The Collapse of the W.B.A.
The 1870 strike disillusioned the anthracite mine workers. Weakened by regionalism, their union appeared incapable of achieving its goal at the very time that the railroad companies were demonstrating their ability to regulate coal production and hence coal prices. Certainly the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association would have to adopt new methods of obtaining higher wages.
The Schuylkill County Executive Board reflected the change in thinking in November 1870 when it negotiated a contract for the following year. Except for a 16-1/2 percent reduction in contract rates, the agreement was essentially the same as that of July. Both parties were careful to make the contract provisional pending the Reading Railroad’s sanction. The prospect of industrial peace was bright now that the strongest union in the two regions had reached an agreement with the operators.
The Wyoming corporations destroyed this prospect. Expulsion from the General Council had not destroyed unionism in the northern region; it merely freed the unions from involvement with the other regions.1 The Wyoming unions became active when the companies announced a 30 percent reduction in wages. The unions met in early December to discuss their response. Prodded by the Irish members in the unions, the Wyoming men decided to strike. Seeking wider support for their strike, the Wyoming unions petitioned for readmittance to the General Council and promised to pay their back dues and obey all orders if the Council would grant their petition. The General Council, anxious to form an industrywide union, reinstated the strikers.
At the first meeting of the General Council that they attended, the Wyoming delegates moved that an industrywide strike be called for January 10, 1871. The Schuylkill County delegates, knowing that they could not defeat the strike motion, sought to postpone it until February 1. Joined by the representatives of the Lehigh region, whose unions went out on strike in early January, the Wyoming delegates easily defeated the delaying action and rammed the motion through.2
The miners and laborers in Schuylkill County protested the vote. Almost to a man, they were against both the readmittance of the Wyoming men and the strike vote. “A Miner,” writing to the editor of the Daily Miners’ Journal, drew a novel conclusion from his reading of the Bible, and declared that it was wrong to welcome back a “rich Prodigal Son.” The grievance was that the same men who had become rich by refusing to join the Schuylkill strike now wanted the southern men to join their strike. They expected too much in asking men who had “worked only five months in the past thirteen” to join them.3 The writer threatened disobedience; “but if [the Wyoming men] voted down those five delegates, from Schuylkill, they have not voted down the men who sent those delegates.”4 John Siney confirmed this opinion when he said later, “The Schuylkill Association was outvoted in the General Council but it did not pledge the action of Schuylkill.”5
As the date for the strike drew closer, speculation on the Schuylkill men’s reaction increased. Contrary to the expectations of some, the Schuylkill region, with the exception of the Shamokin and Lykens Valley areas, joined the strike. It was natural for the region to strike; since the resumption of work in July 1870, production had out-distanced demand and prices were falling again. The operators favored a strike; they offered to pay base wages for January if the union could make the strike general. Since base wages would amount to a 16-1/2 percent increase in pay, the men could not afford to reject the offer. There was no decision to suspend work, for there were no alternatives; the lack of orders meant a strike regardless of the desire to work. The only two areas where demand existed—Shamokin with its southern and western markets via the Northern Central Railroad, and Lykens Valley, for whose “red ash coal” there was never a lack of orders—remained working.
The Schuylkill region thought of the strike as a cooperative effort between labor and capital to raise coal prices. As such, both sides agreed to maintain the strike in a friendly manner.6 The Shenandoah Herald outlined its opinion of the strike: “The strike is to end when production is reduced and prices raised. The other regions will then go to work, whether the difficulty in Wyoming is settled or not. After that each county will fix its own difficulties and wages, all [county unions] going out when the price falls too low.”7 The strike had revived the alliance between capital and labor, but it was an alliance that quickly broke. The miners and laborers longed for the return of the golden year, 1869, when they enjoyed higher wages and did not suffer a cut in wages when coal prices fell below the base. Stirred by hopes that the union could now maintain both high prices and high wages, they agitated for the $3 base, provided the Wyoming men would cooperate.
The operators in Schuylkill County and the Lehigh region proposed their own terms.8 Under Gowen’s tutelage they formed the Committee of Fifteen, which also included railroad presidents and the larger jobbers. The Committee offered the men a guaranteed wage of $10 a week for outside laborers, $11 for inside laborers, and $13 for wage miners. They reduced the 1869 contract rates by 10 percent.
