The US miners' strikes, 1919-1922 - Jeremy Brecher

Coalminers at work in Logan County, early 20th century

Jeremy Brecher's account of the strike wave in American mines from 1919 to 1922, where coalminers fought the bosses, the government and even the unions in often pitched battles involving guns, dynamite and on one occasion a makeshift air force.

Submitted by Steven. on July 22, 2013

If you enjoyed this book, please purchase Strike! by Jeremy Brecher here.

Most protracted of all the US industrial disputes of 1919 was the mass strike in the coal fields, with sporadic strikes, national strikes, and armed battles running from 1919 into 1922.

During the week of July 4th, 1919, strikes were held throughout the country to protest the imprisonment of Tom Mooney. One of the places where strikes were widespread was among the coal miners of the Belleville sub-district of Illinois. In accordance with the union contract, thousands of miners found themselves docked next payday for taking part in the wildcat protest.

When the miners in the Nigger Hollow Mine No.2 found they had been fined for the strike, they immediately requested that the operators return the fines. At the news of the operators' refusal, the miners gathered outside the mine for a spontaneous mass meeting. A petition was drawn up asking the local union chairman to call a meeting of the local; when he ignored the request, the miners marched up a nearby hill, selected one of their own number to preside, and held their own meeting. They resolved that the collection of the Mooney Strike fines was unjustified and illegal, and voted to stop work in protest. Next the workers decided to send a committee and ask the miners of Nigger Hollow Mine No. I, who had also been fined, to join the strike. The workers there quickly voted to do so, and proposed that a joint meeting be held that night.

At the meeting, a United Mine Workers official who urged the men to return to work was shouted down, and instead the miners decided to continue the strike and called a meeting for workers from other mines that Sunday. Meanwhile, word of the strike began to spread around the district, and the men from nearby mines independently struck and held meetings to decide what action they would advocate at the Sunday meeting.

The men from the Nigger Hollow mines decided to propose two resolutions to the Sunday meeting. One was that the miners return to work and fight through regular channels rather than continue the strike. The second was a resolution on general policy reflecting the strong socialist tradition of the Illinois miners. It read:

In view of the fact that the present-day system of Society, known as the capitalist system, has completely broken down, and is no longer able to supply the material and spiritual needs of the workers of the land, and in further view of the fact that the apologists for and the beneficiaries of that system now try to placate the suffering masses by promises of re- forms such as a shorter workday and increases in wages, and in further view of the futility of such reforms in the face of the world crisis that is facing the capitalist system; therefore be it . . .
Resolved, that the next National Convention of the U.M.W.A. issue a call to the workers of all industries to elect delegates to an industrial congress, there to demand of the capitalist class that all instruments of industries be turned over to the working class to guarantee that necessities, comforts and luxuries be produced for the use of humanity instead of a parasitical class of stockholders, bondholders, and that the Congress be called upon to pass an amendment to the Constitution of the United States legalizing all such action in the aforementioned Congress.1

About 2,000 men arrived for the Sunday meeting. They adopted the general policy resolution by a substantial majority. The fight came over continuing the strike. A local U.M.W. official had earlier wired Illinois District President Frank Farrington:

Six mines in the Belleville District have struck this week. I have done my best to get them back to work. Three of them are still out. A mass meeting is called for Sunday at Priester's Park. The chances are a great many more miners will come out. Situation serious. If some one can come here Sunday it might have some effect.2

To which Farrington replied,

I have instructed Reynolds, Dobbins, Myers, Schaefer, Thomas, Walker and Mason to attend meeting to be held at Priester's Park Sunday afternoon and to use their every influence to curb the rebellious movement in the Belleville District.3

The issue was debated for four hours, at the end of which both the U.M.W. and the Nigger Hollow miners' resolution to end the strike was rejected, and instead it was decided to spread the strike further.

Two days later a still larger body of strikers met for what was called a "general committee meeting." They established a "policy committee" of fifty miners to handle executive work of the strike. Meanwhile, the issues of the strike were greatly expanded. It became not just a strike against the Mooney fines, but against the contract under which all miners were then working. This contract had been established during the war by the "Washington Agreement." It established automatic fines for workers who struck - it was under this provision that the Mooney strikers were punished. It provided maximum rates of pay, which the miners now considered inadequate in the face of post-war inflation. Practically from the signing of the Washington Agreement, miners had demanded an increase in the wages it provided, and in the wake of the Armistice, mass meetings were held in mining centers throughout lIIinois demanding that the union abrogate the Washington Agreement. The union not only supported the agreement, but even prevented mine operators from paying bonuses above it. The penalty clause providing fines for striking, likewise, was protested from the start by the workers. The issue became critical after the Armistice, when operators, especially in the Belleville area, began breaking down work practices the miners had long struggled to establish. When the miners retaliated by closing down the mines, they were fined under the penalty clause of the Washington Agreement.

