“Echoes from the Recent Pennsylvania Coal Strike” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In a series of hearings on the conditions of American coal mines that lasted from October 1902 to February 1903, Philadelphia and Reading Railroad president George F. Baer testified that the 163-day anthracite coal strike conducted by the United Mine Workers (UMW) union was illegal and that the “lawlessness” and reckless conditions in the mines were created not by mine owners but by the workers and the unions themselves. Baer also argued that any reduction in “exertion” by workers would result in lower production and, therefore, less pay for the workers. His testimony was later published in the April 1903 issue of Cassier’s Magazine, a monthly engineering journal.

Summary Overview

In a series of hearings on the conditions of American coal mines that lasted from October 1902 to February 1903, Philadelphia and Reading Railroad president George F. Baer testified that the 163-day anthracite coal strike conducted by the United Mine Workers (UMW) union was illegal and that the “lawlessness” and reckless conditions in the mines were created not by mine owners but by the workers and the unions themselves. Baer also argued that any reduction in “exertion” by workers would result in lower production and, therefore, less pay for the workers. His testimony was later published in the April 1903 issue of Cassier’s Magazine, a monthly engineering journal.

Defining Moment

By the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was heavily dependent on coal for virtually every aspect of life, including transportation, home heating, factory operation, and many other elements of industrialized society. Demand for coal was high, and miners worked arduously, in dangerous conditions and for little pay. In 1900, John Mitchell, president of the UMW, successfully led a strike against bituminous coal field owners. Although he succeeded in securing improved wages–aided by the fact that President William McKinley, in an election year, intervened to end the strike–Mitchell and the UMW union could not gain recognition as the mines’ representative in labor negotiations.

In May of 1902, anthracite coal miners, seeking higher pay, eight-hour workdays, and recognition of the UMW as their union, walked out of the mines in Pennsylvania. Anthracite coal was a cleaner and more efficient form of coal and was, therefore, in very high demand on the heavily populated Eastern Seaboard. As a result, this strike would have major implications for the American economy. Coal operators refused to negotiate with the UMW, and the strike continued well into the fall. The operators brought in thousands of security officers to keep striking workers away from the mines, but more workers walked off their jobs. There were a number of incidents of violence and vandalism, and eventually the Pennsylvania National Guard was deployed to maintain order in the region.

As winter approached, President Theodore Roosevelt pushed for a resolution, convening meetings in Washington between the UMW and the operators. Unfortunately, the meetings proved fruitless, and workers continued their strike. Roosevelt and the government understood the implications of failure to resolve this strike and moved toward a more heavy-handed approach. Roosevelt’s next step was to threaten military intervention, an action that would benefit neither side. The two parties agreed to end the strike while a government-appointed commission was established to review the issues. The commission was taken on tours of the mines and given a firsthand view of the industry. After completing the tours, the commission returned to Washington and began three months of hearings.

The hearings would become a major spectacle, with a high-profile set of closing arguments between George F. Baer, a prominent attorney and president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and outspoken trial lawyer Clarence Darrow. After hours of Baer’s and Darrow’s arguments, the commission began its review of thousands of pages of findings and rendered its decision. The workers were granted a 10-percent wage increase and an eight-hour workday, but the UMW did not receive recognition as the official negotiator for the workers.

Author Biography

George Frederick Baer was born on September 26, 1842, in Somerset County in southwestern Pennsylvania. At the age of thirteen, he left school and began working in the printing office of a local newspaper, the Somerset Democrat, which he would later purchase in partnership with his brother. Baer entered Franklin and Marshall College in 1860 but left a year later, after the Civil War broke out, to serve as a captain in the 133rd Pennsylvania Volunteers. Following the war, Baer was admitted to the bar in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and became local counsel to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. In 1896, after thirty-three years of service, he was elevated to the post of president of the railway. Baer would later become president of Franklin and Marshall College. A Social Darwinist, he continued his legal career until his death in Philadelphia in April 1914.

Document Analysis

Baer’s testimony makes an effort to undermine the UMW’s position as well as assert the perceived rights of the owners and operators. He claims that there are limits to the mineworkers’ perceived “right to organise,” taking into consideration what he deems the “lawlessness” of the workers and the unions that attempted to organize them. Baer also argues that employers should retain the right to directly engage their employees with regard to grievances and business operations instead of working through union negotiators. He further calls into question the legitimacy of the United Mine Workers, accusing the union of taking monopolistic steps while undercutting one of the economy’s most vital natural resource industries. The result of acceding to the workers’ demands, he argues, would be lower wages for workers, higher prices for coal, and a negative overall trend in American industrial development.

