On April 21, 1894, bituminous coal miners went on strike. This early attempt to fight against employer oppression and the extremely low wages of the mines failed pretty badly, in the face of overwhelming state violence, employer intransigence, and the deep poverty of the miners. But it served as a sign of the militancy that coal miners would show for decades as the first major industrial union within the American Federation of Labor. It also provides a window into the possibilities and limitations of interracial unionism during the late nineteenth century.
The Panic of 1893 decimated the coal industry. Companies sought to take advantage by slashing wages left and right. A first wave came in 1893 and then a second wave in early 1894. Overall, this was a wage cut between 10 and 30 percent. Workers really could not live with these new wages. Living conditions were horrific on top of this. Said a Pennsylvania commission investigating the mines, the workers lived “like sheep in shambles.”
The United Mine Workers of America had formed in 1890, but it was a long, hard struggle to organize the industry. Four years into its existence, it had organized a decent number of workers but had almost no money and was really a very fragile organization. But its members were desperate and had little to lose. So on April 21, 1894, its 13,000 members, plus many more workers who were not union members, walked off the job with the simple demand to return wages to what they were in May 1893 before the Panic set in.
More than 180,000 workers walked off the job. The core of the strike was in Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, which was most of the coal states, but it was less strong in Kentucky and Tennessee. To give a sense though of just how strong the strike support was, Illinois had about 26,000 miners in 1894. Only about 600 refused to honor the strike.
Things were particularly interesting in Alabama, where you had both Black and white miners. There were independent unions there, but none were affiliated with the UMWA. In this case, it was not the coal companies who hired the Pinkertons but they governor of Alabama, in case you might have thought the state was even remotely neutral in this conflict. What they did was spy. That was always their bread and butter. What they reported was that while white unionists were indeed super racist, Black workers were often willing to overlook that racism and work with the whites to keep out strikebreakers. Many of the violent incidents in the mine fields came with both races uniting against strikebreakers, also of both races. Moreover, while few free miners did cross the picket lines in this strike, the South’s dominant convict labor system kept the coal out when the state sold their labor to companies thanks to the Thirteenth Amendment keeping slavery legal if it was in the penal system. This had led to outrage from free workers, especially miners, throughout the South in the late nineteenth century.
Now, many of the strikebreakers were Black. They often didn’t have much reason to join any union with whites since it would be as segregated as any other part of southern society. It’s hard to blame them. And this did lead to racialized threats of violence. But things on the ground were really more complicated than that. In fact, during the strike miners of both races drank together in Birmingham bars and held interracial union meetings. It was miners of both races angry at those Black strikebreakers. When Black strikebreakers were brought into one mine from Tennessee, Pinkerton spies worried that because there was so much racial solidarity in the area that both races would attack them. We can’t overstate this–official union documents often used openly white supremacist language about good jobs being taken from whites. But it was in fact really weird and complex on the ground. One of the things we can take away is that Black miners entered into this world with a lot of agency of their own, not pawns of white unions nor always fearful of whites. They were fighting for their own rights too, often while having to deal with the extremely limited racial vision of white miners who would stand with them one minute and commit violence against them the next. Moreover, with Populism on the rise, Populist candidates addressed interracial rallies of miners urging men of both races to vote. That all this took place at the very moment in which racial lines were hardening throughout the South, with lynchings extremely common and Plessy v. Ferguson a mere two years away, makes it all the more a remarkable moment.
The companies may have faced pretty united resistance from workers, but they had no interest in giving the miners anything and were more than happy to use violence to put them down and force them back underground. On May 23, an armed militia of company hired thugs opened fire on 1,500 strikes in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, killing five and wounding eight. The next day, a two day battle erupted in La Salle, Illinois which the workers won because they had more ammunition than the thugs. Ohio mine owners got the governor to call out the National Guard to be their personal strikebreaking force.
In the end, there was no way the workers could hold up against this onslaught of state violence. By June the workers had all returned to their jobs, at least the ones that could instead of being blacklisted. This was a total and complete defeat for the union. In fact, it nearly destroyed the UMWA. That union would go through several waves of moderate success followed by near complete destruction before finally getting fully established in the late 1930s.
I borrowed from Alex Lichtenstein’s 1995 article in Labor History, “Racial Conflict and Racial Solidarity in the Alabama Coal Strike of 1894: New Evidence for the Gutman-Hill Debate” to write this post.