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Chapter 10 - The Struggle Towards Organization Among the Coal-Mine Workers

NO GREATER MISTAKE could be made than to consider the United Mine Workers of America as an artificial product, gotten together by orders from A. F. of L. headquarters or from United Mine Workers headquarters. The coal-mine workers' organization, as it stands today, is no artificial product but an organic growth, which has attained its present formidable size and become one of the largest unions of the whole world by the very fact that it has really sprung naturally from economic conditions, watered and fertilized by oppression and injustice such as human history has hardly ever witnessed before. The sufferings of the coal-mine workers during the last hundred years are so appalling, that a study of the history of the industry is bound to make a flaming rebel of any fair-minded man or woman. Only the lowest spirits of hell—greed, brutal selfishness, heartless callousness to suffering, cant, hypocrisy, dishonesty—seem to have ruled the owners and operators of the coal-mines in their dealings with the workers. Out of this terrible class struggle the miners' organizations were slowly and painfully born, seemingly not by conscious and voluntary effort but only under the direst compulsion, when the sufferings of the workers screamed to high heaven, and all hope was about gone. Never have men fought more bravely for a desperate cause than the coal-miners of the U. S. A., only to see the fruits of their labor torn from their hands many a time. For no sooner had an organization been formed before the mine operators took advantage of their position of economic power to discharge the old miners and replace them with foreign workers, who frequently were too ignorant of language and customs to know what they were doing, and when they in their turn "got on to the ropes" and began to organize, they were replaced with some other nationality. The operators have always trafficked in defenseless beings and enslaved them.

The early coal-miners were native American, English, Welsh, Irish, Scotch, Canadian and German, but, beginning with 1875, the Italians and the Slavs began to sweep into the mine regions, bringing with them a group of races wholly foreign to those already dominant there, not only from a racial point of view, but also in habits, customs, language and institutions. The Pole, the Slovak, the Ruthenian, the Bohemian, the Magyar, the Lithuanian, the Italian, the Greek, the Mexican, and other nationalities crowded into the mining settlements, putting into operation among the mine workers the great law of competition, which resulted in driving the English-speaking nationalities away from the mines and the mining regions.

The census reports of the U. S. Government show that in the eight hard-coal producing counties immigrants from Poland, Austria, Russia, Hungary and Italy increased from 1,925 in the year 1880 to 43,007 in 1890, to 89,328 in 1900, and to 110,000 in 1905. At the same time the English-speaking foreign-born decreased from 123,636 in 1890 to 100,269 in 1900. It is easy to understand how difficult it was under such circumstances to build up an organization. The history of unionism in the coal industry in the '70's, '80's and '90's, and later, reflects this condition in a most clear manner.

The English-speaking coal-miners were the originators of the unions in their industry. They suffered a long and disastrous set-back for decades through immigration, but through it all they retained control of what union movement there was and continue to do so today—which is another disaster. They built up a machine in the last 20 to 30 years, by means of which they controlled the policies of the union almost absolutely until recently, and held it down to out-of-date ideals and traditions form the latter part of the 19th century, preventing the real will of the membership from coming to expression in a manner which would benefit the mine workers. But we will return to that later. For the present we shall briefly review the almost century-long struggle of the coal-miner towards the light and describe the roots by which the tall tree of the United Mine Workers of America is drawing its spiritual nourishment from the far distant past.

The Early Beginnings of Organization.—The Roots of the U. M. W. of A.—Covering the Time Up to 1890

Coal-mining became of importance in the United States first after the war with England, 1812-1815, when America was thrown upon its own resources for industrial fuel. In another chapter we have described how improved transportation facilities made it profitable and possible to mine coal.

Due to the relative scarcity of labor in the early days, the conditions of the coal-mine workers were relatively good. In 1828, skilled miners were paid $1.10 per day, while their helpers received 80 cents. The "good" wages (good for those days, when the dollar bought many times what it buys today) attracted more workers, and with increased competition, without organization, the wages came down, so that in the forties they were 871/2 and 70 cents respectively. Besides, the companies had already then begun to systematically use the company store or "truck store," as it was then called, for squeezing the last penny from their workers.

Conditions grew steadily worse, while at the same time the annual output increased, in order to keep step with industrial development, particularly of the iron and steel industry.

