United Mine Workers of America

views updated Jun 08 2018

United Mine Workers of America

United States 1890


The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) is an industrial labor union that was formed in 1890 by the joining of the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers and the Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No. 135. The UMWA had established itself as a formidable opponent to mine owners and operators by the end of its first decade of operations.

UMWA membership includes American and Canadian miners and workers in the coal and coal-related industries. The UMWA has made sustained efforts throughout its existence to bring about collective bargaining for its members. Its purpose is to win from management a wide variety of labor guarantees, such as continuity of employment, fair wages, and health and safety rules. When collective bargaining efforts failed, the UNWA often staged strikes to gain concessions from mine owners and operators. The UMWA also improved the living conditions of its members who lived in company-owned towns and who were exposed to extreme occupational hazards inherent to their jobs.


  • 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.
  • 1876: Four-stroke cycle gas engine introduced.
  • 1880: South Africa's Boers declare an independent republic, precipitating the short First Anglo-Boer War.
  • 1883: Foundation of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor by Marxist political philosopher Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov marks the formal start of Russia's labor movement. Change still lies far in the future for Russia, however: tellingly, Plekhanov launches the movement in Switzerland.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1888: Serbian-born American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla develops a practical system for generating and transmitting alternating current (AC), which will ultimately—and after an extremely acrimonious battle—replace Thomas Edison's direct current (DC) in most homes and businesses.
  • 1890: U.S. Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1890: Police arrest and kill Sioux chief Sitting Bull, and two weeks later, federal troops kill over 200 Sioux at Wounded Knee.
  • 1890: Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. naval officer and historian, publishes The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, which demonstrates the decisive role that maritime forces have played in past conflicts. The book will have an enormous impact on world events by encouraging the major powers to develop powerful navies.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1896: First modern Olympic Games held in Athens.
  • 1900: Establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Event and Its Context

Two hundred coal miners met in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890 and altered the history of laborers and labor unions. The formation of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) brought together a remarkable group of men who were characterized by their common dedication, wisdom, and militancy. The labor union they formed eventually redefined the labor movement, not only for miners in the United States but also for workers all over the world.

Coal Is King

During the last half of the nineteenth century, coal was the most important natural resource mined in the United States. Between 1890 and 1900 the amount of coal mined in the United States nearly doubled, and it continued to do so from 1900 to 1910. Coal prices also experienced an upward spiral, although less so that the amount mined. Historians generally agree that coal powered the U.S. Industrial Revolution, a transformation that turned the country's economy into the largest and most productive in the world. The supply and demand for coal, however, often was inconsistent with the wages paid to the miners who dug the coal.

Supply and Demand

During this period of time, anthracite ("hard") and bituminous ("soft") coal were the principal resources for three important uses: the heating of homes, the powering of the expanding railroad system, and the supplying of the iron and steel industry. The uncoordinated growth of the coal industry occurred wherever scattered supplies of coal could be found, especially if the supply was conveniently located near a railroad line, navigable river, or metropolitan area.

Mines produced excess supplies of coal as demand continued to increase. The number of men employed in the coal industry increased from less than 200,000 in 1890 to more than 600,000 in 1920, mostly due to the increased number of mines in operation throughout the country. The number of mines rose from 2,500 in 1895 to 5,600 in 1914.

The miners' wages were the primary cost of coal production, and because mine owners wished to lower their costs, miners were constantly forced to accept reduced salaries. This was compounded by irregular work schedules and company-sponsored towns and stores that usually kept the workers in debt to the owners.

Unions That Came Before

During the early nineteenth century, mine owners implemented few safety and health rules for the workers. Because of this, horrible accidents frequently claimed hundreds of lives. At the same time, there was no limit to the number of hours that workers labored, no minimum wages, and no compensation for accidents. Some two million children worked in and around the mines. To combat the lack of benefits, low wages, numerous accidents, child labor, harsh conditions, unfair treatment, and other inequities, mineworkers turned to labor unions, first at the local and regional levels, and gradually at the national level.

