Reorganization and Collapse
The strikes of 1877 spurred the anthracite mine workers toward reorganization. In early August the Wyoming-Lackawanna strikers called for the reestablishment of an industrywide union, a call that went unheeded; but the activities of the relief committees in the Schuylkill region kept the possibility of interregional cooperation alive.
The Knights of Labor built the cooperative spirit. Organizers for the Knights of Labor had secretly entered the hard coal fields in 1871, but the existence of established unions precluded their success. The collapse of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association and the Miners’ National Association, however, gave organizers for the secret union an open field, and on July 3, 1876 the Scranton miners formed Local Assembly 216 which provided some leadership during the 1877 strikes. Following the strikes the new union spread quickly throughout the coal fields; within the year local assemblies flourished in the Schuylkill region.
Opposition from the Roman Catholic Church hindered the growth of the Knights. Parish priests in the coal regions, ignoring Bishop Wood’s sanction of the Knights of Labor, denounced the organization. One priest opposed the new union to the extent that he created the Catholic Workingmen’s Society as an alternative for his parishioners. The hostility of the local pastors reflected their suspicion of secret societies in general and their awareness of the popular linking of labor and the Molly Maguires.
The secrecy of the union may have renewed fears of a terrorist group, but the local press quickly dispelled these. In May 1878 the Weekly Miners’ Journal published the preamble to the Knights of Labor’s constitution and in November printed and explained the union’s meeting notice. The ability of an enterprising newspaper to penetrate a clandestine society convinced many of the legitimacy of the Knights of Labor.
But Franklin B. Gowen rekindled suspicions in order to prevent a strike. Because of financial difficulties the Philadelphia and Reading stopped paying its mine workers in October 1878. In early January 1879 employees at the Reading’s Beechwood, Brookside, and Luke Fiddler collieries struck for back wages. In mid-January rumors that Reading mine workers at Centralia and Girardville would also strike were circulated. Faced with a potentially disastrous strike, Gowen took the fight to the Knights of Labor.
Gowen began his offensive with an open letter to the Weekly Miners’ Journal in which he shattered the Knights’ secrecy by listing the locations, numbers, and officers of the local assemblies. After demonstrating his complete knowledge of the union Gowen tried to array regional loyalties behind himself by contending that the society was “gotten up in other regions with a view of keeping Schuylkill County in idleness.” The most important part of the letter suggested a link between the secret union and the terrorist group, the Mollies. The Knights of Labor, Gowen alleged, contained a section called McNulty’s gang whose assignment was “to burn breakers and destroy property.”1
Gowen’s letter had the desired effect. The Weekly Miners’ Journal congratulated the Reading’s “perfect police” for exposing a union gang “whose mission partakes so much of the character of the extinct order of Mollie [sic] Maguires.”2 Parish priests were quick to use the letter against the Knights. In Shenandoah Father Henry O’Reilly read the letter and denounced both the union and the McNulty gang. The priest connected the McNulty gang and the Molly Maguires by naming “Muff” Lawler as a member of the new, allegedly terrorist, group.
Now on the defensive the Knights of Labor sought to improve their reputation. R.E. Diffenderfer, president of Local Assembly 887 in Pottsville, and other Knights petitioned the Schuylkill County Court to arrest the McNulty gang. The court in turn gave the petition to the district attorney, who, not knowing quite what to do with it, let the matter rest.
While the dispute over McNulty was running its course, the Knights of Labor were helpful to the mine workers, and got the credit when the Reading finally paid its employees. In the Shamokin area miners at the Mineral Mining Company had struck against a reduction in the piece rate; supported by the other regions, the strikers had waged a successful seven-week battle against the company.
Encouraged by this limited success the Knights renounced their secrecy on July 23, 1879, by giving a public picnic in Shenandoah. A crowd estimated at ten to fifteen thousand attended the outing and listened attentively to noted speakers U.P. Stephens and Terence V. Powderly. To the uninformed layman the well-attended picnic indicated that the Knights had successfully weathered the storms of opposition raised by the Catholic Church and Franklin B. Gowen. But the cloud of dual unionism was already gathering on the horizon.
