Wall Street History
The United Mine Workers, Part I
As a descendant of Pennsylvania coal miners, I have a particular
affection for those who toil in such a dangerous profession. So
we''re going to spend a few weeks exploring the rise of the United
Mine Workers, the strike of 1902, and the period following it.
Unfortunately, death and the mines go hand in hand. Throw in a
little unionism and it can be an explosive mixture. First there
was the Molly Maguires, the secret Irish-American society which
ran roughshod over the mines of Pennsylvania from 1865-75,
killing mine officials, policemen and others before the
organization was dismantled. And then you had the horrible
accidents, documentation of which is hard to come by prior to
1900, but in the first two years of the new century you had an
accident in Scofield, UT which claimed 200 lives, as well as
Coal Creek,TN (184 lost) and Johnstown, PA (112 deaths).
[Just to finish this thought, for the 20th century, Pennsylvania had
8 separate mine tragedies of 75 deaths or more, while West
Virginia had 7 such occurrences.]
For the period 1880 to 1900, industrial accidents of all kinds
killed some 30,000 workers each year. The industrialists who
controlled steel, oil, rail, and farming, for starters, had as much
power as any president of the country. At the same time there
was no limit to the hours each man, woman, and child worked,
no minimum wages or compensation for accidents. Regarding
this last issue, the America of this time was the only
industrialized nation not to have workers comp. And as for child
labor, back then some 2 million kids worked ten-hour
backbreaking days in the mines.
For their part the courts were decades behind the times. For
example, in 1902 Mother Mary Harris Jones was arraigned with
other United Mine Workers (UMW) organizers for picketing.
The trial judge ordered her to leave West Virginia, proclaiming
that Mother Mary should return to the kind of work that "the
Allwise Being intended her sex should pursue."
Against this backdrop you had the fledgling UMW with about
40,000 members. In 1898, John Mitchell became its president.
That same year in Virden, Illinois, a riot by strikers killed 13
when employees attempted to replace striking members of the
UMW with nonunion black miners. Mitchell had his work cut
out for him, but within two years he had whipped it into shape.
In 1900 the railroad companies owned about 70% of the coal
mines in the country. Many of the railroads were designed
almost exclusively for the coal traffic and the rail lines were also
known as ''coal roads,'' directing the freight right from the mine.
At the same time, the railroads were controlled by financial
interests associated with, or directed by, J.P. Morgan, John D.
Rockefeller and other closely associated financiers. Since coal
was the fuel that heated many of the nation''s homes, it also stood
to reason that the interests of the voters were in play. Thus the
owners wanted to crush the union.
Late that summer the miners in Pennsylvania went on strike,
ostensibly for "a wage increase (which they hadn''t had in 20
years), an 8-hour workday (instead of ten), better working
conditions, an end to excessive charges at company stores, and
union recognition." [Jean Strouse] Morgan helped Mitchell
negotiate a settlement, strikes not being in the financier''s best
interests. The miners won a 10% wage increase, as well as
recognition of grievance committees. In turn, Mitchell
guaranteed there would be no strikes for one year. But there was
also no recognition of the UMW.
The promises weren''t kept on either side. Regional strikes were
held and the owners didn''t live up to their sides of the bargain,
ignoring any demands from the workers that would improve
In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated and
Teddy Roosevelt became America''s leader. Roosevelt went
right to work, challenging the monopolies of the nation''s
industrialists with antitrust legislation.
And the new president was one who thought that executive
power was more effective than the legislative kind. Roosevelt
said that the Constitution should be "interpreted not as a
straitjacket, not as laying the hand of death upon our
development, but as an instrument designed for the life and
healthy growth of our nation." [Paul Johnson]
Roosevelt had little respect for the industrialists of those days,
particularly the mine owners. He remarked that they were
backed "by a great number of businessmen whose views were
limited by the narrow business horizon, and who knew nothing
either of the great principles of government or of the feelings of
the great mass of our people."
He once complained to a Morgan associate that the "gross
blindness" of the corporations, was "putting a heavy burden on
us who stand against socialism; against anarchic disorder."
In early February 1902, John Mitchell met with J.P. Morgan to
discuss the possibility of a major strike, with Mitchell then
reporting to Roosevelt''s aide Mark Hanna that Morgan said he
would "do what was right when the opportunity for action came"
- that "if the railroad presidents were wrong he would not
sustain them; if the miners were wrong he would not help them."
Mitchell met with the railroad presidents in May. The miners
were looking to address their grievances from the 1900 job
walkout. But seeing that he was getting nowhere fast, Mitchell
didn''t stand in the way when 140,000 miners walked off the job.
When the strike erupted, the national press generally supported
the miners. The Springfield Republican expressed a widespread
sentiment: "It would be difficult to conceive of a monopoly more
perfectly established or operated than this monopoly which holds
complete possession of a great store of nature most necessary to
the life of the day."
And for his part, Mitchell made sure that the strike didn''t turn
violent, thus earning further accolades. The miners seemed
sincere and the nation viewed their demands as reasonable. The
UMW was also eager to negotiate. But on this front, the owners
Next week, Roosevelt weighs in.
"A History of the American People," Paul Johnson
"The Presidents," edited by Henry Graff
"Morgan: American Financier," Jean Strouse
"American Heritage: The Presidents," Michael Beschloss
"The American Century," Harold Evans
"The Growth of the American Republic," Morison, Commager,