Mineworkers had been organized into local unions in the United States since the year 1849. In that year coal miner John Bates organized a local union in the anthracite coal area of Pennsylvania. Low wages contributed to his organizing actions, as did the actions of others across the country who despaired over the rights of mineworkers. These first feeble attempts to organize the miners were no match for the well-organized mine owners. These efforts, however, ultimately led to the formation of the UMWA.

American Miners' Association

Near the end of 1860, the work of Welshman Thomas Lloyd and Englishman Daniel Weaver attracted the interest of mineworkers of southern Illinois and northern Missouri in a national union. This union, founded on 28 January 1861 as the American Miners' Association, was the first national union of mineworkers organized in the United States. It is usually credited with the beginning of the modern American labor movement. The union only lasted for a few years; it dissolved in 1868 after an unsuccessful strike weakened the organization beyond repair. Local unions continued to organize in Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and other coal-producing states, but because of a lack of unifying effort no national union came about.

Miners' National Association

In 1873 an industrial congress convened in Cleveland, Ohio, to find ways whereby local unions could act together for the betterment of conditions for mineworkers. Conflicts between labor and management were difficult for isolated local unions to resolve successfully. Eventually, a united effort was necessary for the mounting wrongs committed against miners. The principle result from that meeting was a call for a national union. The Miners' National Association of the United States of America was formed with John Siney as its president.

Other Unions

Other important unions during this timeframe were the Miners' and Laborers' Benevolent Association (founded in 1868 as the Workingman's Benevolent Association), the Amalgamated Association of Miners of the United States (founded in 1883), and the National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers (founded in 1885). Each short-lived union died for a variety of disheartening reasons, including ineffectual strikes, union rivalries, disputes within unions, and depressed economic conditions.

Immigration of British Isle Miners

Approximately 60,000 experienced miners from the British Isles came to the United States around the time of the Civil War (from 1861 to 1865). They arrived in response to a great demand for skilled labor in the postwar industrial era and because of low wages and overproduction in the United Kingdom. British immigrant miners used the same methods of cutting, blasting, and loading coal as they had used earlier in England. English workers brought over an independent work ethic that had worked in their homeland. Miners would often leave the mine whenever they had earned enough money to satisfy their immediate needs. The mine owners attempted to break this habit that kept wages at high levels and reduced their profits. The un-skilled immigrants from Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Greece joined the skilled British workers that immigrated to the United States. The influx of unskilled workers helped owners keep wages low. These men formed the backbone of the coal mining industry.

The Need for Unions

Arguments over control of miners' rights, such as number of work hours and wage levels, started the need for unions. In the nineteenth century there were no laws regulating the working conditions of miners. Miners were paid by the number of loads of coal taken from the earth, not by the preparatory work necessary to extract the coal, such as blasting to find coal, building timber supports for inside the mines, and clearing rocks and debris from the tracks of mine cars. Miners had little control over the price they received for a load, and the company controlled the town in which the miners lived. In the end, the miners were always in debt to the company, unable to better their condition.

Local groups of activists organized meetings to protest low pay, dangerous working conditions, child labor, lack of health care for work-related illnesses, and lack of safety rules. Regional bodies formed with more formal structure, complete with membership dues and some type of benefit system. Finally, national trade unions formed as a result of the efforts of these smaller organizations. The local and regional bodies had little success against the mighty mine owner; but the national unions had better luck, at least over the long run.

Formation of the UMWA

The founding convention of the UMWA probably represented about 17,000 coal miners and laborers belonging to two rival organizations: the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers and the National Trade Assembly #135 of the Knights of Labor. These two unions had been competing for membership of miners. Because wage rates were radically different from state to state, the battle for miners was waged on a statewide basis. The need to gain level wages across the country forced the two unions to merge.


