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This Day in Labor History: September 10, 1897

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On September 10, 1897, Luzerne County sheriff deputies slaughtered 19 unarmed coal miners striking outside of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The strikers, primarily German, Polish, Lithuanian, and Slovak immigrants, were fighting for decent wages and working conditions in the one of the most brutal industries in the nation. The Lattimer Massacre was a touchstone event in the history of the United Mine Workers of America, who used it to organize workers across the region.

The 1890s saw a rise in immigration from Germany and eastern Europe; thousands of those migrants came to the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania. They were recruited there by coal companies as strikebreakers and because of that, the English, Welsh, and Scottish miners that previously dominated the industry hated them as scabs. Conditions in the coal miners were abysmal, with mine collapses and death shockingly common, a situation akin to modern Chinese mines. Making things worse was the Panic of 1893 and following depression that lasted for five years. The terrible poverty and desperation that resulted from these events led to some of the most dramatic events in American labor history, including the Pullman Strike, Coxey’s Army, and the rise of the Populists as a serious challenge to the 2-party system. Mine owners slashed wages during the depression for those who could get work at all. Typical company town conditions existed as well, with miners forced to rent from company-owned homes at high prices, forced to see company doctors, forced to shop at company stores, etc.

In 1897, the miners went on strike. The Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Company laid off workers, raised fees for homes and doctors, forced longer hours on those who still worked, and tolerated a decline in working conditions. Work became more dangerous and more profitable for capitalists. The strike was lead by drivers, mostly teenagers who ran teams of mules to carry the coal out of the mines. The company consolidated its mule stables, forcing the drivers to travel farther on their own time to get their animals. In response, the drivers struck on August 14. When the new mine superintendent, a man named Gomer Jones, found out the mule drivers were striking, he grabbed a crowbar and whacked the first striker he saw in the head. The striker fought back and a general scuffle ensued. This helped lead the rest of the workers out on strike. With overall employment declining, workers saw little to lose by walking off the job together rather than get fired separately. By August 16, 2000 workers were on strike and most joined the United Mine Workers of America, a union trying to establish itself in the coal fields. This was a big deal because the Slavs had avoided the UMWA after being vilified by the unionized Anglo-Saxon miners. But the terrible conditions began to break down the ethnic divides in the anthracite fields.

The first strike ended on August 23 when the companies agreed to give miners the option to live in their own houses and see a doctor of their choosing, as well as grant a wage increase of about 10 cents. A second strike a few days later at nearby mines made the pay raise more universal in the region.

Or so the workers thought. In fact, when the owners announced the new pay rates on September 1, only a few workers saw a raise. On September 3, the workers went on strike again, with 3000 walking out. By September 8, somewhere between 5000 and 10,000 miners were on strike. The miners developed new demands, including a pay raise of 15 cents per employee, the ability to select their own doctor, the right to get paid for work even if the machines they workers were out of order (commonly Gilded Age workers were not paid if the company was not running for any reason; employers never could understand why workers wouldn’t “see reason” over this issue), and the freedom not have to buy from the company store.

Strikers near Lattimer, PA

The coal companies’ private police force, the Coal and Iron Police, were overwhelmed by these numbers and the owners created a posse of English and Irish residents, including many ex-miners. On September 8, about 300-400 miners, largely Slavs and Germans, marched to a mine in the town of Lattimer to support miners who had just joined the UMWA. Expanding the strike to Lattimer would be a huge victory for the miners because it would go a long way to shut down the entire the area and force the companies to grant workers’ demands. The mine owners knew this too. Luzerne County police, led by Sheriff James Martin, were openly heard bragging about how many miners they would kill. When the miners reached Lattimer, the police confronted them and ordered them to disperse. When they refused, the police opened fire, killing 19 and wounding about 40. All had been shot in the back.

The immediate aftermath led to infuriated miners who destroyed the home of the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Company mine superintendent and the Pennsylvania National Guard called in to restore order. Unrest continued until September 20. Local response was pro-miners. The Hazleton Daily Standard published this poem on September 17:

“If the courts of justice shield you
And your freedom you should gain,
Remember that your brows are marked
With the burning brand of Cain.
Oh, noble, noble, deputies
We always will remember
Your bloody work at Lattimer
On the 10th day of September.”

Philadelphia Inquirer depiction of the shooting, September 12, 1897

The state actually bothered to try Martin and his 73 deputies but despite the evidence of shooting workers in the back, they all claimed the marchers refused to disperse and were acquitted.

The Lattimer Massacre was a hugely important event in the history of the UMWA. First, standing up for the workers led to membership rising to 10,000, the largest in the union’s history. Second, it ended the widely held belief by both Anglo-Saxon miners and company owners that the Slavic workers were docile and would never join the union. The UMWA built off this event and in 1900, with an improved economy after the depression ended in 1898, won significant wage increases. UMWA president John Mitchell became, along with AFL head Samuel Gompers, the most important labor leader in the country.

The massacre was mostly forgotten about in the larger national consciousness, but finally, in 1972, a monument was erected at the site, which I visited in January.

This is the 76th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Fed up in PA

    Thanks great piece about a part of history that is too seldom taught

  • Bruce Vail

    Many of these posts really bring home the important role of the UMWA in the growth of unions. John Mitchell was a national figure in the era of the Latimer Massacre and was probably better known to the average newspaper reader than Gompers, just as John L. Lewis would be the the most famous face of organized labor in a later generation.

    I’ve been reading up on the ILA recently, and it was the UMWA’s formula of assessing the coal operators a tonnage fee to fund health and pension benefits that inspired the longshore union to do likewise with waterfront cargo tonnage. So the innovations of the UMWA were copied by other unions in even some unlikely places.

  • BlueLoom

    Very moving monument.

  • Murc

    The state actually bothered to try Martin and his 73 deputies but despite the evidence of shooting workers in the back, they all claimed the marchers refused to disperse and were acquitted.

    I’m somewhat impressed by the chutzpah at work here. “They wouldn’t disperse, so we murdered them!”

    I mean, modern cops at least come up with better excuses.

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  • Michele Constantine

    I do not understand the reference to the Irish as being a part of the sheriff’s posse. I would like to see a solid historical reference to to the Irish miners being on the side of the mine owners. Also, the article says that the English, Welsh and Scottish miners hated the new immigrants because they viewed them as scabs. I believe the the English and the Welsh were the superintendents and the mine owners. The Irish were the exploited mine workers and instrumental in working for mine worker reform. A reply would be appreciated.

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