#Lookback: The 1919 Bituminous Coal Strike 

    A series where we take a #lookback at the stories and history of our community, brought to you by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

    Originally formed January 25, 1890, in Columbus, Ohio, the United Mine Workers of American (UMW) did not began organizing in Wyoming until 1903. The first mines organized in Wyoming were owned by the Union Pacific in southern part of the state, though more mines would be unionized by 1907. 

    At the beginning of World War I, the UMW agreed to set wages and hours with coal operators that would last until the end of the war. Though fighting stopped on Armistice day in November 1918, the war did not officially end until the Treaty of Versailles in late June 1919. Following the expiration of their contract with the coal operators, the UMW issued a series of wage, hiring, and hour demands to their employers. One of their key demands was to reduce their total hours from 48 hours a week to 30 hours a week. This would force the operators to double-shift their mines and hire more workers in order to maintain the same levels of production. The union also demanded a notable increase in wages based on occupation which are displayed below: 

    Mule drivers, $5.24 per day, want $8.38 per day. 

    Motor men, $5.24 per day, want $8.38 per day 

    Rope men, $5.24 per day, want $8.38 per day 

    Rockmen, $5.24 per day, want $8.38 per day 

    Shot firers, $5.32 per day, want $8.51 per day 

    Pumpmen, $5.12 per day, want $8.19 per day 

    Timbermen, $5.28 per day, want $8.45 per day 

    Tipplemen, $4.20 per day, want $6.72 per day 

    Teamsters, $4.39 per day, want $7.02 per day 

    Engineers, $5.12 per day, want $8.24 per day 

    Blacksmiths, $5.51 per day, want $8.82 per day 

    Carpenters, $6.05 per day, want $9.68 per day 

    This proposal demands a large hourly increase in wages considering that the miners would be working six hours a day instead of eight as part of their demands. However, the President of the United Mine Workers (UMW) and future President of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), John L. Lewis, argued that the mine operators were receiving 125% more profit in 1919 than they were in 1914 at the beginning of World War I, while the miners earned only a 37% growth and had to deal with a 110% increased cost of living for Americans both during and following the war. 

    The UMW threatened that if any of their demands were not accepted, they would strike on November 1. United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer invoked the Lever Act, a wartime act that made it a crime to interfere with the production or transportation of necessities. During the passage of this act, labor leaders were promised that it would not be used against unions and was solely to punish hoarding and profiteering. On October 31, the day before the threatened strike, Palmer obtained an injunction from Judge A. B. Anderson against 38 of the key labor leaders organizing the strike, claiming that the severely ill and bedridden President Woodrow Wilson authorized his actions. The following day, 400,000 of the total 600,000 bituminous coal miners went on strike, making it the largest coal strike of its time, and the twentieth largest strike in US history. In Wyoming, all 8,000 reported coal miners in the state joined the UMW on strike. The National Guard was deployed to numerous states including Wyoming though they were never stationed at the mines in Hudson, the main coal mines in Fremont County. 

    One week after the strike began, Judge Anderson ordered the UMW to rescind the strike order, calling the organizing of the strike borderline treason. John L. Lewis announced the rescission of the strike call stating that “We are Americans, we cannot fight our government,” though nearly all strikers still stayed out on strike. The UMW Executive Committee met at Indianapolis on November 11 just a few days later and held a session on whether or not to officially recall the strike as an organization. After seventeen hours of deliberation, at 4:10 in the morning, the decision to rescind the strike order was reached, though the UMW intended to appeal the case to the federal courts. 

    On the morning of November 12, the local Riverton papers believed the strike was officially over following the meeting of the UMW Executive Committee. In preparation for a long, brutal strike, the city of Riverton had appointed a fuel administrator, Henry Keating of the Investors Guarantee Corporation. Keaton was preparing to enforce strict regulations in order to reduce the amount of fuel used in households and to build up the city’s fuel reserve.

     However, the strike was far from over. The majority of miners nationwide ignored the orders from their superiors and remained on strike. In early December, President Wilson proposed an immediate increase of wages by 14% and the organization of an arbitration board to consider their other demands, but still many workers still refused to return to work. Not until mid-December did the majority of miners begin to return to work, although there were still several holdouts. Throughout the course of the strike, due to management of the use, purchasing, and storing of coal in Riverton, there were no real coal shortages. Though the workers in the Hudson mines did stay on strike until early December, the mine operators still managed to find workers to temporarily work the mines for several weeks during the strike which would be supplied to Riverton. The city’s coal usage regulations stayed in effect even after the strike had ended until they were able to build up enough coal reserves to remove any restrictions on coal usage.

    By Kevin Scannell Riverton Museum

    Next up for the Fremont County Museum

    February 8, 6pm at the Dubois Museum, “Brian DeBolt: Wolves in Wyoming” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    March 3, 4-6pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Celebrating Women’s History Month” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    March 14, 7pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Wyoming State Flag History” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    March 27, 6pm at the Dubois Museum, “Bruce Blevins: Mapping Yellowstone” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

    The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum.  The WRCCF will help deliver the long term financial support our museums need to flourish.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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