The original constitution that was adopted by its founding delegates spelled out how the UMWA would attempt to improve the conditions of its members, and listed specific grievances that confronted miners. Specifically, its purpose was to:

  • Secure a fair weekly wage compatible with the dangers associated with mining
  • Assure wages were paid with legally recognized money (not company-sponsored "scrip")
  • Minimize the hazards related to mining
  • Guarantee the eight-hour day
  • Abolish child labor (those under the age of 14 or without a reasonable education)
  • Prevent unfair dealings by the coal companies and their operators (including private police forces employed in coal fields)

The UMWA statement of policy pledged "to use all honorable means to maintain peace between ourselves and employers; adjusting all differences, as far as possible, by arbitration and conciliation, that strikes may become unnecessary."


The most important objective for the UMWA was no doubt the wage policy. It was often generally characterized as "more and more—now." Specifically, though, the goals of the UMWA with regards to wage policy were:

  • Consistent improvement of the economic status of miners in relation to workers in other industries
  • Stabilization of wage rates during times of downward cyclical markets
  • Fair competitive relationships among mine owners in localized coal-producing areas of the country
  • Use of wage agreements that did not give competitive advantage to any geographical area, so members would have an equal opportunity to work anywhere in the country

Only a national union was in a position to succeed at obtaining such a wage policy. Although the UMWA announced and tried to achieve these stated goals during its first fledgling years as a union, its primary goal was simply to survive. It had yet to achieve recognition from the mine owners, and it had yet to achieve a stable organization with its members working together for the common good of all.

Other Policies

The UMWA concerned itself with policies that affected its overall membership in a general way; it also addressed concerns of lesser scope. For example, despite many racist beliefs of the time, the UMWA established a nondiscrimination policy that miners should be hired and compensated without regard to race, religion, or national origin. It specifically drew attention to men of African descent. At a time when the rights of African Americans were mostly restricted, this uncompromising position was forward-looking. The UMWA leadership realized that discriminatory practices were ethically wrong, but, just as important in their view, such practices limited its membership roster. The eventual success of the UMWA was based partially on a large, unsegregated membership.

Fred Ball, a union president in a West Virginia coal town in the early 1900s, aptly expressed the united nature of the UMWA when he said, "I call it a darn solid mass of different colors and tribes blended together, woven, bound, interlocked, tongued and grooved and glued together in one body." The fact remained that the mine operators continued to work all miners as if they were slaves, regardless of who they were. The union tried to abolish that slavelike system and attempted to more fairly balance the power between the corporate owners and the workers.

Within a few years of the founding of the UMWA the scope of its charter expanded. Craftsmen who worked indirectly in and around the mines, such as blacksmiths, could disrupt the work of the miners when they struck. As a result, the UMWA adopted a policy called the Scranton Declaration of December 1901 by which the union was able to organize all workers in and around the mines.

President Rae (1890-1892)

The initial membership of the UMWA consisted almost entirely of native-born or British immigrant miners from the states running east from Illinois to West Virginia, and south to Alabama. They elected Knights of Labor leader John B. Rae as president on 25 January 1890, marking the formal unification of organized miners into the United Mine Workers of America. The 17,000 charter members of the founding UMWA rapidly grew to 53,000 within a year.

When Rae took office, he inherited several strikes that eventually failed because of economic conditions at the time. The resulting losses drained the new union's treasury as Rae tried to coordinate better benefits for his members, among them the eight-hour workday. At the 1892 convention, Rae refused to run for reelection after learning that the miners were not ready for another concerted drive for shorter work hours.

Establishment at End of First Decade

During the first decade of the UMWA's existence, differences occurred between the subgroups within the union and with mineworkers who were not yet in the union. The unions that merged to form the UMWA still existed within the national union, and internal strife occurred as the UMWA tried to coordinate the various factions. Mine operators rarely recognized the union, and efforts to centralize decision-making and coordinate activities rarely succeeded. Coordination among the miners did grow slowly as communications improved. The creation of the UMW Journal in February 1891 provided an effective way to trade information. Solidarity grew as miners saw that similar conditions and complaints occurred throughout the industry. It was not until the end of its first decade that the UMWA became a strong and established national union able to bargain effectively with mine owners.

