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United Mine Workers of America

UNITED MINE WORKERS OF AMERICA

UNITED MINE WORKERS OF AMERICA (UMWA), a labor union founded in 1890 by bituminous coal miners from the United States and Canada who met to consolidate the union efforts of the Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No. 35 and the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers. The UMWA was organized industrially (meaning that it represented miners as well as other workers who labored in and around the mines) and was one of the first interethnic and interracial affiliates of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Throughout the 1890s, organizers worked to build the union and gain recognition, finally achieving these goals for the majority of its members after the victorious 1897 strike. In January 1898, operators and UMWA representatives met in a joint conference and signed the first agreement; it included union recognition, wage increases, the check off system (operators' guarantee that union dues would be deducted from wages), uniform standards for weighing coal (which determined wage rates), and the eight-hour day for coal mine workers in the Central Competitive Field (Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana).

The 1898 agreement was a tremendous achievement for miners and organized labor. It allowed the industry to overcome much of the economic chaos, price fluctuations, and imbalanced supply and demand of coal, which wreaked havoc on mineworkers and operators alike. In addition, the check off system ensured funding for continued organizing efforts, expansion of representation in the mines, and knowledgeable organizers who lent their expertise to union drives in other industries. But the UMWA's success was tempered by the union's limited reach. While it had members in regions beyond the Central Competitive Field—Kansas, Alabama, Iowa, West Virginia, and Wyoming, for example—operators in these states refused to engage in collective bargaining.

The UMWA's efforts to strengthen and build its organization continued through the first decades of the twentieth century. The success was a product of the organizational structure, rank-and-file militancy, and strategic leadership, starting with John Mitchell. Mitchell expanded organizing efforts into Maryland, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, and Arkansas and consolidated the UMWA's control in Kentucky, Alabama, and Indiana. One of Mitchell's most controversial decisions concerned the fight for union recognition in Pennsylvania's anthracite field. Railroad companies controlled most of the mining interests in that state and refused to bargain collectively. In 1902, miners attempted to change this. Though they failed in their effort for recognition, Mitchell claimed the strike a victory because the UMWA was able to win public support and governmental backing for the cause. The strike had worn on for months when President Theodore Roosevelt hosted a meeting between operators and union officials in hopes of settling the conflict. In the end, the miners won wage increases and publicity through the establishment of an investigating commission; in addition, a board was established to hear grievances. Many union members believed that Mitchell had acquiesced at a moment when the strike, and therefore recognition, could have been won. Mitchell's decision did reveal a more conservative trade unionism, something his critics condemned. Indeed, the tension between conservatives and radicals in the movement threatened to undermine the miners' union from the Progressive Era through the Great Depression.

Miners' militancy shaped the UMWA and union culture throughout the United States. At the onset of the Great Depression, United Mine Workers' members reinvigorated the campaign to change the craft structure of the AFL. At the forefront of this movement was John L. Lewis, leader of the miners' union since 1919. Lewis was ambitious, heavy-handed, sharp-witted, and controversial. His post–World War I strategy to maintain wages rather than jobs made him both hated and beloved, and his autocratic rule is blamed for a revolt within the union which was not overcome until the early 1930s. These experiences seem to have had a profound impact on Lewis. In 1935, he led an insurgency of industrial unionists in the AFL who formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (later the Congress of Industrial Organizations, CIO). Within three years, the UMWA, along with four million other organized workers and thirty-eight unions, affiliated with the CIO. The connection between the two organizations was tenuous, and in 1947, the miners broke with the CIO, affiliating again with the AFL-CIO in 1989.

During the first part of the century, the UMWA concerned itself with recognition, uniform wage scales, and building the organization. After World War II, its main concern became advocating coal as a viable energy source and winning health and safety reforms. Membership in the 1950s and 1960s began to decline because mechanization and the country's move to cleaner fuel meant fewer jobs. But miners were also disenchanted with a corrupt leadership. Tony Boyle, president from 1963 to 1972, was convicted of the murder of his rival, Joseph Yablonski and his family. As a part of the Miners for Democracy (MFD) movement, Yablonski had challenged Boyle's leadership and questioned his honesty. The MFD won control of the union in 1972 and began a legacy of reform in the last quarter of the twentieth century. By the end of the twentieth century, the UMWA was once again at the forefront of changes within the AFL-CIO.

As of 2002, the United Mine Workers of America was about half the size it had been at midcentury, but it continues its legacy of fighting for economic and social justice.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baratz, Morton S. The Union and the Coal Industry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955.

Coleman, McAlister. Men and Coal. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1969.

Fox, Maier B. United We Stand: The United Mine Workers of America, 1890–1990. Washington, D.C.: United Mine Workers of America, 1990.

Long, Priscilla. Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry. New York: Paragon, 1989.

Caroline WaldronMerithew

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations .

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United Mine Workers of America

United Mine Workers of America (UMW), international labor union formed (1890) by the amalgamation of the National Progressive Union (organized 1888) and the mine locals under the Knights of Labor. It is an industrial union, including all workers in the coal industry. The lack of continuity of employment, the prevalence of company-owned towns, and the extreme occupational hazards have led to numerous strikes and constant efforts to improve conditions by collective bargaining.

