United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)
Identification: Labor union primarily for mine workers
Date: Founded on January 22, 1890
Significance: The United Mine Workers of America has been instrumental in changing the way in which companies and workers regard each other and in improving labor relations between the groups.
By organizing the workers in the coal mines, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) changed the way in which coal-producing companies operated their mines. By establishing standardized wages, workdays, and coal-weighing procedures, the UMWA benefited both miners and coal companies by eliminating much of the price-fluctuation in the coal market and producing greater stability of coal supply and demand. The union improved working conditions for miners through collective bargaining and made health and safety a significant concern.
On January 22, 1890, in Columbus Ohio, the Trades Assembly Number 135, the miners’ branch of the Knights of Labor, and the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers merged to form the United Mine Workers of America. The membership consisted of bituminous coal miners and other workers in and around mines in the United States and Canada. The group took the American Federation of Labor (AFL) as its model and affiliated with it. The United Mine Workers of America was one of the first AFL affiliates to accept all ethnic groups. The union concentrated on building its strength and gaining recognition. Its goals included an eight-hour workday, increased wages for miners, standardized weighing of coal, and the right to collective bargaining.
UMWA president John L. Lewis (right) discusses the coal situation with Representative John Nolan, chair of the Labor Committee of the House of Representatives, in 1922. (Library of Congress)
Working Conditions and Strikes
The miners’ working conditions were anything but desirable. They worked long hours for pay as low as 80 cents an hour, with no health or safety provisions. They were at the mining company’s mercy financially as they lived in company housing and bought items only at the company store. Buying anywhere other than the company store could result in their being fired.
When non-English speaking immigrants—Italians, Poles, and others—arrived in the United States, the mine owners began replacing their Irish, Welsh, and other English-speaking workers. The mine owners reasoned that these workers would understand less about what was happening and be easier to control. The scheme failed as the new workers, unhappy with the harsh conditions of their work, joined the Irish, the Welsh, and the others in protest.
The strongest means of protest for the miners was striking, which the United Mine Workers of America used repeatedly. However, the strikes took a heavy toll on the miners because they were usually violent and resulted in death or serious injury for many participants. The miners struck in 1894 and in 1897. On September 10, 1897, in Lattimer, Pennsylvania, nineteen miners were killed by police and many others injured in what became known as the Lattimer massacre. On April 20, 1914, the Ludlow massacre in Colorado resulted in the deaths of both miners and members of their families. On May 19, 1920, at Matewan, West Virginia, twelve men were killed during a strike. The strikes continued throughout the century. In Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1973, the miners struck, and again there was bloodshed. The following year, on November 12, after the national UMWA contract expired, 120,000 miners struck. This time, negotiation replaced violence, and in three weeks, a tentative agreement reopened the mines. In 1989-1990, miners, with the active participation of their wives, held a nonviolent strike against Pittston Coal in Virginia.
The strikes brought about significant improvement in company-miner relations. With John Mitchell as UMWA president and chief negotiator, the strike of 1897 resulted in the first agreement between the union and mine operators in the Central Competitive Field (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana). The union received recognition, wages were increased, union dues were deducted from miners’ paychecks, and an eight-hour workday and uniform standards for weighing coal were implemented. However, none of these gains applied to mines outside of the Central Competitive Field. Mitchell spent the rest of his presidency working to extend the union’s influence into other mining regions of the country.
John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960 and an autocratic leader, was devoted to increasing wages and safety for miners. An impressive speaker, he often played on his listeners’ sympathy for miners’ families to gain higher wages. During World War II, Lewis’s concern for the miners caused him to break the no-strike pledge to gain wage increases. In 1943, 400,000 miners struck under his authority. He was instrumental in gaining passage of the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1952. Lewis continued to fight for good working conditions for miners until his retirement.
The UMWA After Lewis
In 1960, Thomas Kennedy became the union president but died in 1963. Under the next president. W. A. “Tony” Boyle (1963-1972), the union suffered from internal corruption, culminating in the 1974 conviction of Boyle for the murder of his rival Joseph “Jock” Yablonski. Union membership declined because of the corruption and also because of mechanization of the mines. In 1969, the union obtained passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, providing compensation for victims of black lung disease. In 1972, the Miners for Democracy took control of the union and implemented reforms. By 2002, the union, which continued to concern itself with fair treatment of workers and health concerns, had about one half the members it had in 1950.
Brisbin, Richard A., Jr. A Strike Like No Other Strike, 1989-1990. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. This discussion of UMWA’s strike against Pittston Coal Group looks at miners’ strategies, the corporation’s strategies, corporate power, and the role of the judicial system.
Dubofsky, Melwyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986. This biography describes Lewis’s life and contains information on his role in the UMWA.
Martelle, Scott. Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007. An unbiased account of the chasm between mine operators and miners, the strategies of each, and life in an early twentieth century company town. Selected bibliography, appendixes, and index.
Mother Jones. Autobiography of Mother Jones. Edited by Mary Field Parton. White Fish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2007. Contains Mother Jones’s account of miners’ working conditions, strikes, and efforts to organize labor. Introduction by Clarence Darrow.
Shogan, Robert. The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. A detailed account of a conflict between West Virginia miners and mine owners. Bibliography, photographs.
See also: American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations; coal industry; Coal strike of 1902; labor history; labor strikes; mineral resources.