Workingman's Benevolent Association

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Workingman's Benevolent Association

United States 1868


Part labor union and part advocate of nonviolent change, the Workingman's Benevolent Association (WBA) represented the demands of miners in the American North for better labor standards. Founded by John Siney, an Irish immigrant, in 1868, the Workingman's Benevolent Association originally presented a less violent front than its sister organizations, including the "Molly Maguires." The association focused on arbitrating the bitter confrontation between its components, namely the coal miners of Pennsylvania, specifically the Saint Clair region, and the owners of companies such as the Reading Railroad who were attempting to consolidate control over the anthracite (hard) coal fields in eastern Pennsylvania in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.


  • 1848: Revolutions rock Europe, and Marx and Engels publish the Communist Manifesto.
  • 1853: Crimean War begins in October. The struggle, which will last until February 1856, pits Russia against the combined forces of Great Britain, France, Turkey, and Sardinia-Piedmont. A war noted for the work of Florence Nightingale with the wounded, it is also the first conflict to be documented by photojournalists.
  • 1859: In Belgium, Jean-Joseph-étienne Lenoir builds the first practical internal-combustion engine.
  • 1861: Within weeks of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, the American Civil War begins with the shelling of Fort Sumter. Six states secede from the Union, joining South Carolina to form the Confederate States of America (later joined by four other states) and electing Jefferson Davis as president. The first major battle of the war, at Bull Run or Manassas in Virginia, is a Confederate victory.
  • 1864: Foundation of the International Red Cross in Geneva.
  • 1866: Prussia defeats Austria in the Seven Weeks' War.
  • 1868: Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants civil rights to African Americans.
  • 1868: Spain decrees that all children born to slaves in Puerto Rico will be free.
  • 1870: Beginning of Franco-Prussian War. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1873: The gold standard, adopted by Germany in 1871 and eventually taken on by all major nations, spreads to Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland. Though the United States does not officially base the value of its currency on gold until 1900, an unofficial gold standard dates from this period, even as a debate over "bimetallism" creates sharp divisions in American politics.
  • 1874: As farm wages in Britain plummet, agricultural workers go on strike.
  • 1878: Russo-Turkish War, begun in 1877, ends with the defeat of Turkey, which ceases to be an important power in Europe. The Treaty of San Stefano concluding the war is revised by the Congress of Berlin, which realigns the ba|ance of power in southeastern Europe.

Event and Its Context

The legacy of the Workingman's Benevolent Association is not just the story of its founder, John Siney, but also the story of the immigrant miners who composed its membership. Composed mostly of immigrants from England, Ireland, Wales, and the German states who had immigrated to the Pennsylvania coal regions, the backgrounds of the association's members were so diverse that they often united only for the purpose of accomplishing a particular task. Most of the Welsh and English immigrants to Saint Clair had already gained valuable skills from working in the richest coal districts of the British Isles, so they often moved into the more skilled and therefore more highly paid positions in the mines. Their Irish counterparts, many of whom had fled Ireland during the Potato Famine (1845-1849), lacked advanced training; their farming backgrounds provided little in the way of skills needed for mining. There were even variations among the Irish immigrants; those from the southern and eastern counties, such as Kilkenny, were more skilled than their comrades from the northern and western counties. The former would eventually become associated with the more violent backbone of the miner's movement, the Molly Maguires, which created conflicts with their less-skilled former countrymen. German immigrants, on the other hand, had more in common with the English and Welsh and often became artisans.

This background directly influenced the formation of the Workingman's Benevolent Association. Coal miners were constantly in harm's way due to exposure to the gases from the coal piles and the threat of the explosion of the mines. Furthermore, the collapse of the tunnels deep within the mines was a constant danger. In addition to these occupational hazards, a disease common to miners, known as "black lung disease" or "miner's asthma," caused by inhalation of matter in the cold and damp environment of the mines, led to work-related illnesses and early death. Without proper health care and given the lack of provisions for ailing miners, many miners had only their families to rely on. The mining operations, known as collieries, rarely supplied tools and supplies for their miners; rather, the miners could purchase supplies at the company store, with the cost deducted from their already meager weekly wages. Each of these hardships led to complaints, and the grievances eventually led to the formation of various mining associations. The first coal mining union, the Bates Union, formed in 1849 by John Bates, a native of Saint Clair, called for the first regional strike against the fixed price of coal. When merchants in Philadelphia and New York refused to pay the high prices, the coal masters refused to ship the coal.

The success of the Bates Union was questionable. It led to the formation of the first fairly effective miner's union, Siney's Workingman's Benevolent Association (WBA). Organized to protect the families of the injured workers and to improve working conditions, the WBA attempted to represent all miners, regardless of ethnic background. Nevertheless, the attempts at inclusion failed miserably; the combination of ethnic unrest and the corruption of mine owners led to violence, something that Siney had attempted to avoid by advocating a nonviolent stance. On the subject of violence, Siney commented, "By rules of the association all acts of violence are strictly forbidden, and any member found guilty of such will not only be expelled from the association, but from the county also." With this statement, Siney summarized his advocacy of a strict adherence to social law and order. Siney had immigrated to the anthracite mining regions of Pennsylvania in 1863 at the age of 32, immediately following the death of his first wife. An immigrant from England (although born in Ireland), Siney had been president of the local bricklayer's union and well trusted in England. His diligence as leader of the WBA led to the creation of the first mine safety inspection laws in the United States, even though these laws were not regularly enforced. Siney also spent time in negotiations for the first minimum wage opportunities for working miners, as well as the first instances of collective bargaining among miner's associations. The union locals in the Schuylkill area of Pennsylvania also organized local food cooperatives and libraries to both feed and educate members of their communities.

