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Donald Miller : The Strike
Donald Miller Mitchell was forced to issue a strike call and the pressure came from two directions. First of all, from militants within his own union, and he was a reluctant striker. I mean he preferred not to strike. He always preferred what he called "arbitration", discussions with capital rather than the strike, and was suspected as a matter of fact by many bituminous miners for this very conciliatory policy. So he's got pressure coming in from the anthracite miners. They got the news that bituminous miners had just signed a big contract that guaranteed a 15 to 20 percent wage increase and they wanted a part of that action. They felt they were underpaid. And the pressure, however, came in another direction. The owners were absolutely intransigent. They simply refused to recognize the union and refused to recognize Mitchell's presence in the region. It was as if the union didn't even exist. And what was Mitchell to do in the face of this kind of intransigence? He could fold his tent and leave the region or he could fight 'em. So he had to issue a strike call.

Everyone felt he would be crushed, you know, that he didn't have a concentrated power. No one felt he could get the miners out. He only had a work force of about a 140,000 miners. He had only signed up for his union about 9,000 miners by 1900. It was a huge gamble, one he felt he had to take. The first week of the strike, 120,000 guys came out and that electrified the region and electrified and surprised the country. Then the owners knew they were in for a pitched battle, a long, hard, difficult and bitter strike.

The companies prepared for the strike. I mean they had a way of preparing the strike. They stockpiled coal supplies, brought in guards. The workers, with their wages, had no way of preparing for a strike even though they knew it was coming. There's no savings there. So they're living day to day. Some sent their young boys off to places like Philadelphia and New York to get jobs in department stores, in warehouses and things like that and send back money. When the food ran out they all had gardens behind their homes and they depended heavily on those gardens. They grew their own tomatoes. Some of 'em even had cows in the backyard. But when that was gone, you'd have to search the forests on the mountainsides around the region for herbs and berries and things like that. And there were cases, during the long strikes of four and five and six weeks, of outright starvation.

There was a dispute that broke out within the mine community at the beginning of the strike as to whether the breaker boys should be allowed in the union halls and take part in the union negotiations-- I should say the union discussions. And a lot of the older miners didn't want 'em there. They weren't underground workers, and this was a strike dealing with underground workers. And Mitchell prevailed upon them to allow the breaker boys to come into these negotiations, nine and ten year-old kids, negotiations about strike strategy and things like this. And he idolized these kids in the same way that they idolized him. He appreciates their work. He had been a breaker boy. He had been a door boy. He had gone through this experience and he appreciated their contributions to the strike. And when he leaves the region, the breaker boys get together and they give him a gold medallion which he wears around his neck. And as his carriage leaves Hazelton, as many as 5,000 breaker boys followed it outside of town. And he always spoke in eloquent terms about this being a "strike for children" in a sense and it was all about children.

Six and seven year-old children went on strike against school and walked out of the schools. Many miners who wanted to go back to work faced the situation where their wives were united into small groups. The owners used to call them amazons. They patrolled the area with rolling pins and wooden swords and all sorts of hammers that they'd get out of their husbands' tool chests and make sure that the workers stayed on strike and didn't go back into the collieries. Some women went in the night before -- maybe their husband the night before had said, "Dear, we've given up. There's no money left. I've gotta go back to work tomorrow." There are instances, and we know this through some later oral histories, where the wife would go and take the one set of working clothes the guy had and she'd put 'em in the wash and they just wouldn't be dry in the morning. He wouldn't have clothes to go to work.

You had to keep a mines open. You've got to have men on the job and that's why they would put heavy armed guards around the collieries, around the coal plants, armed with Winchester rifles because inside were the scabs, the above ground workers. And there was always tension and resentment between the underground men and the above ground men. They lived in different sections of the community. They drank in different bars, joined different clubs, and weren't considered miners.

Your life's in danger. And what a lot of miners feared more than the physical danger, was they feared the infamous "black list", that once the strike was over and the work whistle went off, that they'd be on a list not to return to work. And the more militant members of the union especially feared that, and they feared it because it was a fact of life. It happened to them. The guillotine dropped on them after the strike. That was the first thing the owners did. They got rid of the rabble-rousers. They got rid of the insurgents.

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