Bituminous Coal Strike

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Bituminous Coal Strike

United States 1897


In 1890 the United Mine Workers of America (UMW), an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), formed in Columbus, Ohio. At that time coal miners around the United States labored in horrendous working conditions. Few miners were represented by labor unions, and because of that the coal owners and operators took advantage of the power they held over the miners. The UMW was a weak and ineffective union during its first six years of existence. On 4 July 1897, however, that situation changed when the union began a national strike of bituminous coal miners in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. The successful actions of that strike prompted growth from less than 10,000 members to a strong and powerful union with more than 100,000 members. At this time the UMW-AFL became the largest union in the United States. For the miners, it meant a better life with increased wages and improved working and living conditions.


  • 1877: In the face of uncertain results from the popular vote in the presidential election of 1876, the U.S. Electoral Commission awards the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes despite a slight popular majority for his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden. The election of 1876 will remain the most controversial in American history for the next 124 years, until overshadowed by the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.
  • 1882: John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil trust, first major industrial monopoly, is established.
  • 1887: John Emerich Edward Dalbert-Acton, a leader of the opposition to the papal dogma of infallibility, observes, in a letter to Cambridge University professor Mandell Creighton, that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1897: Zionist movement is established under the leadership of Theodor Herzl.
  • 1897: English physicist J. J. Thomson identifies the electron, the first subatomic particle to be discovered.
  • 1897: In the midst of a nationwide depression, Mrs. Bradley Martin, daughter of Carnegie Steel magnate Henry Phipps, throws a lavish party at New York's recently opened Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where she has a suite decorated to look like Versailles. Her 900 guests, dressed in Louis XV period costumes, consume 60 cases of champagne.
  • 1897: News of gold discoveries along the Klondike River in Canada's Yukon Territory sparks a gold rush, and thousands flock to Alaska.
  • 1899: The Second Anglo-Boer War, often known simply as the Boer War begins.
  • 1903: Henry Ford establishes the Ford Motor Company.
  • 1907: At the Second Hague Peace Conference, 46 nations adopt 10 conventions governing the rules of war.

Event and Its Context

Coal miners in the United States were generally not represented by labor organizations in the last half of the nineteenth century; nevertheless, a few unions (with limited membership) did exist. Some of the more prominent unions were 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), which became (in 1883) the Amalgamated Association of Min-ers of the United States; and the National Federation of Miners and Mine Workers (founded 1885).

The United Mine Workers of America (UMW or sometimes UMWA) was founded in Columbus, Ohio, on 25 January 1890. It was created by the merger of the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers and the mine locals under the Knights of Labor Assembly No. 135. John Rae became the UMW's first president and Robert Watchorn its first secretary.

The founding delegates of the UMW adopted a constitution that barred discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. The newly formed organization was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The UMW was organized primarily to address the following situations that faced coal miners: (1) the intermittent (seasonal) nature of employment within the coal industry, (2) the prevalence of companyowned towns (which were seen as detrimental to workers), and (3) the extreme occupational hazards facing the coal miners. Each of these problems led to numerous strikes and constant efforts to improve conditions by collective bargaining. During the first year of the UMW, only 8,000 miners belonged to the organization, out of a total of about 150,000 coal mine workers nationwide.

In the several years leading up to 1897, these 150,000 workers were producing all the coal that was consumed at home and exported abroad. In the most prosperous year, about 250 million tons of coal was needed. This production amount gave an average of about 200 days per year of employment to the men and boys who worked the mines. If the mines were worked 300 days per year, they would produce at least 125 million tons of coal more than could be consumed at home or sold abroad. As a consequence, miners could earn only about two-thirds as much as they could from year-round employment.

Because mining communities were, with few exceptions, isolated from other centers of industry, there was little opportunity for the mineworkers to be employed elsewhere during the extended weeks and months during which the mines were shut down. Bituminous coal cannot be kept stored for long without deteriorating in value and quality, making this problem difficult to remedy. The greatest amount of coal is normally consumed in the winter months, so it follows that more coal must be produced in the winter season than in the summer. Consequently, during these winter months all the mineworkers were steadily employed, whereas in the summer the miners were more likely to be unemployed. This seasonality of coal, plus an oversupply of labor, adversely affected the earnings of mineworkers. Thus, for many years prior to 1897, the tendency of wages was downward.

