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That Magnificent Fight For Unionism

Unionism1

By Eileen Mountjoy

 

During 1920 and 1921, western Pennsylvania's coal mine operators campaigned vigorously to slash wages of the miners they employed. Because demand for coal declined after World War One the operators were forced to reduce production, resulting in stack, or in some cases, the complete shutdown of operations. Many miners drifted to factory jobs in nearby cities, or simply clung to hope -and the meager paychecks still available at the whim of the mining officials.

At the February 1922 meeting of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in Indianapolis, the two thousand delegates stood firm against all economic odds, demanding not only the cessation of wage cuts but also a six-hour day and five-day week, in a concerted effort to halt unemployment in coal regions across the nation Within days it became painfully obvious that coal operators, after refusing even to take part in a four state wage conference, had no intention of accepting the miners' demands. On April 1, 1922, the coal miners of southwestern Pennsylvania joined their counterparts in most other mining districts to honor the birthday of their hero, Johnny Mitchell, with much more than the customary parades and speeches. That evening, newspapers in dozens of small towns and villages throughout the coal regions trumpeted the sensational news in banner headlines: "National Strike of Miners Is Declared; 50,000 Men Out in District 2." The newspapers characterized the walkout as "the sixth great strike in the history of the American mining industry." District 2 of the United Mine Workers included Somerset, Indiana, and Fayette counties.

Across Indiana County, Pennsylvania, fifteen thousand union members heeded the call, throwing down picks and shovels, wiping dust-streaked sweat from their brows, and bracing themselves for long, hard months ahead. In nearby Cambria County, twenty thousand miners responded, resisting the mine owners' attempts to reduce their wages by the only means available to them -withholding their labor. In mining towns dotting the hardscrabble landscape of both counties, miners' wives received the news with trepidation, and left the cheers and speeches to the men. Most of the women recalled the hardships endured during previous strikes first as daughters and later as wives. In Somerset County, other women, particularly those with small children, reacted to the news with outright fear. The county was located in the non-union coal fields of District 2, where wages had already been reduced to the minimum standards, and supplies of food had dwindled. For families of coal miners, meat was a luxury and meals were concocted with the cheapest ingredients available. Nevertheless, these were women of great courage. Many left parents, brothers, and sisters behind in Italy, Poland, and Hungary to make the trip to America in sweltering steerage berths. Unfamiliar with any but the barest comforts of life, the women of Somerset County joined their husbands in a fight against the ruthless District 2 operators.

Traditionally, the wives of Pennsylvania's soft coal miners took little part in labor disputes, staying home instead to cook, clean, and care for their large families. But in 1921 newspapers in District 2 published fascinating reports of the saga of the "Amazon Army" of Kansas, which in three days "practically shut down," every coal mine in the state On December 16, newspapers reported that the wives, mothers, and sweethearts of striking Kansas mine had required a force of six thousand National Guardsmen to turn them back when they attacked strikebreakers, all the while taunting the soldiers.

By Christmas week, the activism of mining town women had spread to Pennsylvania, where the Indiana Evening Gazette carried an article entitled "Amazons Stir Juneau."

...a proposition to resume operations under the 1920 scale was offered and idle miners from this section made application for work. When they arrived at the train station, they were surprised to see a large number of women waiting for them. When the men alighted from the train they were greeted with a volley of stones, sticks, etc. The Amazon Army then advanced upon them. Not prepared to do battle with women, the men broke ground and ran, taking to their heels with the women in pursuit. No one was injured. The men went back to Punxsutawney on foot and the mine is still idle.

For the miners of Somerset County, the incident of the "Amazon Women" underscored the desperation of their situation. The companies maintained open shops and employed anyone willing to work for low wages. With fears felt even more deeply than the workers receiving the old wage scale, miners of the non-union fields, supported by "every wife, mother, and sweetheart," walked out on April 1, 1922. District 2 union organizers, eager to encourage the Somerset County workers, were quick to respond, sending out mailings, holding mass meetings in non-union areas, and recruiting hundreds of new members. To the organized fields of Somerset County, the non-union mines, by their close proximity, were more of a threat than unorganized operations in West Virginia. In retaliation, mining companies in District 2, led by the Berwind-White Company and its subsidiaries, circulated antiunion flyers, ran newspaper advertisements, and hired armed guards to "keep the union men may from the non-union." In Indiana County, Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Company president B. M. Clark wrote to secretary of Labor James J. Davis, seeking an injunction to force the men to resume work. But it was to no avail.

