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 The Miners’ Association struggled throughout the 1860’s

to put a safety act through the Illinois legislature without success.

 

 

Labor's Problem: Real Wages

John Mitchell

By Carroll Thompson

 

Through the years the United States has grown in size, in wealth, and in political strength.  As we have seen in “Problems of Industrial Expansion,” business organized into corporations which in turn organized into trade associations and occasionally, trusts and cartels.  This was accompanied by the organization of labor, first into craft unions and then into industrial unions.

The public became convinced that trusts and cartels were undesirable.  At times it seems that the public has begun to doubt the value of such powerful unions as the United Mine Workers.

This series of four articles will deal with John Mitchell, Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, and Walter Reuther.  It will be primarily concerned with one phase of their work:   efforts to gain better wages and better working conditions.  It will show how each man learned  from his predecessors and how the emerging need for a standard of value to appraise wage demands becomes increasingly acute.  This standard must, in the long run, be accepted by labor, management, and the public.

Since 1825 when the Durham miners organized the first union of coal miners, men have alternately pitied and cursed the unfortunate diggers of coal.  Coal, to be sure, is a vital necessity in this industrial civilization, a necessity accented by the power of the United Mine Workers of America today.  Yet those who are prone to condemn the miners when they follow their powerful leader should remember that no fine oratory, no sentimental tears, and no public legislation has helped the miners one iota as much as miners’ organizations and the men who have led them.  This truth doubtless holds in most other fields of human labor.

That the lot of the miner is intrinsically hard is due both to the natural and the economic phenomena governing coal.  Coal must be mined in the bowels of the earth, and those who mine it are foredoomed to spend most of their lives underground.  Coal is black, and the men who mine it are grimy and blackened.  It is dusty when crumbled, and the coal miner lives and breathes in a dust-ladened atmosphere.  The dangerous gasses released by coal when it is disturbed may ignite and explode without warning.  Underground waters may be tapped unexpectedly to flood the mines and drown the men.

Economically, coal presents the capitalist system with an anomaly.  In general it is true that the more equipment, the more capital invested in a modern industry, the more\- economically and profitably it may be run.  But coal mining proves the reverse of this theorem.  Because the coal that lies on the surface of the earth is the easiest coal to mine, surface mining requires less equipment and is a relatively inexpensive operation.  Once the mine must be sunk deep in the earth, the cost of mining is immeasurably increased.  Each year as the mine goes deeper, it costs correspondingly more to mine the coal.

Like the operator, the coal miner prefers surface mining, which is less dangerous and more pleasant work.  But as he is forced deeper into the underground mines, facing increasing hazards, the operator is tempted to decrease rather than increase his pay, because the profits are decreasing.  There is little stimulation for the operator to install safety equipment at greater and greater expense, in exhaustively worked mines.

Coal mining in a capitalistic economy may thus be said to be unsound, although nationalization of the mines provides no easy solution.  The inherent difficulties in coal mining are illustrated most clearly in a country like Britain, where coal resources are already declining and mines are reaching exhaustion.  The government of Britain, which owns the mines, has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds to mechanize the mines, but the return in increased output has been negligible.

But the second half of the thirteenth century, almost every know coal field in England, Wales, and Scotland was being mined, and the slavery of the miners was well under way.  It is true enough that coal mining tends to become unprofitable, and equally true that the operators of the mines have often suffered severe financial loss.  But the real, long-term losers have been men and the women (and, until recently, the children) who spent their lives underground.

ENGLISH MINERS

Early English coal miners were not, technically speaking, slaves, but for many years they were kept in feudal bondage, being bound over every year for a year’s time, at very meager wages.  When the miners of Durham and Northumberland organized “The Colliers of the United Association of Durham and Northumberland” after the repeal of the Combination Act in 1825, they formed the first coal miners’ union.  

This worthy ancestor of the United Mine Workers of America soon published a pamphlet outlining major grievances.  The miners complained of inadequate pay and improper ventilation and lighting below ground.  They called attention to the harsh behavior of dictatorial supervisors, to the arbitrary failure to provide them with employment, and to sharp practices—cheating them out of their promised half-crown daily when the pit was idle for more than three days.