Company-owned Coal Towns

Miners and their families were very dependent on the coal company, as it permeated most aspects of the lives of miners and their families. Most mine owners owned and operated their own towns. Miners' children attended schools that were built using company funds. Although some homes were privately owned, most families lived in rented company-built houses. Although they were not usually obligated to shop at the company stores, many were forced to out of lack of nearby competition. Some miners complained that the stores charged high prices for poor quality goods. Miners also complained that any increases in wages were met with corresponding price hikes at the company store. In addition to complaints about high prices, miners in the early company towns were not paid in cash. Instead, miners received scrip, a company-issued coin substitute for currency. Each company's scrip was exchangeable for goods at the company store, but only at the company store. If miners protested wages or working conditions, they were often evicted from their (company-owned) houses.

The life of the American miner in the late 1890s was one of hazardous employment, filled with constant danger and compensated with low wages. The average miner was generally overworked and underpaid. Indeed, in the late 1890s wages for coal miners were rarely enough for an average family of three to six people to live on. To keep wages low, mine operators flooded the coalfields with immigrants from mostly eastern and southern Europe. According to statistics given by John Mitchell, then president of the UMW, the minimum wage received by any class of adult mine worker in the bituminous coal mines averaged 26.5 cents per hour, whereas the minimum wage paid to boys averaged 12.5 cents per hour in the late 1890s.

Statistics from 1890 to 1893 reveal that 3.29 out of 1,000 anthracite (hard) coal miners and 2.52 out of every 1,000 bituminous (soft) coal miners were killed on the job each year. American techniques for mining coal yielded more coal per worker than did European methods, but they were far more dangerous, and toward the end of the nineteenth century, the dangers worsened. For this period of time, the British reported that 1.61 out of 1,000 anthracite miners and 1.28 out of 1,000 bituminous miners were killed on the job, around half the rate for U.S. coal miners.

First Strike Led by UMW

During the first decade of its existence, the UMW was primarily a regional union. Most of its support and strength were in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The panic of 1893, a general business depression, hit the coal industry especially hard, and wages for miners were reduced between 10 and 30 percent; many lost their jobs. According to a Pennsylvania legislative committee, many miners were living "like sheep in shambles." Strikes were common during these days, although they were rarely successful for the coal workers. In 1899, for example, strikes caused the loss of 2,124,154 workerdays; in 1900 strikes caused the loss of 4,878,102 worker-days. The UMW led its first general strike in the Pennsylvania bituminous coal fields in 1894. The miners became worse off with respect to relations with coal operators when the UMW lost that strike. However, the fortunes of the UMW, and the miners they led, would be reversed in 1897.

By the summer of 1897, the conditions of employment were unbearable and resentment toward the mine owners was tremendous. Having used all of their peaceful means to secure better working conditions and wages, the UMW coal miners decided to suspend operations in all of the states in which bituminous coal was mined. The miners themselves did not know the date that the strike was to take effect. They had instructed the officers of the then weak and struggling UMW, at a convention held in the spring of 1897, to order a stoppage of work at whatever time the officers believed to be most opportune, and which held the greatest possibility of success. (To illustrate the frailties of the UMW at this time, when UMW president Michael Ratchford took office in 1897, there was not enough money in the treasury to call a meeting of the national executive board and the district presidents.)

Independence Day (4 July) in 1897 is remembered as an important date in the history of bituminous coal miners of the United States. A few days before that date, Ratchford, UMW vice president John Mitchell, and other UMW leaders issued a proclamation calling for all men employed in or about the mines in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and the western part of Pennsylvania to stop work and to remain idle on and after Independence Day. Even though the membership of the UMW numbered less than 11,000 members, on 4 July 1897 about 110,000 coal miners began the first successful national strike of the bituminous coal mines ever led by the UMW. The union miners walked out of the mines demanding better mining rates and the right of the union to supervise the weighing of the coal mined, along with an increase in wages, decrease in working hours, and the abolition of the company store. Company stores were notorious for charging higher-than-normal prices for their goods, in effect lowering the wages the union owners paid the miners.

