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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
Both sides seemed to realize that it was a phony peace. After the settlement the operators complained that wildcat strikes were multiplying. They regretted having yielded to Hanna’s coaxing. For their part, the miners complained that management was doing everything it could to stamp out the union. The operators began building stockades around their collieries, hiring “coalies” to guard them, and stockpiling coal against another strike. Meanwhile, Mitchell and his corps of organizers sought to extend their membership gains. All through the mine fields, the stage was being set for another test; on both sides the feeling grew that this one would be fought to a finish.
Again Mitchell, an innately conservative man who preferred to settle differences by arbitration, sought to stave it off. Throughout 1901 “the cold coal war,” as Robert J. Cornell has called it in his excellent recent study, went on. Several times Mitchell sought a conference with the railroad presidents. His courteously phrased requests were refused—or ignored. Once when he and the union presidents of the three major anthracite districts went to New York to see President E. B. Thomas of the Erie, they were informed he had gone to Europe, and when Thomas returned he would not even answer Mitchell’s letters.
Finally, in March of 1902, after a year of trying, a full-dress conference was arranged. Mitchell outlined the union’s demands:
Recognition of the United Mine Workers
A minimum wage scale
An eight-hour day
A twenty per cent wage increase
The weighing of coal using as the legal ton 2,240 pounds, for which the minimum rate would be sixty cents.
The operators replied that granting these demands would drive some of them into bankruptcy, and negotiations dragged on without practical result, except to postpone a strike that now seemed inevitable.
And yet, looking back, one has the distinct impression that it was not.
One of the operators remarked after the conference that he “did not know but what it was the best thing to do—to make a contract with Mr. Mitchell’s organization”; Mitchell, he said, had impressed him “with being a very fair and conservative man.” Another said: “I am not prepared to go that far, but I will say this: that I have changed my mind on several points. This man Mitchell is quite a man. I am beginning to like him.”
Nevertheless, because those on each side of the table were what they were, a strike became a certainty. Behind the intransigence of the rank-and-file miner was not his immediate condition (though by modern standards that was bad enough) but the long, hard past, with its crippled and dead, its endless grubbing to make ends meet, the years of dreary living in dreary company houses with the debts piling up at the “pluck-me” company store. The miners held the firm opinion, based upon hard experience, that whatever concessions the operators had ever granted had had to be wrung out of them. The only wringer the miners knew was the strike. Behind the obstinacy of the operators, on the other hand, lay a longing for the freewheeling past, when they could run their businesses as they pleased.
And so, on May 12, 1902, 147,000 miners walked off the job. The great anthracite strike was on.
As the days of idleness mounted into weeks and the weeks into months, the strike laid a heavy burden on the miners and their families. What savings they had were soon used up. And yet children had to be fed, and household expenses, pared to the minimum, could be pared no further. Nerves frayed, tempers flared easily, and crowds of idle men turned suddenly ugly.
Some miners, uncommitted to the union or simply driven by need, returned to work, and these soon became prime targets for the strikers. Wherever they went they—and their wives and children—were taunted by cries of “Scab!” Some were even set upon by mobs, and a few were killed. One man awoke in the middle of the night to find his house on fire; outside was an angry mob calling for him to be shot. He barely escaped with his life.