Getting on the Right Side of Labor
What the Coal Strike of 1902 can tell us about helping American workers.
The dispute between rail workers and their employers has encouraged the return to an older form of conservative politics among some Senate Republicans. A group of them voted last week with their progressive Democratic colleagues against the recent bill forcing the Biden administration’s settlement on the rail companies and unions because they believed it did not go far enough in supporting workers. The party that used to praise Ronald Reagan for his tough union stance has now become slightly more reluctant to side with employers by default.
Following the vote, Senator Josh Hawley tweeted “If DC Republicans want to be a working class party, they might want to do something for workers”. In an unlikely partnership, Senators Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders voted together for the amendment to increase paid sick leave to seven days for rail workers and fist bumped afterwards. Senator Sanders jokingly said to Senator Cruz “I knew you were a socialist”. The politics around economics and class is changing dramatically in front of us.
In an article for The American Conservative, Senator Marco Rubio explained his reasoning for voting for amendments increasing paid sick leave and extending the negotiations:
“Our economy had become too focused on efficiency—send this job to China, make that product overseas, cut this workforce by one-third. We didn’t see what that efficiency had cost us, from having access to medical supplies during a pandemic to retaining critical manufacturing capacities to providing dignified work to Americans.”
Bipartisan majorities, concerned about the impact of disruption, prevailed to prevent a rail shutdown this holiday season, but it should make conservatives think more deeply about how to handle labor relations and help workers going forward. It was, after all, a Republican who first made the federal government a powerful mediator in relations between employers and workers. This is the legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt’s personal intervention in the 1902 coal strike.
At the turn of the century, amidst grueling and dangerous working conditions, unionized miners faced low wages, long hours, and stiff competition from European immigrant workers. When operators refused to negotiate better pay and conditions, the miners in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal fields voted to go on strike in May 1902 and appealed to the federal government to resolve the situation. John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers, called for peaceful demonstrations but violent outbursts took place between strikers and strikebreakers as well as with local police and the Pennsylvania National Guard. The miners demanded better pay, shorter hours, and recognition of their union.
Rising fuel costs and fears of shortages ahead of the winter months meant Roosevelt saw this as a direct concern for the federal government. Factories, public schools, and the Post Office were at risk of closure. Families faced the possibility of being unable to heat their homes. It was also a midterm election year, provoking Republican fears of the impact from a prolonged coal strike. Roosevelt stressed the need to promote the common good of all Americans, but the miners were clearly at a disadvantage in their struggle with the operators.
Roosevelt began by asking his Commissioner of Labor Carrol D. Wright to gather evidence and reach out to both sides behind the scenes. To prevent “the certainty of riots which might develop into social war”, Roosevelt proceeded to host a conference at 22 Lafayette Place, Wasgington, D.C. on October 3, 1902. During the meeting, Roosevelt declared “I speak for neither the operators nor the miners but for the general public”. This was a significant departure from his presidential predecessors who had usually sided with employers during strikes and used the power of the federal government to back them up. Less than a decade before, President Grover Cleveland had ordered the U.S. Army to break the Pullman Strike in 1894.
At the famous October 3 conference, both sides walked away without reaching an agreement. Roosevelt, in turn, proposed an Anthracite Coal Commission to investigate the causes of the strike and find a settlement, and let it be known that he was prepared to nationalize the mines if the strike continued. Later that month, Secretary of War Elihu Root and financier J.P. Morgan, who owned one of the largest operators, met on his yacht and formalized an agreement to establish an independent commission with representatives from both management and labor.
On October 23, the strike was over, and the commission’s proposals were accepted the following year by both sides resulting in a 10 percent pay rise and nine-hour workday for the miners. It fell short of meeting all the miners’ demands, including recognition of the union, but it transformed American labor relations. The federal government had gained an influential role as mediator that continues to this day, helping to usher in the progressive era and Roosevelt’s ‘Square Deal’.
Looking at the Biden administration’s rail settlement, it certainly succeeds in avoiding winter disruption with some concessions for workers, but the failure to deliver paid sick leave is a serious misstep. Blame lies both with both Democratic and Republican leaderships. Where some led the way last week by voting for the amendment, may others follow in the future. For now, Republican legislators can emulate the boldness of Roosevelt and do something for workers by making the case for federal paid sick leave.
States have gradually introduced their own legislation in recent years, but as many as 33 million workers still do not have access to paid sick leave. It is lower wage workers who are most heavily affected and paid sick leave would help mitigate the ‘deaths of despair’ that have claimed 70,000 lives every year from 2005 to 2019. Republicans can outflank their Democratic opponents and restore dignified work by campaigning for federal legislation. Sustained leadership on this issue requires nothing less than Rooseveltian decisiveness and action.
This article is part of the American System series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.
David A. Cowan is a Ph.D. Candidate in history at the University of Cambridge and a former staffer and researcher in the UK Parliament. He has been previously published at American Affairs, Engelsberg Ideas, and National Review.