- Historic Sites
The Coal Kings Come To Judgment
When the anthracite miners downed tools in 1902, economic feudalism went on trial
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
John Mitchell, then, had to reverse a tradition of failure as he sought to build a new union. He had also to cope with the divisive antagonisms among the nationality groups in the area. The original anthracite miners had been largely Welsh and Irish, but in the 1870’s and 1880’s successive waves of foreign-speaking immigrants arrived. Rivalries—between old-timers and newcomers and among the newcomers themselves— were unbelievably strong, extending even to the altar. Most of the immigrants were Catholics and all of them were poor; yet so closely did they cling to their native language and customs that each group willingly made the sacrifices necessary to support its own Catholic parish. Today it is not rare to see even in a small anthracite town as many as three or four churches—monuments to an earlier disunity now happily blurred by time.
Leaving his assistants, Fahy and Dougherty, to organize the English-speaking miners, John Mitchell concentrated on these foreigners, going from town to town and from mine patch to mine patch, speaking in turn to Poles, Italians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and Lithuanians. He spoke everywhere he could gather an audience—in miners’ kitchens, in taverns, in parish halls—securing the backing of their priests and convincing the men themselves that in unity lay their only hope. And gradually he won them over. “To a great many of the newly arrived miners, John Mitchell is the one great man in the United States,” wrote Walter Wellman of the Chicago Record-Herald; ”… ask the first Hun or Polander on the streets who is president of the United States and the odds are about even that he will reply, ‘Johnny d’Mitch.’ ”
And Mitchell seems to have been ahead of his time in understanding the necessity for all the workers in an industry to act together. The contract miners, for example, sought to keep the breaker boys away from union meetings; Mitchell insisted on their right to attend: they worked as hard as the men and were even more shamelessly exploited. Of the young slate-pickers Mitchell, a man not often capable of eloquence, said: “They have the bodies and faces of boys but they came to meetings where I spoke and stood as still as the men and listened for every word. I was shocked and amazed … as I saw those eager eyes peering at me from eager little faces; the fight had a new meaning for me; 1 felt that I was fighting for the boys, fighting a battle for innocent childhood …” The boys repaid him with the unalloyed devotion that only the young can give.
Little by little, Mitchell began to lay the foundations of an enduring union which has engendered a loyalty probably unsurpassed in any other labor organization in America. Touring the anthracite area four decades later, Leighton could write:
It would be inaccurate to say that the miner’s attitude toward the union resembles that of the Roman toward the citizenship, but the feeling invoked is as powerful and as subtle. To utter the word is to touch a vital nerve. The union may be hoary with age, may be racked with faction, officials may be corrupt, a miner’s card may have lapsed years ago … he may be a judge on the bench after a slate picker’s childhood, he may have quit the mines and the region—it makes no difference. Under all these ashes the idea of the union is still a live coal.
Still, organizing was slow, slogging work, and by the beginning of 1900 the United Mine Workers could count just 8,993 members—only about six per cent of the anthracite working force of more than 140,000. But the accumulated weight of their grievances began to engender among all the men a determination to strike. Mitchell held them off as long as he could, doubting that the union was strong enough to win and knowing its national treasury could not sustain many families should the stoppage be prolonged. But despite all he could do, the vote to strike was taken.
To his unlooked-for delight, between 80,000 and 100,000 men walked out of the mines on September 17. Their number grew to 125,000, but the mine operators, believing that once they recognized the union their control over their men would be lost forever, refused even to meet with Mitchell to negotiate the issues.
At this point politics entered the scene. Mark Hanna, running McKinley’s “Full Dinner Pail” campaign, impressed upon the operators that if the strike were not settled, it might spread into the midwestern bituminous states—which also happened to be the core of McKinley’s support—and seriously hurt Republican chances. Reluctantly, the mine owners yielded. They still would not deign to meet with Mitchell. But at their collieries they posted notices of a ten per cent wage increase, and on October 29 the miners, mollified by this partial victory, returned to work. Ever since then, October 29, known as “Mitchell Day,” has been a holiday throughout the anthracite.