Wall Street History
The United Mine Workers, Part II
As we pick up our story, 140,000 coal miners (represented by the
United Mine Workers) have walked off their jobs in May 1902.
The UMW''s president, John Mitchell, manages to keep the
strikers under control, but the mine owners (who are essentially
the same as the railroad owners whose lines fed into the mines)
are not going to give in to the workers'' demands for more money
and a lighter work week.
George Baer was president of the Reading Railroad and
spokesperson for the mine owners. In a private letter that was
later revealed to the press, Baer declared that, "The rights and
interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for not
by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in
his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests
of the country."
After Baer''s letter, Clarence Darrow pronounced him "George the
Last" and the Chicago Tribune said that the "real subverters of
law and order" were not the strikers but the coal road presidents.
For his part, President Theodore Roosevelt was infuriated. In a
meeting at the White House with Baer, he said it was he, the
president, who had the power, and if need be he would exercise it
by calling out the troops to take over the mines and run them. It
was the first time a U.S. president had threatened such an action.
"It would be a good thing to have national control, or at least
supervision, over these big coal corporations, I am sure," Roosevelt
said. "But that would simply have to come as an incident of the
general movement to exercise control of such corporations."
[Remember, Roosevelt was gearing up for various antitrust suits
outside of this one labor issue.]
Meanwhile, J.P. Morgan returned from Europe in August and the
principals all tried to get him to arbitrate between the owners
and the strikers. Morgan was a trusted party to the dispute.
But Morgan said he wanted the two sides to work things out
themselves, and if they couldn''t, then it was the role of government
to step in, not his. However, despite these public pronouncements,
he was working behind the scenes to resolve the problem.
Between May and October, the price of coal rose from $5 to
$30 a ton. Morgan did what he could to help, as in setting up depots
for the poor in Manhattan where they could buy coal below cost.
Nationally, however, President Roosevelt had broader worries on
his mind. The 1902 congressional elections were fast approaching,
as was winter. He had decided to seize the coal mines. Rumors had
been flying that other trade unions would join the strikers in
sympathy. The president was convinced that any further continuation
of the labor troubles would "mean a crisis only less serious than the
And so it was that on October 3, Roosevelt hosted the mine owners,
led by Baer, and the UMW''s John Mitchell. While the UMW was
always seeking recognition, Mitchell denied that this was a major
issue in the current strike. Then, in Roosevelt''s words, the operators
showed "extraordinary stupidity and bad temper," berating Mitchell
and accusing the president, himself, for suggesting that union leaders
had equal standing in a labor dispute between workers and their
employers. Baer''s men would not "deal with a set of outlaws."
When word got out that the owners were holding the strikers'' feet
to the fire, public support for the miners only increased and on
October 8 they voted not to end the strike.
And was Roosevelt really preparing to send in the troops? Maybe
he was just bluffing. History hasn''t reached a final conclusion
on the matter. What is known is that he sent Elihu Root, his
Secretary of War, to secretly meet with Morgan in New York.
Remember that Morgan''s interests lay with his financial holdings
in the railroad companies. Strikes were not in his best interest
and Root found him fuming over the way Baer had "botched things."
Root and Morgan drafted an agreement designed to force the owners
to accept arbitration. Morgan delivered it personally to Roosevelt
on October 13.
But there was one more stumbling block. The coal road operators
agreed to arbitration by an independent commission, but not to
negotiate with the union. Mitchell, a model of decorum during the
strike, insisted on two representatives out of the five panel members.
The initial commission was packed with the owners'' lackeys. Finally,
Roosevelt snuck in a guy to labors'' liking and by October 23, the miners
were back to work.
5 months later the strike was formally settled; a major triumph for
the principle of arbitration in America. The commission awarded the
miners a 10% raise (they had received a prior 10% increase in 1900...
but that was after a 20-year drought) and the work day was reduced
to 9 hours from 10.
The UMW still did not have the official recognition it sought, but
the miners did have representation on a new grievance board. Some
of the chains of serfdom were finally coming off. [But the UMW
was blasted later, however, for its treatment of the 7,000 workers
who had not joined the strike.]
For President Roosevelt, the strike represented a landmark in
presidential initiative and leadership, and the president was also
extremely appreciative of Morgan''s efforts in the whole matter.
And Morgan was happy he didn''t have to deal with a national fuel
But this relatively new feeling of good will wouldn''t last forever.
In our final part of the UMW story, we will explore some far more
violent actions taken against the miners, as well as a battle fought
within the UMW''s leadership that proved rather bloody.
Sources: Same as Part I.