The first recorded instance of a stand being made by the workers against the insufferable conditions, especially the "pluck-me stores," is a local union in the anthracite region of Pennsyl.. vania, organized in 1849 by one John Bates, a coal-miner whose name deserves to be immortalized. This union called a strike covering six mines. Of this strike the writer of the "History of the United Mine Workers" says : "This strike for rights was unquestionably due, but proved to be a serious mistake in judgment that caused the union spirit to lie dormant for a time in the hard-coal field."

It is true that the organization spirit lay dormant during the '50's and did not wake up again until during the civil war, but we cannot allow these almost introductory words to the "History of the United Mine Workers" to pass unnoticed. They are so characteristic of the whole policy of the United Mine Workers. Not only do they want to govern everything with senile cautiousness and conservatism in the present, but their venerable leaders stretch out their withered hands way back in the past, to throw a belated discouragement over the spontaneous revolt of suffering workers against intolerable conditions half a century back. These Anglo-Irish-Scotch-Welsh-American leaders put their main faith in political action, conciliation and arbitration, and if strikes broke out it was because they could not prevent it. For that reason it stung their eye to have it in the annals of their industry that the first recorded organization should have immediately gone on strike and burst up upon the rocks of it.

While the worker with a rebel heart bares his head and sheds a tear of gratitude at the mention of John Bates and his striking fellow workers of 75 years ago, no matter what the result of their strike was, it comes so naturally for the spirit of the United Mine Workers to remove the imaginary wreath we put on the imaginary grave-stone of John Bates, as an undeserved honor to a dangerous and rebellious agitator, preaching dangerous doctrines.

Local unions, independent of one another, gradually sprang up both in the anthracite field of Pennsylvania and the bituminous field, and toward the close of the year 1860 the mine workers of southern Illinois on the Belleville tract became active participants in the interest of a national union. Two big names come down to us from those days as pioneers of a national organization of coal-mine workers, namely Thomas Lloyd and Daniel Weaver.

For the sake of clearness we shall here give a list, without comments, of the large number of organizations which rose and fell in the coal industry, from which list it will plainly appear that the United Mine Workers of America is merely the culmination of the efforts beginning in the '40's, '50's and '60's, and carried on through the 70's and 80's, until the different currents, finally, came together in the United Mine Workers in the year 1890.

It is to be noted that organization began separately in the anthracite and the bituminous field, starting with independent local unions, which gradually melted together into district, state and national organizations.

List of Organizations and Events in Their Lives


Local union organized by John Bates in the anthracite field of Pennsylvania. Union died within a year.


Local unions (bituminous) of the Belleville tract, Ill.., started move for a national union. In their call for a convention they say : "In laying before you, therefore, the objects of this association, we desire it to be understood that our objects are not merely pecuniary, but to mutually instruct and improve each other in knowledge, which is power: to study the laws of life, the relation of labor to capital; politics, municipal affairs, literature, science, or any other subject relating to the general welfare of our class." This was in 1860. No such clarion tones have since that time been heard in any proclamation calling coal miners to action, until the I. W. W. entered the field.


The American Miners' Association. The first national union of miners in the United States. Formed at a convention in St. Louis, Mo., 1861, as per above mentioned call, by delegates from the bituminous fields of Illinois and Missouri. Thomas Lloyd, first president ; Dan Weaver, first secretary. Published the "Weekly Miner." Through disastrous strikes and internal dissensions this national union lost its foothold in 1867-68 and ceased to exist in 1869. The union died, but the idea of unionism had been greatly advanced. In the meantime the anthracite miners had not been inactive.

1860 —

Local unions were organized in the mines of the Forest-1864. ville Improvement Company, in the Pennsylvania anthracite regions.


In the Blossburg district of Pennsylvania organized miners raised the pay from 35 cents per ton to $1.10 per ton.


Workingmen's Benevolent Society of Carbon County was organized in the Schuylkill region.


Through union action the 8-hour day for coal-miners was legally enacted in Pennsylvania.


Workingmen's Benevolent Association of Schuylkill County, Pa., was organized, with John Siney as president. 1869: General strike of coal-miners from May 5 to June 16. Some gains.


Miners' and Laborers' Benevolent Association was organized as a national union in 1872. in the bituminous fields of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Michigan. Miners' and Laborers' Benevolent Association was crushed in 1875 after a six-months' strike.


Illinois Miners' Benevolent and Protective Association.


Miners' Benevolent and Protective Association. Developed out of the previous one and aimed at being a national union. Included miners in Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.