Skeptical of the inclusiveness of the Knights, many miners wanted a union exclusively for mine workers. During February 1879 the Lehigh region mine workers moved toward craft unionism by forming the Workingman’s Protective Association of the Lehigh Region. At its first meeting the association called for a union embracing both the anthracite and bituminous coal miners. To achieve that end, the Protective Association invited all hard coal miners to send three delegates for every ten collieries to Hazleton on March 1 to consider the possibility of organizing an anthracite group.
A sufficient number of delegates appeared in Hazleton to establish an executive committee composed of representatives from each county. The new industrial union accepted the position of its predecessor, that the difficulties of the mine workers lay in the basic weakness of the anthracite coal mining industry, which they still saw as overproduction. The executive committee also agreed with the now defunct W.B.A. that the mine workers could best help themselves if they would “restrict and systematize productivity.” As the first step toward control of production the new union officials called a strike for March 15. The executive committee, hoping to establish a statewide union, requested the bituminous miners to send representatives to meet with the anthracite committee in Harrisburg. At the Harrisburg meeting the representatives confirmed the principle of unity among all mine workers and seconded the strike call for the anthracite industry.
But the anthracite mine workers did not go out on strike. Disappointed by the failure to strike, the Lehigh men began to desert the W.P.A. The weakness of the new union was emphasized when a poorly attended delegates meeting on April 19 agreed not to press any demands on the operators.
A successful strike in the Mahanoy City area, however, prompted the W.P.A. to reconsider.3 Meeting on July 5 the Lehigh men resolved that “when coal comes under $3.00 per ton we cease work”, and demanded a 20-percent increase in pay. The industrial union told the operators to meet the new wage demand by July 10 or face a strike.
The operators ignored the ultimatum, but there was no strike. The miners met on July 16 to discuss what course of action to take, but were unable to decide on anything. They called another meeting for three days later. At the July 19 meeting the association canceled its strike call. Fear that the other regions would not join the strike had dictated the cancellation and prompted a Hazleton newspaper, The Mountain Beacon, to advise:
In union there is strength! Were the miners a unit throughout the anthracite region in their deliberation and resolves, they could control wages, keep coal up at a fair price, and, in fact, be complete “masters of the situation.” But ill–advised strikes at a few collieries while the other sections continue to ship coal to their fullest capacity, should be avoided. Why don’t the miners organize so that when a strike is ordered the order will be promptly obeyed from Carbondale to Pottsville and Shamokin and not a pick lifted?4
The only industrial organization that appeared capable of reuniting the mine workers was their first union, the W.B.A. In 1880 sixty veterans of the W.B.A. held a reunion in Thompson’s Hall in Pottsville and proudly proclaimed the resurrection of the union. “The time is auspicious,” they declared, “for it rising phoenix-like from its own ashes and continuing for years to come to be a credit to its members and a means of keeping the coal trade in a prosperous condition.”5 But the sanguine sixty had misread the times; within two months the reincarnated W.B.A. sank back into its ashes.6
While the W.B.A. failed as an industrial union alternative to the Knights of Labor, it did provide the foundation for a new union—the Miners and Laborers’ Amalgamated Association. In 1883 the bituminous coal miners in Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland formed the Amalgamated Association of Miners of the United States. Hoping to enroll the anthracite mine workers, the association sent an organizer, George Harris, into the hard coal fields.
Harris opened his campaign in Mount Carmel in May 1884. He made his headquarters Woll’s Tavern in Pottsville, the old headquarters of the W.B.A. Progress was slow, but by November enough Schuylkill County miners were enrolled to necessitate a formal structure. The new union, however, admitted that the response of the mine workers had failed to meet expectations, and published an appeal for support. The appeal stirred John Parker, a leader and organizer of the old W.B.A., to offer his services to the fledgling union.
Assisted by Parker and other old labor leaders Harris achieved spectacular success during 1885. In May mine workers in Northumberland County perfected an organization. Later that summer the Philadelphia and Reading miners formed a grand district of the Amalgamated. In late November the Schuylkill unit received its charter, and miners in Carbon and Luzerne Counties gradually formed organizations. In late December the Amalgamated reached for the newly arrived immigrants by translating its constitution into Polish.
