by Bob Rossi
Two popular images of the 1920s have come down to us. One is of the 1920s as a decade of extravagance and celebration bookended by the First World War and the Great Depression, a time of flappers and Fords and talking pictures marred only by Prohibition. The other image is one of hopeless despair and of defeats suffered by African Americans, immigrants, the labor movement, and farmers as violent racism and anti-immigrant sentiment took hold of the country and as the first signs of the Depression and Dustbowl conditions appeared.
Neither of the two images captures the reality of life in the nation’s coal regions, and both sideline the tremendous resistance waged by people of color, workers, immigrants, young people, and people who lived in rural areas during the 1920s. In fact, the decade was one of intensive organizing and resistance, and Pennsylvania’s anthracite region was one center among many of those efforts. My research has shown that the labor struggles in the Colorado coal fields owe something of their origins to the political and social struggles underway in the Pennsylvania anthracite region.
Pennsylvania’s early coal field cultures were formed in part through tensions between ethnically-based workers’ movements and new capitalist-based methods of production and distribution. Skilled mine workers and mine laborers from Great Britain and the British Isles worked on a contract basis for “Dutch” and American mine owners, many of whom came out of Evangelical, Quaker, or Episcopal backgrounds. The owners had a mercantile ethic and had to respect the relative independence of those they employed for a time. However, corporate consolidation, changes in coal mining technology, and the need for coal during the Civil War and for industrial expansion after the war changed labor relations in the anthracite region and prompted several worker rebellions.
The Molly Maguires represented one early and well-known rebellion, but a long period of worker organizing and experimentation followed them. Anthracite mine workers gravitated to forms of unionism which stressed self-reliance, mutual aid, and upward mobility. These influences were apparent in the United Mine Workers (UMWA) when that union was founded in 1890.
Class conflict and worker resistance in the anthracite region was many-sided from the 1890s onward. It helped birth the founding of the Polish National Catholic Church, set a pattern for ethnic and labor relations nationally, led to the creation of many ethnic and labor associations, and often involved women as local leaders. Anthracite mining had relatively high worker turnover, and mine workers and their families often traveled to the coal fields in Illinois and other westward states. This out-migration was driven in part by conflict in the anthracite fields and by the loss of worker control as the industry changed. But it was also enabled by ethnic self-organizations like lodges, by family and ethnic networks, and by unionism.
Many anthracite mine workers and their families passed through or settled in Colorado, and they brought with them the unionism and other forms of self-organization that they had learned in Pennsylvania. In particular, many Irish mine workers left the anthracite region soon after the defeat of the Molly Maguires in the late 1870s and began settling in Colorado and landing jobs in the coal and ore mines.
(As an interesting aside, whereas Pennsylvania’s anthracite region became a pass-through point for immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, some immigrants arrived in Colorado from their home countries first and then migrated to other coal fields, including Pennsylvania’s. The Tirolesi immigrants who had so much to do with Hazleton’s history are among the latter group.)
If the Pennsylvania miners went to Colorado hoping for peace and prosperity, they were disappointed. Conflict raged there as well. Most famously, at least nineteen people were killed in the Ludlow Massacre of April 20, 1914, most of them children and women.
Ludlow shares some similarities to Pennsylvania’s Lattimer Massacre of 1897. Both marked periods of industrial violence and attacks on immigrant mine workers, but both also marked periods of mine worker unity and resistance to the mine owners and steps in building an inclusive industrial unionism which reached across race, nationality, skill levels, and the country’s coal fields. Both massacres pushed workers and their organizations to understand and confront capitalism and to build larger and more inclusive organizations. Mine workers in Pennsylvania’s anthracite regions and in Colorado built their unionism out of their experiences at work, from unique workplace cultures which honored workers’ control and solidarity, and from their communities.