The General Council considered the direct appeal to its members an insult, but it did not speak for all its units. The Columbia County W.B.A. and four districts of the Schuylkill County organization accepted the terms of the Committee of Fifteen. The rebellious districts, however, soon found that to agree to work was one thing, to work was another.
Though the majority of strikers were nonviolent, violence and fear enforced the strike resolution. In Mount Carmel a mob attacked a boarding house containing 29 strikebreakers. They shot into the bedrooms and exploded a keg of blasting powder on the first floor. The W.B.A. district met quickly, disavowed the act, and offered a $500 reward for the apprehension and conviction of the culprits. The union was undoubtedly sincere, but it was doubtful it could control its more violence-prone members. An attack on strikebreakers did not require authorization from the union to be effective. In Scranton, attacks on “black legs” by mobs became so violent that Governor John W. Geary ordered a company of militia to the city. The mob disarmed the militia, and, brandishing the militia’s weapons, overawed the strikebreakers. Geary ordered another company of militia to Scranton, but this time someone fired a shot and the militia fired a volley into the strikers, killing two miners and wounding several others.
While violent strikers maintained a solid front, those operators who would have agreed to the union’s demands experienced a more subtle, but effective, form of coercion. Both the Philadelphia and Reading and the Lehigh Valley Railroads supported the Committee of Fifteen. To discourage independent operators from resuming work on the union’s terms, they raised their freight rates on anthracite in the middle of February by $2 a ton; ten days later the rates were raised another $2 a ton.9 With shipping costs running $6.08 a ton, the operators knew they could not make a profit on their coal, and thus kept their mines closed. Miners, operators, and consumers complained about the railroads’ arbitrary action.
Ever mindful of grassroots sentiment, the Pennsylvania Senate instructed its Committee on the Judiciary General to investigate the action of the railroads for a possible violation of their charters. On the first day of the investigation Franklin B. Gowen took the stand to defend his railroad. The Reading’s charter gave it the power to set its own rates, and since operating expenses remained practically the same if it hauled 1,000 or 100,000 tons of coal a week it had to raise its rates whenever tonnage declined to meet those operating costs. If there had been no suspension of operation, Gowen maintained, there would have been no need to raise the rates. The union, and not the Reading, was clearly at fault. Asa Packer, President of the Lehigh Valley, seconded Gowen. Suddenly the investigation focused on the union. Gowen was so sure of the outcome that he gave union leaders free passes to attend the committee’s sessions. The only satisfaction the W.B.A. got was an acknowledgment of the workmen’s right to form a union and refuse to work, provided the union used only lawful means to arrive at lawful ends.
Assured of the legality of its existence, the W.B.A. experienced such internal difficulties that its existence was problematic. Desertions during the strike made the union’s weakness plain. Ethnic animosities threatened to disrupt the union. English miners in the eighth district of the Schuylkill County union tried to stop rumors that they were disloyal to the union by publicly denouncing “those men who have circulated false reports concerning our actions.”10 The “three Scranton companies” played on ethnic hatred by firing their Welsh miners and hiring Germans and Irish to replace them. Threats followed insults, and the Germans organized a committee to protect themselves. Two days later the Irish did the same. Animosities became so bitter that Irish, English, and Scots agreed never to associate with the Welsh because “in their late murderous outrages they have shown to us they are a class of beings who should never be allowed to associate with peaceable and law abiding citizens.”11
After the conflict over national origin had run its course, a dispute between functional groups split the union in the Wyoming region. Because of their lower wages the laborers had less savings to see them through a long strike, and were anxious to return to work. They met at Hyde Park to discuss the possibilities of resuming work, but the miners violently broke up the meeting.12 The angry laborers withdrew from the union and organized their own. The new union, aiming directly at the contract miner, demanded:
That the miner pay to the laborer one third of the whole amount received by him each month, together with the price of any cars lost during the month through the neglect of the miner, and through bad or broken roads, that in case the miner is not capable of cutting his coal, the laborer will not be bound to assist him and also that any and every laborer in the mines shall be entitled to a chamber in his turn [to become a miner] if he is capable of working said chamber. That the work shall be equally divided among all nationalities for [sic] the future as has not been in the past.13
To gain wider support for their union the laborers resolved that they had no animosity for the Welsh. The Irish, German, Scotch, and English miners confirmed the resolution.