The new immigrants formed a growing and, for labor, questionable element in the anthracite coal regions. The East Europeans had appeared in the coal fields during the 1860s. During the Civil War the Polish community in Shamokin became large enough to organize the Saint Stanislaus Kostka Beneficial Society. From the southern fields the Slavs moved north; in 1868 Louis Hajdukiewicz, a Pole, arrived in Nanticoke in the Wyoming region after a brief stay in Hazleton. The Italians began to appear during the following decade; by 1878 there was an Italian community in Stockton in the Lehigh region. As can be seen in Table 27, the newer immigrants supplied an ever-increasing proportion of the anthracite laboring force.
Labor men viewed the “Slav invasion” with concern. The new arrivals’ lower standard of living posed a serious economic threat.7 Also, the clannishness of the immigrants and the hostile nativistic reactions disrupted the effort to achieve a truly collective response among the anthracite mine workers. Recognizing the need to enlist the Slavs and Italians, both the Knights of Labor and the Amalgamated tried to accommodate the new immigrants. But they were unsuccessful; the Knights remained basically an Irish organization, while the Amalgamated enrolled 30,000 English, Welsh, and German mine workers.
Immigrant Groups in Anthracite Mines, by Decades (Percentage)
Source: Roberts, Anthracite Industry, 19.
Throughout its existence the Amalgamated maintained a symbolic connection with the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. John Parker played an important role in the organization of both unions. Headquarters of the new organization were in the same building as the old had been, and the M.&L.A.A.’s charter proudly hung next to that of the W.B.A. Each association tended to blame the economic woes of the mine workers on a glutted market. With these links, the Amalgamated probably owed its success to the anthracite mine workers’ nostalgia and respect for their first union.
The existence of the Amalgamated, however, could have been a major barrier in the mine workers’ attempt to form a union capable of dealing effectively with the mine operators. Attempts at reorganization had resulted in the creation of two unions, each of which could be played against the other by an astute operator. Aware of this danger, the leaders of both organizations sought to coordinate their policies. In November 1885 the executive council of the Amalgamated met with the Knights of Labor and established a joint committee as liaison between the two unions.
Assured of mutual support, both unions attempted to increase wages. On the eve of the joint meeting the Amalgamated demanded that the miners receive nothing less than base wages. The joint committee ratified the demand and requested a consultation with the operators over wages. Most operators ignored the invitation, but the Philadelphia and Reading agreed to pay basis wages during November and December.
Encouraged by its success with the largest company in the Schuylkill region, the joint committee met in December and specified more detailed demands. It insisted that prices at New York harbor and Philadelphia markets be used in determining coal prices when fixing the basis and that representatives of the mine workers sit with the operators on the wage committee. The two unions also demanded that the wage schedule be not less than the 1875 Lehigh basis and that all inside boys between the ages of 15 and 18 be considered second-class laborers. The committee was partially successful in securing its demands. The Schuylkill Coal Exchange recognized the body and allowed its representatives to sit with the Exchange’s wage committee.
The Amalgamated worked for most of the wage demands, but followed the Knights’ lead in fighting for the eight-hour work day. In April the joint committee set May 1, 1886 as the deadline for the operators to grant the shorter day. Victory appeared within reach when the Reading agreed to the eight-hour day provided that the other operators also agreed. Unfortunately, the remaining operators were not as generous as the Reading, and the joint committee quietly dropped the issue.
The committee could nevertheless claim some success. Through its efforts the Schuylkill region mine workers gained representation on the wage committee for the first time in 11 years. The most powerful corporation in the southern region had yielded to demands for basis wages and the eight-hour day. But despite this qualified success, inter-union tension soon threatened to destroy the Joint Committee.
The tension between the two unions erupted in 1887 when the Amalgamated issued a demand for a 10-percent increase in wages. The Knights agreed to support the new wage schedule. But when the miners around Scranton, who were mostly Knights, refused to ask their employers for the wage increase, the joint committee withdrew the demand. Quick-tempered members of the industrial union considered the action of the Scranton Knights a breach of faith. Writing to the Weekly Miners’ Journal, “Miner” described the Knights as “being composed of the giddy youth” and advised that “one organization is all that is necessary in the coal region.”8
Discord between the Knights and the craft unions also tended to disturb the harmony created by the joint committee. The executive board of the Miners and Mine Laborers’ National Federation, to which the M.&L.A.A. maintained some allegiance, called for abolishing the methods of National Trade Assembly 135, the Knights’ mining organization. The Amalgamated refused to join in the Federation’s war.
