King Coal/Book IV/Chapter 7

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King Coal by Upton Sinclair
Book IV Chapter 7

They got to the place appointed without any fighting. And meantime Hal had worked out in his mind a plan for communicating with this polyglot horde. He knew that half the men could not understand a word of English, and that half the remainder understood very little. Obviously, if he was to make matters clear to them, they must be sorted out according to nationality, and a reliable interpreter found for each group.

The process of sorting proved a slow one, involving no end of shouting and good-natured jostling--Polish here, Bohemian here, Greek here, Italian here! When this job had been done, and a man found from each nationality who understood enough English to translate to his fellows, Hal started in to make a speech. But before he had spoken many sentences, pandemonium broke loose. All the interpreters started interpreting at the same time--and at the top of their lungs; it was like a parade with the bands close together! Hal was struck dumb; then he began to laugh, and the various audiences began to laugh; the orators stopped, perplexed--then they too began to laugh. So wave after wave of merriment rolled over the throng; the mood of the assembly was changed all at once, from rage and determination to the wildest hilarity. Hal learned his first lesson in the handling of these hordes of child-like people, whose moods were quick, whose tempers were balanced upon a fine point.

It was necessary for him to make his speech through to the end, and then move the various audiences apart, to be addressed by the various interpreters. But then arose a new difficulty. How could any one control these floods of eloquence? How be sure that the message was not being distorted? Hal had been warned by Olson of company detectives who posed as workers, gaining the confidence of men in order to incite them to violence. And certainly some of these interpreters were violent-looking, and one's remarks sounded strange in their translations!

There was the Greek orator, for example; a wild man, with wild hair and eyes, who tore all his passions to tatters. He stood upon a barrel-head, with the light of two pit-lamps upon him, and some two score of his compatriots at his feet; he waved his arms, he shook his fists, he shrieked, he bellowed. But when Hal, becoming uneasy, went over and asked another English-speaking Greek what the orator was saying, the answer was that he was promising that the law should be enforced in North Valley!

Hal stood watching this perfervid little man, a study in the possibilities of gesture. He drew back his shoulders and puffed out his chest, almost throwing himself backwards off the barrel-head; he was saying that the miners would be able to live like men. He crouched down and bowed his head, moaning; he was telling them what would happen if they gave up. He fastened his fingers in his long black hair and began tugging desperately; he pulled, and then stretched out his empty hands; he pulled again, so hard that it almost made one cry out with pain to watch him. Hal asked what that was for; and the answer was, "He say, 'Stand by union! Pull one hair, he come out; pull all hairs, no come out'!" It carried one back to the days of Aesop and his fables!

Tom Olson had told Hal something about the technique of an organiser, who wished to drill these ignorant hordes. He had to repeat and repeat, until the dullest in his audience had grasped his meaning, had got into his head the all-saving idea of solidarity. When the various orators had talked themselves out, and the audiences had come back to the cinder-heap, Hal made his speech all over again, in words of one syllable, in the kind of pidgin-English which does duty in the camps. Sometimes he would stop to reinforce it with Greek or Italian or Slavish words he had picked up. Or perhaps his eloquence would inflame some one of the interpreters afresh, and he would wait while the man shouted a few sentences to his compatriots. It was not necessary to consider the possibility of boring any one, for these were patient and long-suffering men, and now desperately in earnest.

They were going to have a union; they were going to do the thing in regular form, with membership cards and officials chosen by ballot. So Hal explained to them, step by step. There was no use organising unless they meant to stay organised. They would choose leaders, one from each of the principal language groups; and these leaders would meet and draw up a set of demands, which would be submitted in mass-meeting, and ratified, and then presented to the bosses with the announcement that until these terms were granted, not a single North Valley worker would go back into the pits.

Jerry Minetti, who knew all about unions, advised Hal to enroll the men at once; he counted on the psychological effect of having each man come forward and give in his name. But here at once they met a difficulty encountered by all would-be organisers--lack of funds. There must be pencils and paper for the enrollment; and Hal had emptied his pockets for Jack David! He was forced to borrow a quarter, and send a messenger off to the store. It was voted by the delegates that each member as he joined the union should be assessed a dime. There would have to be some telegraphing and telephoning if they were going to get help from the outside world.

A temporary committee was named, consisting of Tim Rafferty, Wauchope and Hal, to keep the lists and the funds, and to run things until another meeting could be held on the morrow; also a body-guard of a dozen of the sturdiest and most reliable men were named to stay by the committee. The messenger came back with pads and pencils, and sitting on the ground by the light of pit-lamps, the interpreters wrote down the names of the men who wished to join the union, each man in turn pledging his word for solidarity and discipline. Then the meeting was declared adjourned till daylight of the morrow, and the workers scattered to their homes to sleep, with a joy and sense of power such as few of them had ever known in their lives before.