The Final Organization
The mine operators defeated but did not destroy the two unions in the 1887-88 strikes; now both the Knights and the Amalgamated vainly endeavored to regain lost ground. Officers of the Miners’ National Trade Assembly of the Knights of Labor devoted some time to salvaging their disintegrating organization in the anthracite coal fields. In January 1889 Robert Watchorn, secretary-treasurer of the National Assembly, made a lecture tour of the hard coal fields. John Hart, an organizer, went with Watchorn and concentrated on rebuilding Division 12, which encompassed the Schuylkill region.
Hart had only temporary success with rebuilding. The 29 delegates attending the division’s April meeting reported an increase of 1,300 members. Hoping to further swell its membership, the division imported five “General Speakers” to spread the message about unionism during a month-long series of lectures. The revival meeting technique, however, proved ineffective; poor attendance forced the cancellation of the June assembly.
Not dismayed by the poor response, national officers of the M.N.T.A. continued their efforts to reorganize the hard coal fields. To increase the stature of the union among the mine workers, they convened their 1889 national assembly at Wilkes-Barre. But the boast that the M.N.T.A. had 25,000 members failed to impress the anthracite mine workers.1 The efforts of the national officers of the Knights of Labor benefited somewhat the few remaining local and district unions in the anthracite fields, but the Knights failed to provide adequate leadership in the anthracite mine workers’ quest for reorganization.
The Amalgamated also failed. The Miners’ and Laborers’ Amalgamated Association tried to renew interest in unionism among the mine workers by importing top-level speakers. In May 1888 Daniel McLaughlin, a member of the Illinois legislature, president of the Miners’ Protective Association of Illinois, and vice president of the American Federation of Labor, accepted an invitation by the Amalgamated to stump the region on behalf of the union. Unfortunately the effect of McLaughlin’s tour cannot be measured, but in July the Shamokin miners reorganized their local union. Heartened by this action, the executive council of the Amalgamated called on all mine workers to help themselves by “enrolling under the banner of organization.”2 Apparently few miners wished to help themselves, for the council renewed its appeal the next month.
Developments at the national level, however, were encouraging. In late 1888 the Amalgamated was invited to a merger meeting of National Trade Assembly 135 and the American Miners’ Federation (the A.F. of L.’s miners’ union). During the meeting William T. Lewis, Master Workman of Trade Assembly 135, and his partisans bolted the Knights of Labor and joined the federation, which promptly reorganized itself as the Miners’ National Progressive Union.
The M.N.P.U. strove to draw the anthracite regions into its organization. In February 1889 Thomas W. Davis and J.J. Fritzpatrick, vice president and member of the new union’s executive board, respectively, spoke in the Mahanoy City area. After Davis and Fritzpatrick had left, the mine workers held a mass meeting in Ashland to discuss the possibility of affiliating with the new union. Hearing of the proposed meeting, the executive board of the M.N.P.U. sent the anthracite mine workers an open letter reminding them that “God helps those who help themselves.”3 The miners resolved to help themselves by associating with the new union.
Elated by the display of confidence in Ashland, the M.N.P.U. aided the organizational drive of the Amalgamated by sending P.H. Donnely, an organizer, into the hard coal regions. Donnely remained in the field for several months, but was unable to increase the union’s membership. The executive council of the Amalgamated held sporadic meetings throughout 1889, but, with the exception of planning and erecting a monument to the late John Siney, it was unable to accomplish anything.
Although helped by national organizations, the Knights of Labor and the Amalgamated failed to recover the ground lost during the 1887-88 strikes. The refusal of the mine workers to reenlist in a collective effort gave the operators the opportunity to scrap the unions’ earlier achievements. Wages quickly dropped; in June 1888 Schuylkill region miners received 10 percent less wages than in the same month the previous year. Small independent operators refused to comply with the semimonthly wage guidelines. Independent mine owners also forced their employees to sign the “dockage confession,” by which the miners waived their right to seek redress for illegal dockage. “If ‘the dockage confession’ should become a recognized institution in this country,” warned the Daily Republican, “there would no longer be any question of the subjugation and practical enslavement of the miners who risk their lives continually that coal barons may live in luxury on the profits of their toil.”4
Alarmed, the mine workers turned again to unionism for protection. A group of miners met in Pittston in October 1889 and proposed the formation of a new union to “comprise all miners of the Anthracite regions.”5 They demonstrated some political know-how by suggesting that the organization should nominate legislative candidates. Economically the new union would create a “Labor Exchange,” consisting of the union’s general superintendent, general secretary, and grand adviser, which would meet and discuss problems with the coal pool. The delegates at the Pittston meeting nominated Franklin B. Gowen for the post of grand adviser and recommended that the grand adviser receive a $10,000 annual salary, a suggestion too ludicrous for serious consideration.
