In 1870 John Mitchell (1870–1919) was born in Braidwood, Illinois, a coal-mining village. Orphaned at age six, Mitchell had a difficult childhood. Frustrated and largely penniless, he spent his teenage years laboring as a miner in Colorado and Wyoming. Through this experience, Mitchell came to believe that coal miners, and all working people, could obtain a better and more secure life by organizing labor unions to address their concerns with employers. Mitchell grew up to become one of the most respected yet controversial labor leaders in the United States in the early twentieth century.
In 1890 he was one of the founders of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Later, in 1898, Mitchell won public acclaim as UMWA president. He pursued the organization of labor by using a moderate approach to relations between workers and employers. His conservative style rejected confrontation and class conflict as counterproductive. In his two books, Organized Labor (1903), and The Wage Earner (1913), Mitchell wrote that the prosperity of workers and employers were inseparably linked together, and harmonious relations between these two groups were best for both.
As more Americans joined labor unions in America, open conflict between unions and employers became more common. Mitchell's theories of harmony between business and labor began to seem naive and unrealistic. American labor was headed in the direction of greater militancy and Mitchell's ongoing associations with businessmen caused a decline in his popularity. He was seen as a pawn of business and a conservative manipulator of union growth. In 1908, despite his reputation as an effective union organizer, the union he founded asked him to step down as president.
Mitchell later tried to pursue his theory of "business-labor harmony" by serving as head of the National Civic Federation (NCF) Trade Agreement Department. (The NCF was an organization comprised mainly of employers and business owners.) But, by 1915, the UMWA insisted he leave the NCF. The UMWA continued to see Mitchell as a collaborator with business and as an unreliable representative of union causes. In 1915 Mitchell became chairman of the New York State Industrial Commission, where he mediated labor issues until his death in 1919.
Arguably, the unions were correct about Mitchell's growing conservatism. He died a millionaire, having grown wealthy through investments in coal mining, the railroad industry, and the steel industry. Many unions came to despise him as a betrayer of union principles, but coal miners remained loyal because of the help he gave them as a labor organizer in the early days of his career. John Mitchell was an inspiration to the early labor movement in the United States, and his policies of mediation and cooperation have, in the long run, triumphed.
See also: Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, United Mine Workers
Green, Marguerite. The National Civic Federation and the American Labor Movement 1900–1925. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1973.
Greene, Victor. The Slavic Community on Strike. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.
Mitchell, John. Organized Labor: Its Problems, Purposes, and Ideals and the Present and Future of American Wage Earners. Clifton: A. M. Kelley, 1973.
Phelan, Craig. Divided Loyalties: The Public and Private Life of Labor Leader John Mitchell. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
John Mitchell (1870-1919) was one of the most respected American labor leaders in the early years of the 20th century.
John Mitchell was born on Feb. 4, 1870, in Braidwood, Ill., a coal mining village. Orphaned at the age of 6, he was raised by a strict Presbyterian stepmother. Economic circumstances compelled him to enter the mines at an early age. In 1886-1887 he tried mining in Colorado and Wyoming but returned to Illinois frustrated and penniless.
Mitchell decided coal miners could achieve a better and more secure life by organizing. He joined a Knights of Labor local, but its unsuccessful strikes convinced him to enter the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) at its founding in 1890. A year later he married Katherine O'Rourke, a miner's daughter, and began to read law and study social and economic problems. Mitchell rose rapidly within the union; in September 1898 he became the UMWA president.
President Theodore Roosevelt intervened in a strike in 1902 by the anthracite miners of northeastern Pennsylvania and assisted the strikers in gaining several aims. Mitchell's leadership of the strike won public acclaim for his moderate and restrained approach to industrial relations. Roosevelt said of him, "There was only one man in the room who behaved like a gentleman, and that was not I." Mitchell had also demonstrated that the southern and eastern European immigrants (the majority of anthracite miners) could be effectively organized into unions.
A slight, wiry man of conservative dress and a sober, thoughtful disposition, Mitchell wrote two books, Organized Labor (1903) and The Wage Earner (1913), expressing his basic idea that there need not be hostility between capital and labor and the prosperity of both were linked. His outlook led him to associate with the National Civic Federation, an organization of employers and labor leaders dedicated to establishing harmonious relations between businessmen and unions. But Mitchell's growing conservatism estranged the UMWA's members. After stepping down as UMWA president in 1908, Mitchell served as head of the Civic Federation's trade-agreement department while remaining second vice president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
In 1911 militants within the UMWA forced Mitchell to choose between the union and the Civic Federation; he resigned from the federation. In 1915 he was appointed chairman of the New York State Industrial Commission, a position he held until his death on Sept. 9, 1919.
The best biography of Mitchell is Elsie Gluck, John Mitchell, Miner: Labor's Bargain with the Gilded Age (1929). Mitchell's relationship with immigrant miners is dealt with in Victor R. Greene, The Slavic Community on Strike: Immigrant Labor in Pennsylvania Anthracite (1968). For his contacts with the National Civic Federation see Marguerite Green, The National Civic Federation and the American Labor Movement, 1900-1925 (1956), which is detailed and objective. The only history of the UMWA is the old and unsatisfactory one by Chris Evans, History of United Mine Workers of America (2 vols., 1918-1920). □
MITCHELL, John. American, b. 1930. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Translations. Career: Teacher in Pauloff Harbor, AK, 1950-51, and Kenai, AK, 1952-53; University of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI, instructor, 1954-56 and 1962-63; owner and operator of a commercial fishing business in Alaskan waters, 1953-. Publications: Alaska Stories (fiction), 1984; Exile in Alaska (stories), 1987; On the Seventh Day, 1994; On the Window Licks the Night, 1997. TRANSLATOR OF NOVELS FROM SPANISH (with R.M. de Aguilar): J.R. Romero, Notes of a Villager, 1988; P.I. Taibo II, Calling All Heroes, 1990; M.M. Huidobro, Qwert and the Wedding Gown, 1992; S. Molina, Gray Skies Tomorrow, 1993. Address: 592 Kaimalino St., Kailua, HI 96734-1612, U.S.A.