Anthracite Coal Strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Presidential intervention to end a strike by coal miners set a precedent for future White House involvement in labor disputes.

Summary of Event

On May 12, 1902, 147,000 members of the United Mine Workers, United Mine Workers led by their president, John Mitchell, walked out of the anthracite coal mines of Pennsylvania. The walkout precipitated one of the most important confrontations between labor and capital in U.S. history. Before the strike ended in October, 1902, the nation had reached the verge of panic, the president had nearly ordered federal troops into the coal mines, and influential members of the business community had come to fear widespread social upheaval. The settlement of the strike marked the first time that a president had successfully intervened in a labor dispute as an impartial arbitrator. Through his intervention, Theodore Roosevelt increased the power of the U.S. presidency and his chances of being elected as president in his own right in 1904. The episode also marked a significant step in the emergence of organized labor as a force in national politics. Anthracite Coal Strike (1902) Presidency, U.S.;Theodore Roosevelt[Roosevelt, Theodore] Labor strikes;Anthracite Coal Strike (1902) Mining;labor issues [kw]Anthracite Coal Strike (May 12-Oct. 23, 1902) [kw]Coal Strike, Anthracite (May 12-Oct. 23, 1902) [kw]Strike, Anthracite Coal (May 12-Oct. 23, 1902) Anthracite Coal Strike (1902) Presidency, U.S.;Theodore Roosevelt[Roosevelt, Theodore] Labor strikes;Anthracite Coal Strike (1902) Mining;labor issues [g]United States;May 12-Oct. 23, 1902: Anthracite Coal Strike[00480] [c]Trade and commerce;May 12-Oct. 23, 1902: Anthracite Coal Strike[00480] [c]Government and politics;May 12-Oct. 23, 1902: Anthracite Coal Strike[00480] [c]Business and labor;May 12-Oct. 23, 1902: Anthracite Coal Strike[00480] Baer, George Frederick Clark, E. E. Hanna, Marcus A. Mitchell, John Morgan, J. P. Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;Anthracite Coal Strike Root, Elihu Stone, William Alexis

In 1902, the anthracite miners were among the most exploited groups of workers in the nation. With an average wage of about $560 a year, they suffered from irregular employment, dangerous working conditions, and a cruel paternalism that gave life in company towns a feudalistic quality. As president of the United Mine Workers, Mitchell served as a spokesman for the hard-pressed miners. In 1900, he had threatened a strike and won a 10 percent increase in wages, largely through the influence of Republican senator Marcus A. Hanna of Ohio, who persuaded the mine owners that a strike would hurt the reelection chances of President William McKinley. In 1902, despite several attempts at compromise, negotiations between the union and mine owners broke down, and a walkout ensued. The striking miners demanded recognition of their union, a nine-hour workday, more accurate weighing of the coal, and a 20 percent increase in pay.

At that time, it was not recognized generally that plentiful bituminous coal could be substituted for anthracite fuel. As winter approached, fear of shortages became widespread among northern urbanites, who dreaded the impending severe weather. In September, the price of a ton of anthracite coal, previously five dollars, reached fourteen dollars. The poor, who bought coal in relatively small quantities, paid a penny per pound, or twenty dollars per ton. By October, schools began to close because they could not afford to buy coal for heat; the meager amount of coal that was available was selling for thirty and thirty-five dollars per ton. Mobs in the West began to seize coal cars from passing trains, and mayors across the nation appealed to the president for help. Republican politicians feared that their party might suffer at the polls in the November congressional elections if the crisis was not resolved quickly. In response to these developments, Roosevelt arranged for an unprecedented conference between coal mining labor and management representatives at the White House on October 1, 1902.

George Frederick Baer, owner of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, represented the owners of the coal mines, and John Mitchell spoke for the striking miners. Baer already had infuriated much of the country when he had declared that the rights of laborers would be protected best “not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of this country.” Baer’s imperious demeanor contrasted sharply with the calm and goodwill shown by Mitchell.

The daylong conference between the two antagonists failed to produce a settlement, and a peaceful resolution of the crisis seemed increasingly improbable. The operators claimed that the men wanted to return to the mines but feared union violence. However, when Pennsylvania governor William Alexis Stone called out the state militia to protect anyone who wished to work, most of the miners remained on strike. Roosevelt believed that strong presidential action was needed to end the impasse. Rejecting the view that he lacked the power to act, he formulated a scheme that called for federal troops to occupy the mines and operate them in receivership. At the same time, Elihu Root—Roosevelt’s secretary of war, a corporate lawyer, and a friend of the business community—tried to arrange a negotiated settlement.