The agreement was to run "during the continuation of the war not to exceed two years from April 1st, 1918."4 The U.S. government, the coal operators, the national and state mine union leaders all agreed that despite the Armistice the contract ran until April 1st, 1920, since no peace treaty had been signed. The rank-and-file miners throughout the country opposed continuing the old contract, and the lIIinois miners' strike now became a strike to renounce the Washington Agreement and establish a new contract with a new wage scale and without the penalty clause.

Armed with this broadened program, the Belleville miners began systematically spreading their revolt across the state. They sent bulletins and posters giving word of the strike to other mining centers. Most important, they organized teams of "Crusaders," who traveled across the state calling mass meetings of the miners in each area and urging them to join the strike. As the strike spread, workers in each local elected representatives to a Policy Committee for their own sub-district, and a State Policy Committee was formed from representatives of each of these. The insurgent State Policy Committee no longer merely petitioned the union for a state convention, but decided to go ahead and call one on its own account.

Meanwhile, the union officials counter-attacked. Illinois District President Farrington issued a circular to the membership which began:

Our union is facing a crisis. The elements of destruction are at work. The issue is: Shall the forces of defiance and rebellion prevail and stab our union to death, or shall reason and orderly procedure dominate the affairs of the United Mine Workers of America?5

Soon the union began supplying the operators with strikebreakers to reopen the shut-down mines. The union hired "loyal" workers to try to intimidate or stampede the strikers back to work. "Loyal" union men were sworn in as special deputy sheriffs, at least some of them apparently paid directly from the union treasury. Arrests of strikers by these deputies and other law officials were common.

The Crusaders were again and again held up on the public highways, beaten, and prevented from proceeding by these various forces. The union eventually admitted having spent $27,000 to quell the rebellion, but refused to itemize it.

The tactics of the union in suppressing the strike roused the ire of the miners even more. Thus a committee from Belleville was beaten up on the highway on the way to Springfield. When they subsequently appealed to the Springfield miners to join the strike for a new contract, the latter were wary - but when the committee referred to the beating they had received at the instigation of union officials, the miners voted to strike, and remain on strike "until all the state officers resigned their jobs."6 By the time of the insurgent state convention perhaps half of the 90,000 miners in Illinois had joined the outlaw strike.

Although they had opposed the convention, the union officials understood how important it was to control it once it was called. They headed off the attempt to spread the movement to other states by excluding miners from Pennsylvania and other states from participating. From then on, the union officials successfully asserted their authority, declaring the strike called off because contract negotiations had been scheduled to begin in a month. The contract demands of the insurgents were accepted, however, and became the basis of the rank-and-file program at the national U.M.W. convention a month later. In addition, the convention recommended not that the mines be operated by the government - the official U.M.W. position at that time-but that they be turned over to the miners.

When the national U.M.W. convention met in Cleveland a month later, a completely new situation had been created by the Illinois insurgency, for Illinois was the heart of the union and most reflected the mood of the rank and file. One observer described the convention as a "fight between the men and their officials."7 The 2,000 delegates demanded a new contract, set a strike date for November 1st if it was not gained, and instructed their officers to demand a thirty-hour week and a sixty percent wage increase. The U.M.W. officials were forced to negotiate for a new contract.

When they failed to achieve one, the convention's strike order went into effect and on November 1st 425,000 miners struck.

The U.S. government instantly leapt into the fray. President . Wilson declared the strike "not only unjustifiable but unlawful."8 At the request of the U.S. Attorney General, a Federal judge issued an injunction sequestering the union strike fund and prohibiting the union leaders from any action furthering the strike.

Federal troops were moved into the coal fields of Utah, Washington, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. On November 8th, the Federal Court further ordered the union officials to rescind the strike order and send the men back to work. Acting President John L. Lewis ordered the strike call cancelled, declaring, "We are Americans, we cannot fight our Government."9

But the coal miners disagreed, ignored the union order, and stayed struck, refusing to return to work for nearly a month. They realized their power as they saw the U.S. government rationing coal, schools closing down for lack of heat, factories shutting down, and railroad operations drastically cut back. According to a report in The Survey,

In not a few places where temperatures were below zero, a fuel famine existed. In the emergencies much volunteer coal mining was attempted. College and university students went into the surface mines in Kansas. In Montana on the other hand it was reported that Federal troops were used to drive miners to work. The Secretary of War announced that such an action was inconceivable, but there has been no public report on what actually occurred. In North Dakota Governor Frazier took over the mines under martial law and the union miners returned to work under the auspices of the state government.10

The miners reluctantly returned to work when President Wilson proposed an immediate fourteen percent wage increase and an arbitration commission to grant further demands.

