The United Mine Workers of America (UMW or UMWA) is a North American labor union best known for representing coal miners. Today, the Union also represents health care workers, truck drivers, manufacturing workers and public employees in the United States and Canada. Although its main focus has always been on workers and their rights, the UMW of today also advocates for better roads, schools, and universal health care. By 2014, coal mining had largely shifted to open pit mines in Wyoming, and there were only 60,000 active coal miners. The UMW was left with 35,000 members, of whom 20,000 were coal miners, chiefly in underground mines in Kentucky and West Virginia. However it was responsible for pensions and medical benefits for 40,000 retired miners, and for 50,000 spouses and dependents.
The UMW was founded in Columbus, Ohio, on January 25, 1890, with the merger of two old labor groups, the Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No. 135 and the National Progressive Miners Union. Adopting the model of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the union was initially established as a three-pronged labor tool: to develop mine safety; to improve mine workers' independence from the mine owners and the company store; and to provide miners with collective bargaining power.
After passage of the National Recovery Act in 1933 during the Great Depression, organizers spread throughout the United States to organize all coal miners into labor unions. Under the powerful leadership of John L. Lewis, the UMW broke with the American Federation of Labor and set up its own federation, the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). Its organizers fanned out to organize major industries, including automobiles, steel, electrical equipment, rubber, paint and chemical, and fought a series of battles with the AFL. The UMW grew to 800,000 members and was an element in the New Deal Coalition supporting Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lewis broke with Roosevelt in 1940 and left the CIO, leaving the UMW increasingly isolated in the labor movement. During World War II the UMW was involved in a series of major strikes and threatened walkouts that angered public opinion and energized pro-business opponents. After the war, the UMW concentrated on gaining large increases in wages, medical services and retirement benefits for its shrinking membership, which was contending with changes in technology and declining mines in the East.
The UMW was founded in Columbus, Ohio, on January 22, 1890, by the merger of two earlier groups, the Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No. 135 and the National Progressive Miners Union. It was modeled after the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The Union's emergence in the 1890s was the culmination of decades of effort to organize mine workers and people in adjacent occupations into a single, effective negotiating unit. At the time coal was one of the most highly sought natural resources, as it was widely used to heat homes and to power machines in industries. The coal mines were a competitive and dangerous place to work. With the owners imposing reduced wages on a regular basis, in response to fluctuations in pricing, miners sought a group to stand up for their rights.
American Miners' Association
The first step in starting the union was the creation of the American Miners' Association. Scholars credit this organization with the beginning of the labor movement in the United States. The membership of the group grew rapidly. "Of an estimated 56,000 miners in 1865, John Hinchcliffe claimed 22,000 as members of the AMA. In response, the mine owners sought to stop the AMA from becoming more powerful. Members of the AMA were fired and blacklisted from employment at other mines. After a short time the AMA began to decline, and eventually ceased operations.
Workingman's Benevolent Association
Another early labor union that arose in 1868 was the Workingmen's Benevolent Association. This union was distinguished as a labor union for workers mining anthracite coal. The laborers formed the WBA to help improve pay and working conditions. The main reason for the success of this group was the president, John Siney, who sought a way both to increase miners benefits while also helping the operators earn a profit. They chose to limit the production of anthracite to keep its price profitable. Because the efforts of the WBA benefited the operators, they did not object when the union wanted to take action in the mines; they welcomed the actions that would secure their profit. Because the operators trusted the WBA, they agreed to the first written contract between miners and operators. As the union became more responsible in the operators' eyes, the union was given more freedoms. As a result, the health and spirits of the miners significantly improved.
The WBA could have been a very successful union had it not been for Franklin B. Gowen. In the 1870s Gowen owned the Reading Railroad, and bought several coal mines in the area. Because he owned the coal mines and controlled the means of transporting the coal, he was able to slowly destroy the labor union. He did everything in his power to produce the cheapest product and to ensure that non-union workers would benefit. As conditions for the miners of the WBA worsened, the union broke up and disappeared.
After the fall of the WBA, miners created many other small unions, including the Workingman's Protective Association (WPA) and the Miner's National Association (MNA). Although both groups had strong ideas and goals, they were unable to gain enough support and organization to succeed. The two unions did not last long, but provided greater support by the miners for a union which could withstand and help protect the workers' rights.
Although many labor unions were failing, two predominant unions arose that held promise to become strong and permanent advocates for the miners. The main problem during this time was the rivalry between the two groups. Because the National Trade Assembly #135, better known as the Knights of Labor, and the National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers were so opposed to one another, they created problems for miners rather than solving key issues.
