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Provided courtesy of The American Presidency Project.  John Woolley and Gerhard Peters. University of California, Santa Barbara.
  49. Special Message to the Congress on the Coal Strike  
March 3, 1950

To the Congress of the United States:
I wish to report to the Congress on the emergency confronting the Nation as a result of a shortage of coal, and to recommend legislative action. Since February 6, 1950, the production of bituminous coal has been dangerously curtailed. By now, stocks of coal are almost exhausted, and many parts of our country face crisis conditions. The anthracite coal which is being produced, and the trickle of soft coal output, together have been enough to stave off human suffering. But the lack of normal production of soft coal is bringing many basic industries to a halt.

A variety of emergency measures have been taken in recent days and weeks. Transportation and utility services have been cut down. Available supplies in many localities have been redistributed in order to meet the most urgent needs. Other steps have been taken by States and cities, by industries and by suppliers, to conserve the dwindling stocks of coal. These efforts have stretched our national stockpile, but they cannot add to it. Within a very few days we shall be virtually out of soft coal. The danger to the national health and safety is real and immediate. It requires action at once.

The immediate reason for the curtailment of bituminous coal production is a dispute between most of the mine operators and the principal union of mine workers, the United Mine Workers of America, over the terms and conditions of employment in the mines.

The previous contract between the union and the operators expired June 30, 1949. In subsequent months, the mines operated intermittently, while negotiations for a new contract were under way. But these negotiations failed to produce agreement, and the miners went on strike on February 6, 1950.

On January 31, in an effort to avert this situation, I asked the operators and the union to agree to continue production, in the national interest, for 70 days, while a factfinding board reviewed the issues and recommended fair and reasonable terms for settlement of the dispute. While this request was accepted by the operators, it was rejected by the union.

Thereafter, when negotiations were broken off and the strike occurred, I established a Board of Inquiry under the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947. It was this Board's duty, under the law, to find the facts and to report them, but not to make recommendations.

The Board reported to me on February 11. It found that during all the months of negotiation, neither side had bargained freely and effectively on the essential issues in dispute. The Board also expressed a conviction which deserves emphasis today. The Board concluded that "The obligation entrusted to the Operators and to the Union, as the agent of the employees, to serve in a joint stewardship of these vital resources must be met. The health and safety of the Nation demand this."

On the basis of the Board's findings, along with the other evidence available, the Attorney General on February 11, at my direction, requested the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to enjoin the union from continuing the strike and to order both parties to bargain in good faith. That same day, the Court issued a temporary restraining order to accomplish these purposes.

As a result, the parties renewed bargaining negotiations on February 15. The Board of Inquiry was reconvened and met repeatedly with the parties, in cooperation with the Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, in an effort to bring about agreement.

But while negotiations have continued, the miners have not returned to work. On February 20, the Attorney General started proceedings against the union, charging that it had not obeyed the order enjoining the continuance of the strike, and that it was therefore in contempt of court. This action was taken in light of the fact that the work stoppage was still under way nine days after the Court's order. On March 2, the Court found that the union was not in contempt.

It is evident that the order of the Court has not brought forth production. The mines are still shut down. Events since the issuance of the Court's order on February 11 give us no assurance that Court action under present law can, in fact, end the work stoppage in time to avert exhaustion of our coal supplies.

The Nation's welfare requires that soft coal production be resumed at once, in order to prevent human suffering and disastrous economic dislocation. Since the union and the operators have failed to resume production, and since recourse to the Court has so far proved ineffective, it is now my plain duty to propose further action. Therefore, I recommend that the Congress enact legislation authorizing the Government to take over the coal mines and operate them temporarily as a public service.

The parties are continuing their negotiations, and I earnestly hope that they will reach agreement before it actually becomes necessary for the Government to take possession of the mines. But we can wait no longer to prepare ourselves with the necessary legislative authority.

I am submitting at this time a draft of legislation to accomplish this purpose. I earnestly request that the Congress consider this proposal and enact the needed legislation as quickly as possible.

In requesting this legislation, it is my purpose and intention to restore the production of badly needed coal. During the period of Government possession of the mines, the owners should receive fair and just compensation for the use of their property, and the miners should receive fair and just compensation for their work. The proposed legislation would authorize the establishment of impartial boards to make recommendations concerning fair and just compensation for the use of the property of the mine owners and for the work of the mine employees.