The mine workers, however, did pay some attention to renewed efforts on the part of the Amalgamated to reestablish itself. In November 1889 the Amalgamated’s executive council opened its reorganization campaign by boasting of its record: “During the active days of the M.&L.B.A. in this region wages were higher and times generally better than any period in many years, in fact no percentage reductions were made between November, 1885, and July, 1888, or until the men themselves grew indifferent towards organization.”6 After their braggadocio the executive council appealed to the men “to organize for mutual protection.” In December the union attempted to stimulate enrollment by abolishing its initiation fee.
The executive council had some success in its drive to enlarge the union; mine workers in Park Place and Saint Clair reorganized their defunct branches. Elated by the renewed activity, the Amalgamated called a mass meeting of mine workers for February 22, 1890 and explained:
. . . the object of said meeting to be, to consider and take such action as is deemed necessary on the advisability of cementing existing organizations and urge all unorganized men into one organization covering the whole anthracite region that will look after the interests of the mine workers of this section and endeavor by practical organized effort to bring about more satisfactory results.7
The explanation is important because it demonstrates that the anthracite mine workers had local unions; they lacked only a general association.
Thirty-three delegates attended the February meeting to discuss the founding of an industrywide union. After some deliberation the representatives agreed to meet during the following month, and resolved that there should be “one organization for the whole anthracite region and that the organization should be an open one.”8 Slightly more delegates (41) convened for the second conference and voted in favor of one union, to be called the Workingmen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
During the April meeting the delegates outlined the W.B.P.A.’s objectives. The new union proposed to organize all mine workers and cooperate with other labor unions to secure fair wages. It would enforce existing laws and urge the passage of others for the mine workers’ benefit. The new union also demanded a strict enforcement of the anti-contract labor laws. The most interesting aspect of the new organization was its conservative attitude. The W.B.P.A. promised that it would substitute arbitration for strikes and that it would “cultivate a closer relationship between employer and employee.” To guarantee the closer relationship the new union pledged itself to “discountenance and ignore any attempts on the parts of its members to infringe upon the rights of his employer.”9
In June the new movement gained momentum as the Wyoming-Lackawanna men began to organize, and representatives from every anthracite county attended the meeting that month. The meeting considered favorably a demand by the delegate from Saint Clair that an organizer be placed in the field, and appointed John Bell to that position. The W.B.P.A., however, was unable to maintain its impetus; in August the prospect of poor attendance forced the cancellation of the delegates’ meeting.
To some extent, the W.B.P.A.’s decline can be attributed to opposition from the operators. The Philadelphia and Reading fired its employees who had attended the March organizational meeting and prevented three others from attending the April conference by insisting that they remain at work. “In some countries, this would be called tyranny,” remonstrated the Daily Republican, “in free America it is practiced with impunity, and there is no redress for the oppressed.”10
But tyranny did not completely account for the decline of the union. The W.B.P.A. was amazingly lax; until spurred by the Saint Clair men, it did not put an organizer in the field. Moreover, the conservatism of the union had as little appeal for the rank and file as the Pittston meeting’s suggestion that Franklin B. Gowen be appointed grand adviser to labor.
Numerous strikes during this period indicate that although the mine workers shunned the W.B.P.A. they had not discarded the idea of a union, of organized protest. Most strikes were local, and usually ended in defeat. Failure at the local level made the miners keenly aware of the need for wider action. Unable to found a general organization by themselves, they turned to the United Mine Workers of America.
The United Mine Workers of America was the result of a merging of Miners’ National Trade Assembly 135 of the Knights of Labor and the American Miners’ Federation. In 1885 the Federation replaced the defunct Amalgamated Association of Miners as an industrial and open union alternative to the Knights of Labor. After a bitter fight the two organizations held an unsuccessful merger conference in 1888; as mentioned above, only a portion of the Knights joined the Federation to form the Miners’ National Progressive Union. The two unions finally settled their differences in 1890, however, and formed the United Mine Workers.
The Saint Clair men were the first anthracite miners to notice the U.M.W. In their appeal to the Workingmen’s Benevolent and Protective Association for an organizer, the Saint Clair local suggested that the W.B.P.A. request the services of either the American Federation of Labor or the United Mine Workers if an organizer could not be found within the W.B.P.A. The appointment of John Bell precluded the establishing of a liaison with the new U.M.W.
