In response to the striking miners, Secretary Ickes asked the War Manpower Commission to recall anthracite miners from the armed services to augment production of the home heating fuel. President Roosevelt threatened to call out the troops unless miners returned to work—but miners merely shrugged and proclaimed what would become their classic phrase: “You can’t dig coal with bayonets.”

Negotiations to renew the contract scheduled to expire April 1, 1943, were begun between the miners and operators on March 10, 1943. The union demands included a basic wage increase, a guaranteed work week, pay for underground travel time, and double-time for Sunday work. An impasse was reached in the bargaining process, and after the operators had rejected a compromise proposal, the dispute was referred to the National War Labor Board (NWLB).

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“Give It Your Best” poster, ca. 1943. (National Archives Identifier: 640355)

Executive Order 9017 on January 12, 1942, had established the NWLB in the Office for Emergency Management. Its purpose was to act as a final arbiter of wartime labor disputes and to pass on adjustments in particular wages and salaries.

As the NWLB considered the dispute, full production of coal resumed on May 4, 1943. The board rejected most of the union demands in its decision on May 25, 1943. In turn, the miners rejected the NWLB decision and operations at the mines continued to be interrupted. This marked the beginning of what would become a volatile period of negotiations with the miners striking on and off for months.

Finally, Secretary Ickes signed an interim agreement on November 3, 1943, to be applied in all mines under government control, and the miners returned to work under its terms. The contract was finally approved by the NWLB on May 19, 1944. Ultimately, the loss of production in the bituminous mines alone, as a result of the total sum of work stoppages during 1943, was estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics at 7,510,397 man-days of idleness and 39 million tons of coal.

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“ Pass the Ammunition” poster, ca. 1943. (National Archives Identifier: 640355)

The United Mine Workers’ labor victory during World War II was a watershed moment, as a loss would have crippled one of the most powerful industrial unions in the United States. This victory strengthened the UMW and other Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) workers.

This is just one story among many of the complexities of wartime on the home front. The holdings of the National Archives provide a rich assortment of documents that chronicle this noteworthy and intriguing chapter of labor during World War II. The abundance of communications, memos, and official records in our collection yield a remarkable amount of information that illustrate the contrast between civic duty and labor relations during wartime.

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