Baer’s first point is that he and his fellow operators do not object to the right of workers to join a union; rather, the problem at hand is one specific union, the UMW. Mitchell’s group, Baer argues, organized under dubious and illegal means, including, he alleges, forcing foreigners and others to join their cause. The purpose of the UMW is not to protect the workers, he says, but to “incit[e them] to riot.” He claims that the union made no effort to address the violence that occurred during the strike, preferring instead to teach members to simply push on with lawlessness. Baer insists that UMW’s record speaks for itself: in 1900, they shut down countless bituminous mines “for more than five months,” and now they encouraged similar closures in anthracite mines.

Baer also argues that the owners and operators should have the right to address employee issues directly with those workers rather than rely on an intermediary such as the UMW. An external party such as UMW operates without knowledge of the issues specific to each mine and instead attempts to address each issue using “some Utopian scheme of uniformity of wages and conditions.” As an example, he criticizes the idea of limiting the amount of coal produced by each miner as an attempt to create work for additional workers, arguing that such ideals in fact only reduce production.

Baer uses economics to argue against the notion of raising wages for workers. Such a raise, he says, would directly impact the price of coal production, a cost that would then be passed along to the consumer. Rather, he suggests, wages for non-contract employees should be raised by five percent and maintained at that level until April 1903, after which pay would be tied to market prices for three years; though wages might decrease as well as increase under this scheme, he stipulates that they would never fall below the present level.

The anthracite coal strike had already had an impact, driving up the price of bituminous coal. Despite the best efforts of the operators to negotiate, Baer claims, the union refused to halt the strike. He alleges that the UMW is a monopolistic organization that seeks to perpetuate the strike despite the risks to the marketplace, the workers, and the American economy.

Essential Themes

George Baer’s closing argument at the hearing in February 1903, delivered to a hostile audience that included labor activists, workers, and the famous civil libertarian Clarence Darrow, was greeted with considerable animosity. His expectation that employers should have the right to deal with their respective employees’ issues in the manner of their choosing was perceived by many as reminiscent of the presumed “divine right” of monarchs to rule over their subjects. Nevertheless, Baer’s comments represented the perspective of many mine owners and operators on the issue.

Baer did address the plight of the workers, touching on the issues of wages and working conditions, but he did so within the context of a broader argument: that workers performed their respective tasks as a result of the forces dictated by the marketplace. The exertion that workers experienced was necessary, he said, because Americans needed coal production, and any changes in hours or wages would impact coal prices and ultimately adversely impact workers. In order to avoid such conditions, Baer proposed a wage increase tied to market prices rather than one that he deemed arbitrary and imposed by external political entities.

As he argued for the right of owners to address wage and labor issues, Baer discounted the UMW as an illegal organization. Labor had the right to organize, he said, but the UMW, which he deemed a “monopoly” because of its singularity as a mineworkers union, could never serve as a legitimate advocate in negotiations simply because it was not knowledgeable of the specific interests and operations of each mine. Furthermore, according to Baer, UMW had a reputation for forcing workers to join and engage in illegal activity in strike situations. Given UMW’s uneducated and illegal activity, Baer argued, it could not represent the workers at the negotiating table. On this point, the government agreed; while it allowed for a wage increase and permitted a fact-finding tour of the mines, the special commission still refused to identify UMW as the workers’ representative.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bechtel, Ali. “Building Is Tribute to Prominent Berks Attorney Who Once Battled Clarence Darrow.” Berks Barrister (Spring 2013): 10–13. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
  • Blatz, Perry K. Democratic Miners: Work and Labor Relations in the Anthracite Coal Industry, 1875–1925. Albany: State U of New York P, 1994. Print.
  • Connelly, Scott. “The Greatest Strike Ever.” Pennsylvania Center for the Book. Pennsylvania State U, Spring 2010. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
  • Lindermuth, John R. Digging Dusky Diamonds: A History of the Pennsylvania Coal Region. Mechanicsburg: Sunbury, 2013. Print.
  • McDonough, Jack. The Fire Down Below: The Great Anthracite Strike of 1902 and the People Who Made the Decisions. Scranton: Avocado, 2002. Print.
  • Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era. New York: Norton, 1987. Print.
  • United States Anthracite Coal Strike Commission. Report to the President on the Anthracite Coal Strike of May–October, 1902. Washington: GPO, 1903. Print.
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