United Mine Workers of America
|This article is part of the Global Coal Mine Tracker, a project of Global Energy Monitor.|
The United Mine Workers of America (UMW or UMWA) is an American labor union that represents coal miners in the United States and Canada. Today, the union represents 20,000 coal miners, and an additional 15,000 health care workers, truck drivers, manufacturing workers and public employees, chiefly in Kentucky and West Virginia. It remains responsible for pensions and medical benefits for 40,000 retired miners, and for 50,000 spouses and dependents.
The United Mine Workers (UMW) was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890, and initiated major strikes in 1897 and 1902. The union grew rapidly reaching 300,000 members in 1905. It organized on an industrial basis, encompassing all workers associated with the mines, and not just miners. For much of the early twentieth century, it was the largest union within the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
The early years of the UMW were known political radicalism, with socialist colliers who had emigrated from the Britian, bringing traditions of political activism and artisanal independence. These immigrants came to occupy many positions of leadership at the local and district levels of the union. In 1894, delegates of the UMW annual convention endorsed calls for governmental control of mines, railroads, telegraph systems, and other means of production. After 1900, Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party attracted a significant minority of UMW members, notably in Illinois. During the First World War, the government refused to cancel a wartime wage freeze and the UMW passed resolutions demanding “nationalization and democratic control of the mines” and the formation of a national labor party.
John L. Lewis Era
The radicalism subsided with the ascendancy of John L. Lewis to the union presidency in 1920. He had fought the older generation of socialists in his home state of Illinois and he was no friend of the younger native-born militants. Over the next dozen years, Lewis used his considerable abilities to embrace a new form of business unionism that worked with pro-business politicians and coal industry operators to ensure stable productivity.
After the 1920s, Lewis built a union machine, but he could not prevent the precipitous decline in membership. By 1932 fewer than 100,000 miners were paying dues, a reduction of than more 400,000 from 1919. The UMW experienced a small turnaround during the Great Depression of the 1930s and into the early postwar years. After the passage of the National Recovery Act in 1933, organizers increased membership. Under the powerful leadership of John L. Lewis, the UMW broke with the American Federation of Labor and set up its own federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The UMW grew to 800,000 members and was an element in the New Deal Coalition supporting Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While Lewis broke with Roosevelt in 1940 and left the CIO, the UMW continued to be a major, if isolated force, until Lewis's retirement in 1960.
Crisis and Reform
In the 1960s the UMW sank into a period of corruption and crisis. Tony Boyle, the handpicked successor to Lewis, became the union president in 1969 and ordered the murder of his political rival, Jock Yablonski, a rank-and-file miner, along with Yablonski's wife and daughter. A reformist organization inside the union, the Miners for Democracy (MFD), rose in response. MFD allied with groups such as the Black Lung Association and won the union presidency in 1972. Their candidate, Arnold Miller, led several changes to restore democratic rights to the members in the 1970s.
After Miller's resignation in 1979, Sam Church, a Boyle loyalist was elevated to the presidency, but he was soon defeated by Richard Trumka, a young lawyer with few years of mining experience. However, Trumka harnassed some of Lewis’s old charisma, and he soon took up the problem of the general stagnation of the American labor movement. He was a key player in the creation of the New Voice slate which won control of the AFL-CIO in 1995 and began a campaign to revitalize the national labor movement. Although the union's main focus has always been on workers, the UMW today also advocates for better roads, schools, and universal health care.
- "Who We Are, Where We Work | United Mine Workers of America". UMWA.org, accessed June 2020.
- Kris Maher, "Mine Workers Union Shrinks but Boss Fights On," Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2014 p B1
Articles and Resources
Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Laslett, John. Labor and the Left. New York: Basic Books, 1970.
Singer, Alan. “Which Side Are You On? Ideological Conflict in the United Mine Workers of America, 1919–1928.” Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 1982.
Zieger, Robert H. John L. Lewis, Labor Leader. Boston: Twayne, 1988.