The Coal Mining Industry
The coal barons controlled politics and the press and had their own police
force and company-owned towns. And they smashed every attempt by the workers,
going back half a century, to form a labor union. The American Constitution
wasn't a fact of life in the coal towns of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Here, coal was king. A single industry, hard coal, anthracite, dominated the
region, and here the industrializing process assumed its most nakedly brutal
form. In less than a generation, an unspoiled wilderness was made over into a
wasteland of acid-polluted streams and smoke-scarred towns.
Workers were treated even worse than the land. Deep in the coal seams, men and
boys worked in total darkness, at the most dangerous job of the day. Accidents
were almost a way of life, and few miners past the age of 40 failed to contract
"black lung" from inhaling the dust of the mines. Black lung was -- still is --
incurable and slowly kills its victims.
No other American industry inflicted more destruction on man and the
environment than anthracite mining. Yet clean-burning anthracite was
indispensable to the industrializing process. It was used to make iron, to
power factories, to run locomotives; and it was the Northeast's chief domestic
heating fuel. And almost all of this coal, almost all this anthracite, was
located in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Deprived of anthracite, entire areas of the country would be paralyzed or
thrown into chaos, particularly in wintertime. Maybe the miners had more power
than they thought? The anthracite industry had evolved in the classic
capitalist pattern, from small firms operated by individual entrepreneurs,
through big family-owned companies, to giant conglomerates. After the Civil
War, the owners of the major coal hauling railroads began buying up huge
amounts of coal lands merging into industry-wide combinations under Morgan's
guidance and Morgan's money.
By 1900, Morgan's railroad cartel controlled almost the entire region.
Meanwhile, mining went on much the way it had for almost a century. There's
never been a more perilous occupation.
The miners were sometimes a thousand feet and more underground; and there were
deadly gases there that could kill in a minute or set off tremendous explosions
and fires. There were rats all over the place. The timber that helped hold up
the roofs of the tunnels was creaking constantly under the tremendous weight -- a thousand feet of earth and rock right above the miners. And every day these
miners were dynamiting underneath that mountain of rock.
Sometimes, that mountain collapsed and trapped men underground, or flattened
them into the ground like pancakes, so that their bodies had to be scraped up
with shovels. On average, three anthracite miners were killed every two days.
When a miner was killed, his broken body was deposited, by the company,
unceremoniously on the front porch of his house. The remains of men annihilated
in mine blasts were brought home in coffee cans.
Mining was unlike other industrial work, and miners considered themselves a
special breed, distinct from factory workers. Anthracite mining was a craft or
cottage industry, requiring hand labor and skilled workers. Miners worked in
crews of two or four men, and these crews worked on their own. Close
supervision was impossible because of the tight underground passages and
This kind of work bred what's called the "miner's freedom." Miners were fiercely
independent. They were their own bosses and they didn't take orders well. Yet
their independence was balanced by a strong sense of worker solidarity, because
underground they had to depend on one another.
Because anthracite seams are sharply pitched, men usually had to climb to their
work through narrow, 90 degree passages, carrying caps and powder, picks and
shovels, axes and lumber for shoring up the roof. As they inched ahead, they
checked for deadly gases with their safety lamps, and by the time they reached
the coal face, they were often on the downside of their shift. At the face,
they drilled holes in the wall of coal, filled them with blasting power, ran a
fuse to a fire box, and blew the coal away from the seam. Then they loaded it
on cars, and mules would pull the cars to the surface.
The average miner made about $400 a year; not enough to support a family. So
his wife had to take in boarders, and his sons had to leave school at the age
of eight or nine to work in a place called a "breaker," a huge factory for
processing coal. The boys would work, sitting down, in step-like chutes. The
coal would come roaring down and they'd pick out the slate and rock with their
bare hands, for 45 cents a day.
The noise was earsplitting, and the whole building would shake with the
movement of the coal. The dust was so thick the boys could hardly breathe; and
they'd wear handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths and chewed tobacco to
keep from choking. Behind them, supervising the work, were foremen with clubs
and leather whips.
At age ten or eleven, the breaker boys graduated from the breaker and went into
the earth with their fathers. There they worked until they died a natural
death, were injured or killed, or contracted Black Lung. When their lungs
filled up with coal dirt, they went back to where they'd started, to the
breaker. As the miners used to say: "Twice a boy and once a man is a poor
A Melting Pot Prompts Intolerance
The only hope for change was a union. In the fall of 1899, John Mitchell, the
new 29-year-old president of the United Mine Workers, entered anthracite
country with a group of organizers. Mitchell's union was preparing for an
all-out labor war, a struggle that would set the country's largest labor union
against the mightiest financial combination of American capitalism.
The core issue was the right of miners to organize. Mitchell knew what he was
in for. In the past, one union drive after the other had failed because of
company opposition, but also because workers themselves were bitterly divided
along ethnic lines.
Earlier in the century, it was the Irish against the Welsh and the English. Now
it was English-speaking miners, mostly Irish, Welsh, and Germans, against new
immigrants, some of them Italian, but most of them Slavs, an all-embracing term
used by other miners to include Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Croatians, Serbs,
and other Easter European Catholics. The English-speaking miners believed that
these new immigrants had been brought by the companies to depress wages. And
some of Mitchell's organizers believed they wouldn't join a union because they
were so docile and easily led.
