It was 4 in the afternoon, Saturday, May 25, 1946. The House press gallery was jammed as the president of the United States spoke to an emergency joint session of the Congress:
"I request the Congress immediately authorize the president to draft into the armed forces of the United States all workers who are on strike against their government."
The strikers were members of the railroad operating union. They were striking not against one railroad but against all, and in 1946 the railroads were still the principal means of transportation for people and for supplies necessary to keep industry and the country functioning.
On May 17 President Truman had seized the railroads from their private owners in an effort to avert calamity. But the strike, now a strike against the government itself, was not halted. By that Saturday afternoon the country was near a standstill. Steel blast furnaces were banked, many industries were shuting down, travelers and freight shipments were stranded all across the continent.
As it turned out, the president's threat was enough. The strike was settled even as he spoke, although the House nonetheless passed the requested legislation within two hours, and the Senate would have except for the lonesome "nay" of Sen. Taft, who refused the necessary unaminous consent for immediate consideration.
We had had nationwide strikes before, and we were to have them again. But that Saturday afternoon was the closest the country has ever come to the ultimate test of a free society.
How, in a free society, do we resolve the problem of the right of individuals whose refusal to work can bring the whole country to chaos and disaster?
It is, as we have had a chance to observe these past few weeks, a problem still with us. In this case it has been some 160,000 coal miners whose private labor dispute has threatened the safety and well-being of the other 215 million people. Tomorrow it would be the nation's electrical workers or the truckers. It could even be, as it has in some countries, the policemen or firemen or hospital workers. Where, if anywhere, should the right to strike yield to the public safety?
Spurred by that railroad strike, and by another coal strike in another time, Congress grappled with the question by passing the Taft Hartley law, which, among other things, provides for an 80-day "cooling off" period when, in a president's judgment and with court approval, the public safety is endangered. During that period a strike is illegal. Ironically, the president who would have drafted rail workers vetoed the bill as being unfair to the unions. It was passed over his veto.
It has been a useful law, several times averting threatened strikes. Yet it hardly resolves the problem. Its premise is that people will obey the law, although we have heard our present president explain he would not use it because he was fearful the miners would not obey it. That seems a strange explanation, for surely a president should assume the law will be obeyed, and it is a frightening one if he is correct, for acceptance of the law is the fundamental premise upon which our society rests.
Beyond that, however, the Taft Hartely law at best postpones the terrible dilemma. If time's delay will not solve the dispute, we are back upon the edge of the precipice. What then do we do?
It's fatuous to pretend there's a glib answer. In time of war we force people to be soldiers whether they will or not, thinking the infringement on their liberty necessary for the safety of all. Are we to adopt the same principle in time of peace, to force men to work the coal mines on terms they like or not?
If we do that, where are men's liberties? If we do not, what protection has society against a handful of men who can bring it to disaster?
Somehow, it seems to me; we have to grope uncertainly for the answer in distinguishing between what individual citizens have a right to do individually and in what they may be restrained when they act collectively against society. We have to distinguish, in other words, between the rights of individuals and the limits of the privilege we extend to them to join in concert.
We do this in other areas - in our antitrust laws for example. One grocer can set what prices he chooses, stay open or close down as he wishes. If he acts in concert with other grocers to demand the prices he wants, we perceive that as an intolerable blackmail of society. We do not permit a concert of grocers to close every grocery store across the nation.
Somewhere amid like distinctions we must seek an answer that will preserve individual liberties while safegurding society as a whole. Such a distinction was made on another occasion when the miners' union was fined heavily for defying government and the courts. That proved an effective assertion of society's rights without infringement of any miner's freedom to work as he chose.
It can be objected that that is still coercion against a union, and so it is. But all government is coercion. Every law, every regulation, every tax is coercion against some part of society for reasons society as a whole deems necessary for its wellbeing. If a union is to be exempted, if it can shut down vital industries without restrain from government, then as President Truman put it, "the government will cease to exist."
Now we once more approach the precipice. Perhaps this time the miners will honor the law and give us a temporary respite. But the problem of the rights of individuals against the rights of society remains with us, and it can come again some day to haunt us as it did that Saturday afternoon long ago.