In June 1892 the Shamokin men organized a U.M.W. local union, thus bringing the U.M.W. into the anthracite regions. But the national union experienced some difficulty in spreading beyond its Shamokin base; it took more than a year for word of a new organization to circulate. It was in November 1893 that George Harris, the organizer of the Miners and Laborers’ Amalgamated Association, stumped the Schuylkill region on behalf of unionism. A stimulating speaker, Harris usually left an embryonic local union in his wake.
After Harris had laid the groundwork, the United Mine Workers began to blossom. In August 1894 the new union was strong enough to call its first district convention. Not much is known about this meeting, but delegates from the entire Schuylkill region attended the district’s second convention in November. By January 1895 the district boasted 63 local unions and sent ten delegates to the U.M.W. national convention.
Despite its quick blossoming the U.M.W. failed to put down deep roots in the anthracite regions. The new organization represented only the Schuylkill region, and past experience had shown that a union that did not include all three regions died quickly. Within the Schuylkill region the U.M.W. failed to enlist the new immigrants who were fast becoming the major element in the anthracite labor force.
The failure of the new union to establish itself firmly among the anthracite mine workers explains the reaction of management. The operators ignored the request of the U.M.W. for representation on the wage committee. During the Centralia strike of 1896 the Lehigh Valley Coal Company refused to let the union intercede because mediation would be viewed as recognition of the union.
The U.M.W. acknowledged its own weakness; with the exception of an occasional bid for employer recognition and a declaration against the basis system of wages, it concentrated its activities on politics. In September 1895 the new union gathered data on the violation of the 1887 semimonthly wage law, which it turned over to the state factory inspector. The U.M.W. also fought a bill allowing tax collectors to attach the wages of miners. The union joined the middle class in the coal regions in launching a legislative campaign against the company store. The anti-company store movement accomplished nothing.
The U.M.W. did succeed in securing one desired law. John Fahy, the U.M.W. organizer, was convinced by nativist propaganda and the new immigrants’ hesitancy to join the union that the two factors were a major obstacle to the organization of the anthracite regions. Accordingly he traveled to Harrisburg to lobby for an anti-immigrant law. Aided by two other union leaders Fahy secured the passage of the Campbell Act, which taxed employers three cents per day for each adult immigrant on their payrolls.11
The anthracite mine owners shifted the burden to the immigrant by deducting the tax from his wages.12 By doing so, the operators also shifted the odium of the tax from the union to themselves. During the strike of 1897 the operators would reap the consequences.
The strike of 1897 began as a reaction to one man’s personality. Gomer Jones looked upon his appointment to the superintendency of the Honeybrook division of the Lehigh-Wilkes-Barre Coal Company, near Hazleton, as a challenge. Replacing weaker men, Jones restored discipline through sternness and wholesale firing; his men hated him, while the middle class in the area condemned his “arrogance.”13 Oblivious to these feelings, Jones further alienated his employees by inaugurating several economies. Part of his retrenchment program called for a centralized stable at the Company’s Audenreid stripping operations.
Noting that the location of the new stable would require two hours of extra work per day, 35 immigrant mule drivers at Stripping Number 5 struck on Saturday, August 14, and set up a picket line. Jones viewed the strike as a disciplinary problem; brandishing an ax handle he threatened the pickets with corporal punishment. Seeing the object of their resentment thus armed, the men attacked Jones. Jones, aided by a friend, managed to escape, but not before he hit a striker with his club. News of the event quickly spread; by that evening 800 mine workers around Audenreid walked off their jobs in protest. On Monday 2,000 joined the mule drivers’ strike by refusing to work until the company discharged Jones.
The strike increased without benefit of “any recognized leader.” Realizing the need for organization the strikers requested the aid of John Fahy in forming a U.M.W. local. In the interim the miners created a temporary committee and elected Joseph Keshilla, a Hungarian, president and Nille Duse, an Italian, vice president. The election reflected the strike’s personnel: immigrants had started and maintained the strike while the “American” miners refused to participate. The fact that the immigrants were no longer docile came as a welcome surprise; local editors gloated over what they considered to be poetic justice: “The strike now in progress on the South Side has furnished an object lesson that it will be well for the operators in this section to make note of. The day of the slave driver is past, and the once ignorant foreigner will no longer tolerate it.”14
The company tried to end the dangerous lesson quickly. It fired foremen and clerks who sympathized with the strikers. Two squads of Coal and Iron Police patrolled the area with Winchester rifles. Neither tactic impressed the strikers; they stood firm. “Never in all our experience.” reported the Daily Standard, “have we met a more determined body of strikers than was found in the several patches.”15
Unable to frighten the miners back to work, the company next tried diplomacy. Its first offer was a promise to negotiate after the men returned to work. But the immigrants refused to consider the proposition. Finally General Superintendent Elmer H. Lowall ended the strike by revoking the stable order and promising to investigate Gomer Jones within ten days.