This union was more commonly known as the Knights of Labor and began around 1870 in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. The main problem with the Knights of Labor was the its secrecy. The members kept very private their affiliation and goals of the Knights of Labor. Because both miners and operators could become members, there was no commonality to unite the members. Also, the union did not see strikes as a means to attain rights. To many people of the time, a strike was the only way that they believed they would be heard.
The Knights of Labor tried to establish a strong and organized union, so they set up a system of local assemblies, or LAs. There were two main types of LAs, trade and mixed, with the trade LA being the most common. Although this system was put into place to create order, it did the opposite. Even though there were only two categories of LAs, there were many sub-divisions. For the most part it was impossible to tell how many trade and mixed LAs there were at a given time. Local assemblies began to arise and fall all around, and many members began to question whether of not the Knights of Labor was strong enough to fight for the most important issue of the time, achieving an eight-hour work day.
This Union was formed by members of the Knights of Labor who realized that a secret and unified group would not turn into a successful union. The founders, John McBride, Chris Evans and Daniel McLaughlin, believed that creating an eight-hour work day would not only be beneficial for workers, but also as a means to stop overproduction, which would in turn help operators. The union was able to get cooperation from operators because they explained that the miners wanted better conditions because they felt as if they were part of the mining industry and also wanted the company to grow. But in order for the company to grow, the workers must have better conditions so that their labor could improve and benefit the operators.
The union's first priority was to get a fair weighing system within the mines. At a conference between the operators and the union, the idea of a new system of scaling was agreed upon, but the system was never implemented. Because the union did not deliver what it had promised, it lost support and members.
During this time, the rivalry between the two unions increased and eventually led to the formation of the UMW. The first of many arguments arose after the 1886 joint conference. The Knights of Labor did not want the NTA #135 to be in control, so they went against a lot of their decisions. Also, because the Knights of Labor were not in attendance at the conference, they were not able to vote against actions which they thought detrimental to gain rights for workers. The conference passed resolutions requiring the Knights of Labor to give up their secrecy and publicize material about its members and locations. The National Federation held another conference in 1887 attended by both groups. But it was unsuccessful in gaining agreement by the groups as to the next actions to take. In 1888, Samuel Gompers was elected as President of the National Federation of Miners, and George Harris first vice president.
Throughout 1887-1888 many joint conferences were held to help iron out the problems that the two groups were having. Many leaders of each groups began questioning the morals of the other union. One leader, William T. Lewis, thought there needed to be more unity within the union, and that competition for members between the two groups was not accomplishing anything. As a result of taking this position, he was replaced by John B. Rae as president of the NTA #135. This removal did not stop Lewis however; he got many people together who had been also thrown out of the Knights of Labor for trying to belong to both parties at once, along with the National Federation, and created the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers (NPU).
Although the goal of the NPU in 1888 was ostensibly to create unity between the miners, it instead drew a stronger line distinguishing members of the NPU against those of the NTA #135. Because of the rivalry, miners of one labor union would not support the strikes of another, and many strikes failed. In December 1889, the president of the NPU set up a joint conference for all miners. John McBride, the president of NPU, suggested that the Knights of Labor should join the NPU to form a stronger union. John B. Rae reluctantly agreed and decided that the merged groups would meet on January 22, 1890.
When the union was founded, the values of the UMWA were stated in the preamble:
We have founded the United Mine Workers of America for the purpose of...educating all mine workers in America to realize the necessity of unity of action and purpose, in demanding and securing by lawful means the just fruits of our toil.
The UMWA constitution listed eleven points as the union's goals:
This section is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay that states a editor's personal feelings about a topic. (March 2013) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
John L. Lewis (1880 – 1969) was the highly combative UMW president who thoroughly controlled the union from 1920 to 1960. A major player in the labor movement and national politics, in the 1930s he used UMW activists to organize new unions in autos, steel and rubber. He was the driving force behind the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). It established the United Steel Workers of America and helped organize millions of other industrial workers in the 1930s.
After resigning as head of the CIO in 1941, he took the Mine Workers out of the CIO in 1942 and in 1944 took the union into the American Federation of Labor (AFL). A leading liberal, Lewis played a major role in helping Franklin D. Roosevelt win re-election with a landslide in 1936, but as an isolationist supported by Communist elements in the CIO, Lewis broke with Roosevelt in 1940 on anti-Nazi foreign policy. (Following the 1939 German-Soviet pact of nonaggression, the Comintern had instructed communist parties in the West to oppose any support for nations at war with Nazi Germany).).