Confronting powerful antagonists and racked by internal conflicts and the knowledge that many members could not afford to remain on strike, the W.B.A.’s leadership searched for an honorable way to end the suspension. Arbitration appeared the best method. The idea to arbitrate differences came from a variety of sources. In March Franklin B. Gowen testified that he was trying to get operators and labor to agree to a hearing by an impartial judge.14 In the same month the Carbon County W.B.A. offered to arbitrate, but the operators refused. Eckley B. Coxe, a large operator in the Lehigh region, however, renewed the idea. Coxe demonstrated his interest in arbitration by writing a paper on the subject for the American Social Science Association, and he outlined his specific plan of arbitration in a series of letters to the Anthracite Monitor. Coxe called for the establishment of three regional boards consisting of 13 men—six union representatives, six operators, and one umpire. Each regional board would select four delegates to a general board. A majority of two-thirds would be needed to decide any question, and the umpire would have to be chosen unanimously.
The General Council met at Mauch Chunk on April 12 and agreed with John Siney that the workingmen could not expect justice through arbitration, but that arbitration was the only way to end the strike. The Luzerne County delegates moved to adopt Coxe’s arbitration plan. An amendment, however, provided for a general arbitration board whose membership would be determined by the General Council and whose life would be limited to the “present emergency.”15 The amendment carried by a vote of 17 to 8, and the General Council set the board’s membership as: five members from Luzerne County, four from Schuylkill, two from Northumberland, and one from Columbia County. The board invited the operators to meet with it at Mauch Chunk on April 17.
Selecting the umpire was the first business taken up at the joint meeting. Each side proposed various men, only to have them rejected by the other. After two hours of haggling both groups agreed on Judge Elwell of Columbia County; they named Judge Harlin of Luzerne County as the alternate. Prospects for a successful conclusion to the suspension of operation faded when the Lehigh region announced it would not be bound by Judge Elwell’s decision and when the “three Scranton companies” and their employees refused to attend the meeting. Arbitration continued, nevertheless.
On the morning of April 18 the operators submitted their grievances. They complained that they were subject to threats of strikes if they refused to maintain a closed shop. And they accused the W.B.A. of breaking its contracts.
The W.B.A. answered in the afternoon. The union denied that it wished to control the management of the mines by insisting on a closed shop. It promised not to sustain a man fired for incompetence or bad conduct. The W.B.A. asked, in turn, that the operators not fire men who were union officials for engaging in their official duties, and refused to surrender its right to strike in a body.
Judge Elwell held: (1) that the operators had the “entire and exclusive” right to control their mines; (2) that men could strike, but could not prevent others from working16; and (3) that operators could not fire a union officer for performing his official duties. As both sides fought over wages the General Council turned its back on its arbitration board and permitted each county union to set its own terms for resuming work.
Schuylkill and Columbia Counties waited for Judge Elwell’s decision, which came on May 14th. The umpire split the differences by granting a $2.75 basis and setting wages at $10, $11, and $13 a week for outside laborers, inside laborers, and day miners, respectively. Contract rates were 10 percent less than those for 1869, and the sliding scale was 33 percent.17 The Schuylkill region men returned to work the following day. One week later the Wyoming strike ended as the miners accepted the companies’ terms. Strikers in the Lehigh region held out for the 1869 base wage, continuing their strike until June 21, when they returned to work with the base wage set at $4.50 a ton at Elizabethport, with the same wages for the Schuylkill men.
No sooner had the strike ended than there was further discord between the miners and operators. The men believed that the operators had blacklisted members of the union, a belief that was so widespread that David Lewis, a miner in Shamokin, published in his hometown newspaper sworn testimony that he had no connection with the W.B.A. In early October the Mahanoy Valley men won higher wages in a brief strike, thus starting a chain reaction of wildcat strikes which ended when the W.B.A. and the Anthracite Board of Trade agreed to pay base wages until the end of the year, regardless of coal prices.
