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United Mine Workers Strike

United Mine Workers Strike

United States 1919


When a large number of coal miners in the Belleville sub-district of Illinois struck briefly in early July 1919 to protest the jailing of labor activist Tom Mooney, they were fined under the terms of their union contract. When the subdistrict's coal operators declined to return those fines, miners ignored local union officials' pleas and voted to stop work altogether. The contract providing for the fines had been drawn up under the so-called Washington Agreement that addressed the economic pressures of World War I and extended until 1 April 1920. The strike spread despite union officials' moves to stop it. When the United Mine Workers' (UMW) national convention convened the following month in Cleveland, the 2,000 delegates present voted to strike on 1 November if a new contract providing for a 30-hour workweek and 60 percent wage increase were not negotiated by then. When no such contract was forthcoming, 425,000 coal miners nationwide went on strike. Almost immediately, the government took steps to end the strike. President Woodrow Wilson declared the strike unlawful, and federal troops were ordered into the minefields of several states. In response to an 8 November federal court order, acting UMW President John L. Lewis ordered the miners back to work. The miners, however, continued the strike for nearly a month. When President Wilson proposed an immediate wage increase of 14 percent and an arbitration panel to consider further demands, miners finally returned to work. Unhappy with the eventual settlement, the miners staged a number of wildcat work stoppages into 1920, and all work had stopped in Illinois and Indiana by the summer of 1920. Labor unrest in coal mining country continued on and off into 1923.


  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1907: U.S. markets experience a financial panic.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1915: At the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans introduce a terrifying new weapon: poison gas.
  • 1917: The intercepted "Zimmermann Telegram" reveals a plot by the German government to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States in return for a German promise to return the southwestern U.S. territories taken in the Mexican War. Three months later, in response to German threats of unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States on 6 April declares war on Germany.
  • 1919: Formation of the Third International (Comintern), whereby the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles signed by the Allies and Germany but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1919: Ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibits the production, sale, distribution, purchase, and consumption of alcohol throughout the United States.
  • 1919: In India, Mahatma Gandhi launches his campaign of nonviolent resistance to British rule.
  • 1919: In Italy, a former socialist of the left named Benito Mussolini introduces the world to a new socialism of the right, embodied in an organization known as the "Union for Struggle," or Fasci di Combattimento. Composed primarily of young war veterans discontented with Italy's paltry share of the spoils from the recent world war (if not with their country's lackluster military performance in the conflict), the fascists are known for their black shirts and their penchant for violence.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.

Event and Its Context

What began as a relatively fleeting series of strikes cutting across a number of industries triggered several years of labor strife in America's coal fields. During the week of 4 July 1919, unions across the country staged strikes to protest the arrest of San Francisco-based radical labor activist Tom Mooney on grounds that many found questionable. The strikes were widespread among coal miners in the Belleville subdistrict of southeastern Illinois, not far from St. Louis.

When their next paychecks arrived, Belleville area miners who had participated in the strikes discovered that they had been fined for their participation in these work stoppages. Their existing contract, which had been drawn up under the so-called Washington Agreement, levied a fine of one dollar per day on any miner who went on strike. The Washington Agreement took effect in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, and was intended to help deal with pressures imposed by the war on the domestic economy. Labor contracts negotiated under the agreement all carried penalty clauses with fines and firings for workers who participated in work stoppages. The agreement strictly limited the size of wage increases that could be granted under contracts negotiated while the agreement was in effect. Although World War I ended in the fall of 1918, the agreement was scheduled to remain in force until 1 April 1920. This rankled workers in many industries who saw themselves falling behind financially as price increases exceeded the wage hikes that could be negotiated under the agreement. Harry Garfield, head of the United States Fuel Administration under President Wilson, administered the agreement.