According to historical records, the miners soon evolved a “spread the work” scheme comparable to the U.M.W.’s three-day week of 1950.  Thus we find that the “Union laid down a rule that no hewer should make more than 4 s. a day,” despite the vehement complaints of the operators.  From the Association of Durham and Northumberland miners grew the powerful miners’ organizations of Britain.

The United Mine Workers of America, of course, may well claim this group as an ancestor, but its more immediate fore-fathers mined coal in Illinois, where they finally struck against wage cuts and declining earnings in 1861.  By the early nineteenth century, coal mining had become a profitable enterprise in the United States.  Although at one time it took seven days to bring 60 tons of anthracite to tidewater on the Susquehanna (where it was sold at from $10 to $12 per ton), the four canals built for the carrying of coal by 1829 increased the production of anthracite alone to 112,000 tons annually.  Because of the limited quantities of anthracite or hard coal in the United States, virtual monopolies were established shortly, while the vast regions of bituminous fields made soft coal a highly competitive industry.  Both these conditions were to react on the men in the mines.

The combined areas of coal fields in this country measure approximately 185,000 square miles.  Of this, the anthracite area, confined to Pennsylvania, accounts for about 470 square miles.  Actually, the first miners’ union in America was formed by the anthracite miners in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, in 1848.  The union, known as the Bates Union, after the Englishman who was its “agent,” had a peak membership of 5,000 and organized a partially successful strike in 1849.  

Its failure in 1850 set a pattern for similar disasters in the miners’ union.  It was a failure based on charges that Bates had betrayed the miners.  Whether or not Bates was at fault, his downfall pointed the way to similar treatment of most of the early miners’ leaders:  the poorly-paid, ignorant, and distrustful miners rewarded their leaders, as a rule, with degradation.

The failure of the Bates union left the anthracite fields unorganized.  Twenty years went by before scattered local unions met in 1868 to form the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association.

But the real impetus to miners’ organization and to a national association of coal miners was provided by the workers in the bituminous fields.  Their lead was due in large part to the fact that they worked in a highly competitive industry and that operators tried continually to cut costs by cutting wages.  Only a national organization could hope to control wages across the industry and protect the organized miners from competition in unorganized fields.  In 1860, when the bituminous miners began to organize their national association, they numbered only 11,331 scattered across the country, whereas the anthracite miners concentrated in Pennsylvania already totalled 25,126 men.

The election of Abraham Lincoln had signaled a widespread industrial depression in the United States.  A business depression starting in 1860 and dragging into 1861 meant bank collapse and serious unemployment.  In Illinois, the operators of bituminous mines reacted with a wage cut of one-quarter cent a bushel and followed this step with another, equal cut shortly thereafter.  The second reduction ushered in first unorganized, and then organized, striking and the subsequent establishment of the Miners’ Association.  

For at least a year the Association covered only miners supplying the St. Louis market, but gradually the group gained strength in Illinois.  After the first successful strike, which forced a “Miners’ Bill” through the Illinois legislature, the Association was able to maintain the two and one-half cent mining rate re-established by the strike and to boost the rate to three cents in September, 1862, and to four cents in November of the same year.

Many of the conditions which nurture resentment among the miners today were flourishing in the 1860’s.  Partly because of the scattered set-up of the coal fields, the isolated position of the mines, and the seasonal employment of workers, operators in the United States, like their counterparts in England, soon established company stores and company dwellings for the miners.  

Both in England and the United States these petty monopolies offered ample opportunity for abuse, and the opportunity was almost grasped by the operators.  Although early American miners made no formal complaints, by 1863 we read of the Belleville district miners of Illinois complaining that they were forced to buy “all their supplies of whatever kind … at the most exorbitant rates” from company stores, and to pay ridiculous rentals for “shells of houses.”

In 1860, mining was still a comparatively primitive operation, and ventilation was usually inadequate.  With the vast bulk of bituminous coal brought up without steam, the average soft coal mine employed less than 25 miners.  There was no safety regulation, no public inspection required, and few if any mines had more than one opening.  