Concerned more with feeding their families than with injunctions or wage agreements, miners' wives in the unorganized fields faced terrifying news on April 10, 1922. "Men Ordered to Vacate Homes," newspapers announced -"Eviction notices received by a number of Berwind-White miners." Beginning the following morning and continuing for seventeen months, homes for more than two thousand Somerset County families would be tents, hastily-built barracks constructed with District 2 union funds, and a converted stable.

Initially District 2 organizers continued their gallant efforts to organize the Somerset coal fields, as well as the neighboring non-union fields of Black Lick Creek north and west of Nanty-Glo, and parts of Cambria County near. Johnstown. In his autobiography, John Brophy, District 2 president, recounted that in addition to the unorganized mines of his own area, District 5 in Westmoreland County, the coke regions of Fayette County near Connellsville and several other small areas added a significant number to the group: ninety thousand nonunion miners to be precise.

Brophy urged organizers to enter the unorganized territory 11 quietly, on foot; or in Model-T Fords. Because of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which made efforts to unionize workers illegal, organizers were forbidden to hold meetings, pass out leaflets, picket, use union funds to house or feed strikers, or engage in conduct to which the mine bosses could object. Despite these restrictions, District 2 organizers secretly distributed leaflets to those who could smuggle them through police lines that had been formed by company guards. "The Somerset strikers;' Brophy recalled, "were defiant, and even violated court injunctions against them." At one mass meeting outside Windber on April 7, local newspapers reported that more than twenty-five hundred men attended and "hundreds" enrolled.

Hardships were becoming painfully evident for striking miners and their suffering families. Each day dissenting miners received eviction notices from officials of the Berwind-White Company. On April 10, John Brophy wrote an impassioned letter to Gov. William Sproul, pleading for an end to this practice.

On behalf of the 52,000 organized union miners of Central Pennsylvania and their families, I ask your intervention in the manner in which the State Police are handling the strike of the miners in which there have been wage reductions of from 32 to 54 per cent. Already the Berwind-White Co. is evicting miners and their wives and children from company owned houses. The families have been given a five-day notice to get out, ...even in a city, where houses or rooms may be secured, eviction is considered so vicious that it is seldom resorted to. But in these small, isolated mining towns, there are no houses to be had.... With no place to go and no funds, for these miners have worked no more than four days a week for months, eviction is little short of a catastrophe for these people.

In a telegram following his letter to the governor, Brophy asked for a thousand tents "from the army." He also noted that it "is a practice, moreover, for the law officers to attach part of the goods spilled into the highway to pay the costs of the eviction. The family cookstove and food supplies have even been taken. The company owns the earth in those quarters. Eviction means exile." Sadly, Brophy's faith in Pennsylvania's elected officials was misplaced. The Indiana Evening Gazette grimly reported, "Brophy Receives No Word From Gov. Sproul."

Mining town women, however, once again took matters into their own hands. On April 28, a local newspaper covered an incident which occurred in Fayette County under the headline "Mine Amazons on Warpath."

A crowd of 200 foreign women, armed with knives, clubs, stones, pokers, and salt and pepper shakers, marched to the Tower Hill mine here and attacked [strike breakers] at the site. When deputies guarding the mine interferred, the women waded into the deputies. Later, the women were arrested, but at least six men suffered bruises and lacerations in the attacks and as many more had salt and pepper thrown into their eyes.

Until May, the women of Somerset County relied on donations from the union miners of District 2, rather than on sticks and stones, to protect them against want and violence. But on May 5, the families remaining in the Berwind-White Company and Consolidation CoaI Company villages were shocked by a story of the coal and iron police's brutality. The incident even caught the attention of an industry magazine, Labor Age.