Furious about the fines, Belleville area miners demanded that the mine owners return the fine monies. When the miners heard that the owners had refused to do so, the miners demanded that local union officials call a meeting to discuss the situation. When union officials declined to do so, workers held an impromptu meeting of their own and voted a resolution declaring the fines for participating in the Mooney work stoppages illegal and unjustified. They also voted to stop work in protest. Despite the efforts of local UMW officials to nip the strike in the bud, the work stoppages quickly spread to other mining operations in the region. The UMW called a meeting of miners in the district in the hope they could win approval of a couple of resolutions, one of which called upon miners to return to work and fight through regular channels to win changes in policy. The other resolution was essentially a statement of general union policy reflecting the strong socialist tradition of Illinois miners. The policy resolution passed overwhelmingly at the union meeting, attended by nearly 2,000 area miners. However, the resolution to end the strike was voted down, and the miners instead decided to try to spread the strike even further.

Although the Illinois miners initially went on strike to protest the Mooney fines, the rationale for the action was soon broadened to include a demand for a new labor contract with no penalty clause and a new wage scale. The attempts of local UMW officials to end the strike were uniformly unsuccessful. In desperation, Frank Farrington, president of the UMW's Illinois district, sent out this appeal to all member miners across the state: "Our union is facing a crisis. The elements of destruction are at work. The issue is: Shall the forces of defiance and rebellion prevail and stab our union to death, or shall reason and orderly procedure dominate the affairs of the United Mine Workers of America?" After Farrington's appeal failed to sway the striking miners, the UMW sought to undercut the effects of the strike by supplying strikebreakers so that the struck mines could be reopened. Further, union members loyal to the local leadership were sworn in as special deputy sheriffs to arrest striking miners. In many cases, these deputies were paid directly from the union coffers. The tactics used by union leaders to try to break the strike angered strikers, who now resolved to continue until all of the UMW's state officers had resigned their jobs.

Having failed to bring the insurgent miners back under their control through other means, Illinois UMW officials next sought to reassert their authority at the state UMW convention. They passed a resolution to end the strike on the grounds that bargaining on a new contract was scheduled to begin shortly. To win approval for their plan, however, union leaders agreed to adopt the contract demands of the striking miners. The strikers' demands became the basis for the rank-and-file program at the national UMW convention one month later. At that convention in Cleveland, Ohio, the face-off between union leaders and the rank and file transferred to the national stage. Despite resistance from union leaders, delegates to the national convention voted overwhelmingly to seek a new contract calling for a 60 percent wage increase and a 30-hour workweek. They also set a strike date of 1 November if management had refused to negotiate such a contract by that date.

Overwhelmed by the will of the rank and file, UMW leaders were forced to begin negotiations with coal operators to seek a new contract. When they were unable to hammer out a satisfactory agreement by 1 November, 425,000 miners went on strike. The federal government mobilized immediately to end the massive work stoppage. President Wilson said the strike was "not only unjustifiable but unlawful." Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer convinced a federal judge to issue an injunction barring UMW leaders from taking any action to further the strike. The judge also ordered the union's pension fund sequestered. Federal troops were moved into the coal fields of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Washington. One week after the strike began, the federal court ordered UMW leaders to rescind the strike order and direct the miners to return to work. Acting UMW President John L. Lewis complied and announced the rescission of the strike call, declaring, "We are Americans, we cannot fight our government."

Miners were not persuaded by Lewis's patriotic plea for a return to work. They continued the strike for more than a month and were gratified when they saw the effects of their work stoppage on the national economy. A number of schools were forced to close for lack of heat, railroad operations were cut back sharply, numerous factories closed, and the federal government began rationing coal. Even after President Wilson had proposed an immediate wage hike of 14 percent and the convening of an arbitration board to consider other demands, the miners resisted the urgings of the UMW leadership to end the strike. Finally, after another powerful plea from Lewis, the miners began to return to work in mid-December, although there were holdouts in some mining regions.

