The United Mine Workers Union (UMWA)

The United Mine Workers Union (UMWA) was founded in Ohio in 1890. British immigrants played an important role in the early days of the organization. John Rae, he first president, was originally from Scotland and the first secretary, Robert Watchorn, came from Derbyshire in England.

Under the leadership of John Mitchell (1898-1907) the union grew rapidly and he organised successful strikes in the bituminous and anthracite coal fields in 1897 and 1902. William B. Wilson and Mary 'Mother' Jones were other important figures in the UMWA during this period. Mitchell was followed by T. L. Lewis (1908-1910), John P. White (1911-17) and Frank Hayes (1917-19).

In 1919 John L. Lewis became acting UMWA president when ill-health prevented Hayes from carrying out his duties. Lewis was elected president in 1920 and remained in the post for the next 40 years. With growing unemployment in the 1930s, membership of the UMWA fell from 500,000 to less than 100,000.

In the 1940s Lewis led a series of strikes that resulted in increased wages for miners. This resulted a growth in union members to 500,000. Congress responded to the success of unions such as the UMWA by passing the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) that placed new restrictions on trade unions.

When John L. Lewis retired in 1960 the union went through a difficult period. Thomas Kennedy, the next president (1960-63) was followed by Tony Boyle (1963-72) However, he was convicted of the murder of the union activist, Joseph Yablonski and his wife and daughter. Arnold Miller (1972-79) replaced Boyle and he was followed by Sam Church (1979-82), Richard Trumka (1982-1995). In 1964 the union had 450,000 members but by the 1990s this had fallen to 200,000.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) John Mitchell, Organized Labor (1903)

No one can understand the true nature of trade unionism without understanding the industrial revolution and what it is accomplished. The history of mankind has been more virtually affected by changes in its machines and its methods of doing business than by any action or counsel of statesmen or philosophers. What we call the modern world, with its huge populations, its giant cities, its political democracy, its growing intensity of life, its contrasts of wealth and poverty - this great, whirling, restless civilization, with all its vexing problems, is the offspring merely of changed methods of producing wealth.

The condition of workmen in the textile and other factories was incredibly bad. The day's work was constantly lengthened, in some cases to fourteen, sixteen, and more hours, and while not difficult, the labor was confining and nerve-wearing. There was little provision for the safety of the workman, and terrible accidents were a matter of daily occurrence in the crowded mills and factories. Periods of feverish activity, during which men were worked beyond the limit of human endurance, were succeeded by still more harassing periods of depression, when thousands of men were thrown into the street.

The labor organization as it exists today is the product of a long evolution. The constitution of the trade union, its by-laws, its customs and traditions, its practices and policies have all been the result of a gradual working out of particular remedies for particular problems. The constitution of the trade union, moreover, has been evolved by and through the efforts of workingmen. The trade union is a government of workingmen, by workingmen, for workingmen, and the framers of its constitution have been workingmen.

(2) In her autobiography Mary 'Mother' Jones wrote about William B. Wilson and the 1899-1900 strike in Tioga County.

After months of terrible hardships the strike was about won. The mines were not working. The spirit of the men was splendid. William B. Wilson had come home from the western part of the state. I was staying at his home. The family had gone to bed. We sat up late talking over matters when there came a knock at the door. A very cautious knock.

"Come in," said Mr. Wilson.

Three men entered. The looked at me uneasily and Mr. Wilson asked me to step in an adjoining room. They talked the strike over and called Wilson's attention to the fact that there were mortgages on his little home, held by the bank which was owned by the coal company, and they said, "We will take the mortgage off your home and give you $25,000 in cash if you will just leave and the strike die out."

I shall never forget his reply: "Gentlemen, if you come to visit my family the hospitality of the whole house is yours. But if you come to bribe me with dollars to betray my manhood and my brothers who trust me, I want you to leave this door and never come here again."

The strike lasted a few weeks longer. Meantime, Wilson, when strikers were evicted, cleaned out his barn and took care of the evicted miners until homes could be provided. One by one he killed his chickens and his hogs. Everything that he had he shared. He ate dry bread and drank chicory (instead of coffee). He knew every hardship that the rank and file of the organization knew. We do not have such leaders now."

(3) In his unpublished autobiography William B. Wilson wrote about his campaign for a closed shop in the mining industry.

Union men generally believe that there is no such thing as an open shop except on a small and insignificant scale. An operation either becomes all union or all non-union and is ... promulgated principally by antagonistic employers who do not hesitate to discharge a union man whenever they find him in their establishment.... It is generally acknowledged that the aggressive power of a union in periods of industrial activity and its defensive strength during periods of depression maintain a higher standard of living not only for themselves but for non-union men in the same line of work than would be obtained with out it. Reasoning from that standpoint, they insist that common honesty should teach the person who receives the benefits brought about by the union to pay his share to maintain it.

(4) Mary 'Mother' Jones, The Autobiography of Mary Jones (1925)

In spite of oppressors, in spite of false leaders the cause of the workers continues onward. Slowly his hours are shortened, slowly his standards of living rise to include some of the good and beautiful things in life. Slowly, those who create the wealth of the world are permitted to share it. The future is in labor's strong, rough hands.