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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 6

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This is the grave of John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1898-1908.

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Born in 1870 in Braidswood, Illinois, Mitchell grew up poor. He became an orphan at the age of 6 and started working as a child shortly after in order to support his siblings. He became a coal miner like so many children. He also became a unionist, joining the Knights of Labor in 1885 and was a founding member of the UMWA in 1890. He rose rapidly in the new union, becoming close with Mother Jones. He was elected as District 12 secretary-treasurer in 1895 and in 1897 was promoted to a position as international union organizer.

Mitchell became UMWA president in 1898, a position he would hold for a decade. He was a major player in the growing labor movement in the nation, including as fourth VP of the American Federation of Labor from 1898-1900 and second VP from 1899-1913. His most important accomplishment was shepherding the union through its huge victory in the 1902 anthracite strike in Pennsylvania, when Theodore Roosevelt intervened to mediate the conflict instead of sending in the military to suppress it. The union grew from 34,000 members to 340,000 during his term. Mitchell was also involved in a very important union speech case. He, Samuel Gompers, and Frank Morrison, another top AFL executive, were arrested and sent to prison for violating an injunction in a strike against Buck Stove and Range Company in St. Louis. They had placed the company on the AFL boycott list. That was it. They sued and in Gompers v. Buck Stove and Range, the Supreme Court dismissed the charge, though more on procedural grounds than making a big statement about union rights, which most of the justices did not agree with.

The thing about Mitchell though, even though he was close with Jones, is that he also liked living the good life and he began running in some high-end circles, including with business leaders. This eroded the trust of the rank and file in his leadership. He was eventually forced out of the presidency in 1908, when the union told him he would have to give up his National Civic Federation membership where he hobnobbed with the wealthy. He refused and resigned. Said Mother Jones, his former friend, “He had tasted power, and this finally destroyed him. Samuel Gompers still protected him though and he remained second VP of the AFL for another five years.

Mitchell died of tuberculosis in 1919. He was 49 years old.

When Buzzfeed runs its inevitable “25 Hottest American Labor Leaders,” Mitchell is going to show serious game.

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John Mitchell is buried in Cathedral Cemetery, Scranton, Pennsylvania

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