The End of the PA Coal Strike of 1902
" My Dear Mr. Dunne: I have not had the heart to write to you until this coal strike was out of the way. Now I feel like throwing up my hands and going to the circus; but as that is not possible I think I shall try a turkey shoot or bear hunt or something of that kind instead.
TR, letter to Finley Peter Dunne, October 20, 1902.
TR was thrilled to see an end to a painful and frustrating strike. It was a long journey with all the makings of a major drama: the “underdog” mine workers, the “cruel oppressors,” the antagonism, the surprise twist – it all culminated in a climax on October 23. However, like an epic movie, this was only the end of the first act.
"social reform and progress"
By the dawn of the twentieth century, coal was king. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal was far and away the most consumed source of energy in the country. And the best burning kind of coal was anthracite, which funnily enough, comes from the Latin meaning “kind of coal.”
Anthracite was found primarily in five counties in Pennsylvania. The means of extracting coal was a grueling and dangerous labor, with long but sporadic shifts for low pay. Coal miners were incredibly diverse, spanning over a dozen nationalities, many who did not speak English, and all who were fighting to be better recognized.
The United Mine Workers, a workers’ union rising in the 1890’s, was not recognized by the mine owners, who were primarily railroad magnates. Multiple strikes and fracases did not change owners’ minds.
During the 1902 strike, a photographer from Wilkes-Barre wrote to George F. Baer, the head of the Philadelphia and Reading Railway Company, appealing to him from a Christian vantage point to settle the strike. Baer’s response was leaked to the press, and was – not well received.
" The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for, not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country.”
Amidst the strike, President Roosevelt took a turn from his predecessors; instead of being a strike-breaker, he tried to be a peace-broker. The fear of a coal shortage, leading to riots nationwide, was a genuine worry. Instead of sending in the Pinkerton detectives or National Guard troops to end the strike, as railroad and mine owners would have preferred, Roosevelt worked with Senator Mark Hanna, magnate J.P. Morgan, and union leader John Mitchell, to persuade Baer and the other owners to submit to arbitration by council, and abide by their ruling.
The owners resisted everything, from having labor-supporters on the council, to even being in the same room with the workers. But as TR mentioned, placing a labor man who understood the plight of the worker was unacceptable to the owners – but they would accept some latitude in the list of people they would accept on the council. One title on their list was “an eminent sociologist.” TR took that latitude to enlist the head of the railway conductors’ union as said “Sociologist,” and not one of the owners batted an eye. They even allowed a Catholic bishop, as per the United Mine Workers’ request.
The arbitration was its own separate chapter – a courtroom drama that would likely be severely edited by studio execs. Simply put, it was over three months, 558 witnesses, over 10,000 pages of testimony (legal sized paper at that). And ultimately, the union got part of what it wanted: a ten percent raise instead of twenty, a ten-hour workday reduced to nine (instead of eight) hours. And while the owners refused to officially recognize the union, John Mitchell achieved a small but powerful victory: a precedent for arbitration, with a commission balanced between pro-owner and pro-worker.
In a time when strikes often ended in violence and death, this was no small victory after all.
Letter to Sidney Brooks, Dec. 28, 1908.
I believe what I did in settling the anthracite coal strike was a matter of very real moment from the standpoint not only of industrial but of social reform and progress.