Weakened by grassroots acrimony and national discord, the joint committee nevertheless attained a substantial victory at Harrisburg for the mine workers. During 1887 both unions lobbied for a law requiring the semimonthly payment of wages. Despite lobbying by the operators in return, the legislation was passed.
The Amalgamated was encouraged by the success in Harrisburg to reopen the wage question. In August it demanded a 15 percent increase in wages. The joint committee ratified the action of the Amalgamated by calling for a strike on September 10 against any operator who refused to grant the demand or to negotiate.
Reaction to the strike call varied from region to region. The poorly organized Wyoming-Lackawanna region did not obey the call, and the Schuylkill region largely evaded the strike when the bankrupt but still powerful Philadelphia and Reading opened last-minute negotiations. The railroad agreed to an 8 percent increase until January 1, 1888, pending settlement in other areas. Most Schuylkill independent operators followed the Philadelphia and Reading’s lead.9
The Lehigh independents, however, led the large companies in rejecting labor’s ultimatum.10 Ario Pardee Sr., spokesman for the Hazleton independent operators, bluntly stated: “Our position always has been and is now that we are unwilling to treat with anyone outside our employ, who knows nothing of our business and who is no way connected with us, and we are just as firm in that position as we ever have been.”11 Twenty thousand miners tested the firmness of the operators by walking out.
Mine operators adopted two strikebreaking strategies—reopening and starvation. As labor leaders feared, the operators tried wooing the new immigrants back to work, but to the surprise of everyone, the Slavs and Italians supported the strike. Many immigrants even left the region rather than take part in strikebreaking. In management’s view, if resident Slavs and Italians refused to fight management’s battle, willing immigrants could be found elsewhere; as early as September 11, Calvin Pardee brought in a group of Italians to break the strike.
The strikers greeted the “black legs” with violence. At the Humbolt colliery near Hazleton, Hungarian strikers attacked Hungarian “scabs” and both sides suffered casualties. Soon there was more extreme violence. In November unknown assailants shot two strikebreakers, John and Henry Miller, as they returned home from work. Many citizens also suspected the strikers of being guilty of arson after three breakers burned to the ground within a week.
The mine operators might have been able to use the acts of violence to rally public support behind them had they not alienated many by their use of strikebreakers. In December there were rumors that the operators were importing Belgian miners, which brought a strong protest:
The talk of the Lehigh operators importing Belgians to operate their mines is the merest subterfuge. Such action would not only be a violation of law but would be fruitful of consequences which would consign its projectors to ignominy such as would make them wish they themselves had gone to Belgium instead of bringing Belgium to the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania. Can it be possible that these operators are becoming demented to talk such stuff?12
In Washington, Congressman Charles N. Brumn (Republican-Greenbacker) supported the interests of his labor constituents by submitting a resolution requesting the President to enforce the 1885 immigration act. The Treasury Department instructed its Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore customs men to detain any Belgian miners entering those ports. The scare subsided when the Philadelphia customs office detained 12 Belgian miners.
Significantly, at least one large company, the Lehigh-Wilkes-Barre Coal Company, did not join with the independents in their drive to break the strike. W.H. Tillinghast, the company’s president, noted earlier actions by independent operators and advised his superintendent in the Lehigh region: “whilst I would be glad to start one or two of our collieries, I would not risk any contest with the men.” “If we could only resume by the request of our men,” Tillinghast later explained, “it would be a great point gained.”13
By November the independent operators saw the wisdom of Tillinghast’s advice and, using the base wage as bait, tried to lure the mine workers from their unions. Higher coal prices resulted in an automatic 4-1/2 percent increase in wages. The operators offered to pay the normal increase but refused to recognize the unions, while the strikers spurned what they felt to be a bribe.14
Unable to reopen, management waited until the necessities of the men forced them back. Operators evicted strikers from company housing, but labor staved them off by obtaining a temporary restraining injunction. Temporarily assured of shelter, the miners faced the greater threat of hunger.
