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John Mitchell


John Mitchell In Pennsylvania's coal fields, anthracite miners in 1900 had grown to become suspicious of anybody wearing a suit. They came to regard a well-dressed man as one who would be taking something away from them. So, in 1900, when they heard how 29-year-old John Mitchell, resplendent in his Prince Albert suit and jeweled ring, was going to be fighting to improve their lot, they may not have known what to think. But Mitchell knew what he was talking about. He could point to his own stooped shoulders as evidence that he knew well the horrors of the coal mines. Mitchell was only 12 when he himself went into the mines to work. Over time, he established himself as a union organizer and by 1898 was elected president of the fledgling United Mine Workers union.

"Johnnie Da Mitch," as he was known, faced an uphill battle in organizing a diverse and distrustful lot of men. Mine owners vowed to never recognize the union and exploited simmering ethnic prejudices to create dissension. By September 1900, though, conditions in the mines were so deplorable that Mitchell knew it was time to act. "We have reached the point where we must either advise the miners...to continue working under these unjust and tyrannical conditions or counsel a strike." Mitchell worked feverishly to organize 150,000 miners, each barely hanging on financially and fully dependent on the mining companies.
Mitchell's union was asking management for a 20% wage increase across the board.

Monday, September 17, was selected as the strike's start date. As the days stretched into weeks, fewer and fewer men could be found at work in the mines. While the general public sided with the miners, Mitchell knew this sentiment could change when colder weather and coal shortages arrived. With a presidential election less than 6 weeks away, the plight of the miners became a political issue. McKinley's "full-dinner pail" looked empty in light of the conditions endured by those at the bottom of the labor ladder. The President pressed for negotiations.

By late October, Johnny Mitchell had what he thought was a good deal. The coal companies had agreed to a 10% pay increase, but still refused to recognize the union. Ever a moderate, Mitchell advised union members to accept the offer. While falling short of its stated objectives, Mitchell declared that the strike was groundbreaking as the "most remarkable contest between labor and capital in the industrial history of our nation."
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