John McBride took over as president of the United Mine Workers of America in 1892. Membership was only 20,000 at the time, and the treasury held only $10,000. The union had a dismal record of defeats. The UMWA sank to its worst level in 1893 when a depression hit the United States. The coal industry's two primary markets—railroads and industry—drastically reduced demand, leaving only the home heating market as a viable income source. By 1894, when McBride left the presidency, membership was down to 13,000, a decline of more than 40 percent within a year.

With McBride as president, the UMWA called for a strike to raise wages that had declined because of an abundance of workers and a lack of demand for coal. About 100,000 men stopped work on 21 April 1894, and eventually 180,000 of the country's 193,000 bituminous coal miners joined the stoppage. The strike helped to consolidate the union, garnered needed national attention, and increased membership.

Economic difficulties in the nation and continued internal strife kept the union from substantial advancement during the years of president Phil Penna (1894-1896). The UMWA was in trouble, as were many unions of that day, but Penna was enthusiastic about his job and was able to raise the spirits of the miners. Nevertheless, conditions worked against the union, as the whole country became economically oppressed, with many families on the verge of starvation. At the end of Penna's term, membership had declined further to under 10,000, and the union's treasury held less than $300. In 1896 a disheartened Penna resigned to become labor commissioner for the Indiana coal operators.

In 1896 Michael Ratchford became president with the UMWA at an extremely low point in its brief history. Because wage rates continued to decline as the country barely returned to economic normalcy, Ratchford called a national strike for miners on 4 July 1897. Fearing that the U.S. government would institute an injunction against the union for restraint of trade, Ratchford cautiously proceeded with the strike in hopes of driving up wages and reinstituting interstate bargaining. Around 150,000 miners eventually joined the 12-week strike, along with strong support from Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor. The strike was successful, mainly because an upturn in coal demand coincided with the end of the depression and a return to economic prosperity. Many coal owners eventually agreed to a 20 percent wage increase, with a promise to meet for an interstate conference. In an era when union victories were rare, this achievement helped to strengthen labor with regard to labor-management relations in the coal industry.

Historians claim that this strike was a major turning point in the history of the UMWA. The struggle by American mine-workers that ended with victory prompted thousands of mine-workers to return to the union. As a result, Ratchford gained a national reputation as a great labor statesman. Union membership rapidly increased to 34,000, and the treasury contained $11,000.

John Mitchell became president of the UMWA in 1898 and remained its boss until his retirement in 1908. He was the first president to serve an extended term. Mitchell was responsible for increasing membership (from 34,000 to 300,000 workers) across the country and into Canada, centralizing the power of the national union while expanding the democratic nature of the union; improving wages and working conditions, and promoting collective bargaining. Under Mitchell's leadership, the UMWA finally won the fight for an eight-hour workday. Mitchell maintained that the interests of labor and capital coincided. During Mitchell's tenure mine owners benefited from a relatively peaceful labor force, uninterrupted production, and a decline in competition (which meant higher profits for them). Union miners benefited from higher wages, more regular work, protection against favoritism and discrimination, and assurance that their grievances would be heard.

Turning Point

The turning point for the UMWA came in January 1898, at the end of Ratchford's watch, when an interstate conference convened in conjunction with the UMWA convention. Coal mine owners at this time realized that extensive competition was threatening their livelihood. Operators agreed with the union that a stable and competitive wage rate was important to the industry and the workers alike. At this time, owners also realized the need for a union to control nonunion workers who were threatening certain markets. The mine owners, for the first time, collectively recognized the UMWA. It was at this conference (and at another one in 1902 during Mitchell's tenure) that collective bargaining became an accepted principle in the coal mining regions of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. This joint agreement, complete with the newly created collective bargaining agreement, was the major event that allowed the UMWA to expand and eventually made the United Mine Workers of America one of the largest labor unions in the world.

