|ONLINE VERSION||VOLUME 106 - NUMBER 4 - MAY 1997|
|"Give Them A Rifle Diet"|
This is the fourth excerpt from Labors Untold Story printed here by permission of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). The book can be purchased for $6.95, plus $2 postage for single orders from the UE by writing to their headquarters at 2400 Oliver Building, 535 Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.
Among those who joined the union at about this time [1870s] was an unusual group of miners who in the struggle that followed proved that their abilities were far above the ordinary. With all the wealth and all of the press, and all of the clergy against them; with the militia, vigilantes, the courts, and the operators Coal and Iron Police assaulting them; with more than $4,000,000 spent in a mighty effort to crush them, they nevertheless came close to winning. Their abilities were a surprise to almost everyone, for when they later appeared in court as defendants it was seen by the powerful that their antagonists were only young miners. Their backs were bent in the familiar miners stoop, their hands were calloused, and they had that occupational trait known as Miners Knees--that is, hard carbuncles over kneecaps from swinging away hour after hour with their picks at the coal in positions so cramped they had to work on their knees. But that was the only time these men were ever on their knees.
Some of them had seen their friends hanged for the wearing of the green in Ireland, and all of them from the first had known that their venture in union-building might lead to as desperate an end. Of their number was big Tom Munley, who had fled Ireland in 1864 after fighting for its liberty, a miner of unusual size and strength with a great flaring mustache, bright red cheeks, and a wife and four children. Another was Mike Doyle, a "strongly built man" of thirty who had "the dogged, defiant expression of a prize fighter." The smiling Ed Kelly, smooth shaven in that age of mustaches and beards, was another who gave power to the new union and with Jim Carroll, Jack Kehoe, Hugh McGeehan, and Tom Duffy, was advocating that the union put up candidates in the county elections. All were members of the Irish fraternal order, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, found in all parts of the country and much like the Masons or the Oddfellows in their activities and ceremonies. In their lodge the group of young Irishmen gradually developed into a caucus that put pressure on Siney and other leaders of the WBA for straight-shooting trade union policies.
These young miners and their colleagues knew at the start that their chief adversary in building their union would be Franklin Benjamin Gowen, himself not much older than they were but whose extraordinary personality was already being felt in every corner of the Reading Valley. In 1869, not long before the Avondale fire, he had been elected, although only thirty-three, to the presidency of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad which spread "like a giant octopus" over Southeastern Pennsylvania, controlling its economic life. At the same time he was elected president of the railroads subsidiary, the Philadelphia Coal and Iron Company.
As Munley, Kehoe, Carroll, McGeehan, Doyle, and their friends were organizing coal miners into their union, young Mr. Gowen was also engaged in organizing of a different kind. He was bringing all of the mine operators into an employers association, the Anthracite Board of Trade. But he was doing more than that. At the same time he was organizing a monopoly in coal, his railroad a powerful device for getting his way. If a rival operator failed to succumb to his terms he boosted his freight rate or even refused to haul his coal to market. Using these methods he had acquired two-thirds of the coal mines of southeastern Pennsylvania where all the important deposits of anthracite in this hemisphere are contained in 484 square miles.
More important than this to the miners in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Gowen seemed to be bringing John Siney, president of the union, under the sway of his magnetic personality. They were seen together frequently and increasingly Siney began to talk of the harmful tendency inherent in strikes and of how arbitration was the proper policy for a trade union.
Gowen already had the reputation of being irresistible. He radiated a kind of animal charm and when he spoke people hung on his words as if hypnotized. It was said that he could convince the most stubborn that black was white and he had been good enough to wheedle several millions out of English investors for his Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. A plunger, a taker of chances, ever trying to expand, his ambition was as boundless as his confidence and many of his stockholders eyed him with distrust from the beginning.
Rather British in his affectations, he had participated in the first game of cricket ever played at Pottsville, capital of anthracite, where he had been the district attorney as a young man after buying a substitute to serve in his place in the Union Army during the Civil War. His father, an emigrant from Northern Ireland, had been a sympathizer with the South and slavery, sending his son to a private school attended by the sons of plantation owners and the ironmasters of Schuylkill County. One of Gowens favorite pastimes was the writing of limericks and another was the translation of German poetry. There is ample evidence that he saw himself as a hero who was to ride to national fame by his demonstration to the countrys employers of the proper way of handling the growing labor problem.
At first Gowen, working through Siney, welcomed the union. He believed he could use it to further his own plans. The price of coal was falling, Gowen believed, because of overproduction. A strike or two, he thought, would raise prices by decreasing the supply of coal on hand. There was a strike in 1869 which was terminated when the operators, under Gowens leadership, recognized the union. It now had 30,000 members, or eighty-five percent of the miners in Pennsylvanias anthracite, as well as a written agreement signed on July 29, 1870. This was the first written contract between organized miners and operators in the history of the United States.
But the miners made the mistake of tying their wages to the price of coal. They did, however, include a minimum below which wages could not be cut in the event the price of coal went down. If it fell to less than three dollars a ton there would be no further pay cuts. The miners were betting on a rise in coal prices, and therefore of wages, but they lost their bet. As the price plunged downward so did their wages, which were slashed in some instances by almost fifty percent. When the price dipped below three dollars a ton, Gowen wished to continue wage cuts unhampered by the minimum wage provision. When the union resisted wage cuts below the minimum stipulated in the contract, Gowen determined to smash the union.