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Capital and Labor
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The Elections of 1896 and 1900 Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

Page 1234

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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.

[picture of a coal miner]

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.

[picture of a coal plant]

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.

[picture of coal miners]

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 tunnels.

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.

[picture of child coal laborers]

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 miner's lot."


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 and comfort.

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 them down.

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.

At 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 militia.

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 affectionately.

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.

[picture of McKinley's assassination]

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.



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