The operators used various means in attempting to reduce the miners to starvation. A. Pardee and Company’s flour mill shut down and refused to deliver flour to the company’s stores. Other company stores simply refused to advance credit to the strikers. Coal also became scarce; by December the mining town of Freeland faced a “coal famine.”
Not content with denying their employees access to company stores and coal, the mine operators attempted to prevent the strikers from trading with other merchants. G.B. Markle and Company in Hazleton refused to pay August wages to its striking employees at the end of September. When in October the company finally paid for work done in August, the paymaster deducted four months advance rent, which left the men with little or no cash. Individual operators used their influence to prevent the strikers from getting temporary employment. In October superintendents of G.B. Markle and Company toured a drainage ditch construction site between Eckley and Harleigh and pointed out strikers, who were promptly fired. Ario Pardee put pressure on the Hazleton Steam Heating Company to discharge striking miners. Undeterred, the strikers sang:
In looking o’er the papers now
A funny thing appears,
Where Eckley Coxe and Pa dee say
They’ll stand for twenty years,
If God should call us miners off,
We’ll have children then alive,
Who will follow in our footsteps
Keep the strike for thirty-five.15
There were two reasons for the miners being able to withstand the starvation campaign. Many found work elsewhere. Both the Schuylkill and Lackawanna regions, operating full time, found in the strikers a willing pool of skilled manpower; in the Schuylkill region the Philadelphia and Reading hired 500 Lehigh miners and the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western in the Wyoming region found room for 400. Strikers also sought work in the cities or in the West. Indeed, it was estimated that not less than 5,000 strikers found work in other areas.16
Strikers who stayed where they were received outside support. Organized labor raised relief funds. The national executive board of the Knights of Labor issued a “red circular” and distributed it along with a personal appeal by Terence V. Powderly for donations. District and local assemblies responded generously; the Reading railroaders pledged a relief fund of $100,000, and contributed a day’s wages toward their goal. The Schuylkill miners agreed to a 5 percent assessment for the benefit of the Lehigh strikers. By issuing orders drawn on local merchants rather than opening their own stores, the strikers astutely distributed the relief funds.
Businessmen supplemented the support of organized labor. Local editors viewed the strike as an issue on which they had to take a stand:
For years have the intelligent people of this region been looking upon this picture of despair, but they like the toilers have been deaf, dumb and blind until now. The time has come, however, when silence ceases to be a virtue, and we believe that if the strikers will stand united they may be successful.17
Finding their voice, local newspapers chastised the operators:
The tactics of the petty nabobs of Lehigh are more like the antics of the old time Russian despots in dealing with their serfs, than the conduct of American employers towards American workingmen.18
It [the strike] points out very clearly that public opinion is moulded in favor of the miners in this struggle of might against right; the defiant stand taken by operators against what is only fair and just, has awakened the American people to the fact that a few millionaires have combined together to defeat the mining class of people in their endeavors to get a fair compensation for a fair days [sic] labor.19
Editors not only defended the miners’ cause, they furthered it by pointing out that the philanthropy of the local independent operators benefited other areas and the “petty coal kings” kept company stores which were a “drawback to legitimate business houses.”20
It was understandable that local businessmen would attack the company stores by supporting labor. Hazleton merchants subscribed to The Plain Speaker’s relief fund. Businessmen in the Schuylkill region aided the miners in their fight against “autocrats who do not possess the ordinary instincts of good Christians nor respectful citizens” by organizing themselves as financial auxiliaries to the unions.21 Pottsville merchants, for example, organized the “Business Men’s Relief Organization of Pottsville” to raise funds for the strikers.
Other members of the “middle class” in the anthracite regions also supported the strikers. Reverend T.M. Bateman, pastor of the Hazleton Primitive Methodist Church, gave a series of ten lectures to raise money for a Christmas dinner for the striking miners, and Roman Catholic priests refused to exert their influence against the strike. Even the civil authorities supported the strike by detaining would-be strikebreakers for “nonpayment of taxes.”
Merchants took an active role in the strike. Labor believed that the Lehigh Valley Railroad was helping the more resolute independents to maintain the strike by threatening wavering operators with rate increases. Spurred by the threat of being boycotted themselves, local merchants joined labor’s boycott against the Lehigh Valley. Attention, however, soon switched to the Reading.