But industrial peace did not return to the Hazleton area. The alien tax law went into effect on August 21, and on August 26 the immigrants at Coleraine struck for a wage increase that would cover the new tax. The foreigners spread the strike by marching to Milnesville and Beaver Meadows. Meanwhile the original strikers at Audenreid grew impatient as the Lehigh–Wilkes-Barre Coal Company proved lax in opening the Gomer Jones investigation; when the ten-day period expired they joined the strike.
As they had in the first strike, immigrants provided the initiative and leadership. “Holy Mother!” exclaimed an Irishman, “is it mesilf that’s quittin fer the shallow faced spalpeens?”16 Under immigrant leadership the strikers formulated their demands: a 15 percent wage increase; the right to select and pay their own physician; and an end to the company store. To these traditional demands the immigrants added another of their own—the same wages as “Americans.” Armed with a program the strikers marched from colliery to colliery forcing the men at each one to quit work. By September 6 the marchers had closed down most of the mines on the south side of Hazleton.
On September 6 the operators called for police protection. Three counties—Luzerne, Carbon, and Schuylkill—touched Hazleton’s south side, and the counties’ three sheriffs responded. Sheriff Alexander Scott of Schuylkill County took a posse to McAdoo, but finding the marchers in McAdoo orderly, he returned to Pottsville after reading a riot proclamation. Upon his return to the county seat, Scott stated that his trip was a waste of the taxpayers’ money because the strikers were not a threat to private property. Sheriff James Martin of Luzerne County did not agree with Scott, nor did he worry about the taxpayer. Coal and Iron Police formed most of his 150-man posse while the operators furnished the posse’s arms and wages. On September 10 Sheriff Martin used part of his well-endowed posse to protect private property in Lattimer.
At first the strike bypassed A. Pardee and Company’s mine patch of Lattimer, which lay on Hazleton’s north side. But when Pardee’s Harwood mine employees organized a U.M.W. local the immigrants at the Lattimer mine requested the aid of the Harwood men in closing down the Lattimer mine. The southside strikers could not resist the temptation to shut down the entire Hazleton area. After several disappointing sorties they began their march northward on September 10 without arms and behind two American flags.
At the Hazleton city limits the marchers met Mayor Altmiller, who refused to permit the men to parade through the town. The strikers then took a circular route and confronted Sheriff Martin in West Hazleton. Martin vainly tried to stop the march. Angered by their failure, Martin and his deputies took a trolley to Lattimer, where they established a picket line across the public highway. When the marchers arrived in Lattimer the sheriff repeated his demand that the parade cease. Suddenly Martin either fell or was pushed aside and his posse fired into the unarmed strikers. The deputies fired with cool and deliberate aim, hitting some of the marchers in the back as they ran for cover. When the smoke finally cleared, more than 50 strikers, mostly immigrants, lay dead or wounded.
“Strikers shot in cold blood,” screamed the Pottsville Republican, and most of the middle class in the coal regions agreed.17 The Daily Standard editorialized: “It was not a battle, because the strikers were not aggressive, nor were they on the defensive, because they had no weapons of any kind and were simply shot down like so many worthless objects, each of the licensed life takers trying to out-do the other in this butchery.”18 Mayor Altmiller also protested the shooting:
When the men declared their intention to march through the city on Thursday, I told them I would not permit it. They advanced as you know to the line and I met them. They then took a circuitous route without quarreling with anyone and without disturbance. They were handled on this occasion without difficulty and I believe that they could be handled in the same manner all along..19
The citizens of Hazleton joined in the chorus at a mass meeting in which they expressed sympathy for the victims and adopted the following resolution:
Whereas a sad calamity has befallen this community and an unwarranted and uncalled for attack has been made upon peaceful persons seeking redress Resolved, that we, as a body, condemn and deplore such actions which were perpetrated on the public highway without justification or excuse.20
The citizens also called for the arrest of the sheriff and requested the governor to keep troops out of the region. But Governor Daniel H. Hastings, perhaps alarmed by the news that a crowd of immigrant miners had raided homes in McAdoo in search of arms, sent the Third Brigade to the Hazleton region the following morning. Local editors viewed the arrival of the troops as another example of the operators running roughshod over the townspeople’s wishes.