While “undercutting,” the miner lay on his side, exposed to small avalanches, to possible roof falls, as well as to dangerous gasses.  The Miners’ Association struggled throughout the 1860’s to put a safety act through the Illinois legislature without success.  The anthracite miners were more successful with their request for official supervision of the mines in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in 1869.

One of the most ancient protections of the miner was his independence in the mines.  In the 1860’s he was still a petty contractor, engaged to dig and deliver merchantable coal, assigned to a particular working place, or chamber, responsible for his own safety.  His dissatisfaction with working conditions led him, like his English brothers, to cooperate with fellow-miners in restricting coal production to a certain amount per day.  Voluntary limitations on individual production based on a “fair day’s work” maintained the rate paid for mining and regulated hours of employment as well.

Although the Miners’ Association spread further into Illinois, it was unable to live through the post-Civil War period of economic readjustment.  An unsuccessful strike in 1865 led to a lock-out, with the employers demanding the abandonment of the union.  From 1865 on, with conditions in the industry growing steadily worse, the Association began to fall apart and by 1870 it existed no more.

The winter of 1870 was hard for the coal miners of the middle west.  Many mines were closed, and the rest had lowered wages.  Among the miners who waited impatiently for the Illinois mines to re-open was Scotch-Irish Robert Mitchell, living with his second wife and the children of two marriages in Braidwood, Illinois.  There, during that hard winter, John Mitchell was born to Robert’s second wife.  The simple outline of John’s early life is the story of the tragic poor.  John’s mother died when he was two and a half; his stepmother had a child by a previous marriage and add another son.  When John was only six, his father was killed by a runaway team, leaving John’s stepmother with four sets of children.

A strict Scotch Presbyterian, John’s stepmother brought up her children to “tell the truth and shame the devil.”  She was forced to take in washing for a livelihood and young John became her helper.  Because he often stayed home to work, he was a poor and indifferent scholar, and an outcast from the children’s group.  When John was ten, and his stepmother remarried, he left home and worked on a farm for his keep.  

But like most miners’ sons, he entered the mines even before the minimum age limit, starting as a trapper-boy at the age of 12.  (The State set the minimum age limit at 13).  As a trapper-boy, John worked in complete isolation in the dark depths of a mine tunnel, where he waited to open and close the wooden doors separating one section of the workings from another for the mule drivers and their coal trucks.  In less than a month, John was promoted to mule driver and started on the path toward becoming a skilled miner.

Life was getting harder all the time for the miners of Illinois.  Although annual wages had been about $314 in 1879, before John went into the mines, in 1885 and 1886 annual wages dropped to around $239.  When the young man was 16, he left Illinois for the West, and for the next two or three years he worked in various mining camps in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.  But he found no future there, and in 1889 returned to the mines of Illinois.

He returned at an inauspicious moment.  The mine operators of Northern Illinois were trying to drive the wage down to a point where they could compete with low-cost Southern Illinois mines.  When the Spring Valley miners protested, they were met by a lockout, and their families were evicted from company houses.  A writer for the New York World described conditions:

Twelve hundred heads of families of Northern Illinois had not a stroke of work since May;  seven out of every ten families are sick; seriously so; malarial fevers, diptheria, cholera morbus, ague and pneumonia form the bulk of the ailments. …  Salt pork, potatoes and corn meal, with a little tea and coffee, have been their sole means of subsistence throughout the lockout.

In Spring Valley, the lockout was a victory for the operators, who forced a 20 per cent reduction on their miners and forced them to sign yearly contracts of work described by Henry D. Lloyd of Chicago as “slavery—slavery in yearly installments.”

To the miners, John Mitchell included, there seemed little hope of permanent relief.  Scattered union organizations had lost strike after strike, and neither the Knights of Labor (to which Mitchell belonged) nor the National Progress Union were able to ameliorate conditions.  After 10 years of rivalry between these two organizations, a united front was finally organized at Columbus, Ohio, on January 22, 1890.  The United Mine Workers of America was alive at last.

John Mitchell had begun to study law, and was reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.  After another abortive strike in 1891, the young man again tried his fortune in the West and again returned unsuccessful to Spring Valley.  Now 22, he married a motherless miner’s daughter, Catherine O’Rourke, and within a year their first son was born.  

