On May 12, 1902, coal miners in Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields went on strike. There were many strikes in the coal fields during the Gilded Age, but this one has special significance because the refusal of the industry to negotiate pushed the strike into the fall and placed urban Americans’ heating supplies in grave danger. That convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to intervene in the strike, but unlike his predecessors Rutherford Hayes and Grover Cleveland, he acted as a neutral arbitrator rather than use the U.S. military to crush the strike. This marked the first time in American history a president had involved himself in a labor dispute in any capacity other than strikebreaker.
Mineworker organizing had more than its shares of highs and lows in the period before the National Labor Relations Act. When the United Mineworkers of America achieved a victory, membership skyrocketed, but those victories were often met with great bitterness from industry and a determination to push labor relations back into the dark ages. Life for coal miners was indeed nasty, brutal, and short. Coal companies ruled their territory like medieval fiefdoms. Unsafe coal mines meant frequent explosions and massive deaths, high-priced company stores were often the only option for workers to buy anything, anti-union thugs were deployed to murder or beat anyone who seemed like a union organizer, etc. If you did live long enough, a slow painful death from black lung disease was a likely future. On September 6, 1869, 110 workers died in a fire at the Avondale Mine in Plymouth, PA. On January 27, 1891, 109 workers died at the Manmouth Mine in Mount Pleasant, PA. On June 28, 1896, 58 miners died at the Twin Mine in Pittston, PA.
Emerging from a mine shaft, Hazleton, PA
The United Mine Workers of America won a big victory in the bituminous mines of the Midwest in 1897, leading to improved wages and working conditions, as well as shorter hours. The union, led by its president John Mitchell, determined to build on that by organizing Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The success meant growth from 10,000 to 150,000 members and thus a much larger treasury to use to expand their gains. A small strike led to a victory in 1899. In 1900, another strike led Republican operative Mark Hanna to convince the mine owners to settle and pay a 10% wage increase in order to not hurt William McKinley’s chances in the election. With increased confidence but facing operators furious at concessions already granted, the UMWA increased its demands. It wanted union recognition, a pay raise, and shorter hours.
Anthracite miners, Pennsylvania.
Mitchell offered to arbitrate the differences, but owners representative George Baer, J.P. Morgan’s chosen point person on the strike, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad and a man who truly hated unions, refused. On May 12, 100,000 miners walked off the job, about 80% of the workforce.
As the strike dragged on, Americans in the east began to worry about supplies of coal to heat their homes in the winter. This soon got the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt first looked into intervening in early June, but Attorney General Philander Knox told him he had no authority to do so. TR wasn’t so concerned with that and as the summer dragged into fall, his concern grew. The owners however didn’t care about the strike. They had produced too much coal early in 1902 and so had large supplies. Finally, TR acted as the nation’s population grew colder with each passing night, inviting UMWA president John Mitchell and the coal operators to the White House on October 3 to talk and settle the strike, making him the first president to mediate a labor conflict.
Mitchell agreed to call off the strike if the owners agreed to full presidential mediation and a small wage increase to show good faith. George Baer however refused to even think about bargaining with mere workers. He famously said, 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 the control of the property interests of the country.” The coal operators refused Roosevelt’s entreaties, even refusing to talk directly to Mitchell at the meeting. They walked out without a deal.
I have my problems with Theodore Roosevelt. He was a blowhard who used his advanced understanding of the media to promote himself throughout his life and slander his opponents, often unfairly. But if there’s one thing you don’t want to do to a man of that size of ego, it’s blow him off. Roosevelt was incensed with the coal operators. His response to the coal operators was a threat to nationalize the industry, sending in the U.S. military and taking the profits of the coal for the government. Mitchell wholeheartedly agreed with this, knowing that it meant the president had come down decisively on the side of the workers.
Editorial cartoon on Roosevelt taking on the coal operators.
Roosevelt’s threat finally forced J.P. Morgan and his coal operator stooges to the bargaining table after Secretary of War Elihu Root met personally with Morgan to inform him of the president’s plan. Agreeing to the presidential mediation, the two sides both sent representatives to testify before a commission. Representing the workers was Clarence Darrow, at the height of his career representing the nation’s poor and oppressed against corporate power. George Baer led the team for the mine operators. In his closing arguments, Baer summed up the plutocrat view toward the poor, saying, “”These men don’t suffer. Why, hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”
On October 23, the UMWA ended the strike. It did not win everything. The commission did not grant the union exclusive bargaining rights. It did however grant a 10% wage increase and a reduction in hours worked per day from 10 to 9. They also received a mediating bargaining board in lieu of union recognition, which Mitchell declared close enough. It was one of the greatest victories in the history of the United Mineworkers in the pre-NLRB era.
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