On Saturday, October 12, Root met with J. P. Morgan, the powerful New York financier whose railroads crisscrossed the coalfields. Working in tandem, the two men hammered out a possible compromise. On Sunday, Baer was summoned to New York, where he conferred with Morgan. By Tuesday, an agreement had been ratified by the coal mine operators. The Root-Morgan proposal specified the creation of a five-man independent commission with authority to arbitrate the dispute. The original blueprint did not allow for the appointment of a labor union representative to the arbitration panel, but the United Mine Workers insisted on the appointment of a union man as well as a Roman Catholic priest to the commission. Once again, a deadlock seemed unavoidable. The operators eventually agreed to the inclusion of a priest, but they adamantly opposed seating a union member.

President Roosevelt’s creative thinking finally ended the political logjam between owners and workers. He saw that the coal mine owners wanted a face-saving way to have a union man on the commission without granting the union official recognition. Roosevelt named E. E. Clark, grand chief of the Order of Railway Conductors, as a sixth member of the commission. In order to mollify the coal operators, Roosevelt publicly labeled Clark as an eminent sociologist rather than a labor leader. To Roosevelt’s amusement, this subterfuge satisfied the owners and allowed the settlement process to go forward. Once established, the commission worked out a compromise solution for the anthracite strike. The United Mine Workers did not achieve recognition of their union, but the commission did award them a nine-hour workday and a 10 percent pay raise. The arbitrators settled the weight dispute, and a board of conciliation was created to help resolve future difficulties.

Significance

Roosevelt later looked on the Anthracite Coal Strike settlement as a turning point in his administration. In contrast to the Pullman Strike of 1894, when President Grover Cleveland used his power to break the American Railway Union and end the walkout, Roosevelt acted as an honest mediator between the two sides. The technique embodied what he came to call the Square Deal. The settlement increased his popularity and enhanced his reputation as a spokesperson for the general welfare. At the same time, it demonstrated an appreciation for compromise on Roosevelt’s part that allowed his government to function as a successful intermediary between business and labor. Through his handling of the fuel crisis, Roosevelt took a long step toward making the national government and the presidency vital forces in American life. Anthracite Coal Strike (1902) Presidency, U.S.;Theodore Roosevelt[Roosevelt, Theodore] Labor strikes;Anthracite Coal Strike (1902) Mining;labor issues

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cornell, Robert J. The Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. 1957. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1971. One of the best single book-length studies of the coal strike. Uses the papers of John Mitchell and other primary sources to create a thorough and balanced narrative about the origins, development, and consequences of the coal walkout.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991. Considers the coal strike in the context of Roosevelt’s efforts to enhance the power of his office and to secure election in his own right in 1904.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Random House, 2001. Focuses on Roosevelt’s presidential years, 1901 through early 1909. Makes use of Roosevelt’s private and presidential papers as well as other archives to create a complete portrait of the twenty-sixth president of the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phelan, Craig. Divided Loyalties: The Public and Private Life of Labor Leader John Mitchell. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Biography of the leader of the United Mine Workers in the 1902 coal strike that brings out the personal and ethical questions that surrounded his tenure as president of the union.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schaefer, Arthur M. “Theodore Roosevelt’s Contribution to the Concept of Presidential Intervention in Labor Disputes: Antecedents and the 1902 Coal Strike.” In Theodore Roosevelt: Many-Sided American, edited by Natalie Nayor et al. Interlaken, N.Y.: Heart of the Lakes, 1992. This investigation of Roosevelt’s role in the strike credits him with achieving a major enhancement of presidential power through the settlement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiebe, Robert H. “The Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902: A Record of Confusion.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 48 (September, 1961): 229-251. Argues that the coal strike need not have happened if bituminous coal had been used as a substitute for anthracite. Asserts that Roosevelt’s triumph has been overstated and that J. P. Morgan was the real winner in the contest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zane, J. Robert. 1902! The Great Coal Strike in Shenandoah, PA. Frackville, Pa.: Broad Mountain, 2004. An interpretive historical account of incidents that took place in Shenandoah during the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, including murders, revenge, and court trial.

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