Although the miners had returned to work in late 1919, all was not well on the coal industry's labor front. In his report to the UMW's national convention in January 1920, Lewis explained that the obvious determination of the federal government to end the strike was a major factor in the decision by union leaders to accept the settlement plan proposed by President Wilson. Philip Murray, president of UMW District 5, moved that the Lewis report be accepted by affirmation, suggesting that such a vote would prove delegates' loyalty to the union, its officers, and the country. Critics of the settlement argued that they should not move so quickly. A delegate from District 12 in Illinois contended that it was better to go to jail to defend one's rights than to back down on a matter of principle. He also called for the ouster of Lewis from the union's presidency. In the end, the report was approved by a lopsided vote of 1,639 to 231, but it was clear that there were pockets of dissent within the union.

The underlying unhappiness of the rank and file became increasingly apparent in the early years of the new decade. In mid-1920, 85,000 miners in the anthracite coal fields struck. Despite earnest efforts by UMW leaders to bring an early end to the strike, it continued for nearly a month. In May 1920 a strike broke out in Mattewan, West Virginia, over the firing of members of a new union. The strike spread throughout Mingo County, West Virginia, and into nearby Pike County, Kentucky. Attempts to bring the strike to an end sparked violence. In April 1922 the UMW ordered strikes in both anthracite and bituminous coal fields. Some 75,000 nonunion miners in and around the Connellsville coke region of Pennsylvania joined in the strike with the union miners. In July the federal government moved to reopen the nation's mines. President Warren Harding told coal operators to resume operations, pledging the full support of the U.S. government. The governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania ordered state troops to the mines, and union strikers finally accepted a settlement, abandoning the nonunion miners in Pennsylvania to their fate. Those miners continued to strike for a total of 16 months but were finally starved out.

After 1923 an uneasy peace settled over the coal industry, at least for a couple of decades, but it was probably attributable less to any particular satisfaction among rank-and-file miners than an end to the post-World War I coal boom amid increasing competition from other energy sources. As the coal industry weakened, the clout of the UMW declined accordingly.

Key Players

Garfield, Harry Augustus (1863-1942): Born in Hiram, Ohio, Garfield was the first son of James Abram Garfield, future president of the United States. He served the administration of President Woodrow Wilson as wartime fuel administrator, presiding over the decision to extend the so-called Washington Agreement after the World War I until 1 April 1920. It was this decision that initially triggered the United Mine Workers strike of 1919. Both before and after this period of public service, Garfield served as president of Williams College in Massachusetts.

Lewis, John L. (1880-1969): The son of Welsh immigrants, Lewis was born in the coal mining town of Cleveland, Iowa. After completing all but his final year of high school, he went to work in the mines and by 1901 had been elected secretary of a UMW local. He quickly worked his way up through the ranks of union leadership and become an AFL organizer in 1911. He returned to the UMW as its statistician in 1917. A year later he was named acting vice president and in 1919 became acting president. The year after the 1919 strike, Lewis was elected UMW president, a position he held until his retirement in 1960.

Wilson, Thomas Woodrow (1856-1924): A native of Staunton, Virginia, Wilson began his career as an academic, teaching political science at Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, and Princeton. In 1902 he was named president of Princeton, and in 1910 he was persuaded to run as the Democratic candidate for governor of New Jersey. He won handily and proved himself both a masterful administrator and politician. In 1912 he was elected president of the United States. Wilson declared the 1919 strike of the UMW unlawful. He is perhaps best remembered for his role in creating the League of Nations, for which he later received the Nobel Peace Prize.

See also: United Mine Workers of America.



Brecher, Jeremy. Strike! Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1997.

Dictionary of American Biography, Suppl. 3: 1941-1945.New York: Scribner, 1973.

Dictionary of American Biography, Suppl. 8: 1966-1970.New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 1988.

Carson, Thomas. Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 1999.


Marcus, Irwin, Eileen Mountjoy Cooper, and Beth O'Leary. "The Coal Strike of 1919 in Indiana County and Its Aftermath." IUP Libraries Special Collections and Archives. Coal Dust: The Early Mining Industry of Indiana County. 26 July 2000 [24 September 2002].<>.

Additional Resources


Laslett, John H. M., ed. The United Mine Workers of America: A Model of Industrial Solidarity? State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Long, Priscilla. Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1989.

—Don Amerman

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