Lewis was a brutally effective and aggressive fighter and strike leader who gained high wages for his membership while steamrolling over his opponents, including the United States government. Lewis was one of the most controversial and innovative leaders in the history of labor, gaining credit for building the industrial unions of the CIO into a political and economic powerhouse to rival the AFL, yet was widely hated as he called nationwide coal strikes damaging the American economy in the middle of World War II. His massive leonine head, forest-like eyebrows, firmly set jaw, powerful voice, and ever-present scowl thrilled his supporters, angered his enemies, and delighted cartoonists. Coal miners for 40 years hailed him as the benevolent dictator who brought high wages, pensions and medical benefits, and damn the critics.
The union's history has numerous examples of strikes in which members and their supporters clashed with company-hired strikebreakers and government forces. The most notable include:
By June the demand for coal began to increase, and some operators decided to pay the workers their original salaries before the wage cut. However, not all demands across the country were met, and some workers continued to strike. The young union suffered damage in this uneven effort. The most important goal of the 1894 strike was not the restoration of wages, but rather the establishment of the UMWA as a cooperation at a national level.
Facing criminal charges, union head John L. Lewis withdrew his strike call, though many strikers ignored his action. As the strike dragged on into its third week, coal supplies were running low and public sentiment was calling for stronger government action. Final agreement to end the strike was reached on December 10.
District 26 of the UMWA in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada struck in early March 1923 against the British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO). On June 4, the union pulled its men from a company power plant in New Waterford. More than fifty company police, many on horseback, occupied the plant on the morning of June 11. An estimated 700 - 3,000 miners and supporters gathered in New Waterford and marched to the power plant that morning. The company police opened fire when the crowd arrived and then charged the crowd on horseback, swinging nightclubs and firing revolvers. Miners fought back with stones and pulled police off horses. William Davis, a miner, was shot dead and several others were wounded by gunfire or trampled by horses. After the riot ended, the miners sabotaged and disabled the power plant for the duration of the strike. Police and company that didn't escape the battle were locked up in the town jail. In the following nights, company stores were raided and burned, including the colliery building. The Canadian Army deployed thousands of soldiers to the area in the second largest deployment in history for civil unrest within Canada. The union later suspended the 100 percent strike, allowing maintenance workers to return.
The 1925 strike lasted through the summer and contributed to the bankruptcy and breakup of the BESCO conglomerate several years later. The strike against BESCO by UMWA 26 in the Sydney Coal Field was unprecedented for the violence and militancy exhibited by the company toward the striking miners and changed the labour dynamics in Industrial Cape Breton.
In the summer of 1973, workers at the Duke Power-owned Eastover Mining Company's Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in Harlan County, Kentucky voted to join the union. Eastover management refused to sign the contract and the miners went on strike. Duke Power attempted to bring in replacement non-union workers or "scabs" but many were blocked from entering the mine by striking workers and their families on the picket line. Local judge F. Byrd Hogg was a coal operator himself and consistently ruled for Eastover. During much of the strike the mine workers' wives and children joined the picket lines. Many were arrested, some hit by baseball bats, shot at, and struck by cars. One striking miner, Lawrence Jones, was shot and killed by a Strikebreaker.
Three months after returning to work, the national UMWA contract expired. On November 12, 1974, 120,000 miners nationwide walked off the job. The nationwide strike was bloodless and a tentative contract was achieved three weeks later. This opened the mines and reactivated the railroad haulers in time for Christmas. These events are depicted in the documentary film Harlan County, USA.
The Pittston Coal strike of 1989-1990 began as a result of a withdrawal of the Pittston Coal Group also known as the Pittston Company from the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) and a refusal of the Pittston Coal group to pay the health insurance payments for miners who were already retired. The owner of the Pittston company at the time, Paul Douglas, left the BCOA because he wanted to be able to produce coal seven days a week and did not want his company to pay the fee for the insurance.
The Pittson company was seen as having inadequate safety standards after the Buffalo Creek flood of 1972 in which 125 miners were killed. The company also was very financially unstable and in debt. The mines associated with the company were located mostly in Virginia, with mines also in West Virginia and Kentucky.
On 31 January 1988 Douglas cut off retirement and health care funds to about 1500 retired miners, widows of miners, and disabled miners. To avoid a strike, Douglas threatened that if a strike were to take place, that the miners would be replaced by other workers. The UMW called this action unjust and took the Pittston company to court.