 In the home of John Rykola, striker, everyone had retired. The little house sits on the outskirts of Windber where the town runs into file country. John's wife Catherine, is in the house, his three small children, his brother Tom, and himself. Without warning, the peace of the house is broken. The door is forced, with a loud noise. Ten gunmen of the Berwind-White Company, dignified with the name, "special police," enter the miner's home.

While seven of these thugs, recruited from the vermin of the cities, are questioning the miner, three of them ascend the stairs and prowl around above. One of thew enters the bedroom where Mrs. Rykola is nursing her nine months-old child. An indecent remark brings the woman to her feet in terror Holding her baby at her breast, she gazes at the fellow in paralyzed fear. With more foul language, much of which Catherine does not understand, he took her by the arm, Dazed from the shock of being thus brutally awakened, intimidated by the flashlight and drawn revolver in his hands, the little Polish woman lost the power of speech. In this brutal fashion, still holding the revolver, he forces her to submit to his attack.... The name of this assailant is known. He struts through the town of Windber all through the strike. The sovereign state of Pennsylvania does nothing to him. To this day he remains unpunished. It is only the wife of a worker who was raped.

As late as 1976, a woman who had witnessed such atrocities painfully remembered experiences suffered by her neighbors. "When we lived in Somerset and these men called scabs were going to work, if a woman would just say something mean to them, they would pull her out of the house and beat her up. ...they raped a lot of women at that time. Women had no say at all. Women were in great danger at that time.'

Despite the threat of brutality miners' families set up two hundred tents near company property at Windber, and with whatever household goods they could salvage, the women set to work making their outdoor accommodations as comfortable as possible. This accomplished, they began to travel farther afield.

On June 5, 1922, "60 men and 20 women were arrested... for throwing eggs and annoying the guards" of the Consolidation and Davis coal companies at Somerset. The same day, seventeen more miners' wives were also accused of "annoying the guards" at Windber. Two days later, the Johnstown Democrat ran another account, this time including not only twenty women, but also "many children." The group was charged with disorderly conduct, but later released on bail put up by a local union.

In mid-July the women of the non-union fields were still reminding the companies' hired thugs of their unwelcome presence. In a turning of the legal tables, ten women living near Somerset filed charges against five coal and iron policemen, claiming they had been "mistreated" while in custody. By the end of August, events took a sudden and dramatic turn with the signing of contract agreements by most of the operators of District 2, after a stormy conference arranged by John L. Lewis, UMW president, in Cleveland. Brophy, as he recalled it, "put up a fight for the principle that no agreement be signed with an operator unless it covered all of the mines that were on strike, both in the newly organized as well as in the old, established fields.... However, Lewis signed up with any and all who were covered by agreements before the strike. This left thousands of the new union men stranded, not only in Somerset but in all of the new fields.

As the summer of 1922 drew to a close, John Brophy sensed that the bitter strike in Somerset County would continue into the fall and winter months, and sent a plea for aid to all of the organized sections of his district.

The signing of new contracts returns to work about 40, 000 men, almost all in the older, organized sections.... But there are still on strike some 25, 000 newly organized men. These men have shown a wonderful spirit despite the eviction of 2,000 families, nearly 1,000 of which are living in tents.. Here is where hundreds of state police, mine guards, deputies, gunmen, and militia have held forth, and it is here that...our people have been subject to intimidation, violence, ravishing of women and even murder.

Brophy concluded his appeal with a request for funding to help the miners of the nonunion fields who we, still striking.

These mine workers and their families are willing to continue the fight, but they must be provided with food and shelter, because ... many are facing actual starvation. An assessment of $7.00 per week per member from all those who have returned to work has been levied by the District Executive Board.... Funds must be forthcoming so that they may be able to carry on the struggle for the things you have won. Remember, this is your fight as well as theirs...funds, funds, funds must win the day, and YOU must supply them.

