For a speechwriter and ghost, which is how I paid the rent and then the mortgage, being published anonymously in Vital Speeches is a high and bankable honor. Here is the speech which demonstrates how high level public officials can explain away the mistakes of the president who appointed them.
The Government and Collective Bargaining
THE COAL DISPUTE
By ROBERT J. BROWN, United States Under Secretary of Labor Delivered at Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia, April 4, 1978
I HAVE a secret to tell you. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall has mice in his office. In fact, there are mice all up and down the second floor at the U.S. Department of Labor building in Washington, D.C. I have mice in my office. There are mice in the offices of the staff. There are mice in the conference rooms. When the coal negotiations were taking place in what the papers called the “blue-curtained room down the hall from Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall’s office,” there were mouse traps
We have yet to figure out a satisfactory answer to what the mice are doing in the U.S Department of Labor or how we can get rid of them. The building, after all, is new. It was opened in 1974, during the previous Administration. Perhaps, the mice are a legacy of that Administration, and the mice moved into the building when that Administration moved into the building. Perhaps, mice are just simply a fact of life in Washington, and no matter how new the building or how vigorous the occupants the mice will always be there.
I’m not saying that we see mice every day in the Department of Labor or that if you came into my office or Ray’s you’d have to share the space. The mice are our secret. I suspect that those involved in the coal negotiations who didn’t work for the Department of Labor never knew about our mice and never saw the mouse traps behind the curtain. Yet, one fact about mice I want to share with you.
This speech, after all, is about the recent coal strike. It is not about mice. But, the fact about mice is that the Secretary of Labor does not have the power to get rid of all of them. Even the President of the United States, with all the power of his office, does not have the power to solve completely and unequivocally the mice problem which we have in the Department of Labor.
The power of the Presidency and the power of the Secretary of Labor have been the subjects of much of the recent discussions I have heard about how we handled the coal strike. As a member of what one national magazine called the “coal command,” I can tell you from long and sleepless experience how we handled the coal strike and what it taught us about the collective bargaining process.
Despite some reports to the contrary, I believe we handled the coal strike very well. Even though it was one of the longest coal strikes in American history – 111 days long – there was no widespread violence. Homes were heated. Factories stayed open. Indeed, even the national unemployment rate went down. And, finally, through hard bargaining and the vote of the workers, agreement was reached.
There were gloomy predictions that we would have to send federal troops to maintain order. President Woodrow Wilson sent in troops during the coal strike of 1914 to “maintain good order.” During a 1921 coal strike, President Harding sent in ‘troops and General Billy Mitchell patrolled the area with six U. S. air force planes.
For 111 days, some 160,000 coal miners refused to work. They were angry and they were broke, but this country did not experience the predicted scenes of riot and lawlessness.
There were estimates that by the end of March, the coal strike would mean unemployment for up to a million people in the mid-West. By April, one estimate figured national unemployment – caused by the strike – at a minimum of 3.5 million people. Instead, the unemployment rate dropped while the coal strike continued. Instead, more of our citizens were working than ever before in history.
During the 1950 coal strike, when the railroads burned coal and railroads were the country’s principal means of transportation, the government ordered the railroads to reduce passenger service by 65 percent and freight service by 40 percent. Rationing was imposed on heat and electrical power in communities throughout the country. Unlike that gloomy history – which so many nostalgically remember as those Golden Days – we did not have three-day work weeks. We did not experience widespread power failures. The worst did not happen.
Like the 1950 strike, however, this coal strike did illustrate the tension between two equally valid national principles, both of which are reflected in federal law.
The first principle is the belief that management and labor ought to be free not to agree. The Wagner Act of 1935 was established during the New Deal years as an affirmation of the right of employees to self-organization. The Act gives workers the right to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. The Act prohibits unfair labor practices either by employers or by labor organizations. In this democracy men and women cannot be forced to work against their will. In this democracy employers are not required to run their businesses according.’ to the demands of their workers.