He had little enough reason for optimism.  The panic of 1893 added fuel to the flames of radicalism now sweeping the country.  The year before, the infamous Homestead strike had ended in violence and murder, and the People’s (Populist) Party polled over a million votes, nominated 22 electors, and sent a powerful group to Congress.

The year 1894 promise no relief.  When the president of the United Mine Workers, John McBride, addressed the fifth annual convention of the United Mine Workers, he said very simply:  “There is a limit to human endurance and you have reached that limit.”  The union had only 13,000 paid up members out of 250,000 men working in the mines, but the national union’s first strike call, to begin in April, 1894, was obeyed by 125,000 men.  The strike failed.  

Coxey’s army set out from the mining camp of Massillon, Ohio.  Wages in Illinois were said to average $12 a month.  A legislative commission of Pennsylvania declared that miners there “lived in many cases worse than beasts … herded together like cattle and in many cases wallowing in their own filth.”

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When, after long-drawn out discussions in Washington, Roosevelt proposed arbitration, Mitchell called an anthracite convention.  More than five months after the strike had been called, the convention accepted the arbitration.

In the commission hearings, as at the convention, Mitchell reflected the moderate conservatism that marked his character. Clarence Darrow defended the miners, as he had defended Debs eight years before.  But Mitchell forced him, it is said, to moderate his inflammatory speeches for the miners.  When Darrow made his summary to the commission, Baer had already presented the operators’ case, and Mitchell had shaken his hand in an amazing gesture of conciliation.

CONSERVATIVE

Now Darrow analyzed Baer’s statistics, showing that as of that date 49 per cent of the miners were getting less than $200 yearly; nine per cent between $200 and $300 and only five per cent, an annual wage of more than $800.  Taking the highest possible average, the laborers did not get more than $333.  During the four months of hearings, Mitchell’s conservatism grew. With the hearings finally closed he made a very moderate speech in Chicago, declaring to more than 6,000 men that “We are all poor simply because we cannot get rich honorably.”  This conservatism was soon to prove his undoing; but it was still applauded.

The decision of the commission represented by no means a complete victory for the U.M.W.  The award provided a ten per cent increase in wages (20 per cent was asked) and a nine-hour day (an eight-hour day had been demanded).  Instead of calling for the direct recognition of the union, the commission provided for the creation of a six-man conciliation board, on which workers’ organizations were to be represented.

The year 1903 was to see still greater gains in working conditions for the bituminous miners.  In the seven years since 1898, it was estimated that some miners had received pay increases of 66⅔ per cent.  The union was growing in strength.  Unfortunately for the miners and the country, however, the depression which began in 1903 forced the operators to demand a reduction in pay for miners, a reduction of 15 per cent for following two years.  

Although Mitchell saw no benefit to the country, the operators or the miners in the reduction, he worked to prevent a strike.  His success (the strike vote was 102,000 against to 68,000 for) added to the feeling among many union men that Mitchell was too conservative, too moderate.  Rumors were prevalent that hobnobbing with the operators, visiting at the White House, had turned Mitchell’s head, that he was no longer a miner’s man.  Sectional strikes beginning late in 1903 failed, and Mitchell was blamed.  By the time the 1905 convention meeting rolled around, Mitchell was being attacked on all sides.

Unfortunately, Mitchell had spent two months in Europe in 1904, during the Colorado strike, as an elected delegate to the International Mining Congress.  That he remained for two months when “the strikers starved” writing articles and living “sumptuously” was generally charged against him.  A local leader, Robert Randall, publicly scored Mitchell as “the little tin labor god of the capitalist class,” who had eaten with “the man who has the blood of the Homestead men on his hands and who had done more to crush American manhood and degrade American womanhood than any other man in the United States.”  (The reference is, of course, to Andrew Carnegie).

Still the miners stuck to Mitchell.  He spoke eloquently, in his own defense:

As far as my present official position is concerned, I would be happy, indeed, gentlemen, if it were your wish to turn it over tomorrow to someone else; happy, indeed, to go back to my home and loves ones … to have the pleasure denied me for seven long years. . . .