In the tent colonies of Somerset County, wives of the strikers remained firm in their resolve, joining their husbands in the war of wages. By mid-August, the first of a growing number of interested journalists made their way to the scene. "They are living in fairly sanitary conditions;' noted one reporter, "and prefer living in a tent to living in a nonunion mining town.' Some outside funding began to appear, noted Brophy, because newspaper reports reached people far beyond Somerset County. John Brophy personally wrote notes of gratitude to fraternal organizations, churches, and wealthy individuals. The International, its coffers depleted by the strike, sent what little it could spare, The American Fund for Public Services, headquartered in New York City, sent two the._ sand dollars in August, and in September responded again, securing for District 2 a loan of twenty-five thousand dollars at six percent interest -for "relief in the non-union fields."

As the autumn nights grew chilly, residents of the tent colonies exhausted the generous private and public donations. Gradually, events in the non-union fields attracted the attention of individuals from far and wide. Early in September, Heber Blankenhorn, co-director of the Bureau of Industrial Research in New York City, wrote to James Mark, vice president of District 2.

Dear Jim,

Isn't the enclosed a real plan for bringing some pressure to bear to end the strike in Somerset?  If you can come up with 8 to 10 miners (to bring to New York), I believe that not merely publicity damaging to teh Berwind-White and Consolidation coal companies, but actual pressure could be brought on the city officials of New York.

The plan, known as "The Miners' Delegation;' included controversial tactics.

Where can pressure be brought to bear on the Berwind-White and Consolidation Coal Companies? New York and Washington are the places, and a delegation of miners from the new union fields are the implement to do it. Following are the reasons: Berwind-White is under contract to supply coal for the NY Rapid Transit, which is half-owned by the city. Subway services have been curtailed for lack of coal, City authorities have the right to demand that Berwind supply the coal, so [tic miners of non-union fields have the opportunity to get the city authorities to bring pressure to bear for a resettlement.

Strategy called for the miners' delegation to proceed to the offices of the Consolidation Coal Company, to picket the offices of Berwind-White, and to move on to 26 Broadway to publicly embarrass John D. Rockefeller. A visit to Mayor Hylan was also high on the list of activities for the delegation, which was to include "one or two women from the tent colonies." The group, "to be in the charge of James Mark;' also had at its head Powers Hapgood- Harvard University, Class of 1921, and a member of the United Mine Workers -who was "digging coal in Somerset County when the strike broke out and volunteered as an organizer."

On Tuesday, September 26, the delegation traveled eight hours by train, and received its first official audience, with Mayor Hylan and the Board of Estimate of the City of New York. Four days later the Penn Central News of Cresson published an eyewitness account of the encounter.

Mrs. Harry Beal, a miner's wife who had been evicted from one of the houses of Berwind-White, gave a vivid description of conditions. She said that company officials had evicted expectant mothers -from their homes and forced them to seek shelter in tents. Miners' wives and their little children had been driven from these houses late in the evening with nowhere to go.

In New York, Powers Hapgood and James Mark released even more details to the insatiable press. In an interview with the New York Globe, an emphatic Mark made his position public -and absolutely clear. "We believe that the people of New York will not stand for inhuman conditions of mining subway coal if they only know the facts," he said. "There are 400 Berwind-White families living in tents. Wage cuts are imposed on entire communities and there is inhuman treatment meted out to the men who dig the coal for the Interborough transportation." Meanwhile, at the Continental Hotel, where the delegation was staying, Hapgood busily crafted an intriguing news release, banking on its human interest appeal.

September 30, 1922: The birth of a baby, a "new striker," almost prevented the conference arranged today between the representatives of John D. Rockefeller and the striking miners of his Consolidation Coal Company. Steps were eventually taken towards a settlement, but the meeting was held without two of the spokesmen, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Armstrong, because of the birth of a son to Mrs. Armstrong at the Hotel Continental. "My wife wished that her baby could be born in a house," Mr. Armstrong said, "and he was. So she is happy. Back in Somerset, we were evicted by the Consolidation Coal Company and have been living in a chicken coop.

The delegation returned that afternoon to Windber to prepare for a meeting with Henry Berwind, vice president of the Berwind-White Company, as promised by his brother E. J. Berwind, company president. The Armstrongs remained in New York with their eight pound "striker," who was promptly inducted as a member of the United Mine Workers of America. Powers Hapgood also stayed in New York to complete negotiations with the city's Board of Estimate and Apportionment.

