1908 United Mine Workers strike

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The 1908 United Mine Workers strike was a major labor strike in the summer of 1908 involving some 18,000 coal miners, both black and white, on behalf of United Mine Workers District 20. The affected industries, organized as the Alabama Coal Operators Association, but colloquially known as the "Big Mules", got help from Governor B. B. Comer and the Alabama State Militia in successfully breaking the two month work stoppage. The union withdrew their demands in August. The defeat established an "open shop" environment in Alabama. It considerably weakened the influence of organized labor in the Birmingham District and undermined one of the first notable attempts to align the political fortunes of white and black Alabamians.

Unions had been hindered in their operations since the first days of industrialization in the Birmingham District. Mine operators had been successful in making the case that, although the mineral resources in the region were abundant, the development of local industry was completely dependent on the supply inexpensive labor. Labor organizers did make inroads and as many as 10,000 of the district's miners were on the rolls of the United Mine Workers by 1900. District 20 vice president Benjamin Greer helped recruit black miners onto union rolls, seeing the organization as an educational tool as much as it was a means to power.

In 1903, the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company cut its ties with the UMW and initiated a policy of only hiring non-union workers. That policy continued when TCI was purchased by U.S. Steel in 1907. With the power of the District's largest employer behind them, the other members of the newly-formed Alabama Coal Operators Association soon followed suit. In June 1908, as the country was still recovering from the Panic of 1907 (itself sustained by the failure of TCI stock), the members of the operators association proposed a 17% wage reduction for miners.

Seeing no other way to respond, the UMW's membership declared a strike over the opposition of Greer and other Union officials. The protest began on July 8. About 4,000 miners walked out on the first day, but soon more members joined the strike, swiftly forming new locals. By the end of the second week, more than half of all the district's coal miners, including many who had begun their careers as strike-breakers, were walking picket lines. As the strikers sought to shut down production, the owners deputized armed guards to evict them from company-owned housing and began bringing in replacements. With the union's help, homeless mining families moved into tent cities, guarded by their own members. Downtown store owner Louis Pizitz supported the strikers by sending shipments of food to the camps.

By the end of the month, the mine owners, seemingly in panic, sent agents further afield to seek replacements and expanded the leasing of state convicts, tantamount to slave labor. As August began, hundreds of company guards were placed into service to the companies, and a broad-based propaganda campaign focused attention on the fact that the UMW was a bi-racial union and that their potential success could begin undermining segregation in central Alabama. Newspaper publisher and former Mayor Frank Evans was paid by the companies for his fear-mongering editorials in the Birmingham Age-Herald. He described a Union meeting in Dora where "a negro…embrace[d] a white speaker…in the very presence of gentle white women and innocent little girls." The spectacle of an integrated UMW-sponsored parade in Jasper was also used to inflame violent opposition to the unions. One black union member, William Millin, was taken from prison in Brighton and lynched by company guards. Union members retaliated with more violence, threatening to turn the coal fields into a war zone. Jefferson County Sheriff's Deputy Charles Gardner was shot to death in a gunfight on July 17.

On August 26 Governor Comer, who had until then stayed out of the fray, agreed to send soldiers from the state militia to dismantle the striker's tent cities, under the pretense of protecting public health. Comer also threatened the arrest of idle workers on vagrancy charges. With no means of sustaining the strike, the UMW conceded failure and ended the work-stoppage. The result was a total victory for mine owners, who proceeded to lower wages and rigidly enforce racial segregation to reduce the threat of combined action. The problem of maintaining a stable work force without contracts continued to dog local industries. Some adopted "progressive" policies intended to attract the best class of workers, and to bind them and their families more tightly to the interests of the companies.

References

  • Evans, F. V. (August 8, 1908) editorial. Birmingham Age-Herald, quoted in Kelly-2001
  • Lewis, Ronald L. (1987) Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class and Community Conflict, 1780-1980. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press
  • Ward, Robert David and William Warren Rogers (1987) Convicts, Coal and the Banner Mine Tragedy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press
  • Letwin, Daniel L.(1998) The Challenge of Interracial Unionism: Alabama Coal Miners, 1878-1921. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press
  • Brown, Edwin L. and Colin J. David, eds. (1999) It is Union and Liberty: Alabama Coal Miners and the UMW. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press
  • Kelly, Brian (2001) Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908-1921. Urbana: University of Illinois Press
  • Kelly, Brian (May 13, 2011) "Birmingham District Coal Strike of 1908". Encyclopedia of Alabama - accessed December 12, 2013