Historians, including many labor historians, have emphasized the economic and political conservatism of the 1920’s, including the American labor movement. While this characterization has much validity in assessing the top leadership of the American Federation of Labor and of many of its affiliates, it also masks more complexity. A brief examination of the history of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in this era reveals the duality of the labor movement. On the one hand, John L. Lewis, president of the UMWA, was a business unionist. On the other hand, many rank and file coal miners, local union leaders, and district level officials and organizers were activists of a progressive bent. UMWA District 2, led by John Brophy, provides an excellent illustration of an alterative to the “master narrative.”
UMWA District 2 played an essential role in the development of labor education and contributed to the achievements of the “golden age“ of workers education. John Brophy developed the “miners program” that included demands for nationalization of its coal mines, a six hour day to spread the work, and the creation of a labor party. These reforms won widespread support from both coal miners and delegates to national UMWA Conventions, but John L. Lewis rejected these proposals.
Brophy also played a crucial role in the coal strike of 1922-1923 in which unionized miners struck in opposition to the efforts of the coal operators to reduce their wages and undermine their working conditions. These miners were joined by nonunion miners who sought to organize and bargain collectively in order to obtain an “industrial democracy.”
The miners faced the opposition of politicians, at the police, and the press as well as suffered from divisions within the leadership of the union. To deal with these powerful forces the UMWA resorted to innovative tactics, notably the dispatch of a delegation to New York City to publicize the strike, to expose the terrible conditions of the miners and their families, and to obtain the support of city public officials. Although the campaign achieved their goals, the Berwind family remained intransient. After a few months, John L. Lewis negotiated a controversial agreement with the coal operators which omitted the unorganized miners of Somerset County from its provisions. Assisted in particular by funds from UMWA District 2, the miners of the Windber area survived for another year before succumbing to the superior wealth and power of the Berwind- White coal company and its allies. The national contract of 1922 along with the rejection of the “Miners Program” by John L. Lewis increased the animosity between Lewis and Brophy and contributed to Brophy's “unsuccessful” challenge to the leadership of Lewis in the 1926 presidential elections.
The 1922-1923 “the strike for union” in Windber, Pennsylvania was not only a part of local history, but also had major implications for the UMWA, the labor movement, and American society. Therefore, it is very fortunate that we now have not only the books by Blankenhorn, Brophy, and Hapgood, but Mildred Allen Beik's excellent study, The Miners of Windber: The Struggle of the New Immigrant for Unionization, 1890s-1930. This volume is more than an impressive monograph about an important coal company town. Using a combination of labor, church and ethnic organization records, as well as foreign language newspapers, interviews, and diverse printed materials, Dr. Beik presented an incisive picture of the “making” of a local, ethnic working class. Readers interested in labor history, ethnic history, and women’s history as well as those seeking an exciting tale, well told, will be impressed and inspired by this story. Professional historians will laud the depth and diversity of Mildred Beik’s research and appreciate her coverage of the 1906 and 1922-1923 strikes and welcome her contribution to historiography. She argued, quite convincingly, that the Windber ethnic, coal miners were active participants in mass struggles for civil liberties, democracy, and unionization rather then apathetic uprooted peasants who rejected strikes and unionization and passively accepted the inevitability of “wage slavery.”