Angered by the decrease in wages in the post-Civil War era and the price fixing by mining cooperatives, Siney spent months traveling among the miners in the Saint Clair area, listening to their complaints, and attempting to gain insight into their problems. In a meeting on 23 July 1868 in Walker's Hall, Siney presented a resolution he had drafted calling for an eight-hour workday; this was the first public recognition of Siney's efforts and would be the first of many such speeches for Siney. In a letter dated 2 December 1868 and published in The Pottsville Standard, a local newspaper, Siney explained the purpose of the WBA: "The object of the Workingman's Benevolent Association is to unite in one band of brotherhood all who earn their bread by hard toil—more especially the miners and laborers of Pennsylvania." He noted that "benevolence is not sectional," and proposed that the members become united so as to offer support across the region. He argued that "the great danger in the business we follow" had made miners "outcast from all other benevolent societies" and stated that they must band together so that their fate would not be passed to their children.

The WBA represented a small success for miners, but any advances were limited by the market; if the market for coal continued to expand, then the WBA could continue to be successful. Politics soon interfered, however, particularly as the United States entered a depression in the mid-1870s, and greed took over and fueled the desire to monopolize the coal industry. When the combination of the union's ability to keep both coal prices and wages somewhat high became too much for the corporations to handle, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, which hauled coal from the Pennsylvania region, increased rates, thereby destroying smaller companies. Led by Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, and with the suspected use of Pinkerton's National Detective Agency, the move to undermine the efforts of the WBA began in 1873, after the last of the smaller operators were forced out of business. Gowen essentially controlled the state police as well with the establishment of the Coal and Iron Police, which represented his petition of the government and the money he used to "buy" government silence. Siney—one of the last labor leaders to fight the self-made mine operators and the first labor leader to fight the burgeoning leaders of the anthracite mining movement, including Gowen—was essentially caught in the middle. He had gained national attention in August of 1869 when he attended the National Labor Union meeting in Philadelphia, and Susan B. Anthony championed his cause. She offered to run a weekly column in her New York-based paper, The Revolution, to express the interests of the miners. This led to Siney's own editorship of his new paper, The Workingman, a weekly four-page newspaper that debuted on 5 April 1873. All of this media attention made Siney the target of union-busters such as Franklin Gowen.

By 1874 the WBA had begun its downward spiral, focusing less on matters of principle and more on a slightly more forceful approach. The United States was in the midst of a full depression, with one-third of the workers in Pennsylvania alone unemployed. Gowen took advantage of this crisis to begin stocking up on coal and cutting wages, which, in turn, led to the "Long Strike" of 1875. Beginning in January, the strike lasted until June and completely undermined all of Siney's efforts at ethnic cohesiveness. In addition to the blow caused by unemployment, the Irish mine workers felt that the English and Welsh mine workers were given preferential treatment, which created discord that resulted in a crime spree associated with the Molly Maguires and a turn in public opinion against the WBA. The strike failed; the coal operators reopened the mines in May and offered protection to those who wished to return. Because the WBA had been unable to negotiate a "return-to-work" offer prior to the reopening, its leadership counseled workers to return to the mines and accept any type of protection, which resulted in a violent rejection of WBA protocol. Protests and demonstrations, violent at times, occurred throughout June. The miners actually shut down nine mines in the course of their demonstrations. The press scorned WBA's efforts with comments such as, "Let the leaders of these riots be hunted down and arrested. If [they] will learn tolerance only by being shot down, it is better to shoot them down than to let them shoot others." The WBA attempted to fight such slander in The Workingman, but fought a losing battle, as it was forced to admit that some miners had committed acts of violence in violation of the philosophy behind the WBA. The efforts of the WBA, although passive, had garnered national attention but forced Siney into an early retirement with a spiraling depression. Siney died in poverty at the age of 48 in 1879 and was buried in St. Mary's Cemetery near his adopted town of Saint Clair.

Siney's efforts for his beloved WBA did not go unnoticed, however. After the violence of the Molly Maguires subsided, the WBA lived on the formation of the United Mine Workers of America, whose first Pennsylvania chapter formed in 1890.

Key Players

Siney, John (1831-1879): An Irish immigrant to the UnitedStates, Siney founded the Workingman's Benevolent Association in 1868 to protect the rights of coal miners in Pennsylvania. An advocate for miners in Pennsylvania politics until his death, he was credited with nationally publicizing the abuses of miners, particularly in the fight between corporations and labor unions.

See also: Eight-hour Day Movement; Molly Maguires; National Labor Union; Potato Famine; United Mine Workers of America



Dewees, F. P. Molly Maguires: The Origin, Growth, and Character of the Organization. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Company, 1877.

Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pinkowski, Edward. John Siney: The Miner's Martyr.Philadelphia: Sunshine Press, 1963.


Lutz, Valerie Ann. "Immigrants in the Coal Region." The Old Country in the New World [cited 3 October 2002]. <>.

—Jennifer Harrison