Despite their guarded hope that Henry Berwind would actually appear in Windber to meet with the strikers, James Mark wrote to Mayor Hylan on October 4.

E.J. Berwind has broken his promise, and to date, the Interborough has spent a million dollars for extra fuel.... Official, Berwind here say that they will meet only with individuals ;,in the old non-union days...We ask that you act on the suggestion made at our meeting with you that you send an investigating committee to the mines to report to the City what the Berwind company is up to here, that makes the Interborough coal so expensive. They thought the strikers here were going to quietly freeze to death but their war against miners' women and children is no longer a secret thing....

In a separate communication, Mark reminded Mayor Hylan of the plan, formulated during the delegation's meeting with him in September, to send a committee to the nonunion coal fields of Pennsylvania to personally investigate the conditions there and make such findings available to the public. On Sunday, October 29, Mayor Hylan's committee, including Mary D. Blankenhorn, Heber's wife and a respected journalist strongly interested in workers' rights, arrived in Somerset County. Remaining in New York, Mark and Hapgood continued their campaign against the corporations, enlisting the efforts of two new delegation members, Joe Kopcheck and Mike Fazek. To further publicize the strikers' plight, Kopcheck and Fazek spent several October afternoons picketing the house of E.J. Berwind, while "two more miners and three women," marched up and down in front of the Berwind-White offices at 11 Broadway. The strikers' signs, carefully calculated to embarrass the coal magnate, surely came from the samples composed by Mark and Blankenhorn at the opening of the campaign One, quoted in city newspapers, read: "Just Looking at Mr. Berwind's House While His Evicted Miners Have to Live in Tents and Chicken Coops -Subway Coal Diggers Six Months on Strike! Joe Kopcheck told every New York reporter who would listen that, "the boss lives better than we do, I'd say. You could get the whole tent colony at my mine into that house and every family would have a separate room.

A Somerset County miner was arrested on Broadway, but sentencing was deferred. For several days, James Mark and his stalwart strikers maintained a peaceful demonstration at the two sites, distributing informational circulars and answering the questions of reporters, In Pennsylvania's soft coal region, Mayor Hylan's committee was experiencing shock at the sights and sounds before them, beginning with the weather, which was "cold and blustery, with ice evident everywhere from the heavy frost of the night before." Visiting five mining communities on the first day, they discovered "families living in hen houses, cow sheds, cellars, and tents.... Union funds were keeping them existing, but are rapidly becoming exhausted.... Most of the women and children are barefooted and scantily clad. The feet and limbs of most of these unfortunates, particularly the children, were scarred and bleeding from walking on the ice."

During the following two days, even more distressing scenes stunned the visiting committee members. David Hirshfield, Commissioner of Accounts of the City of New York and chairman of the group, offered a sober and somber account. "The influences of all these years of meager living and struggle for mere existence among these barren hills, had left an imprint on these miners and their families that amounted to despair. Their women folks are old and hollow-eyed before their time. The children are undersized, and with supplicating eyes begging for help."

In camp after camp, the committee found a similar state of affairs. However, the women, they noted, made heroic attempts to keep their families clean and fed. "In every instance where the miner's wife could boast a stove, it was found shining mirror-like. Everywhere," the report continued, "there was the smell of boiling cabbage. The average daily diet for men, women and children, old and young alike, consists of bread and coffee for breakfast, cabbage and potatoes for dinner, bean soup and potatoes for supper."

Throughout the following week, the committee toured several other tent colonies, meeting harassment at every turn. Finally, before boarding the train for New York, the group attempted to hold a series of public meetings to voice their concerns. Denied the use of a large, company owned hall in Windber, the committee organized meetings in several buildings owned by the union or in houses. Despite the refusal of coal company representatives to attend any of the hearings, as well as their attempts to quash the investigation, the committee published its findings. Even though it enjoyed only, limited circulation, the report's summary was nothing less than chilly.