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, a traveling organizer and freelance radical labor leader, arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during the strike to assist 20,000 rather disorganized miners who had struck. She quickly organized and rallied the striking miners with an impassioned speech. Later, a national labor newspaper of the day observed that the miners owed much of their victory to Mother Jones.

On 10 September 1897 a UMW-led strike in Lattimer, Pennsylvania, turned violent when a sheriff and his deputies fired on striking miners who were marching in a peaceful demonstration. The police killed 19 men and wounded another 40 strikers. The Lattimer Massacre, as it was called, helped to spur rapid growth in unionism, especially within the UMW.

Later in September 1897, a conference was held between the representatives of the UMW and the mine owners. The outcome was a partial settlement in which mine workers gained a wage increase that averaged 12 percent. The young UMW had finally won its first national bituminous coal strike. These two strikes by the bituminous coal miners in 1894 and 1897 are considered some of the most bitterly contested strikes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In January 1898 the mineworkers and mine owners met in Chicago and agreed that all future disputes over wages and conditions of employment would be determined by joint conference and conciliation. The meeting also led to an increase of wages for mine workers of another 18 percent and reduced the number of working hours from 10 to 8.

Results of Strikes

The 1897 national bituminous coal strikes achieved several goals. (1) The strikes resulted in securing an "interstate joint conference" in which the bituminous operators and the miners cooperated to stabilize labor costs and to improve wages and working conditions (including the eight-hour workday and a system for settling disputes over interpretations of contracts). In reality, both sides benefited because as mine owners raised employee wages, they also raised the selling price for their coal, resulting in more profits for their companies. (2) The strikes greatly enhanced the power of the UMW, resulting in growth in membership from less than 11,000 to more than 100,000 members (estimates are as high as 115,000). (3) The bituminous coal operators in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois recognized the UMW as the representative of the miners and their bargaining agent.

Under the leadership of John Mitchell, the union grew rapidly with other successful strikes in the bituminous and anthracite coalfields over the following five years. Most important, as a result of the UMW's first successful strike in 1897 and other strikes during this time, the UMW, an affiliate of the AFL, became the largest union in the United States. Labor historians agree that the 1897 strike was one of the greatest struggles in American labor history up to that time and that it marked a turning point in the history of both the UMW and of the broader union movement in America.

Key Players

Jones, Mary Harris ("Mother") (1830-1930): Jones was a schoolteacher who worked in Michigan before settling in Memphis, Tennessee. Like her father, Jones held left-wing political views and was an active member of the Iron Molders' Union. When her husband, George Jones, an iron molder, and her four children died of yellow fever in 1867, Jones moved to Chicago, where she set up a seamstress shop. The 1871 Chicago Fire destroyed her home and business. Jones then became a full-time trade union organizer, specializing in helping miners fight for decent wages, improved working conditions, and an end to child labor. After the formation of the UMW in 1890, Jones became one of its officials. Jones was affectionately called "Mother" Jones by the other trade unionists. In 1905 Jones helped to form the radical labor organization the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Mitchell, John (1870-1919): Mitchell became a coal miner in Braidwood, Illinois, at the age of 12. Three years later Mitchell joined the Knights of Labor. In 1890 he became one of the first members of the UMW. He held several offices in the union, eventually serving as president from 1898 to 1908. Between 1908 and 1915 Mitchell lectured on unionism and held office in the National Civic Federation, a group that sought conciliation between labor and business. From 1915 until his death Mitchell was chairman of the New York State Industrial Commission.

Ratchford, Michael: Ratchford was the fourth president of the United Mine Workers (UMW) of America, serving from 1896 to 1898. During his tenure, UMW membership expanded rapidly. During his presidency, Ratchford called the first meeting of what later was known as the Annual Joint Conference of Coal Miners and Operators of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Western Pennsylvania. Many historians believe that the conference was a major stabilizing factor for the union during the next 30 years. Ratchford resigned the UMW presidency to accept a position on the United States Industrial Commission.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Eight-hour Day Movement; Panic of 1893; United Mine Workers of America.



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—William Arthur Atkins