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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 482

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This is the grave of William Wilson.

Born in 1862 in Blantyre, Scotland to a coal mining father, Wilson immigrated with his family to the United States in 1870. See, his father was on strike and the family was evicted from company housing. Unable to secure another job and facing deep poverty, the mines of Pennsylvania seemed like a better option, as they were for many Scots, Irish, and Welsh in these years.

Mine work was a fairly independent operation at this time, with miners basically in charge of their own labor, so long as they got the coal out. So they often employed assistants–usually children–to help out. Wilson’s father wanted his boy to go to school. But then the older man got hurt and couldn’t mine as much. He needed young William to help. So, at the age of 9, there William went.

From a very young age, Wilson was involved in the fight for workers’ rights, taking after his father. In 1874, still only 12 years of age, he attempted to organize the boys who kept the ventilation shafts in the mines working, after a wage cut. He was beaten by a foreman for his efforts and the very brief organizing attempt ended.

But physical violence hardly would stop someone like Wilson. In 1876, again, still only 14, he was elected to the position of secretary in the local Miners and Laborers’ Benevolent Association. He worked hard to rejuvenate a struggling union and also began making connections with other unionists around the country. The union movement was still quite nascent and workers were very slowly beginning to realize that national organization would be necessary to move workers’ rights forward. Wilson was part of that process.

Wilson became an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America after it began in 1890 and rose to become the union’s secretary-treasurer from 1900 to 1908, making him a powerful member of one of the nation’s most important unions. He also took his talents to represent workers into politics. He ran and lost for the state legislature in Pennsylvania in 1888 and then again for the House in 1892. He was elected to Congress as a Democrat from PA-15, a mine-heavy district, in 1906 and served three terms before losing in 1912. It was a rare win for a Democrat in this Republican-dominated area and he stayed in for three terms by being perhaps organized labor’s biggest ally in Congress. He led investigations into Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management practices that labor hated.

But Wilson was also a pretty important player in the fight for workers’ rights by this time and when Woodrow Wilson took the White House, he appointed William Wilson as the first Secretary of Labor, as Taft had split Commerce and Labor into two departments near the end of his presidency. In these early years, selecting a union member as Secretary of Labor was pretty normal; in fact, the unions didn’t really trust Frances Perkins when FDR selected her in 1933 because she was not a union member. Wilson was quite effective. A major reason for this is that Woodrow Wilson was a pretty strongly pro-labor president. Even considering the Red Scare at the end of his term, he was still the most pro-labor president in U.S. history before FDR. But he also differentiated between conservative and respectable labor on one hand and wild-eyed radicalism on the other. So he was more than happy to sign legislation that would help workers generally and brought the American Federation of Labor to the table in an unprecedented way, especially during World War I, but would seek to eliminate radicalism altogether.

Men such as William Wilson saw the world more or less the same way. Wilson was a big player in getting Woodrow to sign the LaFollette Seaman’s Act, for instance. In fact, Wilson had cosponsored an earlier version of the bill when in Congress. He played a leading role in coordinating Wilson’s plans to integrate the AFL into the overall war effort in World War I, which brought the labor movement further into the halls of power than ever before. Wilson was a member of the Council of National Defense and headed the War Labor Administration. Even though Woodrow Wilson had significantly added to the segregation of the federal government (though McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft also deserve a lot of blame for this that they don’t usually receive; really, even presidential lip service about black rights in the Republican Party ended after Benjamin Harrison), William Wilson hired African-American staffers to help bolster black employment and black participation in the wartime economy. Wilson was perhaps the first government official to talk publicly about the need for both old-age insurance and federally provided healthcare. When the United Mine Workers of America threatened to go on strike during the war, Wilson begged them not to and then sent pro-union people to help them out. Since he was an ex-UMWA official, this could not have gone better for the nation’s unionists.

Business of course hated Wilson, thinking his department was an open advocate of unionism. That was pretty much true of course, but they had no such complaints about other departments being bought and sold hacks of their own. And being the southern dominated Democratic Party, Wilson’s biggest enemies were often in his own party, as southern Democrats held the line against most of the reforms both Wilsons wanted.

Wilson served two full terms as Secretary of Labor and was almost certainly the most effective and powerful person to hold the office before Perkins. In fact, the argument can be made that while Perkins is certainly more famous, Wilson was more powerful, as FDR largely marginalized her during World War II whereas Wilson became even more important during World War I. In 1926, he was the Democratic nominee for the Senate from Pennsylvania, but he lost in that Republican dominated era. He died while riding a train in Georgia in 1934.

William Wilson is buried in Arbon Cemetery, Blossburg, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of Labor, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frances Perkins is in Newcastle, Maine and James Davis, who held the position under Harding, Coolidge, and into Hoover’s early years, is in Pittsburgh. I just returned from an LGM reader funded grave trip into the Carolinas and let me tell you, you got your money’s worth. I hope you will consider keeping this series alive going forward as well. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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