The 1871 strike dashed the W.B.A.’s hope of achieving its goal. Quarrels between nationalities and splits between functional groups nearly destroyed the union in the Wyoming Valley. The weakness of the region precluded success in any attempted general strike, which was the W.B.A.’s only effective tool for controlling production. In the Schuylkill and Lehigh regions the hauling companies put into practice their decision to become miners. The appearance of large hauling and mining companies completely changed the economic situation in the regions. The W.B.A. could no longer dangle before the operators the promise of a regulated market; like the “three Scranton companies,” the railroads were not considering new partners. At first the railroads suggested that, as a plan of mild production control, each colliery be allotted a certain number of railroad cars. In 1872 Gowen rationalized the allotment system by bringing the operators and carriers into the first anthracite pool.
The internal weakness of the W.B.A. and the creation of the coal pool forced the W.B.A. to submit its policy to an “agonizing reappraisal.” The changed attitude of the union leadership became evident in August 1871 when the Northumberland County W.B.A., rather than strike, negotiated a reduction in the price of powder to $3.75 a keg and a decrease in the price of oil to $1 a gallon. By the end of the year other county organizations had demonstrated a desire for peace. The Wyoming-Lackawanna men traded a 10 percent reduction in wages for a promised decrease in powder and oil prices. The union in the Lehigh region extended the 1871 base wages for another year. The Schuylkill County Executive Board also maintained the 1871 base wages, but agreed to lower the base price of coal to $2.50 a ton and the contract rate 8-1/2 percent in return for a promise by the operators to pay at least base wages for ten months out of the year. To forestall wildcat strikes the Executive Board and the Anthracite Board of Trade agreed that their presidents would investigate all grievances.
But everyone in the anthracite regions was not happy about the union’s passiveness. Businessmen in the Schuylkill region were apprehensive about the entry of the Reading into mining; the Reading might use its immense power to undermine their already precarious economic and social position.18 The region’s middle class, mindful of their own weakness, called on labor to help combat the “monopoly.” When the Reading increased its rates in May 1872 the Shenandoah Herald ranted against the railroad and exhorted the independent operators and labor to deal the Reading a blow. But labor was content simply to condemn the Reading at its July convention. When the railroad finally rescinded its increase in August, the Herald gloated unconvincingly that the Reading acted “just in time to save a general suspension.” Other newspapers doubted that the railroad companies could regulate the market. In April the editor of the Shamokin Herald noted the coal trade’s stock and advised labor that a short suspension of mining “now would improve the business.”19 A suspension was not forthcoming, however.
The W.B.A. was so wary of a strike that when the General Council authorized each county unit to negotiate its own contract for 1873, each union agreed to continue the 1872 wages, or took a reduction without protest. The eagerness with which the unions accepted the operators’ terms showed that they had not surmounted the schisms of 1871. In the Wyoming region the Scranton district could muster only 200 men for its annual parade, and the Wilkes-Barre district was unable to hold one. In the Schuylkill region contract miners protested a change in the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company’s work rules, but decided not to support the protest with a strike because they were afraid the laborers would not back them in a strike.20
The depression of 1873 began in the fall. Franklin B. Gowen tried to take advantage of the sluggish economy by forcing down wages during negotiations for the 1874 contract, and in December proposed that the base coal price should be $2.50 a ton. On January 11, 1874 the Schuylkill County organization rejected his proposal and went out on strike. The Wyoming men also struck over a wage reduction. The two strikes lasted most of the month, ending only when the operators restored the reductions.
The victory was not a sign that the union had recovered; the W.B.A. was still weak. There was renewed ethnic animosity in the Hazleton area when the German-Americans withdrew from the district union and established their own German-language union. P.M. Cummings, a Pinkerton detective infiltrating the Schuylkill County W.B.A., reported that the Saint Clair district did not have enough money in its treasury to send a representative to the National Labor Union’s meeting in New York.21 Insubordination inside the Northumberland County union became so pronounced that the Executive Board expelled six of its eight districts.
