William Fairley

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William Fairley

William Robert Fairley (born November 9, 1846 in Leasingthorne, England; died November 27, 1927 in Ensley) was a labor organizer and negotiator who served on the executive board of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and as a commissioner in the conciliation section of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Fairley was the son of Robert and Margery Jobling Fairley of Leasingthorne, in County Durham in North East England. He began working at coal mines as a breaker when he was 8 years old. When he was 13 his father suffered a hand injury in the mines and William began assisting him in his duties underground. Fairley sought out his own education and learned to read and write without benefit of school. He joined the local miners union and became a member of the Durham Miners Executive Board, which was successful in winning better wages and working conditions and a 9-hour work day.

He married the former Jane Ann Pattinson, had two children, Robert and Bridget. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1881. He worked as a coal miner in Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky before settling in the Birmingham District around 1887. He assisted Henry F. DeBardeleben in the sinking of new mines at Henry Ellen. He was later employed at the Pratt Mines. At every stage of his career, Fairley sought out friends and knowledge anywhere he could.

During the 1894 miner's strike across the Birmingham District, Fairley, while not formally involved with the union, was credited helping to effect a resolution by chance. He came to Birmingham's L & N Station and ran across DeBardeleben, who asked him to meet him in the lobby of the Morris Hotel to discuss the strike. Nat Baxter and George McCormack of the Tennessee Company were also present. In conversation, Fairley mentioned a letter DeBardeleben had contributed to the The Birmingham Age-Herald in which he referred to his mining community at Johns as a "garden of Eden." Fairley noted that in Genesis, the garden of Eden "was a place of joy and continual happiness... until the serpent appeared." He then identified DeBardeleben as the serpent and bringer of unhappiness, which brought a roar of laughter from the group. The spirited discussion continued until 4:00 AM when Fairley was due to catch a train to New Orleans. As the story goes, the mine operators agreed to meet the union leadership the next day, beginning the negotiations that brought the strike to an end. (Age-Herald-1904)

Fairley soon became involved in the Knights of Labor. In May 1898 he was elected president of the newly-created United Mine Workers of America District 20 covering the state of Alabama. With secretary-treasurer J. L. Clemo he drafted the Constitution and Laws for the District. He was elected to the UMWA's national board under new president John Mitchell later that same year. By the turn of the century, Fairley was credited as a "leading spirit" in organizing for the UMWA in Alabama, and as a "stormy petrel" in his disputes with mine owners and operators.

In 1903, Fairley helped represent the miners of District 20 in arbitration against the mine operators in Alabama. Judge George Gray served as referee, and granted the union an increase of 2.5 cents per ton, a prohibition against employed children under 14, and other considerations. Furnace owners declined to abide by the agreed-upon scale, leading to the 1904 United Mine Workers strike, which failed due to strikebreaking actions by Governor William Jelks.

In August of that year Fairley joined a group of labor organizers which included Mary "Mother" Jones, William Wardjon, Chris Evans and Charles Demolli to support miners in Colorado's Cripple Creek district. The group was "deported" from Colorado by the state militia acting under orders from Governor James Peabody.

Between 1907 and 1918 Fairley resided at 516 Balsam Avenue in Pratt City. In a short biographical profile, Ethel Armes described him as "a stout, stolid, stubborn type of man- thick-set, rather, ruddy-faced, and bald." She further complimented his "extraordinary attributes of intellect and insight into human nature, character, and achievement." (Armes-c. 1915)

During the Taft administration (1909–1913), Fairley was appointed as an immigration inspector at the Port of New Orleans. He later joined the Labor Department as a commissioner and was assigned to observe conditions in Birmingham during the 1918 Birmingham Metal Trades Council strike which caused shutdowns at numerous manufacturing plants while they were busily producing materials for World War I. U.S. Secretary of Labor William Wilson sent Fairley back to Colorado in May 1914 as a negotiator to try to end the violent conflict there.

Fairley suffered from chronic illness as he reached his 80s. He died in 1927 and is buried at the Fraternal Cemetery in North Pratt.


  • "To Run Labor Leaders Out of Colorado" (March 27, 1904) The New York Times, p. 1
  • "Mr. Fairley Talks of Miners' Strike" (August 3, 1904) The Birmingham Age-Herald, p. 5
  • Armes, Ethel M. (n.d., c. 1915) "William R. Fairley of Alabama". unpublished typescript with notations. Held in the Lester Cappon Papers, Box 1, Folder 8, at the Walter P. Reuther Library Repository at the Wayne State University Archives, Detroit, Michigan (link)
  • Suffern, Arthur E. (1915) "The Struggle in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky" in Conciliation and Arbitration in the Coal Industry of America. Hart, Schaffner & Marx essays. Houghton Mifflin Co., pp. 56–59
  • "W. R. Fairley Died After Lingering Illness" (December 15, 1927) Coal Mining Review, Vol. 16, No. 11, p. 9

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