The miners remained discontented with the results of the settlement, and by the summer of 1920 wildcats were common and all mining had stopped in Indiana and Illinois without declaration of a strike.

Insurgency developed even further in anthracite than in bituminous mining. In August, 1919, a U.M.W. convention formulated demands; negotiations dragged on fruitlessly until May, 1920, when the union agreed to President Wilson's proposal for arbitration. The arbitration award was totally unsatisfactory to the miners, but the union recognized that it was obliged to accept it. While the union officials were drafting the contract, 85,000 miners struck under insurgent leadership, closing down half the anthracite collieries. Union officials earnestly endeavored to end the strike, but it continued for nearly a month.11

Meanwhile, in response to the bituminous strike, the Governor of Kansas called a special session of the legislature to establish compulsory arbitration in major industries by means of a labor court. As soon as the proposal was passed, 400 Kansas miners walked off their jobs in a wildcat strike to show their defiance of the law, but were ordered back to work by the union the next day.

Soon a test case arose when miners in Crawford County refused to work with an engineer who had helped attempts to open the mines during the national coal strike. District union officials were ordered to appear before the new labor court and were arrested for contempt when they refused. In response, the miners struck, closing down ninety percent of the mines in Kansas. They then came into Girard for a mass demonstration, where the U.M.W. district president was allowed to address them from the prison balcony. The miners returned to work only as the officials were released on bond.

Meanwhile, events in West Virginia began developing toward civil war. During and after World War I, the West Virginia coal fields had expanded enormously. The northern fields were mostly unionized, but organization was completely blocked and union organizers forbidden even to enter the southern counties of the state, whose local governments were under virtually complete control by anti-union mine operators. Miners who joined the union were fired and evicted from their homes; deputy sheriffs on company payrolls ran union organizers out of town and arrested and beat up local union sympathizers. At this point, a rumor spread around the state that women and children were being killed in Logan County. An investigator describes what happened:

On Sept. 4 hundreds of miners assembled on Lens Creek. . . 30 miles from Logan County. They trudged on over the hills and by the roads. Many of them carried guns; 5,000 miners had gathered by nightfall. There were no leaders. The miners were determined, apparently, to invade Logan County...12

The Governor wired Frank Keeney, West Virginia U.M.W. president, who rushed to Lens Creek to try to stop the miners. "On the outskirts of the crowd he was told that his presence was useless and he might as well go back home."13 Next both Keeney and the Governor addressed the strikers, but were only partially successful in persuading them to return home. Next day, 1,500 miners continued the march to Danville. Only when a committee they had sent to Logan County reported all there was quiet did the miners disband and go home. But this was just a prelude.

In May, 1920, a strike broke out in Mattewan over the firing of members of a new union and rapidly spread through Mingo County, West Virginia, and Pike County, Kentucky. Armed guards patrolled the Mingo County line "to prevent infiltration of union men."14 In Mattewan, a shoot-out occurred between the local police chief, Sid Hatfield (an ex-miner and a Hatfield of the Hatfield-McCoy feud), and Baldwin-Felts detectives brought in by the operators to evict strikers. Two miners, the Mayor of Mattewan, and seven Baldwin-Felts guards were killed in a matter of minutes. In response to this and other violence, the Governor sent in state troops. On August 21st, a three-hour gun battle between strikers and guards killed six. At the Governor's request, 500 Federal troops were rushed in. District President Keeney threatened a general strike throughout the state unless the Federal troops stopped their strikebreaking activities.

The strike continued, with 1,700 people living in tent colonies. Battles flared intermittently; Federal troops were withdrawn, rushed back, and withdrawn again. Finally at a meeting of miners in the small mining camp of Marmet on August 20th, 1921, it was decided that since the union was kept out by the violence of guards, deputies and troopers, the miners would have to open the area by force of arms. Thus a second miners' march was organized, led this time by war veterans.