The second principle is that the national health and safety cannot be imperiled by the failure of the collective bargaining process to reach an agreement quickly enough. While employees have the right not to work and while management has the right to keep its plants idle, there are times when the inability of two parties to reach agreement so threatens the country at large that the government should use its efforts to bring about an agreement
Yet, the reality of day-to-day life in this country is that workers choose to work and employers attempt to create a business environment which satisfies the legitimate needs of the worker. Strikes are not a way of life in this country. Last week, the Department of Labor released the most recent figures on strikes. Last month, if you subtract the 160,000 coal miners who have since gone back to work, there were 169,000 workers participating in strikes. Compare that to the 93 million American citizens who were on the job last month. The idleness attributable to work stoppages in February – if you include the coal strike – was .26 percent of estimated working time. Americans do not like to strike. Strikes are the exception rather than the rule. And we are experiencing fewer of them. An estimated 449 work stoppages were in effect in February of 1978, and that is the lowest number of February strikes since 1966.
Last month – including coal – the average number of workers involved in a strike was 733. The average length of a strike was 12.8 days. Most strikes last 12.8 days or fewer. Most strikes involve 733 individuals or fewer. And, while such stoppages are serious as far as the individuals and the companies involved are concerned, it is the rare strike which, affects or may potentially affect the well-being of the country at-large.
There are, indeed, those rare cases when management and labor fail to reach an agreement which would avoid a strike. It is during those instances when the role of the government ought to be clear, consistent…and absent. The failure to reach an agreement is the problem of management and of labor. The federal government ought not to be involved in solving the problems of men and women who are perfectly capable of solving their own problems. This Administration’s consistent, attitude toward the collective bargaining process is that we will not do anything which would relieve the tension placed upon the two concerned parties to reach an agreement. If we were to make a practice of interfering where we are not needed, then management and labor would rely on the government to impose some solution. They would delay their efforts, expecting the government to intervene. They would work less hard. They would not rely as strongly on their own best efforts. And that would mean more strikes of longer duration. This Administration believes that where government is not needed, government should not be involved.
This does not mean that we dig our heads in the sand and are unaware of difficulties. It is, for example, the role of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to assist disputing parties in the resolution of their differences. The Service provides advice to those who request it. The Service provides the technical experience necessary to facilitate the discussion of differences. Sometimes, parties disagree. Sometimes, when labor and management negotiators have been sitting around the same table for weeks talking over and over again, they find themselves going over and over the same thing. Sometimes, they have the feeling that they have lost sight of the issue at hand. They find, on such occasions, that it is useful for a neutral intermediary to step in and help clarify the issues. That is when the Mediation Service steps in – when it is asked to. And, its role is to help get the discussions back on track so that the parties can talk about the substantive issues which the parties want to talk about.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is an independent agency. It is not a part of the Department of Labor. And we feel that this is as it should be. We also believe that FMCS has been doing an excellent job and Secretary Marshall and I are especially proud of the job Wayne Horvitz and the FMCS did during the coal strike. This Department of Labor does not believe that the Department of Labor should be involved in the collective bargaining process.
Again, this does not mean that we should be unaware of what is going on. The Secretary of Labor is the President’s principal adviser on labor issues. In order to provide accurate and responsible advice, we in the Department must be aware of what is happening with the collective bargaining process. That is why we collect statistics on strikes. That is why we know which disputes are likely to cause difficulties and what difficulties they are likely to cause.
Even before Ray Marshall was sworn in as Secretary of Labor, he advised then President-elect Jimmy Carter that the coal situation was likely to cause difficulties. For more than a year, we had known that there would probably be a long and bitter coal strike this winter. Since last summer, Secretary Marshall was reporting regularly to the President on developments in the coal industry. For more than a year, Secretary Marshall met regularly with representatives of both sides in the dispute to keep abreast of the situation and to develop a bond of trust and rapport.
At the beginning of February, negotiators for the United Mine Workers Union and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) reached an agreement on a contract. The President of the United Mine Workers (UMW) submitted the contract to his union bargaining council for agreement. On February 12th, the contract was rejected by the bargaining council.
