Monday, August 06, 2007
Anthracite Miners strike of 1903
By Richard E. Noble
In 1900, 10,000 miners in the Scranton and Philadelphia area leave the mines on strike. Within one week 100,000 miners were on strike. This type of strike seemed almost impossible to mine owners. The Molly Maguire hangings about twenty-five years earlier had just about stifled the chances of any union taking hold in the area. But a man by the name of John Mitchell had come along and in just a couple of years, he had organized a large membership of “dagoes and hunkies” into the United Mine Workers, an affiliate of Samuel Gompers’ A.F.of L. It was a presidential election year and Marcus Hanna, Republican National Committee chairman, wanted no trouble. Hanna was a successful businessman. He was the brains and financial backer behind McKinley. He contacted the mine operators and their main man, banker, investor and mine owner himself, J. P. Morgan and encouraged them to settle with the workers. They did. And that next year in 1902 they re-negotiated a similar contract. By 1903 things had gotten out of hand. The operators of the mines did not like Johnny Mitchell and his “dageos and hunkies”. They considered Mitchell and his United Mine Workers to be outsiders. They wanted their workers to join the company union. The workers didn’t feel so inclined. The mine owners and operators decided that this would be as good a time as any to get rid of Johnny Mitchell and his so called United Mine Workers.
The mine workers were not very happy either. For one thing the official weight of a ton of coal kept growing. It went from 2,000lbs to 2,400lbs and at present seemed to be hovering around 4,000lbs. This was due to the manner in which it was required that they load the one ton coal cars. In compensation for their 10% wage increase in 1900 the cars had to be filled higher and higher. Now one car had been so rounded off that it equaled two. This was, of course, in addition to the usual inflated prices at the company stores, the mandatory monthly medical fee for the services of the company doctor, the cost of their mandatory housing, and of the blasting powder which they had to furnish themselves. Their rents were interesting. Not only were they high and the living conditions poor, but the rent was calculated by the day. Workers had to sign a rental agreement which stipulated that they could be removed, virtually, at a moments notice. This helped the mine owners to keep down any dissension in the rank and file. One researcher reported that the miners were forced to live like pigs and stray dogs.
Things were at a stand still. The miners had been out on strike now for six months. Mitchell had tried to negotiate but Mister Baer, mine owner and spokesman, would have none of it.
Coal was not only a big item to the coal miners and the coal mine owners, but it was equally important to the nation. Millions of people depended upon coal for their winter heat. The northeastern section of the country was especially concerned. The governor of Massachusetts had gone to the President, Teddy Roosevelt, predicting a catastrophe if something wasn’t done. Citizens and legislators were writing to the President. He had to do something before the winter came. No coal for heating could produce an outright revolution in some parts of the country. Roosevelt felt that he must do something. This was not simply an argument between workers and bosses. There was a third party of innocent bystanders involved, the nation.
Teddy went to the area to have a talk with the disputants. He called Mr. Baer and some of his friends and associates, and Mr. Mitchell to his hotel room for a chat. Mr. Mitchell immediately came forward and told the President that if he would appoint an arbitration commission to investigate and survey the situation, the union would abide by their decision. Mr. Baer and friends were not so accommodating. In fact, they got down right nasty. They didn’t even want to be in the same room with Mitchell. They told the president what they thought of Mitchell, and it seems that they told the President what they thought of him, catering to the likes of such a band of cutthroats, murders and blackmailers. The operators wanted nothing less of Roosevelt than the U. S. Army. They wanted this band of 140,000 traitors shot. Teddy later wrote that he wanted to grab one of them mine owners by the seat of his pants and throw him right out a window. But Teddy controlled his temper. Teddy had come a long way since the days, not too long ago, when he wanted to come in with a band of his rough riders and shoot strikers down in the streets. Now, as the President, here he was sympathizing with the workers.