I am not requesting this legislation as a means of settling the issues in dispute between the operators and the union. They will have to settle their differences through their own collective bargaining, just as though Government operation were not in effect. I do not propose to substitute the Government's representatives for the private operators at the bargaining table. It will not be our purpose to establish wages, hours, or working conditions which would bind either the operators or the miners upon resumption of private operations. When the country can be assured of sufficient supplies of coal, the Government will have no need to continue public operation and the mines will be promptly returned to private hands.

I have stressed these essential elements in the plan for Government operation, so that there will be no misunderstanding of the legislation I am recommending. The draft bill which I propose for consideration is necessarily quite general, so that the Government may adapt the details of its operations to changing circumstances. But while the legislative language can best be framed in general terms, there should be no mistaking the contemplated relationships of the Government with the operators and the miners during the period of public operation.

There are other issues in this emergency than the Nation's urgent need for coal. This crisis raises vital questions for the future of the coal industry.

We have arrived at the present impasse because both the operators and the union have failed, month after month, to make the efforts in genuine bargaining which could result in a mutually satisfactory settlement. They have been unwilling or unable to lay aside their charges and counter-charges, moderate their fixed positions and undertake serious negotiation in a spirit of accommodation and mutual understanding.

They have been unwilling or unable to do so despite the country's desperate need, despite the growing distress of the idle miners and their families and the economic losses incurred by idle facilities, despite the competitive advantage which their long dispute is giving to other fuels.

Fortunately, this dangerous breakdown in the normal course of labor-management relations does not characterize most industries in this country. On the contrary, collective bargaining has generally produced sustained production and mutual benefits, without these serious consequences for the public and this need for extreme governmental action.

But the coal industry has failed signally to solve its own problems in the field of labormanagement relations. The current failure is only the latest of a series which stretches back over many years, recurring with disheartening regularity. We can only assume that if this industry continues as it has been going, we shall be faced repeatedly with situations of this kind. We shall be forced every so often into governmental action of one kind or another--action which cannot solve the underlying problems or remedy the failures of the private parties, but which is necessary to shield the public from their consequences.

These recurrent breakdowns between labor and management in the coal industry are only symptoms of profound and long-standing economic and social difficulties in which the industry has become involved. We can hope to work toward real solutions of the unstable relations between labor and management in the coal mines, only if we come to grips with the problems which foster instability.

I further recommend, therefore, that the Congress establish a commission of inquiry, including members from the Congress, the Executive Branch, and the public, to make a thorough study of the coal industry, in terms of economic, social, and national security objectives. The draft of legislation which I am submitting at this time does not include provisions for establishing such a commission. However, I expect to submit a draft of legislation for that purpose to the Congress at an early date.

Management in this industry is confronted by declining markets, severe competition, and the high cost of efficient, modern equipment. Labor faces arduous work, a harsh physical environment, an uncertain work year, and the prospect of fewer jobs. The Nation needs an assured supply of coal at all times, and readily available reserves to buttress our national security.

It is essential that the commission examine carefully and factually each one of these conditions, probing the realities behind them and taking stock of our national needs and resources, human and material. We should then be able to determine what kinds of actions and what sorts of policies on the part of Government, management, and labor, will restore the coal industry to economic health and provide a stable environment for constructive relationships between the operators and their employees.

This is the real challenge of the present situation. It is a test of our ability to find a way to achieve adequate production of a raw material basic to our national life, while preserving the fundamental values of our free institutions. Both our friends and our detractors in the rest of the world are watching to see how our democratic society will meet this challenge.

The coal industry is a sick industry. Temporary seizure by the Government, though it may be necessary under present circumstances, cannot produce a cure. I am recommending seizure authority because I believe we now have no alternative. But I urge that it be accompanied by a positive and constructive effort to get at the root of the trouble. This is in the interest of the men who work the mines. It is equally in the interest of their employers. Above all, it is in the interest of the American people.

I urge the Congress, therefore, to act immediately on legislation to authorize the Government to take possession of and operate the mines, and then to turn its attention to legislation looking toward a solution of the basic difficulties of the coal industry.

NOTE: The draft bill, transmitted with the President's message, is printed in House Document 492 (81st Cong., 2d sess.). See also Items 27, 35, and 50.
Provided courtesy of The American Presidency Project.  John Woolley and Gerhard Peters. University of California, Santa Barbara.