Miners' National Association of the U. S. A., formed in Youngstown, O., October 13, 1873 ; John Siney, president, Aimed at becoming a national union. Spread over the Central states. Had 35,000 members. Was powerful and influential. Contemplated undertaking co-operative coal mining on an extensive scale and bought a large tract of coal land in Tennessee. Panic of 1873, glutted markets, falling prices, unemployment, unsuccessful strikes against wage reductions, internal dissensions, broke up the union. Expired 1876. In 1874 its leaders, John Siney and Xingo Parks, were arrested for "conspiracy." Siney was acquitted but Parks was sentenced to one year.


Trades Assembly No. 135, Knights of Labor. This was the name of the miners' branch of K. of L. Grew slowly at first, but survived the effects of the panic of 1873. After 1879 numerous assemblies were formed. In their halls, with their libraries, discussions and debates, many of the later labor leaders were trained. David R. Jones ruled over them as a dictator from Pittsburgh in the early 80's, and the unions were for a time in flourishing condition. But there was a dual union, namely


Ohio Miners' Amalgamated Association. At the head of 1889. this union was John McBride.


Amalgamated Association of Miners of the U. S. A. Grew out of the above. Formed at convention in Pittsburgh 1883 by delegates from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Illinois. Aspired to become a national union, but suffered a set-back, mainly due to a disastrous strike in the Hocking Valley district of Ohio in 1884. The demand for national unity grew, and a national convention was convened in Indianapolis in September, 1885, where the next national union was formed.


National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers. Formed in Indianapolis by delegates from Ohio, West Virginia, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Kansas. The names of John McBride and Chris. Evans are prominent in all these attempts at forming national organizations. There was increasing friction between the above union and the Knights of Labor. "History of U. M. W. of A." says "The continuance of rivalry between the members of both miners' national organizations caused repeated activity of wrong-doing of the one toward the other, and accusations of imposition practiced were numerous, almost reaching the extreme." Finally, the General Executive Board of Trades Assembly 135, K. of L., issued (in 1887) an ultimatum, thus : "We now assert our intention to resist any and all encroachments on the rights of our members, whether by the Miners' Amalgamated Association (of Ohio) or the National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers." The friction developed into mutual hatred, to the injury of all concerned, and steps were again taken to form one national union.


The National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers was organized at a joint convention of the National Federation of Miners and Trades Assembly No. 135, K. of L., in Columbus, Ohio, December, 1888. This union divided the coal regions into 20 districts, which form the basis of the present district organization. It also affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. But the National Progressive Union did not unite the warring factions, and for that reason a new joint convention was arranged in January, 1890. There, finally, amalgamation was accomplished between the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers and Trades Assembly No. 135, Knights of Labor, and the name given the new organization was


The United Mine Workers of America.
The history of the United Mine Workers will be made a separate chapter.


The Western Federation of Miners. At one time this organization included a number of coal-miners, but ceded them later to U. M. W. of A.


The Western Labor Union had some coal-miners organized, but went out of existence 1905.


The One Big Union of Canada had temporary control of District 18, U. M. W. of A.


The Industrial Workers of the World. Ever since its inception in 1905 the I. W. W. has had members and adherents in the coal-mines of this continent. It took over quite a number of them when the Western Federation of Miners joined the I. W. W. in 1905. Only occasionally have they since then formed branches of Coal-Mine Workers' Industrial Union of the I. W. W., due partly to the fact that these members and adherents of our principles have been relatively few, and due to the general persecution of our members and those who profess our principles, and finally to the fact that the United Mine Workers seek to take the bread away from those miners who carry an I. W. W. card. On this subject the "United Mine Workers Journal" of February 1, 1922, says editorially: "Members of the I. W. W. are outlawed by the United Mine Workers of America. The constitution of this union says that no member of the I. W. W. can be a member o f the United Mine Workers. The two organizations are deadly enemies.... The constitution of the United Mine Workers of America ought to say that no person who gives encouragement or aid to the I. W. W. can be a member of this union."

But there is a great rebellion in the making inside the United Mine Workers of America. Thousands of their own members are vigorously calling for the I. W. W. to step in and organize the coal-mine workers according to the principles of the I. W. W. The Coal-Mine Workers' Industrial Union No. 220, I. W. W., is not a foreign intruder or a dual union. It is a new tree, sprouting from the same roots as the decayed and crumbling United Mine Workers. We shall return to the subject in another chapter.

On to Chapter 11

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