In addition to these troubles, the W.B.A. faced the threat of dual unionism.22 Ironically, the General Council had been the driving force that created its rival. After a bitter dispute among the leaders the General Council sent John Parker, a member of the Council and editor of the union’s newspaper, the Anthracite Monitor, to western Pennsylvania in 1870 to organize the bituminous fields. Enjoying some success, the union sent emissaries across the state line to rebuild the defunct American Miners’ Association in Ohio, West Virginia, and Indiana. During 1872 horizontal expansion resulted in the formation of autonomous branches in Maryland, Kentucky, and Michigan. Such success caused many miners to envision a national union which would speak for all mine workers. A year later plans were made for just such a union at the Industrial Congress of Workingmen in Cleveland. After the congress adjourned, the miner delegates met and issued an invitation to all unions of miners to meet in Youngstown, Ohio during October to form a national organization.
At the Youngstown convention the miners formed the Miners’ National Association of the United States. The founders borrowed heavily from their English counterpart, Alexander MacDonald’s Miners’ National Association. They stressed arbitration and conciliation and made legal strikes difficult to declare; only after a district could show the national president that it had exhausted all other methods of solving its problems and had obtained his consent could it call a strike. The Miners’ National Association would have nothing to do with the regulation of the market through the judicious use of the strike. The convention, however, did pay tribute to the W.B.A. by electing its chief spokesman and president of the Schuylkill Executive Board, John Siney, as its national president.
Although delighted over the compliment of having its spokesman so honored, the W.B.A. began to feel that the M.N.A. was encroaching on its territory. The Wilkes-Barre district adopted the constitution of the M.N.A. on January 23, 1874; on February 4 the men at Plymouth did the same. Other districts and branches followed. In the view of the W.B.A., with the strength of the M.N.A. increasing so rapidly, some understanding between the two unions had to be reached.
In October 1874, the Schuylkill County W.B.A. sent delegates to the M.N.A.’s second annual convention with instructions to reach an agreement. The W.B.A. representatives presented a resolution which asked that the W.B.A. be allowed to remain a separate union with the right to compel any national union member to join it and pay its initiation fee. After some debate, the M.N.A. offered a substitute resolution granting the W.B.A. autonomy on the condition that it pay all requisitions made by the national union. The W.B.A. hesitated. Thomas Laire of Mercer County, Pennsylvania, broke the ice with an amendment to exclude those M.N.A. members of locals requiring equal or higher initiation fees from paying the initiation charges of the anthracite union. The amended resolution went into committee and the committee reported it favorably. A free exchange of traveling cards between the two unions was arranged; the person presenting an M.N.A. card to the W.B.A. had to pay the difference, if one existed, between initiation fees before he could become a member in good standing with the anthracite union. The national organization agreed to recognize the W.B.A. as a separate body and to settle all disputes between the W.B.A. and M.N.A. by arbitration. Both unions agreed that “whenever a reasonable possibility exists, the one should receive the moral countenance and practical support of the other.”23 It would not be long before the W.B.A. tested the M.N.A’s willingness to lend this countenance and support.
Victory in the 1874 strikes did not reflect the strength of the union, but rather the eagerness of the operators to continue production. The operators felt that the coal pool would be able to maintain prices during 1874, but the strike caught them without a stockpile. The ability of the W.B.A., even when on the verge of collapse, to disrupt the coal pool’s plans caused Franklin B. Gowen to conclude that the union must be destroyed.
During the year the Philadelphia and Reading collieries worked steadily; in the week ending November 29, 1874, for example, the Schuylkill region shipped out 159,532 tons of coal, whereas production in the same week in 1873 was 82,820 tons.24 Trains of loaded coal cars highballed down the Reading’s main line until the wharves at Port Richmond overflowed with anthracite. Philadelphia coal yards were filled to capacity. The railroad shunted onto sidings the cars that could not be unloaded.
While the Reading stored coal in anticipation of a great battle, Gowen wooed the remaining independent mine operators from the W.B.A. He talked them into forming a new association which followed the coal pool’s example of restricting tonnage shipped to the line and city (Philadelphia) trade.25 The resulting Schuylkill Coal Exchange cancelled any thoughts the independent operators may have had about an employer-employee alliance.
