Bertrand Russell, never one to shrink from ideological pronouncements, is supposed to have observed that: "We are all riding on the backs of Chinese coolies."
That kind of implicit class warfare mentality sounds oddly out of date in today's computerized, automated world. By and large our labor-management relations have passed beyond the days of bloody strife, of struggling workers vs. predatory owners. Big Labor long since fought for, and won, the right to sit alongside Big Business in shaping the course of Big Government.
But the tragedy we are witnessing now in the coalfields tears apart that illusion of stability. It exposes a world with a recurring history of violence. "Let them mine it with their bayonets if they can," an angry miner snarls into the television cameras. And it lays bare something else - how dependent our society has become on the labor of people whose lives are totally alien to the experience of most Americans.
A public school student comes home and tells his parents his class spent hours discussing the coal strike. The question neither pupils nor teacher could answer, he reports, was: What do the coal miners want? They might as well have asked: Who are they?
"They" are merely the people who help make it possible to run all those color TVs, all those stereos, air conditioning units and electrical gadgets that seemingly are essentials to our lives. And, incidentally, that fuel the electrical power systems to furnish the energy that is the lifeblood of our nation.
No one who has even been in the mines, I'm sure, will ever forget it. No matter what preconceptions you may have, they do not prepare you for the reality of life underground. It is a hostile, dangerous environment, full of bizarre sights and unsettling sounds, a nether-world city where workers labor along miles of narrow tunnels and tracks laid out on a grid system.
A few years ago, I spent some time exploring that world as a journalist in search of story material. The memory remains indelible: descending, with a jarring, crashing sound, on a lift that drops swiftly - too swiftly - hundreds and hundreds of feet below the surface . . . riding the labyrinthian corridors in small rail cars and staring through the gloom at black walls of coal transformed into a chalky white by a spray designed to keep down the dust.
But the dust is still there; it covers everything, and everyone, blown along by a brisk wind that whistles down the mine shaft and races along the tunnels. The stranger leaves the rail cars and stumbles along on foot - the small beam atop the hard hat hardly lights the path - kicking up trails of dust, trying to step over the cables and tracks marking the way, but failing to avoid having the helmet knocked aside time and again from the support studs in the low-lying ceiling. It's no place for a tall person; crouch through you may, you still encounter that jarring, invisible ceiling.
Hugh machines lumber through the darkness, whirring and crunching against the beds of coal. The noise is deafening. The sounds, the cold, the dirt, the darkness, the pressing feeling of being closed in, and the ever-present knowledge that, always, potentially dangerous methane gas is being liberated into the air as the mining proceeds - all make you yearn for the above-ground atmosphere. The thought of the surface becomes intoxicating.
Once back, you vow never to descend again. The marvel is that the miners take it all in stride. There are no prouder, more independent workers in this country - and proud not only of their work, but their traditions. For many of them, mining is more than a way of life. It's a calling, passed on from generation to generation.
After returning from the mines, I asked a grizzled old miner to explain why he did it. Once he had quit the mines, he said, and taken a factory job in Ohio. But he didn't like it. It just wasn't the mines. Then he said:
"I believe every man, ever person in the world, wants to try to do something - well, I don't know just how to say it - but to show he can live or something. I think that's one thing that you want to prove to yourself - that you can go down there and live."
Now, when I look at faces of the miners on TV, I think of him.
In the past two weeks, as President Carter moved toward his day of decision on the coal strike situation, the forecast increasingly was that the miners never would obey a Taft-Hartley injunction ordering them back to work. The state of anarchy in a once-strong union virtually precluded agreement, it was said.
Certainly, the United Mine Workers Union today stands more fragmented and weakened than probably at any point in its long history. It's conceivable that the present bitter struggle, and internal as well as external one, could lead to its destruction. But what doesn't seem to be so well understood another aspect of the United Mine Worker's history. Even in the days of the flamboyant and autocratic John L. Lewis, the miners often went their own independent ways.
Immediately after World War I, in 1919, the union was wracked with insurgent strikes carried on against the wishes of Lewis and other UMW leaders. Only extreme threats by UMW officials ended one state insurgent strike, and when the miners met in national convention later they were on the verge of open rebellion against the leadership.
Indeed, when Lewis called a nationwide coal strike threatening a complete shutdown of the mines, he himself capitulated after the federal government obtained a court injunction. "We cannot fight the government," Lewis said, he called off the strike.
Still, as historian Arthur S. Link writes: "Nonetheless, the miners refused to go back to work until the government, a month later ordered an immediate 14 percent wage increase and established an arbitration commission to consider the union's demands."
It's true that, in time, Lewis became the embodiment of the union membership, and that the record since his long reign has been one of corruption and leaderlessness. Yet it's also true that the miners historically have lived in a world of pitched battles, violence, bloodshed, and wildcat strike actions.
Now, we are approaching the denouncement of a tragic story - a struggle over the means of power for the nation's present and future energy needs carried out at a time when all concerned, including the government, increasingly seem powerless to control events.