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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
BAER : … we do not admit the right of an organization … to coerce us … or [interfere] with our management. The employer ought, I think, to meet his employees personally …
DARROW : … these gentlemen who all these long and weary months have refused to know us, to recognize us, have demanded as a condition that these men must give up their union … and must come to them with their hat in their hand, each one in a position to be discharged the next moment if they dare to raise their voice.
BAER : [The strike furnished] a record of lawlessness and crimes unparalleled in any community save where contending armies met on fields of legal battle …
DARROW : So far as the demands of the Mine Workers are concerned, it makes no difference whether crimes have been committed or not. If John Smith earned $500 a year, it is no answer to say that Tom Jones murdered somebody in cold blood. … The question is, what has [Smith] earned?
BAER : If a man comes to me and offers to work for me and I am willing to pay him $2 a day and he is content to take it, that is a bargain as good and as sacred in the eyes of the law as any bargain could be …
DARROW : Mr. Baer and his friends imagine no doubt that they are fighting for a grand principle when they fight for what they say is the God-given right of every man to work for any wages he sees fit. … But that is not [the] God-given right these gentlemen are interested in. They are interested in the God-given right to hire the cheapest man they can get.
BAER : … the eight-hour system, it is proposed, shall bring about … the leisure to enable [the miners] to learn to read good novels and sound religious books. (Laughter)
DARROW : It is no answer to say, as some employers have said in this case, “If you give him shorter hours he will not use them wisely.” … One man may stumble; ten men may stumble; but in the long sweep of time, and in the evolution of events, it must be that greater opportunities mean a more perfect man …
And Darrow had the last word:
The blunders are theirs, and the victories have been ours. The blunders are theirs because, [in] this old, old strife they are fighting for slavery, while we are fighting for freedom. They are fighting for the rule of man over man, for despotism, for darkness, for the past. We are striving to build up man. We are working for democracy, for humanity, for the future, for the days that will come too late for us to see it or know it or receive its benefits, but which still will come …
And so it has turned out.
When the commission finally announced its award on March 22, 1903, it granted the contract miners a ten per cent wage increase, and there were a few other gains important enough for the rank and file of the strikers to regard the settlement as a victory. Yet since the primary object of the strike—recognition of the United Mine Workers—was not achieved, there were those who said that the miners had lost the strike. But what mattered more was that they had won the battle of public opinion; formal recognition of their union would come. And quite as important—for organized labor and for the nation as a whole—the federal government, for the first time in its history, had intervened in a strike not to break it, but to bring about a peaceful settlement. The great anthracite strike of 1902 cast a long shadow.
Roosevelt went to Mississippi for his bear hunt, and Lodge and the Republicans got their majority at the polls. For Mitchell, however, the fruits of victory were bitter. He stayed on as the United Mine Workers president for five more years, but they were years full of factionalism and eventually, in 1907, he failed to win re-election. The opposition, it was true, came mostly from the bituminous delegates; in the anthracite John Mitchell was still a demigod. But the defeat was final, for all that.
Mitchell was still a young man, but there seemed nothing for him to do. There was some talk of his succeeding Samuel Gompers as president of the American Federation of Labor, and later of his becoming the first Secretary of Labor when Woodrow Wilson made that appointment in 1913. But neither job materialized. Away from the union and the mines Mitchell was lost, and he died, frustrated and worn out, in 1919. He was forty-nine.