Earlier unions of miners in the United States had been the American Miners' Association (founded 1860); the Miners' National Association of the United States of America (founded 1873); the Ohio Miners' Amalgamated Association (founded 1882), later to become (1883) the Amalgamated Association of Miners of the United States; and the National Federation of Miners and Mine Workers (founded 1885). The newly formed UMW affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The UMW strengthened its position in 1894 and 1897 by successful strikes, and in 1898, under the leadership of John Mitchell, the fight for an 8-hour workday was won. A no-strike pledge was kept during World War I, but strikes in 1919–20 led to the establishment by the U.S. government of the Bituminous Coal Commission, which awarded the miners a substantial wage increase. In 1920 the anthracite operators recognized the UMW as a bargaining body.

John L. Lewis became president of the union in 1920, and under his militant leadership most of the union's aims were accomplished, including a health and welfare fund assuring a pension of $100 per month to all miners over 62. The UMW was a leader in the formation (1935) of the Committee for Industrial Organization (later the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO) and was expelled from the AFL in 1937. In 1942, however, the UMW withdrew from the CIO. A strike (1943) during World War II brought about governmental seizure of the mines. Strikes in 1945–47, although successful, cost both Lewis and the union heavy fines for violation of the injunction barring the union from striking. The UMW was readmitted to the AFL in Jan., 1946, but was again disaffiliated in 1947, when Lewis refused to sign the non-Communist affidavit required by the Taft-Hartley Labor Act. Lewis resigned as union president in 1959, and his place was taken in 1960 by Thomas Kennedy, long a vice president of the UMW.

Upon the death of Kennedy, W. A. (Tony) Boyle was elected (1963) president. Throughout the 1960s, Boyle was increasingly criticized by a portion of the rank and file membership. Dissidents rallied to the campaign of Joseph A. Yablonski in 1969, but Yablonski lost to Boyle. A few weeks later Yablonski was murdered. In 1972, Boyle and other top union officials were convicted of making illegal political contributions with union funds. In the same year a federal judge invalidated the 1969 election, and Arnold Miller, a Yablonski supporter, defeated Boyle for the presidency. Miller immediately set about reforming the union by replacing Boyle appointees, stopping Boyle's pension, and reducing the salaries of union officials. In 1974 Boyle, charged with having ordered Yablonski's killing, was convicted of murder.

Since World War II, automation, the popularity of other energy sources, and the establishment of nonunion mining operations have produced a long-term decline in the union's power. Richard Trumka became head of the union in 1982, and in 1989 the UMW reentered the AFL-CIO. When Trumka became secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in 1995, Cecil E. Roberts, Jr., succeeded him as UMW president. In 1998 the UMW had about 240,000 members, far below the half million members it had in 1946; a decade later there were only 105,000 members.

See M. S. Baratz, The Union and the Coal Industry (1955); C. Seltzer, Fire in the Hole (1985); M. Dubofsky, John L. Lewis (1986); P. Long, Where the Sun Never Shines (1989); J. H. M. Laslett, The United Mine Workers of America: A Model of Industrial Solidarity? (1996).

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United Mine Workers (UMW)

UNITED MINE WORKERS (UMW)


Organized in 1890, the United Mine Workers (UMW) is a labor union founded as an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). By the late 1880s, Midwestern mine owners were grossly exploiting workers, including numerous immigrants: conditions in the mines ranged from deplorable to dangerous, wages had dropped by as much as 20 percent, and mining families lived in squalor. During its first decade, the UMW came under the leadership of Illinois native John Mitchell (18701919). (Mitchell had begun working in coal mines at age twelve and was a member of the Knights of Labor (18851890), before joining the UMW and quickly ascending its ranks.) As president of the union after 1898, Mitchell undertook a massive organization drive, espousing the gospel of unionism and the dignity of man. Through Mitchell's efforts, diverse workers became the unified front of the UMW and a force to be reckoned with. In the early 1900s the UMW staged a series of successful strikes, calling attention to unfair labor practices and resulting in increased wages, reduced hours, and improved conditions. Mitchell became a national hero. He suffered health problems and was replaced as leader of the UMW in 1906.

For the next two decades, the coal industry was marked by increased competition; the UMW's tactics became radical. During the 1910s, a series of coal strikes were marked by violence, ending in the deaths of workers as well as government officials. In 1922 U.S. coal miners stages a six-month long strike to protest wage cuts. The massive demonstration paralyzed American industry and began a period of chronic depression in the coal mining industry. What resulted was cutthroat competition, which further hurt the cause of the workers.

The Great Depression (19291939), the severe economic downturn of the 1930s, saw the country's laborers joining unions in great numbers, particularly boosting the memberships of industrial (versus craft) unions such as the UMW. In 1935 dynamic UMW leader John Llewellyn Lewis (18801969) worked with other industrial unions to form an alliance, the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). The UMW's parent organization, the AFL, which was founded on the principles of craft unions, expelled the UMW and other CIO activists, who reorganized as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the 1940s the unions again became controversial: A UMW strike in 1946 stopped soft coal production, then the nation's primary source of energy. The strike severely impacted the steel and automotive industries, the rail service, and the average American, as people in twenty-two states were required to observe "dim-outs" to conserve coal. Consumers faulted the unions for shortages of consumer goods, suspension of services, and inflated prices.

Passage of the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) limited the impact of unions. The UMW has remained active on the national labor scene since its founding, though it struggled through controversy again in the 1970s when its leadership was found to be corrupt.

See also: American Federation of Labor, Congress of Industrial Organizations, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, John Llewellyn Lewis, John Mitchell

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