The citizens of Hazleton, however, refused to be denied. In cooperation with several immigrant societies, they swore out warrants for the arrest of Sheriff Martin and his deputies. Some deputies fled into the militia’s lines and the troops refused to allow the warrants to be served. The National Guard finally relinquished its protection and the court held Martin and 73 deputies for trial. The court set bail at $4,000 per person, which the City Trust, Safe Deposit, and Surety Company of Philadelphia provided. The following day the court increased the bail to $6,000 per person and the same company provided the necessary bond.
The wheels of justice ground slowly, but each turn seemed favorable to the prosecutors. In late September the coroner’s inquest found the killings unnecessary. The grand jury returned true bills against the sheriff and his deputies in October. But after a five-week trial the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
The strike continued while interested citizens sought to bring Sheriff Martin and his deputies to justice. The Lattimer shooting had a profound effect on the mine workers. Before the incident, immigrants maintained the strike while the older ethnic stocks remained aloof, but the shooting brought all ethnic groups into the strike. Recognizing defeat, the operators, except for Eckley B. Coxe and Brothers, agreed to readjust their pay scales. Despite the opposition of some angry women, the men returned to work at higher wages.
The anthracite mine workers gained an organization as well as higher wages in the 1897 strike. By early October John Fahy announced that he had completed the organizing of the Hazleton area. But the desire to enroll in the union was not unique to the Hazleton area; shocked by the shooting, mine workers throughout the anthracite fields sought to express their unity with the Lattimer “martyrs” by joining the United Mine Workers. It would take time to perfect the organization of nearly 150,000 men, but the Lattimer shooting made that organization impossible to stop.
During its organization drive the U.M.W. adjusted to the realities of the anthracite regions. John Fahy accommodated ethnocentrism by organizing each immigrant group into separate locals which used the native language of their members. The district form of government allowed the union to resist the centrifugal forces of regionalism. When finally organized, the United Mine Workers divided the anthracite fields into three districts whose boundaries corresponded to regional lines. The Anthracite Tri-District Convention enabled a unification of policy while the powers retained by the national union guaranteed that a district—region—would not be allowed to go its own way.
Thus the anthracite mine workers, demoralized by their defeat in the 1887-88 strikes, rejected the early reorganizational drives by both the Knights of Labor and the Miners and Laborers’ Amalgamated Association. The haste of the mine operators to undo the unions’ accomplishments, however, stimulated the mine workers to seek protection through collective action, and the hard coal miners at length turned to the United Mine Workers. The U.M.W. saw “new immigrants” as the greatest obstacle to organization and tried to remove them by lobbying for antiimmigrant legislation, but ironically the “new immigrants” made possible the complete organization of the anthracite coal fields by spontaneously striking against the arbitrary actions of Gomer Jones and by shedding their blood during the Lattimer shooting. The Lattimer shooting gave all mine workers a common identity which they expressed by joining the union.
The collective response had been largely a failure; its major achievement was the basis system of wage determination. Yet the basis system did little to restructure the reward system, since the failure of the unions allowed management to manipulate the system for its own benefit. Even if the unions had survived, however, it is doubtful if the basis system would have benefited labor. By tying wages to coal prices, the basis system made labor a victim of the anthracite industry’s basic sickness—overinvestment.
Both management and labor realized separately that they were victims of a sick industry. Both mistakenly concluded that the illness was low prices due to overproduction and both applied the same remedy—price maintenance. Price maintenance, however, abated but did not arrest the industry’s true disease. Management’s technique of maintaining prices, a pool governed by productive capacity, stimulated further investment. The basis system encouraged the existence of marginal capital by automatically reducing labor costs as prices fell. To a large extent, the anthracite mine workers’ low wages were the result of the inability by both management and labor to fathom economic reality.
The mine workers had also tried to improve their reward system through the political process. Through their unions they secured legislation granting them the right to hire a checkweigh man and to receive a semimonthly pay. But both laws became dead letters after the collapse of the unions. As in the case of higher wages, the collective response through legal action produced only temporary results.
Yet the fleeting results testified to the value of collective ability. The anthracite mine workers were quick to correlate higher wages and better legal protection with the lifespan of their unions. This correlation, plus the demonstrated futility of direct and violent reaction, convinced the mine workers of the need to restructure their reward system and improve their working conditions by a unified effort.