The Reading’s decision in September to negotiate created excellent labor relations which the company cultivated by hiring Lehigh strikers and selling excursion tickets to a benefit for the Lehigh miners at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. But as the strike continued, labor began to question the good intentions of the Reading, whose greatly increased production aroused suspicions that it was helping the Lehigh operators meet their contracts. Many miners also feared that the Reading agreed to enter the battle when its temporary agreement with the unions pending settlement in other areas expired.
A strike on the Reading substantiated these suspicions. The strike occurred when the Reading at Port Richmond dismissed Knights of Labor who refused to deliver a carload of flour to the Philadelphia Grain Elevator Company. Determined that “the company will hereafter operate its own road if it takes a regiment of military at every point,” the Reading fired and blacklisted the striking Knights; even Operator Kane, who had lost a leg in railroad service, was caught in the sweep.22 The Reading enjoyed the services of a valuable ally in its fight against the Knights; a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers gloated: “The Knights are knocked out, and the Brotherhood had a hand in doing it. We are pledged to stand by the Company and we have a man ready at any moment to take charge of every engine on the entire system.”23
The Reading’s action spread fear and anger among the Schuylkill miners. In December they requested a continuation of the 8 percent increase due to expire January 1, 1888. Arguing that coal prices would not permit an extension, Austin Corbin, the president of the Reading, refused to negotiate, and his miners walked out on January 3, 1888. Independent operators were willing to grant the continuation to avoid a strike, but ran afoul of the railroad strike when their miners refused to dig coal which would be hauled by the Reading. The Schuylkill strike was a combination of two strikes, both aimed at the Reading.
Proclaiming that the Reading had driven “the individual coal operators out of business,” labor began a legal campaign to separate the railroad from its coal mining subsidiary. Labor cited Pennsylvania’s 1874 Constitution, which prohibited railroads from owning mining property, and, supported by the Constitutional Defense Association, petitioned state authorities to initiate quo warranto proceedings against the Reading. But the state authorities could do little since the Reading enjoyed ex post facto protection.24
Frustrated at the state level, labor turned to Washington, where the unions petitioned the House of Representatives to investigate the Reading. The response to the petition triggered intra-party strife when Samuel J. Randall, Democratic state chairman of Pennsylvania, sought to extend the scope of the investigation to embarrass his chief rival, William L. Scott, who owned coal mines in the Shamokin area, and Eckley B. Coxe, who, rumors held, was being considered as a candidate for state chairman by anti-Randall forces. The political maneuvers resulted in an investigation of the anthracite labor troubles. Under Chairman George D. Tillman, “Pitchfork Ben’s” brother, the investigating committee discovered a pool of anthracite operators regulating production and prices, along with a conspiracy to destroy labor unions. The committee suggested legislation divorcing railroads from mining.
But the Congressional investigation was a hollow victory. No legislation was passed, and the miners succumbed to the power of the Reading. Before the strike the Reading had attempted to overawe the mine workers by increasing its Coal and Iron Police force. After the strike began the company tried to break the strike by importing immigrants. It brought in 260 Italians to reopen its Mahanoy City colliery, for example.
If the strikebreaking technique was not a complete success immediately, management entertained no doubts over the outcome of the strike. Testifying before the Congressional committee, A.S. Whiting, the Reading’s general superintendent, explained his confidence:
Question: “You say these striking men will come back and go to work?”
Whiting: “Yes, sir.”
Question: “On your terms?”
Whiting: “At the old rates; yes sir.”
Question: “What force do you rely on to bring these men back?”
Whiting: “Well, sir, their necessities.”
Question: “Starved out, do you mean?”
Whiting: “I did not say we would keep them out until they starve. I did not propose to put it in that shape.”25
If the Reading did not overtly propose to starve the men into submission, it nevertheless did all it could to hasten the day when “necessities” would force the men back to work at the old rates. The company evicted strikers. Lacking company stores, the Reading could not deny credit, but it added to the discomfort of the strikers by refusing to sell coal in the region during the strike.
The starvation tactics of the Reading only reinforced the miners’ faith in unionism. Fathers denounced sons who broke the strike and children refused to share their schoolbooks with “scabs.” But the men could not live by faith alone, and the Schuylkill strikers failed to obtain adequate relief funds.
