Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Eleanor Roosevelt Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
The Film & More
Interview Transcripts | Bibliography | Primary Sources

Donald Miller : Organizing a Miner's Union
Donald Miller Coal miners had always had difficulty organizing, and the United Mine Workers led in 1899 and 1900 by John Mitchell, just begin to organize in the anthracite region. The United Mine Workers started out as a union that represented predominantly bituminous coal miners out in western Pennsylvania and the Midwest. Mitchell himself came from Illinois and got his start in the union there. And they begin to enter the anthracite country, which was considered to be an exceedingly difficult place to organize because of the ethnic and cultural differences. They start to come into the anthracite region around the mid-1890s, but the real force, the real push for the union begins in 1899 and 1900 and in 1899, of course, Mitchell himself arrives to lead the struggle.

There were enormous difficulties in organizing a union. The first are ethnic and religious differences. Miners in the anthracite region had always been split. English and Welsh miners arrived first, followed by the Irish and you know what kind of volatile situation that's going to be creating. And just as the Irish start to move into positions of authority, they're now the English speaking miners and the English themselves move out of mining and into other more middle class pursuits. Eastern Europeans arrive in huge numbers and Southern Italians. So again the differences arise where the Irish are on top and the Slavic workers and the Italian workers are on the bottom. And they're split almost irrevocably on these issues.

Immigrants, coming in, in huge numbers, would work for slave wages. And many of them worked initially in unskilled jobs. The miner himself is a highly skilled craftsman and is immensely proud of his craft and his trade. But remember this is again a medieval type of apprenticeship system, so when you first become a miner's helper you're doing rudimentary kind of labor that any person can perform. So you can learn to go underground and be a miner's helper in a matter of two or three days and, hence, you're highly firable, as it were. And so it's these religious and ethnic differences more than anything else, and cultural differences. You would think that all works in the Marxian sense are united by the fact of their class and they're part of an American proletariat, but what I think historians forget is that you've got to look much closer and when you look much closer you discover that cultural differences are the real hindrances to the formation of united work forces in the 19th century. And the fact that these Slavic workers are new to the country. Many of them have not been naturalized.

The reputation that the Slavs arrived with was of a peasant people. The Irish were peasant people, too, but the Irish had fought the English. The Irish has a tradition of peasant militancy and the Slavic miners and the Italian miners didn't. They weren't fighting people in their own country of other religion. For example, it wasn't Catholic versus Protestant. The Slavic workers had a reputation for docility and they were described as being a people that were in a state of almost torpor. A lot of it came from the fact, too, that they didn't speak the English language. They seemed slow moving. They seemed stolid. They seemed clannish and stand-offish. They just didn't seem like the kind of people who could be roused up and united and brought into a focused labor movement. They were also very conservative. Their very conservatism turns out, ironically, to be the thing that fueled their militancy, their desire to hold onto the little they had built up in the 10 or 12 years they had been here. And that's all it was, just holding onto what they had.

If you are involved in union disturbances, if you're involved in any actions against the company, you're not only evicted; you're deported. So they play it safe. And don't forget there are labor spies all over the anthracite region. They're everywhere -- in the bars, they're in the mine themselves, they're above ground. And any worker even suspected of joining a union would be evicted on a day's notice, with his entire family, in which case a worker would come home and find his entire family's belongings piled up in the street and he'd have to get out of town. And some of these miners actually went back and lived in abandoned mine holes.

The owners deliberately encouraged ethnic differences by recruiting Slavic workers. Eastern European workers, Polish and slovak workers, for example, were considered by many people, the coal owners as well as the union themselves, because the unions fought hard for immigration restrictions around 1900 to keep these Eastern Europeans from depressing their wages. So both the owners as well as the union leaders saw the Slavic workers as a docile work force that will work like mules for nothing.

back to Interview Transcripts

Interview Transcripts | Primary Sources | Bibliography

Program Description | Enhanced Transcript | Reference

The Film & More | Special Feature | Timeline | Maps | People & Events| Teacher's Guide