Miners worked from January 1988 to April 1989 without a contract. Tension in the company grew and on 5 April 1989 the workers declared a strike. Many months of both violent and nonviolent strike actions took place. On 20 February 1990 a settlement was finally reached between the UMWA and the Pittston Coal Company.
The union's history has sometimes been marked by internal strife and corruption, including the 1969 murder of Joseph Yablonski, a reform candidate who lost a race for union president against incumbent W. A. Boyle. Boyle was later convicted of ordering the murder.
The killing of Yablonski resulted in the birth of a pro-democracy movement called the "Miners for Democracy" (MFD) which swept the Boyle regime out of office and replaced it with a group of leaders who had been most recently rank and file miners. Led by new president Arnold Miller, the new leadership enacted a series of reforms which gave UMWA members the right to elect their leaders at all levels of the union and to ratify the contracts under which they worked.
Decreased faith in the UMW to support the rights of the miners caused many to leave the union. Coal demand was curbed by competition from other energy sources. The main cause of the decline in the union during the 1920s and 1930s was the introduction of more efficient and easily produced machines into the coal mines. In previous years, less than 41% of coal was cut by the machines. However, by 1930, 81% was being cut by the machines and now there were machines that could also surface mine and load the coal into the trucks. With more machines that could do the same labor, unemployment in the mines grew and wages were cut back. As the problems grew, many people did not believe that the UMW could ever become as powerful as it was before the start of the war. The decline in the union began in the 1920s and continued through the 1930s. Slowly the membership of the UMWA grew back up in numbers.
A general decline in union effectiveness characterized the 1970s and 1980s, leading to new kinds of activism, particularly in the late 1970s. Workers saw their unions back down in the face of aggressive management.
Other factors contributed to the decline in unionism generally and UMW specifically. The coal industry was not prepared economically to deal with such a drop in demand for coal. Demand for coal was very high during World War II, but decreased dramatically after the war, in part due to competition from other energy sources. In efforts to improve air quality, municipal governments started to ban the use of coal as household fuel. The end of wartime price controls introduced competition to produce cheaper coal, putting pressure on wages.
These problems—perceived weakness of the unions, loss of control over jobs, drop in demand, and competition—decreased the faith of miners in their union. By 1998 the UMW had about 240,000 members, half the number that it had in 1946. As of the early 2000s, the union represents about 42 percent of all employed miners.
At some point before 1930, the UMW became a member of the American Federation of Labor. The UMW leadership was part of the driving force to change the way workers were organized, and the UMW was one of the charter members when the new Congress of Industrial Organizations was formed in 1935. However, the AFL leadership did not agree with the philosophy of industrial unionization, and the UMW and nine other unions that had formed the CIO were kicked out of the AFL in 1937.
In 1942, the UMW chose to leave the CIO, and, for the next five years, were an independent union. In 1947, the UMW once again joined the AFL, but the remarriage was a quick one, as the UMW was forced out of the AFL in 1948, and at that point, became the largest non-affiliated union in the United States.
In 1982, Richard Trumka was elected the leader of the UMW. Trumka spent the 1980s healing the rift between the UMW and the now-conjoined AFL-CIO (which was created in 1955 with the merger of the AFL and the CIO). In 1989, the UMW was again taken into the fold of the large union umbrella.
Throughout the years, the UMW has taken political stands and supported candidates to help achieve union goals.
The United Mine Workers ran candidate Frank Henry Sherman under the union banner in the 1905 Alberta general election. Sherman's candidacy was driven to appeal to the significant population of miners working in the camps of southern Alberta. He finished second in the riding of Pincher Creek.
The biggest conflict between the UMW and the government was while Franklin Roosevelt was president of the United States and John L. Lewis was president of the UMW. Originally, the two worked together well, but, after the 1937 strike of United Automobile Workers against General Motors, Lewis stopped trusting Roosevelt, claiming that Roosevelt had gone back on his word. This conflict led Lewis to resign as CIO president. Roosevelt repeatedly won large majorities of the union votes, even in 1940 when Lewis took an isolationist position on Europe, as demanded by far-left union elements. Lewis denounced Roosevelt as a power-hungry war monger, and endorsed Republican Wendell Willkie.
The tension between the two leaders escalated during World War II. Roosevelt in 1943 was outraged when Lewis threatened a major strike to end anthracite coal production needed by the war effort. He threatened government intervention and Lewis retreated.
In 2008 the UMWA supported Barack Obama as the best candidate to help achieve more rights for the mine workers.
In 2012, the UMWA National COMPAC Council did not make an endorsement in the election for President of the United States, citing "Neither candidate has yet demonstrated that he will be on the side of UMWA members and their families as president."