The mine owners flatly refused to settle by arbitration. They wanted no committee, even if it were of their own selection. And why should they? What did they have to loose? The money that they didn’t have to pay out in wages was money in their pockets. When they finally got their mines back on line, the inflated price of the needed winter heating coal would compensate any loses three fold or more. The strike was a win-win situation for the bosses. Teddy thought about the situation and then called J. P. Morgan. He told Morgan that he would be moving in the federal troops, but they wouldn’t be coming in to shoot down the 140,000 mine workers. They would be coming in to “socialize” the mines, unless the mine owners agreed to the appointment of a committee. After getting this bit of news from J. P. Morgan, the mine owners had a change of heart. No word sends greater fear into the heart of the Capitalist as “socialized. They were quickly back in Teddy’s hotel room working on the selection of an “impartial” committee. They made their selections. Of course, there were no selections on the committee who were sympathetic to, or associated with unions. Mr. Mitchell proposed that two additional members be added to the committee. The Bishop Spalding, a well known industrial scholar, was an acceptable addition, but Edgar E. Clark, chief of the railway conductors union, was not. The mine owners flatly refused to have anything to do with any union sympathizers. In the midst of all this heated turmoil George F. Baer made a statement that has been immortalized in the annals of Labor History. He received a letter from a devout Christian who pleaded with him to have mercy and considered Jesus in his attitudes with regards to the poor miners;
“The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for by the Christian men to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country. Pray earnestly that right may triumph, always remembering that the Lord God Omnipotent still reigns.”
Surprisingly enough this brought the starving miners little consolation. The committee was at a standstill. Teddy was depressed. He was not a “socialist”. This was the year 1903, not 1917. The Russian Revolution was yet to come. Yet socialism was already a word of terror in some dinning rooms and smoking parlors. Other members of the committee predicted nothing short of out right revolution if a labor leader was placed upon this committee. What would Teddy do?
The committee had specific requirements. One of its accepted propositions was that one chair could be filled by a sociologist. Teddy went back to the committee and, rather tongue in cheek as a last resort, suggested that Mr. Edgar C. Clark, the union labor leader, be seated on the committee as an “eminent sociologist”. To Teddy’s surprise and delight Mister Clark, the eminent sociologist, was welcomed and approved without hesitation. Teddy later said that he felt that a man like Clark, who had spent his whole life as a worker and union leader, certainly should know something about sociology. He laughed also at the fact that if he called Clark “Tweedledum” he was rejected, but if he called him “Tweedledee” he was welcomed graciously.
So the Committee was now in session. It would be in session for three more months. A team of twenty-three of the countries top lawyers would represent management at the hearings and the union would have the mental equivalent in, Clarence Darrow and associates. Mr. Baer read the summation for the bosses, and Clarence Darrow summed it up for the Union. Darrow’s summation lasted eight hours. He spoke entirely impromptu, never referring to a note. When he was through the meeting had to be temporarily suspended due to the applause.*
The mine owners granted the workers a 10% wage increase. A sliding minimum wage scale which was suggested by Mr. Baer was approved. An eight hour day was granted to several different worker categories. Checkweighmen and scales were employed. Most astounding of all, the miners actually received several million dollars in back pay. This was the most outstanding settlement for the unions to date. Membership in the A.F of L. sky-rocketed. By 1904 the A.F. of L. had a membership of 1,675,000. But don’t be deceived. This did not mean that the bosses had found Jesus, or had a change of heart. This decision was a defeat. Now would begin an age of serious commitment on the part of the bosses. They would organize themselves more seriously through Employer Protective Associations, Citizens Leagues etc. They would combat these outside labor unions with inside company unions. They would pressure government and legislatures, promoting bosses’ rights and “open” shops. They would disseminate, promote and publish negative propaganda. Union bosses would be gangsters and criminals. Trusts and monopolies would be patriotic and democratic. Right to work, open, freedom, American, and democratic, would all be applied to the company store and big business. They would promote their own worker welfare programs to undermine union loyalty. Once unions were destroyed, business as usual could be resumed. Future welfare promises could always be reneged on by bankruptcy and re-establishment programs. Anti-union (yellow-dog) contracts would be promoted and encouraged. They would infiltrate their companies with professional spies and develop and army of strikebreakers and scabs. They would destroy the labor movement in the U.S. More controls on housings, company stores, company script, and individual family security would be pursued. It was War! War on unionism. Unionism was anarchist, un-American, socialist, eventually communist and even monopolistic. It acted in opposition to freedom and democracy. This war was not over by a long shot.*
“The Robber Barons” Matthew Josephson, page 374.
“Attorney for the Damned”, Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom, Edited by Arthur Weinberg.
*Books used in this essay include: “Theodore Rex” Edmund Morris; “Attorney for the Damned”, Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom, Edited by Arthur Weinberg; “The Robber Barons”, Matthew Josephson; “Labor Problems in American Industry”, Carroll R. Dougherty; “A History of American Labor”, Joseph G. Rayback.