The strike negotiations marked the first time a sitting president intervened in a strike, citing national safety as the reason.
Following 1897’s successful bituminous coal strike, John
Mitchell tried to negotiate concessions for the anthracite coal miners similar to those granted to the bituminous coal miners. He wanted a 20 percent wage increase, an eight-hour workday, and recognition of the UMWA’s legitimacy. When the mine owners refused to deal with Mitchell or to recognize the UMWA, a nonviolent strike was called. On May 12, the coal miners struck. They were joined by firefighters, pumpmen, and engineers on June 2. Of the 147,000 miners who struck, 30,000 permanently left the region; about 8,000 to 10,000 emigrated to Europe.
Fearing a heating-fuel shortage, President Theodore Roosevelt decided to intervene personally in the strike. Convinced by Attorney General Philander C. Knox that he needed to remain on the sidelines, Roosevelt appointed a panel to research the situation and make recommendations. Research showed that, although the mine workers’ situation was not as bad as they claimed, there was room for reform. On October 3, Roosevelt called a meeting between Mitchell and the owners. The union appeared ready to negotiate in good faith; it accepted the creation of a commission to recommend reasonable reforms, but the owners did not. The owners’ spokesperson, George Baer, claimed that the workers were not worthy of consideration and that God was on the side of the owners. This attitude caused public opinion to swing to the union’s side. The meeting ended with the creation of a seven-member commission that represented the owners, businessmen, workers, politicians, and clergy. With the creation of the commission, the strike ended on October 23, 1902.
The commission’s findings resulted in a series of compromises. The union’s demands were all partially met; miners received a 10 percent wage increase, a nine-hour workday, and the establishment of a permanent arbitration board. The strike set a precedent for presidential involvement in settling labor disputes. It helped legitimize union representation and supported the development of progressive business practices.
Janosov, Robert A. Great Strike: Perspectives on the 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike. Easton, Pa.: Center for Canal History and Technology, 2002. Zane, J. Robert. 1902! The Great Coal Strike in Shenandoah, Pa.: A True Story of Martial Law in an Anthracite Mining Community. Frackville, Pa.: Broad Mountain, 2004.
United Mine Workers of America