In the history of North American labor, the United Mine Workers of America has occupied a prominent position of undeniable leadership. The UMWA led the struggle to establish industrial health and safety laws and collective bargaining in the United States. Its principles and policies, along with the determination of its leaders, have been a testament to working families of coal miners since its formation in 1890.

Key Players

McBride, John: McBride, from Ohio, served as vice chairman at the UMWA founding convention in 1890. He was UMWA president from 1892 to 1894, succeeding Rae to become its second president. His father had been a loyal trade unionist, and McBride followed his father's lead, working the mines starting at 15 years of age. He was a charter member of Lodge No. 15 of the Miners and Laborers Benevolent Association and was its secretary until the lodge merged into the Miners' National Association. In 1882 he helped organize the Ohio Miners' Amalgamated Association and became its president. In 1889 he became president of the Miners' National Progressive Union. McBride resigned the UMWA to become president of the American Federation of Labor.

Mitchell, John (1870-1919): Mitchell, from Illinois, was vice president of the UMWA before becoming the fifth UMWA president in 1898, and continued as president until 1908. Under Mitchell's leadership, UMWA's membership rose from 34,000 to 300,000 members. Two of Mitchell's greatest accomplishments was bringing together diverse cultural and ethnic groups within the union and acquiring a long-lasting contract for his workers that guaranteed an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage. Mitchell was the key figure in spreading the UMWA across the United States and into Canada and in modernizing and democratizing the union's structure. Mitchell was known for seeking out peaceful reconciliations to labor disputes.

Penna, Phil H.: Penna, from Indiana, was the third UMWA president, serving from 1894 to 1896. Previous to this, Penna was the UMWA's vice president under McBride. The lowest point for the union occurred during Penna's reign, due mostly to poor economic conditions in the country that lead to unemployment and to the low wages that ensued. Membership in the UMWA declined to 10,000 near the end of his term. Penna unhappily left to become labor commissioner for the Indiana coal operators.

Rae, John B.: Rae, from Pennsylvania, was the first president of the UMWA, serving from 1890 to 1892. Born in Scotland, Rae had been a miner from early childhood and believed strongly in trade unions. He had become involved with the Knights of Labor in Pennsylvania and was one of the organizers of the National Trade Assembly No. 135. Rae was present when the United Mine Workers of America was founded, having been chosen to preside over the convention, previous to being elected its first president.

Ratchford, Michael: Ratchford, from Ohio, was the fourth UMWA president, serving from 1896 to 1898. During his tenure UMWA membership expanded rapidly to 40,000 members, and the union attained agreement for the eight-hour workday on 1 April 1898. 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 state that the conference was a major stabilizing factor for the union during the next 30 years. It was the first national agreement that any important industry in the country had made with its workers. Ratchford resigned to accept a position on the United States Industrial Commission.

See also: Bituminous Coal Strike; Knights of Labor; Workingman's Benevolent Association.



Baratz, Morton S. The Union and the Coal Industry. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1955.

Corbin, David. Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields.Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Evans, Chris. History of United Mine Workers of America from the Year 1860 to 1890. Indianapolis, IN: Allied Printing, 1918.

Fox, Maier B. United We Stand: The United Mine Workers of America 1890-1990. United Mine Workers of America, 1990.

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

Richards, Elizabeth Levy Tad. Struggle and Lose, Struggle and Win: The United Mine Workers. New York: Four Winds Press, 1977.

—William Arthur Atkins

United Mine Workers of America

views updated May 17 2018


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.


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 .

United Mine Workers (UMW)

views updated May 23 2018


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

About this article

United Mine Workers of America

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic


United Mine Workers of America