“Forty years I worked with pick and drill.
Down in the mines against my will
The Coal King’s slave but now it’s passed
Thanks be to God I am free at last.”
(An old epitaph in an anthracite coal country cemetery)
On October 3, 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt found himself in a desperate situation. And it was not because this advocate of “the strenuous life” was temporarily confined to a wheelchair thanks to an accident (his carriage a month before had been struck by a streetcar). He also had to take up temporary quarters at 22 Lafayette Place, having turned the White House over to the imperious architect Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead and White for renovations. Busy putting his Beaux-Arts classical style stamp on the Executive Mansion, McKim was also leaving several decades worth of presidential decorative history out for the trash man. Roosevelt famously had prevented McKim from throwing out some bedroom furniture that dated from the Lincoln administration, now known as the Lincoln Bedroom suite. It remains debatable whether Lincoln ever actually slept in the bed.
What Roosevelt was confronting was the first major crisis of his young administration. Since May the anthracite coal workers of eastern Pennsylvania (Schuylkill, Carbon, Luzerne, Lackawanna and Northumberland counties) had been out on strike. The leader of the United Mine Workers Union, John Mitchell, 30, wanted recognition for the union from the coal mine owners as the miners bargaining unit. He also wanted an 8-hour work day, a 20% wage increase and the weighing of coal using as a legal ton 2,240 pounds, for which the minimum rate would be 60 cents.
The owners were having none of it. Knowing as he did that a strike would bring on a “coal famine” with cold homes and closed mills and factories, Roosevelt felt he had to act. New Yorkers were already buying coconut shells for fuel, Chicagoans were reported to be ripping up wooden paving blocks to keep warm and across the country the opening of schools was being delayed due to lack of coal to heat them.
Roosevelt had come into office following the assassination of President William McKinley. He wanted his to be an activist administration to take on social and labor problems that had been festering in the country throughout the late 19th century. “It is a terrible thing to come into the presidency this way, but it would be far worse to be morbid about it,” he said at the time. Now Roosevelt had to make decisions in a crisis that affected the nation. “Untold misery,” he feared, would result, ”with the certainty of riots which might develop into social war…” if the strike did not end.
Attorney General Philander Chase Knox advised Roosevelt to just stay away and simply follow the path blazed back to the Andrew Jackson administration and followed ever since: send in the troops to restore “order,” i.e., force the workers back to work. Although he had no legal right to intervene, Knox had told him the language of the 1895 Sherman Anti-Trust Act was too vague to cover the situation. Roosevelt sent telegrams to both sides to meet with him at the temporary White House.
Relations between miners and mine owners had never been cordial. Concentrated in a few hundred square miles in five Pennsylvania counties, the anthracite coal fields were a natural monopoly that by 1902 were largely owned by a few independent mine owners and representatives of railroads and banks. The railroads and banks were in turn largely controlled by mega investment banker J.P. Morgan. In 1901 while dining alone with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the monarch, of all people, mentioned socialism. Morgan glared back for a moment before saying, “I pay no attention to such theories.” Morgan’s glare, says one biographer, combined with the scab-like skin condition that covered his nose called rhinophymous, was frightening. Noted photographer Edward Steichen said taking his picture was “like confronting the lights of an oncoming express train.”
George F. Baer, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railway Company, was the driving force behind the coal mine owners’ position. Known for his penchant for purple patriotic oratory- he had given a florid address in 1899 at the unveiling of Lehigh County’s Soldiers and Sailors monument in Allentown- Baer had more than a little touch of self-righteous. Responding in a July 1902 letter about the strike to a concerned citizen of Wilkes-Barre, Baer told him to have no fear. “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for – not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country.” Later the letter was published and caused sarcastic comment in the press. “A good many people think they superintend the earth,” noted the New York Times, “but not many have the egregious vanity to describe themselves as its managing directors.”
In 1900 a previous strike had been settled thanks to Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, McKinley’s campaign manager in that year’s presidential election, who was fearful that the work action would cost McKinley votes. His candidate won but Roosevelt, considered in establishment Republican circles to be something of a loose cannon with progressive ideas, who Hanna had thought was safely out of the way in the vice presidency, was sitting in the White House. “Now look,” he moaned, “that damned cowboy is President of the United States.”