So when trainloads of Slavs arrived in the region, they were given a great
American welcome. They were stoned by Irish miners. To protect themselves,
Slavs developed an intense communalism, banding together for mutual protection
They organized mutual aid societies to bury their dead in dignity, youth
organizations to instill ethnic pride in their kids, and savings and loans
societies to help one anther purchase property. And on Sundays they gathered
together as a community at ethnic feasts and picnics, letting off steam with a
wild drink they called polinki, that's beer laced with whiskey and hot peppers.
Catholic priests in the anthracite region said mass in the national languages
of their parishioners. And church organizations helped preserve Slavic culture,
getting these people to act and think together as a group, the only way to
break down paternalism.
When they were strong together, these miners were ready to take on the bosses.
An incident in 1897 at a town called Lattimer showed what they were made of.
The Slavs in that part of the region took the lead in a small strike against
coal owners. Three hundred striking workers marching from mine to mine shut
They walked peacefully, behind a miner carrying an American flag. But when
they got to Lattimer, they were met by the local sheriff and 150 deputies armed
with Winchesters, with steel-piercing bullets. We'll never know who gave the
order to fire. But it was a massacre.
least l9 miners were killed and 32 wounded. Deputies were heard shouting,
"Shoot the sons of bitches." Then these deputies boarded trolleys laughing and
bragging about how many so-called Hunkies they'd taken down. In a highly
prejudiced trial, a jury declared all the deputies innocent.
The Lattimer Massacre sparked a new level of militancy, among the women,
especially. One Slavic woman, Big Mary Septak, organized a band of 150 women
and tried to keep the strike going after the men started back to work. Armed
with rolling pins and fire pokers, and carrying their children in their arms,
Big Mary's "army of amazons," as they were called by the press, battled coal
police and sheriff's deputies before they were broken up by the state
These people, the men as well as the women, were conservatives, but it was
their conservatism that fueled their insurgency, ironically, their desire to
hold onto what they had. Slavic militancy gave Mitchell hope. His organizers
also noticed that mining itself was bringing the men together.
A Coal Strike and an Election
If there was a melting pot in America, it was at the bottom of a thousand-foot
mine shaft, where 26 nationalities worked in what was a democracy of misery.
Mitchell skillfully built on this. As his men went through the region, they had
one message: If you're Irish, you don't have to drink with Slovaks, but you
work with them.
And to get any improvements at the mine site, you've got to bury your hatred
and join with these people in a common effort. Otherwise, you're just cannon
fodder for the capitalists. Everywhere Mitchell went he had the same message.
"The coal you mine isn't Slovak coal. It's not Irish coal. It's not Italian
coal. It's coal."
Mitchell wore a jeweled ring and a Prince Albert suit, but the miners liked him
and trusted him. He was one of them, a former miner from Illinois. To Catholic
miners, Mitchell looked like a priest with his long frock coat, buttoned up to
the top, and his high white collar. Johnny d'Mitch, they called him
Mitchell's organizers started to make progress, but the owners refused to deal
with him or his union. So he rolled the dice and called for a strike on
September 17, 1900. At that time, only 9,000 of more than 140,000 anthracite
miners had joined the union.
On the morning of the strike, when the work whistle blew, no one knew what the
miners would do. Then, amazingly, workers began to drift from their homes, not
in their miner's boots but in their Sunday best. 90,000 men stayed out of the
mines that first day. Within a week only 9,000 were still working.
By the middle of October, factories and homes across the country began running
low of coal, and prices shot up. With the election and cold winter coming, the
strike became a national issue. McKinley and his running mate, the New York
governor, Theodore Roosevelt, were running on the theme of American prosperity.
Their slogan was "A Full Dinner Pail" for the American worker.
This strike could trigger a depression and swing the election to Bryan.
Bryan began hitting on the underlying issue of the strike: Who owns America?
The people or the plutocrats? Then, when the press started to report the strike
sympathetically, McKinley had to do something.
So he sent his friend and political manager, Mark Hanna, to meet with the mine
owners. When they refused to budge, he went over their heads to J.P. Morgan,
and Morgan got them to agree to a 10% wage increase. But they would not accept
union recognition. That's about all Mitchell thought he could get however, for
the miners were starving and soon would be forced to return to work.
The strike was over. McKinley won the election. Morgan was pleased. Mitchell
knew that a bigger battle was ahead, as the company began stockpiling coal in
preparation for the coming fight over union recognition.
But as he left anthracite country that fall, he was a hero. His union had won
what he described as "the most remarkable contest between labor and capital in
the industrial history of our nation." As he rode out of the town of Hazelton,
his carriage was accompanied by thousands of cheering breaker boys.
Less than a year later, President McKinley was dead, shot by a demented
anarchist. McKinley had offered no opposition to the consolidation of American
capital. But his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, had his own ideas about this.
And he'd be tested by both capital and labor in one of the first crises of his
presidency, another and even more bitterly fought anthracite strike.