On February 12th, when the first contract was turned down, the strike was 69 days old. At that point, as the Secretary of Labor said, action by the Department of Labor to resume talks that had been broken off could not be called “precipitous.” It was already the longest coal strike in recent history, and it was necessary for us to do more than monitor the progress of the negotiations.
Moreover, it is no secret that the UMW was divided internally. Furthermore, the Bituminous Coal Operators Association was suffering from less publicized internal divisions. The situation was unusual. It is unusual for a union bargaining council to reject a contract recommended by its membership. And, as we later saw, it is unusual for the rank-and-file to reject a contract approved by the union president, the union bargaining committee, and the union bargaining council.
Critics at the time complained that we did not act quickly enough. Now, there are critics complaining that we acted too quickly. Between doing nothing at all and doing, too much, we took a steady, middle course. We intervened to resume the coal talks. We did not try to impose a solution on the collective bargaining process. But, we decided – and I believe rightly – that this was a very special case indeed. We decided that without additional pressure on the bargainers to return to the table and reach an agreement, the health and welfare of the country would be affected. Because we had waited as long as we did, we had made it clear that intervention in the collective bargaining process is the exception. Because we intervened when we did, enough time remained to avoid the dire economic-and-social consequences we feared.
When we decided that intervention was necessary, the question was what kind. Several options were open. There was Taft-Hartley. There was seizure of the mines. There was compulsory arbitration. We recognized that if the national welfare were at stake, that we would do what was necessary to protect the American people. We also recognized that by going to the point where such serious options were being discussed openly and seriously that the negotiators would realize their responsibility, not only to-the mine owners and to the mine workers, but also to the American people.
Certainly, Taft-Hartley would not solve the coal strike. We knew that, just as we knew that men and woman cannot be forced back to work against their will. When we did invoke Taft-Hartley, we did so because it emphasized the gravity of the situation. We did so because it allowed enough non-union mines to be open that negotiations could take place without the fear of imminent coal shortages. Recognizing the problems with Taft-Hartley, we used the law in a manner which was not traditional, and which employed the government’s best efforts to be equitable yet firm.
Certainly, seizure of the mines would not solve the coal strike either, just as compulsory arbitration would not solve it. Both required acts of Congress. Compulsory arbitration would require the government to impose a settlement, and that was the last thing we wanted to do. Seizure would mean that the government would have to run the coal mines until a settlement was reached. Not only would we have to operate mines, which the government does not know how to do, but, we would still have to wait until management and labor finally reached an agreement.
But, one message had to be communicated to both labor and management – that this strike could affect the health and well-being of the country. We had to make sure that the consequences of failing to reach an agreement were clearly understood by both the owners and mine workers out there in the hollows of West Virginia, and the small mining towns in states like Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.
Given the gravity of the situation, this Administration insisted that the labor and management negotiators had to talk with each other. We, in the Department of Labor, sat in on the long round-the-clock sessions, lending our assistance, when required, to make sure that the collective bargaining process continued. After our intervention in February, we helped to reach not one agreement, but three agreements. There, on the second floor of the Labor Department, avoiding the traps – mouse and otherwise – we knew existed, we made sure that the gravity of the situation was made clear, not only to the negotiators, but to those who will live with the contract they negotiated. As the results of the rank-and-file vote on Friday, March 24th made clear, the Administration was successful in its efforts to seek a solution to the coal strike through the collective bargaining process.
The lessons of the coal strike are clear. We’ve learned that the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics provides us with dependable and accurate figures – figures which we could rely on when others made the nightly news with predictions of doom. We’ve learned about the strength of our economy. We’ve learned about the diversity of our economy. Finally, we’ve learned that to act firmly, but with patience and restraint, honest differences can be worked out.
[Note: It was on the plane to Atlanta that the Undersecretary told me how Emerson’s Essay on Self-Reliance changed his life. Will it change yours? Read on: https://joelsolkoff.com/?p=1894