The groundwork laid, Gowen began to place his cards on the table. In late November he announced that the Reading had enough coal to last until spring, and ordered its collieries to close. To keep the operators who were not members of the Coal Exchange from working, Gowen announced that the coal pool could not receive or sell their coal after December 1, 1874, and suggested that if they could not find their own markets they should be shut down. Thirty-one independent operators suspended work. The Lehigh Valley followed the Reading’s lead and the Wyoming companies cut their production in half. By December 1 most mine workers were either idle or working only part time.
The work stoppage did not alarm the men; the midwinter slump usually caused a brief suspension of work, and the depression had slightly reduced the market anyway. They suspected that the operators might use the shutdown as a ruse to get them to accept a wage cut, a suspicion that was partly correct. The Lehigh region operators met at Mauch Chunk and agreed on a 15 percent reduction in contract rates and a 10 percent reduction in wages. They also announced that the reductions were final, that there was no need for negotiation. Not to be outdone by its Lehigh counterpart, the Schuylkill Coal Exchange reduced contract rates by 20 percent and wages by 10. Both groups refused to establish a minimum coal price below which wages would not go, and denied the outside laborers the opportunity of having their wages determined by the price of coal. Furthermore, only the less expensive “white ash coal” would be used in calculating the average price of coal for the base wages, instead of a combination of “red ash” and “white ash” coals.
The Lehigh region and Schuylkill County unions promptly called a strike, but it was ineffective—the mines in the two areas had ceased production in late November. Even if the mines in Schuylkill County and the Lehigh region had been working, the strike would not have been effective, because the independent operators in Dauphin, Columbia, and Northumberland Counties remained working and their men ignored the strike call. Realizing that the operators had declared war on the W.B.A., John Siney abandoned his erstwhile comrades in arms and wrote an open letter dated January 6, 1875 to the Daily Miners’ Journal, claiming that the M.N.A. and the W.B.A. were not related. Now isolated, the W.B.A. decided to fight. The Schuylkill County Executive Board agreed to serve without pay during the emergency, trying to break the operators’ united front by promising to work for any operator who signed an agreement extending the 1874 contract. No operator took them up on the offer and the men remained idle.
Schuylkill County and Lehigh men hoped the strike would become general before the spring. Their hope seemed justified, for there was evidence that the strike was spreading. In February the Wilkes-Barre miners went out on strike. In Columbia County the Centralia district joined the strike and merged with the Schuylkill County union. The expectation that the small operators would back off from their earlier position also seemed to be bearing fruit when some indicated a desire to resume production. But the Reading vetoed any such move, and the operators remained shut down. The Schuylkill County W.B.A. was in a fight to the finish with a great corporation.
The union petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature to investigate the Reading’s anthracite mining activities. The W.B.A. acquired strange allies when the coal merchants in Philadelphia, seeking to prevent the Reading from entering their domain, supported the union. The legislature yielded to the pressure and appointed a committee consisting of five members from each house to investigate the railroad.
Gowen eloquently defended his companies before the joint committee which met in Philadelphia. He appealed to the committee members’ sense of fair play by pointing out that every other anthracite carrying company had the right to own coal land. The Reading had to own coal land for self-protection. Gowen invoked the committee’s loyalty to Pennsylvania by pointing out that only the Reading did not go beyond the boundaries of the state. Would the Pennsylvania legislature vote against the only native anthracite railroad and in favor of those which served New York and New Jersey interests? While the hearings were in progress a heat wave hit Philadelphia. To spare the legislators discomfort, Gowen invited them to continue the hearing in Atlantic City, which they did. The conclusion of the committee was that the courts and not the legislature should determine the legality of the Reading’s coal mining operations.
The hearings were only a skirmish, however; the main battle was fought in the anthracite fields. The men expected the operators to retreat by March 1875. The union tried to dislodge the independent operators by announcing that if the lock-out strike continued after March 1, the men would not return to work unless they received at least an 8 percent pay increase.