By October, the situation in the coal regions was simmering as desperate miners watched their families starve. But by and large they remained loyal to the union as the one thing that could get them a better life than the one of misery in under which they lived. Abused, threatened, and cheated by their employers, the striking miners sometimes resorted to violence against non-striking workers and company property. The Morning Call covered the strike extensively and the late Lance Metz gathered a number of these stories together for a publication: “The Great Strike; Perspectives on the 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike” appeared at the strike’s 100th anniversary. ”From my study of these incidents,” Metz writes, “ I have come to the conclusion that these incidents were either spontaneous or led by informal leaders while the elected officials of the UMWA made every attempt to prevent further outbreaks of violence and defuse those that developed.”
Chicago newspaperman Walter Wellman described what he saw this way: “To a great many of the newly arrived miners, John Mitchell is the one great man in the United States… ask the first Hun or Polander on the streets who is president of the United States and odds are about even that he will reply Johnny d’Mitch.”
It was against this background that Roosevelt called Mitchell and the miners to his meeting at the temporary White House at Lafayette Square. John Mitchell arrived first and then Baer and other mine owners followed. After outlining the horror that a coal famine would bring on the country, Roosevelt made his appeal:
“With all the earnestness there is in me I ask that there be an immediate resumption in the coal mines in some such way as will without a day’s unnecessary delay, meet the crying needs of the people. I appeal to your patriotism, to the spirit that sinks personal consideration that makes sacrifices for the general good.”
Mitchell jumped up immediately. “I am much pleased, Mr. President, with what you say. We are willing that you shall name a tribunal which shall determine the issues that have resulted in the strike and if the gentleman representing the operators will accept the award of such tribunal, miners will willingly accept it even if it goes against our claim,” he said. Baer and John Markel, who represented the independent mine owners, were not impressed. “Are you asking us to deal with a set of outlaws?” Markle asked. “I now ask you to perform the duties invested in you as President of the United States, and at once squelch the anarchistic conditions of affairs existing in the anthracite coal regions by the strong arm of the military at your command.” This approach had just the opposite effect of what was intended. No one told Theodore Roosevelt what he had to do. It was the best way to get on his bad side. He kept his temper, but just barely. Afterward speaking of Baer, he expressed his outrage. “If it wasn’t for the high office I hold I would have taken him by the seat of the breeches and the nape of the neck and chucked him out the window,” he said.
But the conference had failed. And because it was a national emergency, he was prepared to send in the U.S. Army. But Roosevelt could not do this without the request of Pennsylvania’s governor, but despite attempts to persuade Governor Stone (the state’s entire national guard force of 8,750 was already in the coal regions), he would not do it. Its commander, General John Gobin, who as a much younger man had commanded the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, made up largely of Lehigh County men during the Civil War, had given his troops orders to shoot to kill any miner who they feared might assault them.
The stalemate was finally broken on October 11 when Secretary of War Elihu Root, at Roosevelt’s request, went to see J.P. Morgan in New York. A Wall Street lawyer by background, he and Morgan had had dealings before. “Other lawyers tell me what I can’t do,” Morgan is said to have remarked. ”Mr. Root tells me how to do what I want to do.” The memo setting up a tribunal was set up by the pair and Morgan “persuaded” Baer and the rest to sign it. This whole strike thing had become a mess, and the one thing Morgan hated was a mess that disrupted his business and the country’s business community in which he had a large stake in. Economy and efficiency were his deeply held beliefs.
The result was a tribunal to take testimony. It should have an engineer from the military, a professional mining engineer, a federal judge from the eastern district of Pennsylvania, a businessman familiar with the anthracite industry, and a man of prominence as a sociologist. On October 23, 1902 Mitchell called off the strike. The tribunal / commission was to meet until March 22, 1903. Extensive testimony was taken. Among the lawyers was Clarence Darrow, then just on the rise. He had a great time baiting Baer on the stand.
Mitchell underwent extensive examination but apparently emerged with his position intact. When asked, wouldn’t the rise in the workers’ wages increase the price of coal and be placed on the “bowed backs of the poor,” he quickly replied, “they might put it on the bowed backs of the rich.”
It was not a huge victory for labor. The tribunal granted the contract miners a 10% wage increase. They had asked for an 8 hour day and got a 9 hour day. The operators still refused to recognize the United Mineworkers Union. But Mitchell felt he had achieved de facto recognition. He later wrote that the “most important feature of the award” was the creation of a six- man arbitration board to settle disputes that could not be worked out by mine officials. The employers selected three members and the employees selected the other three. Mitchell continued to be active but finely worn out and tired by a bituminous coal worker’s strike, he died in 1919 at age 49.
The union would finally achieve collective bargaining rights in 1933.