United Mine Workers of America

From Ohio History Central

In 1890, miners unions affiliated with the Knights of Labor and the National Progressive Union united together to create the United Mine Workers of America. This union represented all types of employees affiliated with the coalmine industry, and it worked in conjunction with the American Federation of Labor. Mine workers during this era faced harsh working conditions. Lack of safety mechanisms on machines endangered the workers. Pay commonly amounted to less than one dollar for a twelve to fourteen-hour workday, making it difficult for miners to pay their expenses. Mine owners also commonly paid their employees in scrip, company-printed money, rather than in actual United States currency. Scrip was only usable at company-owned stores, where prices were significantly higher. Finally, many mine workers were actually children, with mine owners commonly hiring boys as young as ten years of age to work in the mines. The United Mine Workers of America organized to improve working conditions for the miners.

The United Mine Workers experienced some quick success. Tens of thousands of Ohioans quickly joined the organization, including approximately twenty thousand African Americans. Due to the large membership in the United Mine Workers, in 1898, many mine owners agreed to the unions demand of an eight-hour workday. In 1920, the Bituminous Coal Commission, a federal government agency, awarded the mineworkers increased wages. Under the leadership of John L. Lewis during the 1920s, the United Mine Workers earned a reputation for its hard bargaining and willingness to strike. During World War I, the United Mine Workers refused to strike, but during World War II, the organization saw an opportunity to force the mine owners and the nation to improve working conditions. The United Mine Workers went on strike in 1943, but its actions did not help the miners in the long-run. The federal government took control of the mines, and many Americans viewed the mineworkers as traitors, since they went on strike during a period of national crisis. Despite this setback, Lewis did succeed in guaranteeing every mine worker over sixty-two years of age a one hundred dollar pension every month. He also helped organize the Congress of Industrial Organizations, although the United Mine Workers generally refused to acquiesce to the demands of other national unions like the CIO or the American Federation of Labor.

Following Lewis's death in 1959, the United Mine Workers entered a period of internal turmoil and in fighting. Numerous prominent members sought to gain control of the union. Several leaders were eventually convicted of making illegal contributions to political candidates, hoping to sway those candidates in favor of the unions views. In 1974, one president of the United Mine Workers, W.A. Boyle was arrested and convicted of ordering the murder of one of his union opponents, Joseph A. Yablonski.

During the 1980s and the 1990s, tensions within the United Mine Workers eased. Unfortunately for the workers, they now faced new problems in the workplace. Automation of the mines improved working conditions, but it also reduced the need for miners. Also, the growing popularity of other energy sources, especially natural gas, also reduced the need for coalminers and a desire by employers to cut their employees benefits to reduce company expenditures. Union membership declined precipitously. In 1998, 240,000 miners belonged to the United Mine Workers. Fifty years earlier, the union had 500,000 members. To enhance its voice, the United Mine Workers joined the AFL-CIO in 1989.

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