united mine workers


What Cheer, Iowa
Population: 646

“Robert Forsyth, born in Kilmarnock, Scotland, came to America in 1857, and made his way to Rock Island, Illinois, where he arrived penniless. He worked for most of a decade as a coal miner before coming to Petersburg, the future What Cheer. In the 1870s, he began buying coal lands around town, mostly on credit. When the railroad came to town, he leased his land to the coal companies and bought into a local drug store, eventually operating stores in What Cheer, Mystic and Jerome, Iowa. Other Scots from the Kilmarnock region (Ayrshire) also settled in the area. Robert Orr came in 1875 after working in the coal mines of Colchester, Illinois. His son Alexander went on a successful career as a mine owner in Mystic.

The Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railway (BCR&N) built a 66-mile (106 km) branch to What Cheer in 1879. With the arrival of the railroad, the What Cheer coalfield quickly became one of the most important coal mining centers in Iowa. The Starr Coal Company had over 200 employees and could produce 1,000 tons of coal per day. By 1883, they were operating three mines and took over several others. When, in 1884, the Chicago and North Western Railway built its line through What Cheer to Muchakinock, there was a further expansion of mining in the area.

Local Assembly 1474 of the Knights of Labor was based in What Cheer and had a membership of 65 in 1884. On Oct. 15, 1884, 500 miners in What Cheer went on strike, demanding higher wages. The established wage was 3 cents per bushel, and the miners demanded an additional half cent. The state militia was put on alert, but after 6 weeks, the miners accepted a quarter-cent raise. This strike cut coal production in the What Cheer significantly.

In 1886, the What Cheer Coal Company began to consolidate the local mines, buying up the Starr Coal Company and the Granger Coal Company. In 1887, they employed 1,100 miners, and they continued to operate until 1899. From 1885 to 1901, the Crescent Coal Company was an important local producer.

In 1891, the BCR&N Railroad’s Iowa City Division, serving What Cheer, carried 38,080 tons of coal, by far the most important commodity carried by that line. In 1892, mines along the BCR&N (all of which were in the What Cheer region) loaded 129,316 tons of coal.

On May 1, 1891, the miners of What Cheer and many other mining towns went on strike for the eight-hour day. 1000 men walked off the job in What Cheer, but returned to work defeated on June 16. On August 15, 1896, the miners struck again over several small grievances. The strike lasted 10 to 12 weeks. Local 841 of the United Mine Workers union was organized in What Cheer in 1897, and in 1902, it had 200 members.

The first industrial development in What Cheer was driven by the needs of the coal mines. In 1890, What Cheer was home to three firms making mining drills, Walker & Thompson, Enterprise Manufacturing and the newly formed What Cheer Drill Company. Within the decade, the What Cheer Drill and Miners’ Tool Company was selling equipment in mining districts around the nation. Alexander Walker, originally with Walker & Thompson filed numerous patents on mining equipment, most of which were assigned to the What Cheer Drill and Miners’ Tool Company, later named the What Cheer Tool Company. In 1903, the Starr Manufacturing Company, American Mining Tool Company and the What Cheer Tool Company agreed to a union wage scale with the International Brotherhood of Blacksmiths. At the time, the blacksmiths local 259 had just 17 members.

In 1907, the Volunteer Brick and Tile company was operating its own coal mine to fuel its kilns. The mine had a steam hoist to lift coal 40 feet from a coal seam from 4 to 5 feet thick. The Lea Brothers’ mine in north-central What Cheer also had a steam hoist and still shipped some coal by rail. The remaining mines in the area were all small, using horse-gins to operate their hoists.

By 1909, there were only a few mines left in the county, all producing coal for local consumption in What Cheer. The decline of What Cheer’s mines in the 20th century was reflected in declining union membership. In 1912, Local 841 of the United Mine Workers, based in What Cheer, had only 18 members.”


Coalville, Iowa
Population: 610

“Coalville takes its name from the coal mines of the area. It began as one of the northernmost coal mining towns in Iowa. Early settlers were mining coal from outcrops along the Des Moines River by 1860, and in 1870, a mine was opened on Holiday Creek, about a mile east of Coalville, with a 3-mile tramway to the Dubuque and Sioux City Railroad (later the Illinois Central). Later in 1870, a shaft was sunk at Coalville. The Fort Dodge Coal company took over these mines and opened several more in the Coalville area. By 1880, manual labor was being augmented with machinery in these mines. In 1883, the Fort Dodge Coal company employed 350 miners to produce 30 carloads of coal daily.The Pleasant Valley Coal Company sank a 105-foot shaft in Coalville in 1895, employing 100 men to mine a 6-foot coal bed. This was mined out in the early 20th century. 

The Gleason Coal Company sank a shaft in 1899 that operated until 1907, producing 200,000 tons of coal over its lifetime. Gleason sunk a new shaft in 1908. United Mine Workers local 392 was organized in Coalville in 1899; by 1907, it had 133 members. Mine wages varied from $1.91 to $2.56 per day.”

No union mines left in Kentucky, where labor wars once raged
Retired union leaders worry the history of deadly gun battles will be forgotten and conditions will deteriorate.
By Dylan Lovan, Associated Press

HARLAN, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky coal miners bled and died to unionize.

Their workplaces became war zones, and gun battles once punctuated union protests. In past decades, organizers have been beaten, stabbed and shot while seeking better pay and safer conditions deep underground.

But more recently the United Mine Workers in Kentucky have been in retreat, dwindling like the black seams of coal in the Appalachian mountains.

And now the last union mine in Kentucky has been shut down.

