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This Day in Labor History: January 23, 1890

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On January 23, 1890, the United Mine Workers of America formed. One of the most important labor unions in American history, examining the foundation of the UMWA is a window into the position and idea of workers in the late 19th century, as well as the great challenges they faced.

Coal miners worked an absolutely brutal life in the 19th century. Even before big companies entered places such as West Virginia to establish medieval fiefdoms, this was a job that was hard, dangerous, and isolating. Americans also used a lot of coal. Fueling the industrial revolution required a constant supply of it. A 20,000-horsepower ocean steamer went through 400 tons of coal every day. That was also the amount that a miner produced in a year. Overall, there were 200,000 coal miners laboring in the American coal fields of the late 19th century.

As early as the 1860s, there were nascent attempts to organize coal miners into some sort of national organization. Daniel Weaver, who immigrated from England to Illinois after his involvement in the Chartist movement tried to start one, first based in Illinois, attempting to bring a common understanding of capitalism and miners’ place in it to workers. By the 1880s, thousands joined the Knights of Labor, that first, if brief, national organization of workers. Until the late 1880s, the Knights had enough power to serve as that national body that could coordinate worker actions. In 1888, miners in Texas went on strike against the Texas and Pacific Coal Company. The Knights had enough mining lodges around the nation to prevent the company in its attempts to bring down strikebreakers from Pennsylvania and Illinois.

By 1890, the Knights were in a state of collapse. That January, District Assembly 135 of the Knights, which held the miners, merged with the National Progressive Union, an AFL-affiliated coal miners’ union, to form the United Mine Workers of America in Columbus, Ohio. A total of 240 men were at this opening convention. Many of them were Scottish, English, and Irish immigrants, skilled miners who took pride in their work and the control they had over it. Many were extremely angry over the executions of the Molly Maguires, the Irish quasi-union that had been crushed just over a decade before in Pennsylvania. The native-born Americans were mostly big believers in free labor ideology, that belief that the nation should belong to the independent toiling men that was epitomized in Abraham Lincoln. This happened in the face of a rapidly consolidating industry, when the extreme growth in American industry, particularly in steel and rail, led to big capital coming in and taking over what had been an industry dominated by tiny operations. Like the rest of the economy, there was little place for the small operator and little place for the independent worker by 1890.

John McBride was the first president, a founding AFL member when that federation formed in 1886, as well as a member of the Knights who understood industrial organization. The latter was a big deal. The AFL was made up of craft unions and it held that craft mentality dear to its heart for a very, very, very long time. The building trades that still make up the AFL-CIO’s core continue to hold this near and dear. There were many organizing problems with this model in the end and that has hampered the American labor movement to the present, but this was less clear in 1886. The UMWA though was an industrial union, attempting to organize some of the nation’s poorest and most desperate workers, increasingly immigrants and African-Americans. While there was a great deal of hostility toward organizing the latter, even talking about mass organizing of the new immigrant working class in an industrial fashion would not be serious in the AFL, except for the UMWA. It had to do this to survive. The major problem the UMWA would face until the 1930s was that there were so many different production zones with different conditions that if the Illinois miners won a union contract, it would make Illinois coal uncompetitive with Pennsylvania and West Virginia coal. So organizing was required to make this work.

From the very beginning, one of the critical issues was black miners. White miners saw the job as inherently white and wanted to keep it that way. Of course, the mine owners knew this and would routinely import black strikebreakers precisely to exploit this. But the UMWA at least tried to organize black miners, as well as southern and eastern European immigrants, making this industrial union different than the rest of the AFL. The UMWA constitution read, in part, “No local union or assembly is justified in discriminating against any person in securing or retaining work because of their African descent.” This didn’t always work out in practice, but at least in principle, this was a significant advance in American unionism.

In Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, the UMWA managed to grow quickly, to the point that it took control of state labor councils. It hoped it could combine to bring order to the coal industry and thus, in 1894, called a national strike. Nearly 90 percent of the nation’s coal miners participated. The strike was broken thanks to the use of state police power, but it was a moment where the new union attempted to flex its muscles to build a cooperative movement that would tame the exploitative economy workers faced.

And over and over again over the next decades, the UMWA would see moments of success and moments of oppression. The Lattimer Massacre in 1897 was one of the first times the owners working with the cops would murder miners; the mine wars of the early 20s was the peak of it. The UMWA would nearly disappear in the 1920s as the owners declared total war on it, but finally, in no small part thanks to John L. Lewis’ brilliant separation from the AFL to form the CIO in 1937, the UMWA would finally become established and massively improve the lives of miners. The union itself would eventually become a staid and extremely corrupt organization with entrenched leadership that was indifferent to its own workers, leading to one of the great workplace rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s, but that was a long time off. Today, with the decline of coal employment in Appalachia, the UMWA is not much more than a pension fund for retired miners, many of whom are dying from black lung.

I borrowed a bit from Charles Postel’s excellent The Populist Vision, and from James Green’s great, The Devil Is Here In These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom.

This is the 255th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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