Much to the union’s surprise, the operators refused to acknowledge the March 1 ultimatum. As the month wore on the mine workers realized that their union was involved in a death struggle, yet they continued to hope that the union could outlast the operators. The Lehigh region men read the refusal of the coal pool to publish coal prices in April as a good omen; the operators must be running short of coal, and hence would soon have to retreat. But then the mine operators brought the mules out of the mines.26 Strikers were encouraged, nevertheless, by indications that a threat of the union’s destruction would help to bring the autonomous W.B.A. units together again. The Northumberland County Executive Board published a warning that nonunion miners and laborers who were still outside the fold after April 1 would not be admitted to membership at any time. To some the announcement signaled the Northumberland County union’s decision to enter the fray. In the Wyoming region the engineers and pump men at the Delaware and Hudson collieries went on strike for a return to January’s wage. But the hopes inspired by these events did not last long; the Northumberland County W.B.A. never struck, and the Delaware and Hudson quickly settled its problem.
More encouraging to the striking miners and laborers in Schuylkill County was an alliance with a railroad union. The Reading lowered the wages of its railroad workers in the fall of 1874; the workers’ union, the Mechanics and Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, planned to strike when the coal dispute ended. Gowen, whose intelligence service warned him of the union’s plan, decided to force the issue during the coal strike. He ordered that the leaders of the M.&W.B.A. be fired. This forced the hand of the union. It struck, and on March 13 held a joint meeting with the Schuylkill County W.B.A., at which the two unions formed an alliance. The M.&W.B.A. and W.B.A. exchanged traveling cards; the M.&W.B.A. agreed to increase its initiation fee to $50 for any prospective member who had mined coal without belonging to the W.B.A. But the alliance had no practical effect; the M.&W.B.A. represented shop employees, and it was doubtful that it alone could seriously injure the railroad’s already diminished business. Nevertheless, the alliance did boost morale; it was comforting to know that other men were fighting the dreaded “monopoly.”
Gowen was not idle while the W.B.A. sought allies. Since 1866 coal mine owners could hire their own police, so the Reading increased its police force until it approached the size of a small army. The police force served as a guard for strikebreakers and was, in Gowen’s words, “armed to the teeth.”27
As the strike progressed, the Coal and Iron Police paraded throughout Schuylkill County where the mutterings of the mine workers turned to violence. They focused all their hatred on Gowen. Not being able to get at Gowen physically, the strikers attacked the source of his power, the Philadelphia and Reading. They sidetracked its engines, upset or set on fire cars loaded with coal, and burned breakers and other buildings. John Welsh, president of the Schuylkill County W.B.A., begged his men to obey the law because Gowen wanted the mine workers to become lawbreakers. But the men ignored Welsh, and violence spread through Schuylkill County.
There was also violence in the Lehigh region. As riots near Hazleton began to spread, the Luzerne County sheriff panicked and called on the governor for help. When the governor ordered 500 militiamen to Hazleton the disgusted Luzerne County W.B.A. unsuccessfully petitioned the governor to withdraw the troops.
With the militia in Hazleton and violence spreading in Schuylkill County, Welsh offered to withdraw the basis system of wages and to agree to any reasonable offer by the operators. He also stated that the union would be willing to start work even if the operators refused to recognize the union by signing a contract, so long as they accepted the 1874 wage rates. Two small collieries at Mahanoy City agreed to Welsh’s offer, but the Reading and the Schuylkill Coal Exchange ignored him. The end of the union was clearly in sight.
Neither the W.B.A. nor its members individually were financially prepared to maintain a long strike. The miners and laborers depended on the independent merchants to extend credit to keep themselves going. The middle class in Schuylkill County was inclined to cooperate with labor in a fight with a large company such as the Philadelphia and Reading, while the union overcame the merchants’ fear of unpaid debts. Early in the strike, districts of the union one by one publicly promised to expel any member who refused to pay his store bill after work resumed and to publish both his name and the reason for his expulsion. The merchants extended credit, but with this vague collateral there existed limits to the amount that could be reasonably extended. The union tried to take up some of the slack, but its treasury was low. It appealed for aid to the Wyoming region, which responded with contributions. Delegates solicited funds in Philadelphia and New York, but returned home almost empty-handed. This failure to get financial help from outside doomed the union. The treasury of district six in Shenandoah, was empty and so were the treasuries of other districts.