“A lot of people right now who don’t know what the (union) stands for is getting good wages and benefits because of the sacrifice that we made,” said Kenny Johnson, a retired union miner who was arrested during the Brookside strike in Harlan County in the 1970s. “Because when we went on those long strikes, it wasn’t because we wanted to be out of work.”

Hard-fought gains are taken for granted by younger workers who earn high wages now, leading the coal industry to argue that the union ultimately rendered itself obsolete. But union leaders and retirees counter that anti-union operators, tightening environmental regulations and a turbulent coal market hastened the union’s demise in Kentucky.

The union era’s death knell sounded in Kentucky on New Year’s Eve, when Patriot Coal announced the closing of its Highland Mine. The underground mine in western Kentucky employed about 400 hourly workers represented by the United Mine Workers of America.

For the first time in about a century, in the state that was home to the gun battles of “Bloody Harlan,” not a single working miner belongs to a union. That has left a bad taste in the mouths of retirees: men like Charles Dixon, who heard the sputter of machine gun fire and bullets piercing his trailer in Pike County during a long strike with the A.T. Massey Coal Company in 1984 and 1985.

“I had my house shot up during that strike,” said Dixon, the United Mine Workers local president at the time. “I was just laying in bed and next thing you know you hear a big AR-15 unloading on it. Coal miners had it tough buddy, they sure have.”

Ruins of the Ludlow Colony in the aftermath of the massacre.

The Ludlow Massacre was an attack by the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company camp guards on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow Colorado, on April 20, 1914. Some two dozen people, including miners’ wives and children, were killed. The chief owner of the mine, John D. Rockefeller Jr, was widely criticized for the incident.

The massacre, the culmination of a bloody widespread strike against Colorado coal mines, resulted in the violent deaths of between 19 and 26 people; reported death tolls vary but include two women and eleven children, asphyxiated and burned to death under a single tent. The deaths occurred after a daylong fight between militia and camp guards against striking workers. Ludlow was the deadliest single incident in the southern Colorado Coal Strike, which lasted from September 1913 through December 1914. The strike was organized by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) against coal mining companies in Colorado. 

In retaliation for Ludlow, the miners armed themselves and attacked dozens of mines over the next ten days, destroying property and engaging in several skirmishes with the Colorado National Guard along a 40-mile front from Trinidad to Walsenburg. The entire strike would cost between 69 and 199 lives. Thomas G. Andrews described it as the “deadliest strike in the history of the United States”.

Labor Unions & Organizations

Sons & Daughters of Liberty (1764): organized in Boston in response to the Stamp Act (1765), which they successfully stopped through mobs/shows of force and printed information.
Knights of Labor (1869-1885): admitted anyone who worked for a living; wanted an 8-hour work day and opposed child labor; its membership significantly decreased after the Haymarket Square Riot.
American Federation of Labor AFL (1886): led by Samuel Gompers, this union grew as KoL declined; admitted only skilled workers; merged with the CIO in 1955.
United Mine Workers of America (1890): its goals were collective bargaining power, freedom from the company store, and better working conditions.
Industrial Workers of the World IWW (1905): strove to unite all laborers, including unskilled workers and African Americans; its goal was to create “One Big Union;” embraced the rhetoric of class conflict and endorsed violent tactics; the organization collapsed during WWI.
Congress of Industrial Organizations CIO (1932): founded by John Lewis and members of the AFL, this union was somewhat radical and included black workers.
American Railway Union (1933): founded by Eugene V. Debs, this union was prosecuted for obstructing mail delivery and organizing to restrict trade, which was illegal under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, for the Pullman Strikes of 1894, and Cleveland sent troops to stop the strike.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference SCLC (1957): civil rights group of both black and white Christians, including MLK, who organized nonviolent, orderly protests.
Students for a Democratic Society SDS (1960): founded by Tom Hayden and Al Haber, this group pursued “participatory democracy,” the rights and participation of individuals instead of institutions; founded the New Left; protested the Vietnam War. 
National Organization for Women NOW (1966): with one of the founders as Betty Friedan, this feminist group pursued equal rights for women in the work place, state support for child care, and legalization of abortion; partially responsible for Title IX.
United Farm Workers UFW (1962): led by Cesar Chavez, this union that consisted primarily of Catholic, migrant, Hispanic, farm laborers; successful in improving wages & treatment through nonviolent strikes and organizing consumer boycotts of grapes.
Community Service Organization (1940s-1960s): California group that worked to educate and organize poor migrant workers, but did not believe that a union was possible.


Lucas, Iowa
Population: 216

John Llewellyn Lewis (February 12, 1880 – June 11, 1969) was an American leader of organized labor who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960. A major player in the history of coal mining, he was the driving force behind the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which established the United Steel Workers of America and helped organize millions of other industrial workers in the 1930s.

A leading liberal, he played a major role in helping Franklin D. Roosevelt win a landslide in 1936, but as an isolationist broke with Roosevelt in 1940 on FDR’s anti-Nazi foreign policy. Lewis was a brutally effective and aggressive fighter and strike leader who gained high wages for his membership while steamrolling over his opponents, including the United States government. Lewis was one of the most controversial and innovative leaders in the history of labor, gaining credit for building the industrial unions of the CIO into a political and economic powerhouse to rival the AFL, yet was widely hated by calling for nationwide coal strikes which critics believed damaging to the American economy and war effort. His massive leonine head, forest-like eyebrows, firmly set jaw, powerful voice and ever-present scowl thrilled his supporters, angered his enemies, and delighted cartoonists. Coal miners for 40 years hailed him as their leader, whom they credited with bringing high wages, pensions and medical benefits.”