Coal Strike Hearings: The Miners Testify Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The anthracite coal strike of 1902 came on the heels of significant labor agitation in the preceding years. In 1897, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)–working in bituminous, or soft coal, mines– won both wage increases and improved conditions, and miners’ union membership grew significantly. Workers in anthracite, or hard coal, mines in eastern Pennsylvania went on strike in May 1902, demanding a reduction in hours, an increase in pay, and an end to unsafe working conditions. The strike continued through the summer, but by October, when it seemed that the strike would interfere with the winter’s heating supply, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened, calling a meeting of the UMWA, the mine owners, and government arbitrators. Though the union initially refused to end the strike, following the establishment of an arbitration commission, the strike was called off on October 23, 1902, after 163 days. An article on the testimony taken by the commission was published in the newspaper Public Opinion in December 1902.

Summary Overview

The anthracite coal strike of 1902 came on the heels of significant labor agitation in the preceding years. In 1897, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)–working in bituminous, or soft coal, mines– won both wage increases and improved conditions, and miners’ union membership grew significantly. Workers in anthracite, or hard coal, mines in eastern Pennsylvania went on strike in May 1902, demanding a reduction in hours, an increase in pay, and an end to unsafe working conditions. The strike continued through the summer, but by October, when it seemed that the strike would interfere with the winter’s heating supply, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened, calling a meeting of the UMWA, the mine owners, and government arbitrators. Though the union initially refused to end the strike, following the establishment of an arbitration commission, the strike was called off on October 23, 1902, after 163 days. An article on the testimony taken by the commission was published in the newspaper Public Opinion in December 1902.

Defining Moment

When anthracite coal miners in eastern Pennsylvania went on strike in 1902, it was with the knowledge that their fellow coal miners in the Midwest had made significant gains in their strike of 1897 and that in the following five years, both anthracite and bituminous coal miners had been able to gain small concessions through union activity. In 1900, a general strike had been called, and under pressure from a looming election, Republican senator Mark Hanna persuaded the mine owners to make wage and arbitration concessions. The strike was called off, without the UMWA or any other union being recognized by the mine owners.

By 1902, many of the same issues that arose in 1900 were pressing again. Wages were low, conditions in the mines were dangerous, and hours were long. On May 12, 1902, union miners went on strike, and in June, maintenance employees, such as firemen and engineers, did so. In total, nearly 150,000 workers participated in the strike.

Resentful of governmental interference in the 1900 strike, the mine owners were not interested initially in any federal involvement. During the summer, strikers clashed with strikebreakers, police, private security personnel hired by the mine owners, and even the Pennsylvania National Guard. As the situation escalated and became the focus of national attention, President Roosevelt sought to protect the nation’s winter heating supply and return the miners to work. Though Attorney General Philander Knox counseled against Roosevelt’s involvement, as the strike continued and neither side seemed willing to negotiate, the president decided to call a meeting of labor, management, and government representatives on October 3. Roosevelt found the mine owners stubborn and rigid, while John Mitchell, the president of the UMWA, saw the meeting as a de facto recognition of the union and so was eager for it to be a success. However, the workers voted to continue the strike three days after the meeting, as they were unwilling to trust the word of the mine owners.

Despite the overall failure of the meeting, the federal government did not end its attempt to resolve the strike peacefully. At the behest of the White House, Secretary of War Elihu Root and businessman J. P. Morgan used Morgan’s influence with mine owners to propose the creation of a five-member commission composed of two engineers, a judge, a coal expert, and a sociologist, which would hear testimony from the mine workers and seek to address their grievances. The workers and mine owners agreed, and a Catholic bishop and the commissioner of labor, Carroll D. Wright, were soon added to the commission. After 163 days, the coal strike ended on October 23.

The commission toured the area immediately after the strike ended and heard testimony from more than five hundred witnesses over the next several months. The commission determined that there were grounds to demand improvements in working conditions and wages, but it also confirmed that striking miners had harmed and in some cases killed nonstriking workers and destroyed property. In the end, the strikers won a 10 percent wage increase and a reduction of work hours from ten to nine hours, and though the UMWA was not officially recognized, an arbitration board was set up to address labor disputes. Miller and the UMWA considered the strike an important victory not only for Pennsylvania mine workers but also for labor unions nationwide.

Document Analysis

Published on December 18, 1902, in the Pennsylvania newspaper Public Opinion, the article on the coal strike hearings documents some of the miners’ testimony taken by the strike commission and a Catholic priest who was familiar with the workers’ living conditions. The article states that the mine operators intended to call this testimony regarding working and living conditions into question and that the paper would report their side of the case as well. Throughout the strike of 1902, Public Opinion sought not only to present a balanced view of the strike and the activities of the commission, but also to record the varying opinions set forth in other newspapers. In this case, however, the newspaper records the testimony of miners who described a system that kept them in a state of virtual slavery and forced them to work in dangerous conditions.

Several of the workers testify that the mine stores, where workers were forced to purchase food at inflated prices, consumed their wages and left them in debt to the company. One miner, James Gallagher, testifies that each time he had repaid nearly all of his debt, he was transferred to a lower-paying position, ensuring that he would never be debt-free. A worker’s debt to the company did not disappear when he died; rather, it was passed on to his family, as a young man working to pay off his deceased father’s debt explains to the commission. Workers who were unable to pay their debt were forced from company-owned houses or houses on which the company held the note. One elderly miner testifies that his family was evicted during a particularly rainy and cold period, resulting in the death of his already-ill wife, while another miner tells the commission that he was evicted after refusing to work in a particularly dangerous area of the mine.

In addition to testimony concerning the financial peril of working in the mines, testimony is given about the mine owners’ attempts to intimidate workers and infiltrate the union. One worker testifies that he was placed on a blacklist when he refused to work in a low-paying position. Another reports that the mine owners attempted to bribe the miners into voting against the strike. They refused and reported the attempted bribery to union officials.

The article concludes by documenting the testimony of a local priest, Father J. V. Hussie, who testifies that living conditions for miners and their families were “deplorable,” particularly for those whose family members fell ill or died. In some cases, families could not afford to bury their dead and were forced to rely on charity. Hussie also reports that children were often forced to leave their homes around age eleven to look for work.

Essential Themes

“The Coal Strike Hearings” illustrates the hardships faced by workers in the anthracite mines, shedding light on the union’s justification for the strike. UMWA hoped that the union was seen by the commission and the American people not as the instigator of the coal shortage that would result from the strike but as a champion of working people who had been driven to extreme measures by unjust and inhumane treatment. Since the commission would determine any concessions to be made, testimony was given that supported that argument–firsthand accounts of men who were evicted from their homes when they fell ill, young men falling deeper into debt with no chance to get ahead, and companies that resorted to bribery and intimidation to keep their workers impoverished, indebted, and unable to advocate for themselves without penalty. The mine owners’ testimony illustrated the darker side of the strike, including the violence dealt to workers who refused to strike and acts of arson and sabotage against company property. Still, the testimony of the workers made a powerful impression on the commission, whose findings were generally in favor of the strikers.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Cornell, Robert J. The Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. Washington: Catholic U of Amer., 1957. Print.
  • Dublin, Thomas, and Walter Light. The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005. Print.
  • Grossman, Jonathan. “The Coal Strike of 1902–Turning Point in U.S. Policy.” U.S. Dept. of Labor. U.S. Dept. of Labor, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.
  • “Public Opinion: Part of Life in the Cumberland Valley.” Public Opinion. Chambersburg Public Opinion, 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.
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