Union leaders now conceded defeat in their effort to preserve wages, but they still sought recognition as the bargaining agent for the mine workers. They asked the operators for a token concession to preserve the principle of arbitration and, as a sop for this concession, offered to remove any committee member the operators objected to. They invited the Coal Exchange to meet with them in Shenandoah on June 12 to negotiate. The union committee assembled that day, but no operator appeared. The union decided to go over the Coal Exchange’s head, and appointed a committee to travel to Philadelphia to ask Gowen for his terms. Gowen heard of the plan. Before the committee could board a train, newspapers carried an open letter from him in which he refused to meet with them. Reduced to near starvation the mine workers resumed work on June 14 on the operators’ conditions. An unknown minstrel caught the mood of the men.
Well, we’ve been beaten, beaten all to smash
An now, sir, we’ve begun to feel the lash,
As wielded by a gigantic corporation,
Which runs the commonwealth and ruins the nation.28
For all practical purposes the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association ceased to exist in Schuylkill County and the Lehigh region after the 1875 “long strike.” The W.B.A. had been nothing more than a shadow in the Wyoming region since 1871. The more active locals there seceded from the W.B.A. in 1874 to affiliate themselves with the Miners’ National Association, which lingered until 1876 when it began to give way to the Knights of Labor. Only the Northumberland County Union, which experienced neither strike nor lock-out in 1875, remained. In early July the Northumberland County Executive Board, in what proved to be its last public statement, declared itself “in favor of maintaining and strengthening the organization.”29
The long strike of 1875 destroyed the W.B.A., but in many ways the union had committed suicide. Seeking to improve the mine workers’ wage scale, it had pursued a policy based on a mistaken analysis of the anthracite industry’s weakness. Diagnosing the industry’s illness as overproduction rather than overinvestment, the W.B.A. attempted to regulate production without realizing that even if such a policy were successful it could not increase labor’s wages. The unsatisfactory earnings of the mine workers resulted from low wages and irregular employment. Regulation of production through strikes might increase wages, but it also compounded the problem of enforced unemployment.
The union, however, used other methods to improve the reward system. For one, it attacked the company store. The men, drawing on the experience of labor leaders in Britain and aware of Rochdale’s success, fought the “pluck-me” store by forming cooperatives. But the cooperatives foundered on the very thing they were formed to destroy. The smaller operators made dealing at their store a sine qua non for employment. Ironically relief from the company store in the Schuylkill region appeared with the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company: Franklin B. Gowen refused to become a shopkeeper.
The W.B.A. also tried to use politics to secure a more equitable return for labor. During the 1873 session of the Pennsylvania legislature, the union persuaded Schuylkill County’s senator to introduce a bill entitled “for the better protection of wages,” but it died in committee. The next year the W.B.A. successfully lobbied for the passage of a bill to increase the amount of the mechanic’s lien. In 1875 the W.B.A., with the Miners’ National Association, secured a law calling for “standard and lawful scales” and the enabling of mine workers to hire their own weighmaster to keep tabs on the company. The effects of the 1875 law were disappointing; the operators compelled the miners to sign away their right to hire a checkweighman after they lost the “long strike.”
The failure of the W.B.A. to achieve any of its major goals betrayed its inability to cope with the structural realities of the anthracite regions and the production system of mining. Constructed as a loose confederation in which power flowed upward, the General Council lacked the force necessary to destroy the parochial barriers of regionalism. Within the separate regions its message of unity fell on deaf ears as ethnocentrism divided the union. Claiming to speak for all mine workers, the W.B.A. was unable to bridge the gap between contract miners and laborers; indeed, its “equality resolution” widened the breach.
Even in failure, however, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association left a legacy to the anthracite regions. At its zenith in 1869, the union did gain higher wages. For brief periods the W.B.A. sparked a comradeship among the mine workers; the fraternal identification can easily be seen in the Wyoming men’s resolution to share their work with “the brothers now out on strike in Schuylkill and elsewhere.” Moreover, the W.B.A. left a tradition of an underdog union fighting for the rights of the mine workers against great odds. The anthracite mine workers would remember the “old W.B.A.” nostalgically; this memory would prompt other attempts collectively to attack their occupational problems.