The First World War brought increased coal production to most of the nation’s coal fields, but the industry suffered from corporate centralization, a lack of planning, a lack of interest by the operators in new and safe technology, and shoddy accounting processes. Bituminous mine worker wages were set through union-operator negotiations in western Pennsylvania and some Midwestern coal fields, but Pennsylvania’s anthracite mine workers negotiated separate wage agreements.
This lack of labor unity and a postwar economic crisis which hit all of the coal fields pushed additional out-migration from the anthracite fields to Midwestern and Western coal fields. The national Depression of the 1930s appeared in the anthracite and bituminous fields in the 1920s. Anthracite workers showed great militancy, and this militancy won solid wage increases before and during the First World War, but the workers remained internally divided and the industry had the upper hand. In many cases, the union was not prepared to fight back. In fact, the UMWA nearly disappeared.
Unlike the Pennsylvania anthracite regions, which were solidly union and often militant, the Colorado mines were entirely non-union in the mid-1920s. Still, Colorado mine workers resisted the companies and used a combination of informal and formal organizations to do so. Mine workers and their families who had come from Pennsylvania were often involved in these struggles. Colorado also had an anthracite mining region, and two companies dominated the state’s mining industry. One was Colorado Fuel & Iron Company (CF&I), a Rockefeller-controlled corporation, and the other was Rocky Mountain Fuel (RMF), headed by Josephine Roche after 1927.
Mine workers created a number of unions in these years, the most militant being the National Miners Union (NMU). In 1927, the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) called a strike in southern Colorado ostensibly to protest the executions of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts. That strike movement expanded to cover the entire state. Strikers demanded the same union scale that the UMWA was demanding elsewhere. The strike lasted until February of 1928, when the workers eventually conceded defeat. The NMU had a strong presence in Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields for a time before being crushed by employer and state repression, often with the cooperation of the UMWA, but it went on to lead strikes across the western mining states and was particularly strong among Greek, Italian, and Slovenian mine workers in Utah and New Mexico in the early 1930s.
The influence on the Colorado strike by people who had come from the Pennsylvania anthracite fields was obvious in the Italian, Slovak, Polish, and Tirolese communities. The strike was bitter, and met with repression. Six strikers were killed in northern Colorado, and one striker and a teenager were killed in southern Colorado. Still, for a time the Colorado mine workers had the highest wages in the country. Roche signed a contract with the UMWA in order to avoid dealing with the IWW. She also had interest in improving her company’s competitive position and bolstering her liberal political credentials. She later became an administrator of the UMWA’s health and retirement funds and is remembered today for cutting benefits to our anthracite and bituminous retirees, a move which provoked wildcat strikes and helped lead to the founding of the Miners for Democracy (MFD) movement. MFD toppled the corrupt UMWA leadership and led the mass, and often illegal, strikes which won key concessions from federal and state governments and from the mine operators.
It is worth noting that Roche’s direct responsibility for the cuts is debatable, but she was nevertheless forced out of her funds oversight position by militant mine workers and the courts in 1971. I can remember anthracite miners getting only $35 a month as a pension payment. Retired mine workers in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region tended to oppose Roche but were conflicted about the militant miners’ movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their hesitation in embracing the movements cost the anthracite region a great deal as the region never received the attention and social benefits other mining regions did. CF&I remained non-union until the passage of New Deal legislation. And just as several coal corporations eventually abandoned northeastern Pennsylvania, CF&I went on to abandon Colorado.
This struggle, we know, goes on into the present day, but looking back at this history reminds us that we owe it to our ancestors to keep up the fight. Not only did Pennsylvania’s anthracite miners do what local history books said they did, they also shared their fighting spirit with their sisters and brothers engaged in the struggle elsewhere.
Bob Rossi is a retired union organizer whose family lived in Hazleton, Fern Glen, and Philadelphia. He is active in community and socialist organizing efforts in Salem, Oregon and is writing a social history of Colorado coal mining communities in the 1920s. He is a member of Hazleton’s Tirolesi Alpini club and Hazleton’s Greek Catholic Union lodge.