Do you suppose the salary I get here, good as it is … compensates me for the loss of companionship? …  Do you think I crave this position, I wish to assure you … that from the first year after my election I have never asked, directly or indirectly, for any man’s support or for a single vote . . . if I stay here one year or twenty years, this office must come to me unsolicited and unsought. . . .

Some of you have forgotten, but I never have, the conditions you had when I first came with you.  I do not claim any part of the credit for this change, but I hope the time may never come when my people must go back to where they were some years ago. . . .

Now, gentlemen, if one of the charges this man makes is true [Randall] I say that I am utterly unfit to represent you. . . . On the other hand, if these statements are untrue, … then I say I have a right to demand of you that you afford me protection. . . . Either this man or I should not be a member of this union.

Randall was expelled, but the memory of his attack lingered to haunt Mitchell until his retirement.  Mitchell was involved in bitter struggles to prevent strikes in 1906.  He was tired and unwell, and union morale was low.  Again, at the convention of 1907, he faced a bitter attack against his moderate policies and again the attack failed.  

Mitchell unfortunately was failing also.  Since the summer of 1906 he had begun to drink seriously, and his drinking was an even greater problem because it troubled him.  Now he was genuinely ill, in and out of hospitals and wearing himself out in inter-union battles.  The quality of his courage is shown by a speech he made in December of 1907, when he was beset by acute pain in the middle of a speech.  He believed that death was coming, declaring to the audience:

I believe my time is at hand.  I do not care.  I am half glad that it is almost over.  If I do not see the men again tell them for me that whatever success I have brought for them has not been for pecuniary benefit.  It has been because I love them.

Still Mitchell lived, but he withdrew at last from active participation in the union.  At the age of 38, he had grown old and feeble in the service of the miners.  On the credit side, the U.M.W. had won gains more advanced than those of any other union in the country.  The miners had prospered more than any other industrial group.  The working day had been decreased from 10 to 8 hours for bituminous workers, from 10 to 9 in the hard coal fields.  The coal mining industry was the best organized industry in the country.

Unfortunately, the rest of Mitchell’s life brought him little satisfaction.  his position with the Civic Federation was attacked by the United Mine Workers, and he resigned it rather than leave the union.  After years of lecturing, he was finally, in March, 1914, chosen for a four year term as member of the New York State Workmen’s Compensation Commission.  In June, 1915, he was transferred and appointed Chairman of the Industrial Commission of New York State. Here he remained until his death in September, 1919, at the age of 49.

The many eulogies at his untimely death were somewhat watered down by the discovery that Mitchell died a rich and not a poor man.  In the last, futile years of his life he had become interested in the stock market, and his estate was valued at almost a quarter of a million dollars.  (Later, the estate was valued at $347,151). 

Despite charges to the contrary, it was acquired honestly, as far as evidence shows.  Mitchell’s sincere conservatism, his belief in the capitalist system, and his dislike of radical socialism, meant that there was nothing inconsistent in his accumulation of wealth.  

When the U.M.W. demanded it, he had even resigned his $10,000 a year job with the Civic Federation.  No evidence has ever been produced that Mitchell had ill-gotten gains.  Five years after his death, the miners who loved him and remembered him unveiled a statue in his honor in Scranton, with the motto “Champion of Labor—Defender of Human Rights.”

But it must not be forgotten that during his lifetime the men whom he served took a great toll from Mitchell—his family life, his youth, his health, his usefulness to society after retirement.  The usual rewards of the early mine labor leaders were Mitchell’s, too—worship in success, and vilification when failure threatened.  Life in the mines is hard, the industry is a difficult, hazardous one, and the life of a coal miners’ leader in many ways matches that of the men.

Colbert, France’s famous minister of finance, once remarked that the  best tax system was the one that “plucked the goose with the least hissing.” — Montreal (Canada) Star

Source: Current History, January, 1950

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By Derrick Bell

In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school's hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell's fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard's president and all of the school's black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination.

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Michelle Alexander: US Prisons, The New Jim Crow  / Judge Mathis Weighs in on the execution of Troy Davis

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By Michelle Alexander

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The White Masters of the World

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By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more)

 

 

 

 

 

update 8 July 2012

 

 

 

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