On August 16, 1928, Josephine Roche signed a collective bargaining agreement with the United Mine Workers of America, the first time the UMWA had won a contract in Colorado. This came about due to an unusual set of circumstances that were unique in early twentieth century American history. But we can learn a lot about the labor history of the time from this situation.
The UMWA had tried to organize the coal mines of Colorado for a long time. We mostly focus our attention in coal organizing in Appalachia and there’s a good reason for that. But there were lots of big coal deposits in the U.S. outside of that region. Illinois was one example, Colorado and northern New Mexico and their own coal fields. The one exception to our general forgetting about the West is the Ludlow Massacre, where the Rockefeller holdings there, working with the Colorado National Guard, blew away a camp of strikers in 1914, one of the most notorious spasms of state violence against workers in the period. In the aftermath of this, an embarrassed John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was hauled before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations to testify about what he knew, was determined that such a situation would never happen again. That didn’t mean he was going to accept the United Mine Workers. Please. What it meant is that he invested heavily into the new ideas of welfare capitalism, giving workers a little bit in order that they don’t organize, or at least don’t do so successfully. Buying enough workers off through better housing and food would not change the fundamentals of labor relations at all, while also keeping him out of the headlines and allow for the fairly continuous running of the mines and mills.
Josephine Roche was of a different generation and was just a very different person than Rockefeller. She was rich too. Her father was a leading coal executive who took his daughter seriously. He introduced her to the mines when she was young. She also had the best education and graduated from Vassar in 1908. This is the peak of the Progressive Era and Roche was deeply devoted to the ideas of social change. She was a social worker in the settlement house movement, then moved back to Denver where she was the first policewoman in city history, as reforming corrupt police and closing red light districts were major Progressive goals. She was fired for being too effective. Being rich and progressive, she was appointed to work with Herbert Hoover on Belgian relief during World War I. After the war, she continued working for a variety of agencies, including the U.S. Children’s Bureau.
Then, Roche’s father died. She decided to engage in his company, Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, and run it on more Progressive lines. She bought up enough stock to become president by 1929, but as VP in 1928, she decided to make a deal with the United Mine Workers of America and John L. Lewis. To be clear, Roche was as horrified by radicalism as any Progressive. She thought of both the IWW and the Western Federation of Miners (by now known as Mine, Mill) to be a bunch of radicals who had to be suppressed if necessary. That made her not so different than other mine owners. But what did make her different was not equating the UMWA with those unions. What if you undermined radicalism by giving workers a stake in the system by allowing them to have representation in the workplace? Crazy, I know!
Now, by the late 1920s, the UMWA was a mess. John L. Lewis had control over the union, which he ran like a dictator. But the coal operators had completely eliminated the union from most of the industry after the West Virginia Mine Wars concluded. By 1928, there wasn’t much of a union left. A decade later, the UMWA would be the king of American labor. But it was hanging on by a prayer at this point. On the other hand, Lewis, a lifelong Republican and a radical of no kind, constantly played the respectability card of his union, telling employers it would make sense for them to deal. Most ignored them. Rockefeller’s post-Ludlow actions had led to the expansion of company unionism throughout the nation in the 20s. For him, the UMWA was anathema. Thus, he was shocked when Lewis and Roche announced their deal in August 1928.
The deal Lewis and Roche made was pretty good for the workers. It included a serious wage raise to about the modern equivalent of $7 an hour. This is not a good wage, but it was a better wage. It provided actual decent healthcare. It also gave the union a voice in company decisions, perhaps the greatest outrage for Rockefeller and the other coal operators. Their response was to try and drive Roche out of business by undercutting her at every turn. Meanwhile, the rise in union dues gave the UMWA a lifeline that allowed it to rebuild and prepare for what would be the great organizing campaign of the 1930s–the development of the CIO. The UMWA itself tried to help Roche by building campaigns for workers to buy her coal.
Roche built on this to run for governor of Colorado in 1934. She lost after business interests went all-in to defeat her as a class traitor. But she then became the second most powerful female official in the Roosevelt administration, behind only Frances Perkins. She became Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. There, her passion was a national health care plan. Nearly a century later, we still don’t have that today. After her time in the Roosevelt administration, she became the administrator of the United Mine Workers of America Welfare and Retirement plan. This built on the deal they made way back in 1928 that through the growth of the union and the CIO and the postwar labor institutionalization, now included all sorts of benefits unthinkable two decades earlier. However, her company finally did begin to fail due to a turn away from coal and the impact of the other industrialists hating her. It went bankrupt in 1944 but was never fully liquidated until after her death.
It is also worth noting here that this success for unions, one of the only wins they had in the horrible 1920s, did not come about due to worker organizing or agitation. Unions can win for many reasons and sometimes, the match of a conservative union leader and progressive capitalist can make a difference for good.
This is the 450th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.