Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902
By: Rachael Marks

At the turn of the century the main source of fuel for heating homes, running factories, and operating trains was coal. It was the most efficient source of fuel available at the time and was needed in high demand, and a shortage, especially during the winter months, would have sent the nation into a state of panic. With a high demand for coal there was also a high demand for miners to work the coal mines.

The life of a coal miner, however, was not glamorous. Coal miners worked long days of very physical labor in dark, damp, and dangerous conditions for little pay and job security (Williams 1904). The miners rightfully had many complaints, but more often then not, the owners of the mines did not listen to the demands of the miners. At times a strike was seen as the only option. In the summer of 1902 the anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania went on strike for over 160 days and sent the nation into a panic over a possible coal shortage prompting Presidential intervention.

In order to understand the coal miners' strike of 1902, one must consider the events in the years proceeding. The main contributor to the strike of 1902 was the anthracite coal strike of 1900 that occurred in the same region (Williams 1904). The United Mine Workers was the recognized bargaining agent for the coal miners in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The President of the United Mine Workers at the time, John Mitchell, was credited for getting the coal operators in the bituminous fields to recognize the union, improve wages, and improve working conditions (Wiebe 1961). Mitchell's plan was to bring these changes to the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. He attempted to bargain with the coal operators for recognition of the union, improvements in wages and hours, and better working conditions. The main bargaining point for the coal miners was for an increase in wages because wages in the anthracite fields had been stagnant for over a year and a half.

The coal operators, however, refused to negotiate with Mitchell. They also refused to recognize that the union existed or that John Mitchell was their bargaining agent (Williams 1904). Because of the coal operators' refusal to bargain, John Mitchell called a strike of the anthracite miners in September of 1900. Unfortunately for the coal miners, 1900 was an election year, and President William McKinley was running for re-election. Representatives of McKinley's party were afraid that the strike might interfere with his election and ordered Republican representatives to end the strike. Because of the political pressure, the strike was negotiated and ended without most of the anthracite miners' demands being met (Wiebe 1961). In the settlement, the miners were granted a ten percent raise, but the United Mine Workers Union was not recognized as the bargaining agent and representative of the anthracite coal miners. This unresolved issue of the union would eventually help to lead to the anthracite coal strike of 1902.

The ten-percent wage increase won from the strike of 1900 was only temporary in appeasing the demands of the miners. Working conditions and hours were not improved and the union was still not recognized as an official representative. It was only a matter of time before the anthracite coal miners went on strike again. On May 12, 1902 the anthracite coal miners walked off the coal fields demanding more wage increases, an eight-hour work day, and recognition of the United Mine Workers Union (Anthracite Coal Strike). The United Mine Workers' representatives attempted once again to negotiate with coal operators, but once again they refused. The strike continued for over five months before further outside action was taken.

As the strike continued into October, and the winter months rapidly approached, citizens were becoming very concerned about a possible coal shortage during the winter. President Theodore Roosevelt was also becoming concerned and decided to take unprecedented action. President Roosevelt invited representatives of the United Mine Workers and coal operators to the White House on October 3, 1902 becoming the first president to personally intervene in a labor dispute (Coal Strike Conference 1902). President Roosevelt reiterated the concerns of the American public that was being affected by the shortage in coal (Anthracite Coal Strike). The UMW President, John Mitchell, agreed to call off the strike if a tribunal of presidential representatives, UMW representatives, and coal operators could be assigned to continue to deal with the issues of the strike, like union recognition. Mitchell also asked for an immediate small increase to miners' wages until the tribunal had time to work out an agreement. The public saw the efforts of President Mitchell to be noble and fair (Coal Strike Conference 1902). The coal operators did not see this agreement as fair and once again refused to deal with the United Mine Workers Union, despite the pleas of President Roosevelt.

After the meeting with the President and the coal operators, John Mitchell called the coal miners together at a mass meeting. He discussed with the miners the concerns of the American public that President Roosevelt had raised during their discussions. Mitchell debated with the coal miners whether they should temporarily return to work in order to prevent a coal shortage during the cold winter months. The coal miners, however, voted almost unanimously to continue the strike no matter what the cost. They did not want to bow to political pressure, like during the strike of 1900, and suffer another defeat (Anthracite Coal Strike). Seeing that neither side was willing to negotiate or back down, President Roosevelt had to take serious action again. He threatened to send military forces to take over and operate the anthracite mines. If this happened, coal operators would lose money, as well as coal miners. Both sides were now willing to try to reach a compromise.

President Roosevelt appointed a commission to arbitrate the negotiations between the coal operators and the coal miners (After the Anthracite Strike 1902). Representatives from both sides of the strike met with the commission and agreed to follow their recommendations for ending the strike. On October 23, 1902 the coal miners went back to work, and the nation breathed a deep sigh of relief. The coal miners achieved a ten percent wage increase and a reduction in the hours of the work day. Once again, however, the union was not recognized in the agreement as the bargaining agent for the coal miners (After the Anthracite Strike 1902).

The Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 was important in setting a new precedent of Presidential intervention. President Roosevelt personally tried to intervene and end the strike on behalf of the American public. Although his attempt initially failed, he was seen in the public's eye as an understanding and concerned president. The public opinion was also influenced towards the coal operators in a negative fashion because they were seen as the ones that would not compromise with the president. This helped to increase public support of the coal miners and the United Mine Workers Union. This soon became the trend of public opinions towards unions and managers.

Works Cited

    "After the Anthracite Strike: Submitted to Arbitration."  (October 30, 1902) Public Opinion.

    "Anthracite Coal Strike: Today in History."  American Memory Library of Congress.  As retrieved from

    "The Coal Strike Conference: Operators and Miners Called Together by the President."
(October 9, 1902)  Public Opinion.

    Wiebe, Robert.  (September 1961)  "The Anthracite Strike of 1902: A Record of Confusion."  The Pennsylvania Historical Review, Volume 48, pages 229-251.

    Williams, Talcott.  (1904)  "A General View of the Coal Strike."  The American Monthly Review of Reviews.

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