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Donald Miller : John Mitchell-The Union Organizer
Donald Miller The way to describe Mitchell is to see him through the eyes of the workers, especially the European workers, who idolized him. In every worker's home after the 1900 strike, there would generally be a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and right beside it would be a picture of John Mitchell. "Johnny de Mitch", they called him, "our Lincoln, our savior". What they appreciated about him were his priest-like qualities. He seemed to listen to them. He was the first national organizer to listen to their grievances, to respect their religion, to respect their ethnic customs, not to try to Americanize them. And he had his labor organizers learn their languages and speak to them in their languages. So they had immense trust in him and they're coming from cultures where everything is personalistic, places like Sicily, places like Slovakia, where the orientation is family and village and where the tradition, the law is family law and clan law. And Mitchell kind of fit that tradition. He really knew how to work well with people. That was his genius as an organizer. He started out himself as a field organizer in Illinois. And he was remarkably effective. He was cool, he was dispassionate, he could sit down and talk to the miners about their problems because he'd mined coal himself. He was the son of a miner and he went into the mines at age 12 as a door boy and worked himself up through mines. He roamed the country. He was out in Colorado as a miner. He returned to Illinois. He became active in union politics with the United Mine Workers in Illinois. He saw it from the union perspective. He knew the company's perspective because he was a cool, calm, dispassionate negotiator. The companies liked to work with him because of his even disposition. And the workers liked him because he gave them his ear.

John Mitchell was a terrifically successful local organizer. He understood that for a strike to be successful, particularly a long strike, and he knew it would be a long strike in anthracite, you have to reach deep into the community and get the support of pivotal community leaders, chieftains, if you will. And some of those key leaders of the local tribes were the parish priests. I mean Mitchell even looked like a parish priest himself, with his long miner's coat buttoned up to the top to a stiff collar. He engendered the kind of trust that people had in their priests. So the parish priest on a given Sunday might get up and say something that was supportive of the strike and supportive of the union. And this priest had enormous sway and power of the lives of their parishioners. So he was very effective in that regard. And also he had laid the groundwork, he had sent in teams of organizers four and five years before he arrives in the anthracite region and they worked inside the community, learning the languages of the people, appreciating what they ate, appreciating their customs, and they were always careful to pay heed to those customs, and to organize people. He's organizing and trying the meld them together as one union, he was very effective in this regard. He understood that you didn't bring Italian miners into the same hall with Irish miners. You organize Italian miners over here at the Italian American Club and the Slovak miners at the Slovak American Club and Irish miners at the Hibernian Society, and then you call them one union. Just the solidarity didn't have to be expressed in everyday life. You would have had tumult if you had had a situation like that, bringin' 'em all together. So he organized right in the community, speaking their own languages.

John Mitchell had an exceedingly difficult task ahead of him, almost impossible, in trying to organize a union in the anthracite region. First of all, he's running up against the intransigence of the owners. These are individualistic operators. Many of them are running family operations, the Pardee Family, the Markel Family. Their whole family investment is tied up in these places. And their not making big profit margins. The profit margins are very thin, so they're cutting costs all the time. And a labor union becomes an intrusive force. A labor union tells you, John Markel, how to run your business and you're running it and just getting by. So there's that. There's the type of people there, and these owners, don't forget, the ones who are there as small owners, are as tough as the miners themselves. Then there's another type of owner, a distant owner, an absentee owner. By 1900, J.P. Morgan Enterprises, through a huge cartel, a railroad cartel, just about wrapped up the entire anthracite region. So you're fighting a distant corporation way off on Wall Street and how do you reach out to that? How do you reach out to control it? How do you reach out even to communicate with it? And it's the largest industrial conglomeration, the largest industrial consolidation in the country, this anthracite empire. And you've got a very ineffective labor movement, not just labor union, labor movement in the sense that you've got this divided work force.

Mitchell's challenge was the work force that he's working with. It's divided along ethnic lines and there's deep hatred. I mean which the Slavic miners were brought into the region, they were brought in, it was believed, by the older miners who'd been there for quite a while, the Irish miners. They were brought in deliberately to depress wages and they got a great American welcome. When they come off the trains, they were stoned by the Irish miners. And these divisions ran very, very deep. And so this was the major problem that he has to confront. Mitchell was careful to respect the ethnic differences. He trained his organizers to speak five and six languages. They would go out in the ethnic communities and work, and try to ingratiate themselves into the community. Trust was the big thing. Mitchell was trusted and soon his organizers were trusted. Now a lot of his advisors counseled him that he was facing an absolutely impossible task, one that had frustrated every other organizer who had attempted to organize the anthracite workers, beginning back in the 1850s. Every union movement, every organized labor movement had failed and most of them had failed because of these ethnic divisions and differences.

Another major problem he had here as much as these ethnics divisions, but this so called docility of the Slavic workers. But, you see, fortuitously, that was starting to break down by 1900. There had been a labor massacre in a little town called Latimer, which is just outside of Hazelton, which is a major, major mine producing center in the region. Hazelton is actually where John Mitchell set up his headquarters. Nineteen miners were gunned down by sheriffs' agents. 39 or so were wounded. They were fired upon arbitrarily. A jury came in with a verdict of not guilty. Well, that mobilized the Slavic miners. That created tremendous anger and resentment.

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