Unable to view the strikes against the Reading as an attack on the company store, as they viewed the Lehigh strike, local businessmen refused to support the miners.26 Local editors, having come full circle now, violently disagreed with the metropolitan newspapers which considered the strike as being “provoked by rank injustice,” and insisted that the Reading was not under any obligation to continue the compromise agreement. Schuylkill newspaper publishers described the Congressional committee as “These Boors,” and lectured the committee on the moral difference between a pool formed to regulate an industry suffering from overproduction and one formed for speculative purposes. Merchants, anxious to end the strike, urged Reading’s president Corbin to make minor concessions, but labor would not settle for less than a contract extension, so Corbin refused to negotiate. Rebuffed by both capital and labor, local business turned against labor. Storekeepers wrote public letters denouncing the strike and its leaders and added force to their words by denying credit. No Protestant minister stepped forward to aid the strikers, and the Catholic clergy denounced the unions and their strikes.
Loss of public support and a growing disenchantment within the ranks was seriously weakening the Schuylkill strike. As the strike began to collapse, the mine workers became violent. Attacks on black legs became more frequent. Some mine workers threatened the strikebreakers with death; once again Molly Maguire notes circulated. The growing tendency toward violence among the strikers and a full complement of heavily armed private police could only result in a riot.
The riot occurred in Shenandoah in February 1888. The Shenandoah strikers had become restive in late January when the manager of the William Penn colliery posted notices that he would reopen in February. On February 2nd angry strikers threw stones at black legs as they entered the mine, but failed to stop the reopening. Elated by the success of the William Penn, yet cautioned by the rock-throwing, other mine operators started to reopen under Coal and Iron Police protection. At quitting time on February 3, a crowd gathered at the West Shenandoah colliery, attempting to discourage the strikebreakers from returning to work the next day. As they began to throw rocks the Coal and Iron Police moved in and arrested several strikebreakers. During the scuffle one officer was knocked to the ground whereupon he and other policemen fired into the crowd, wounding three.
The angry crowd followed the Coal and Iron Police to Squire Shoemaker’s and demanded the release of the arrested stone-thrower (the others had escaped during the excitement). The stoning of his home convinced Shoemaker that discretion was the better part of valor, and he released the prisoner. Meanwhile the city authorities arrested two Coal and Iron policemen and took them before Squire Monaghan. A crowd quickly gathered at Monaghan’s and demanded that the policemen be turned over to them, but were dispersed by a sheriffs posse.
On February 4 another crowd of miners assembled at the Keehley Run colliery to hurl both their scorn and something more substantial at the strikebreakers. The Coal and Iron Police escorts contained the crowd until the workers safely escaped. Their job done, the police were retreating to their base at Indian Ridge colliery when a stone struck an officer. The police fired a volley which wounded six. The second shooting ended the riot and by that evening order had been restored.
With the successful reopening of the William Penn colliery the strike effort was seriously weakened; wholesale desertion followed. The frustrated miners tried to stem the adverse tide with violent means, but the presence of heavily armed Coal and Iron Police was proof to the miners that management still commanded overwhelming power.27
With its front crumbling, labor sought peace. W.T. Lewis, Master Workman of the Miners’ National Trade Assembly, ordered the Knights of Labor back to work on February 17. The Amalgamated, however, held out six days longer and returned with a face-saving reduction in the cost of mining supplies. The victorious Corbin magnanimously donated $20,000 for the relief of the destitute miners. The Lehigh strikers, discouraged by the Schuylkill example and by the systematic discharge by Lackawanna operators of those hired earlier in the strike, had to forget their promise to hold out 35 years; they began to return to work in late February. On March 4 the unions capitulated. The defeated miners, however, did not receive charity from the victorious operators in the Lehigh region: “Dont suppose any of our men made themselves particularly obnoxious during the strike; if they did you can gradually, without causing comment, weed them out after work is resumed.”28
The failure of the 1887-88 strikes completely demoralized the anthracite mine workers’ second attempt to organize. Disillusioned and frustrated, the mine workers began to desert their unions. Although not completely destroyed, neither the Knights of Labor nor the Miners’ and Laborers’ Amalgamated would regain its former strength.