The refusal to attend the hearings of your committee and meeting its striking employees...can only be interpreted to mean that the Berwind-White Mining Company, being unable to refute the charges of its employees, attempted to hide from the public its methods of dealing with the miners. The committee heard harrowing tales of suffering and deprivation in tents, stables, and other improvised homes.

The committee advised New York's government that, "Only when the City takes over and operates its transit lines for the benefit of the people, will we be in a position to purchase coal from operators who pay their employees a living wage and treat them like human beings."

More than forty years later John Brophy reflected cynically on the committee and its good intentions: "...although the commission turned in a report which documented the abuse of the miners and charged Berwind with keeping its workers in bondage worse than the serfs of Russia or the slaves before the Civil War, Berwind, who was himself a Director of the Interborough Transit Company, was making $1,600,000 annually on coal sold to the subway. In spite of this report, nothing was done by Mayor Hylan that benefited the Somerset strikers. He got his political capital out of it, and that was all he was after."

By November, snow was flying once again, turning the strikers' tent colonies, chicken coops, and makeshift housing into death traps. On November 11, George Gregory, president of the Jerome, Pennsylvania, local union, composed an open letter to Andrew K. Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury. It is not known if the letter was sent or acknowledged, but its contents summarize the desperate circumstances of the striking miners of Pennsylvania's nonunion coal fields.

In Somerset, our families are still being evicted. Armed guards beat and arrest us. I was so beaten I was in the hospital. When I came out and got back to my family in the tent, my youngest baby had died. My baby died, like the others in the tent colonies, of exposure.... These large corporations that are doing this are your business associates in Pittsburgh.... Do you approve of warring on women and children?

The International Executive Board of the United Mine Workers of America decided in January 1923 to call off the strike in the coke regions of Fayette County. The announcement devastated the striking miners in Somerset County. Not only were they left weakened, freezing and starving, abandoned to carry on alone, but the coal operators shrewdly used the decision to point out to the strikers that their union no longer supported them. At a special District 2 convention held in April 1923, information was presented which tallied the number of Somerset County strikers at about six thousand, nearly all of whom were dependent for funding on relief assessments from District 2. After much debate it was decided to continue the strike, as well as the assessment, despite the odds against its ultimate success.

Unfortunately, the good will and determination of union miners and strikers alike were not enough to mitigate the economic conditions and the passage of time. Union mines were only working part-time, making the two dollar a month assessment a hardship on the families of union men. Many strikers, exhausted by the long and bitter winter conditions that would have been unsafe for farm animals, took their families and drifted away to find work. The coal companies, sensing the death throes of the uneven battle, intensified their persecutions, hiring still more armed guards and making still more arrests.

In August 1923, after seventeen months of sacrifice and struggle, District 2's executive board officially ended the Somerset County strike. In a circular distributed by District 2 headquarters, John Brophy observed that the strike had not been in vain, even though no union contract had been won.

Practically all the mines in the county are now paying a union wage scale. Miners there now say that the weight for coal is not the monstrous example of dishonesty that it used to be.... Operators no longer rule civil affairs with the high hands they used to.... and conditions will never be as bad or as unbearable as formerly.

Although "an opportunity had been missed, the like of which could not be expected again for years," Brophy concluded, "the strike was an inspiring demonstration of the heights of self-sacrifice and devotion that ordinary people can attain for a noble cause." John Brophy called them "the brave men and women of Somerset County, who made that magnificent fight for unionism." Could they ask for any higher accolade?

Further Reading

  • Brophy, John. A Miner's Life. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.
  • Filippelli, Ronald L. Labor in the USA: A History. New York: Random House, 1984.
  • Foster, William Z. The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons. New York: B. W. Heubsch, Inc., 1920.
  • Green, James R. The World of the Worker; Labor in Twentieth Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980.
  • History of Bedford, Somerset, and Fulton Counties. Chicago: Watkins, 1884.
  • Kornblush, Joyce L., ed. Working Womenroots: An Oral History Primer. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1979.
  • Mitchell, John. Organized Labor. Philadelphia: American Book and Bible House, 1903.

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