Patrols were flung out along the roads leading into Logan, a commissary was set up, and mess halls opened at various school houses near the front. Trains and automobiles were commandeered for the "citizens' army and the men, armed with all sorts of weapons, were accompanied by nurses in uniform. . . . The union men wore blue overalls with red hand- kerchiefs around their necks. "15

As the miners drew near to Logan County, their numbers reached 4,000. Frank Keeney, as before, tried to persuade them to disperse, but when word came that armed deputies had swooped down upon a camp and killed five miners, the invasion was resumed. President Harding issued a proclamation ordering the miners to disperse but they ignored it. The miners took up position on a wide front and, advancing two miles, engaged in heavy battle at five points with deputies and volunteers defending the non-union counties. At that point, 2,100 troops of the 19th Infantry together with machine guns and airplanes were rushed into Logan County. The miners had no choice but to surrender to the Federal troops, and with company law and order restored the strike was easily defeated. Some 350 miners were indicted for treason, but never convicted.

In April, 1922, the U.M.W. called strikes in both anthracite and bituminous fields. The strikes were joined by 75,000 non-union miners in the Connellsville coke region of Pennsylvania as well.

"With the zeal of new converts, the Connellsville miners became self-appointed organizers, looking to no one for orders, only anxious to spread the strike and the union gospel."16

After eight weeks of the strike, the Southern Illinois Coal Company began to reopen its mines in Williamson County with imported strikebreakers under heavily armed guards. When a group of miners tried to talk with the strikebreakers they were fired on by machine guns and two of them killed. Not only the miners themselves, but farmers and other workers of the area grew furious, and on June 21st, when another striker was shot dead while standing in a farmyard half a mile from the mine, men began pouring into Williamson from as far as Kansas, Indiana and Ohio. They were armed with weapons they had seized from hardware stores and American Legion halls. By dusk, 1,000 armed men advanced on the mine in skirmish waves directed by war veterans wearing trench helmets.

An airplane, rented at a nearby field, flew overhead dropping dynamite bombs on the strongholds of the strikebreakers. According to a National Guard colonel, "It was a seemingly well-organized, remarkably sober, determined, resolute aggregation of men and boys."17 As they approached they were met with continuous machine-gun fire from the mine guards. Just as they prepared to storm the mine a white flag went up and the besieged offered to surrender. Armed miners marched them away, executing the mine superintendent along the way. They then were met by a mob from town who had not taken part in the battle. The mob took over the prisoners, told them to run for it, and then began shooting at them. In this and subsequent massacres, nineteen strikebreakers were killed. Juries of local farmers refused to convict anyone for the massacre.

In July, the Federal government turned its strength against the nationwide coal strike. President Harding officially told the operators to go home and resume operations, and wired the Governors of twenty-eight states to furnish them protection, pledging the full support of the Federal government. In response, the governors of Pennsylvania and Ohio ordered state troops to the mines, but the strike remained firm. The union finally accepted a settlement at the expense of the 75,000 non-union miners who had joined the strike; they were abandoned to their fate. A committee appointed by the Mayor of New York found their conditions "worse than the serfs of Russia or the slaves before the Civil War."18 They continued their desperate strike for sixteen months until August, 1923, when they were finally starved out. As the 1920's wore on, the war and post-war coal boom petered out, and the industry developed a chronic coal glut. Under these conditions the United Mine Workers proved impotent, and the rest of the 1920's was a period of steady decay as the union retreated or was broken in area after area.

This text has been excerpted from Jeremy Brecher's excellent book, Strike! and very slightly edited to make sense as a stand-alone text by

  • 1Cited in Kopald, pp. 74-5.
  • 2Ibid., p. 73.
  • 3 Ibid.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 62.
  • 5Ibid., p. 84.
  • 6Ibid., p. 87.
  • 7 Sylvia Kopald, "Behind the Miners' Strike," The Nation, Vol. 109, No. 2838, Nov. 22, 1919, p. 658.
  • 8 McAlister Coleman, Men and Coal (N.Y.: Farrar & Rhinehart, 1947), p.278.
  • 9 Cincinnati Enquirer, Nov. 12, 1919, p. 6, quoting Lewis; cited in Murray, p. 161.
  • 10 The Survey, Vol. XLIII, No.8, Dec. 20,1919, p. 254.
  • 11 Commons, Vol. IV, p. 477-9.
  • 12 Winthrop D. Lane, Civil War in West Virginia (N.Y.: B.W. Huebsch, Inc., 1921), p. 106.
  • 13 Ibid.
  • 14 Commons, Vol. IV, p. 480.
  • 15 Lane, p. 106.
  • 16 Commons, Vol. IV, p. 483.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 483-4.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 485-6.