The Anthracite Coal Miners' Strike of 1902

Instructor: Jason McCollom
Learn how Teddy Roosevelt saved the day in mediating an end to the anthracite coal miners' strike of 1902. Read about the strike and the president's intervention, and check your understanding with a quiz.

The Strike

It was shaping up to be a cold winter at the start of the 20th century. By October 1902, frigid weather was blasting big cities in the north. Normally, this would be no cause for concern, because people had coal to use for heat. But in hospitals, schools, and private residences, coal bins sat empty. Over 100,000 coal miners had been on strike since the spring, and production was at a standstill. It didn't seem like the strike would end any time soon.

The anthracite coal miners' strike began in May 1902, among anthracite coal miners in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Of the various types of coal used for fuel, anthracite coal was considered the best, and people throughout the country used it. The miners, over 150,000 of them, walked off the job because of harsh working conditions, long hours and low pay. They also protested management's refusal to recognize their labor organization, the United Mine Workers (UMW).

Coal miners at work
coal miners

The mine owners responded quickly by shutting down the mine in order to starve out the strikers, many of whom were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. The spokesman for the owners, George Baer, revealed the contempt management had for the workers when he said that the miners 'don't suffer. Why, they can't even speak English.'

Though without paychecks, the miners held out through the summer and into the early fall. By then, the coal shortage was beginning to affect the nation. Coal hoarding and profiteering increased prices in some places from $6 to $14 a ton. There were riots in the big cities, as people began to fear a freezing winter with no coal to heat their homes. Religious leader Walter Rauschenbusch worried that 'the country was on the verge of a vast public calamity.'

The Role of Teddy Roosevelt

Fear not, President Roosevelt is here! Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, a bespectacled and barrel-chested trustbuster and big-game hunter, saw the coal strike as a matter for government arbitration. The coal shortage was affecting the public, and Roosevelt thought he needed to step in and force labor and management to reach a deal.

The president called on Baer and the mine owners to meet in Washington, D.C., with UMW representatives. He urged them to appeal to their 'patriotism, to the spirit that sinks personal considerations and makes individual sacrifices for the public good.' This appeal did little good, because Baer and the management would not even speak to the union men. In a rage, Roosevelt railed against Baer's 'wooden-headed obstinacy and stupidity' and, in a moment of presidential dignity, threatened to grab him 'by the seat of his breeches' and 'chuck him out' a window.

Chuckling Teddy Roosevelt

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