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Theodore Roosevelt



Theodore Roosevelt : Political Cartoons : Coal Strike

On October 3, 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt met with miners and coal field operators in an attempt to settle the anthracite coal strike, then in its fifth month. The country relied on coal to power commerce and industry and anthracite or "hard coal" was essential for domestic heating. Pennsylvania miners had left the anthracite fields on May 12, demanding wage increases, union recognition, and an eight-hour workday. As winter approached, public anxiety about fuel shortages and the rising cost of all coal pushed Roosevelt to take unprecedented action.

When he met with miners and coal field operators in Washington that day, Roosevelt became the first president to personally intervene in a labor dispute. Presenting himself as a representative of the millions of people affected by the strike, he urged both parties to resolve their differences and return the miners to work.

While United Mine Workers of America president John Mitchell agreed to negotiate, the coal field operators reiterated their opposition to the miners' demands generally and to the union specifically. For weeks into October, operators resisted dealing with the workers' union representatives.

Finally, in order to avert what he saw as a national catastrophe, Roosevelt threatened to send military forces to operate the Pennsylvania mines. On October 23, 1902, the miners returned to work after both sides agreed to settle the strike based on the recommendations of a commission appointed by the president.

Ultimately, the miners won a ten percent increase in pay with a concomitant reduction in the number of hours worked each day. The commission failed to recommend union recognition, however, or to address the problems of child labor and hazardous working conditions. Still, for the first time the federal government acted to settle, rather than break, a strike. President Roosevelt's efforts to end the dispute met with public approval--especially important in an election year. Urging a crowd of New Yorkers to return a Republican majority to Congress that November, Secretary of War Elihu Root declared:

When our President, in his brave and direct way, acting out of his deep feeling for the needs of his people, undertook to get coal for them against the coming winter by urging the substitution of peace for war in the anthracite region, Mr. Hill in New York and Mr. Olney in Boston condemned him, but I have an idea that the people of the country do not agree with them; and I have an idea also that his action will prove in the end to have resulted, not merely in getting the coal, but in making a valuable contribution to the peaceful and reasonable process of development I have been describing.

Although the commission denied formal recognition of the United Mine Workers in 1902, workers in the anthracite region continued to organize under the leadership of the UMW. Labor unrest returned to the region in the 1930s complicated by decreased demand for anthracite coal and discord between competing unions.

Source: Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/oct03.html