JOHN MITCHELL: THE LABOR LEADER AND THE MAN

BY FRANK JULIAN WARNE

SEATED in a large willow-rocker near the window in strike headquarters in Wilkesbarre was a full-faced, clean-shaven man, with deep-set, luminous eyes, a firm mouth and a high forehead, with the brown,—almost black,—hair brushed carelessly back on the right side, as if by the fingers. A frock coat, high collar, and a black tie large enough to almost hide the white of the shirt gave to the figure the appearance of a priest. At the moment,—it was on a Sunday morning,—each feature of the face expressed serious thought, if not worry, with now and then a flash very near to melancholy. In his hands was a colored cardboard, characteristic of the illustrated Sunday newspaper supplement. As he turned the cardboard around slowly, he traced with a pair of scissors its black-dotted lines, only stopping long enough now and then to bite off the end of a half-smoked, half-chewed cigar. Scattered over the floor, as if discarded in impatience, piled under the small table and stacked in one corner of the room, covering the bureau and protruding from its drawers, were newspapers by the score. Clippings lay on the table among government reports, volumes treating of various phases of the coal industry, hurriedly assorted mail, and here and there a novel whose title recalled treatments of certain labor problems. The scissors were laid aside, the pieces cut from the cardboard were fastened together by bending their corners, and the whole was set upon the mantelpiece. It represented Abraham Lincoln standing on a platform, with one hand holding outstretched a scroll and with the other raised in command. Beneath, looking up to the figure, with great joy depicted on their faces, were two negroes half-rising from the ground, and with the shackles falling from their hands and feet. Under a pictorial representation of marching troops were the words ``A Race Set Free and the Country at Peace."

The man who had engaged in a task usually associated with the pastimes of a child was John Mitchell; president of the United Mine Workers of America.

"Capital and labor will both be sorely wounded before they work out their proper relations," he said, as he resumed his seat near the window. "I am not a Socialist, and do not believe in Socialism. I do not believe it would be best for the State to own and operate her coal mines. I am a strict trade-unionist. I believe in progress slowly,—by evolution rather than by revolution. I believe a better day is in store for the American workingman, but it has to come through no radical change in the organization of human society. It must come one step at a time, and through a slow upward movement, by his own efforts. One thing at a time, and not all things at once, is the way a better state will be ushered in. I know there are those in the United Mine Workers of America who believe in an early realization of a new social state, where all men are to be economically equal. But such members are in the minority. The principle that governs our organization is that of trade-unionism, pure and simple,—of labor's joint bargaining with capital for a fair share of that which labor helps to produce. We believe in securing this by peaceable means,—through arbitration if possible,—and, if not in this way, then by the only remaining way left to us."

It was suggested that many of labor's most intricate and harassing problems might be solved if there were an intelligent supervision and direction of the great stream of immigration yearly coming to the United States. "Instead of waiting until this stream chokes up the mining industry with an over-supply of labor, why do not the United Mine Workers aim to control it when it first reaches this country, directing it into the sources of demand intelligently and rationally? " he was asked.

"This stream of immigration," he replied, "must flow somewhere. If it is not into the mining industry, then into some other industry where its temporary evil results will be just as evident. I doubt if there could be any such control. The labor problem is a national one,— not local,—and we must have consideration for the American workingman in other industries as well as in mining. No matter in what direction this immigration is turned in this country, the same problem is presented—a tendency to lowering of wages. I believe the only way to solve this is to organize labor so that this tendency will be checked,—to have the American workingman enforce a living standard of wages for less than which no laborer should work."

As to the personal side of his life,—the influences that have made marked impressionsforming his character and ideas,—President Mitchell is reticent. He does not recall that any books in particular have given a direction to his thoughts, although he remembers having been much impressed by Spencer's "Social Statics" and Bellamy's "Looking Backward." He has been a voracious reader from youth up.

No one acquainted with the labor leader—"labor agitator," as he was commonly called,— of a decade or more ago who has had a close insight into the methods of the man at the head of the United Mine Workers, can doubt that John Mitchell is a new type of labor leader. He is not a demagogue; a haranguer; a typical agitator. His public speeches and statements show this. They do not overflow with flowery metaphors appealing to the passions and prejudices of his followers; but, for the most part, they are business-like presentations of conditions as he sees them, appealing to the reason. At no time in the history of the labor movement in this country have such remarkable manifestos been issued by any leader as have been his replies to the operators and his presentations to the public of the miners' side of the controversy during the progress of the strike just closed. His point of view—his regarding labor as a commodity—and his lucid power of explanation, as evidenced in his statements and public addresses, show that a labor leader of a new school of thought and action has come to the front. He is, first of all, a business man in the labor movement; he leads organized labor as our "captain of industry" manages a great commercial or industrial combination. He treats labor as a commodity. That particular amount which the United Mine Workers controls is for sale; his organization wants the highest price it can get for it; he realizes, at the same time, that the purchasers —the railroad-mining companies— like all consumers, want to get this labor at as low a price as possible. These two opposite points of view, he believes, can be reconciled by the two parties most interested "bargaining" as to the price of labor. This is done between capital and labor in ten of the soft-coal producing States in joint annual conferences.

In Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and in parts of the western and central Pennsylvania soft coal fields the representatives of the mine employees and of the operators meet annually to determine, for a period of twelve months, upon the wages and conditions of employment which shall prevail in the industry. In these States there are a total of 185,000 mine workers, producing annually 125,000,000 tons of coal. Prior to the introduction of the principle of "joint bargaining" between the employees and the employers through the efforts of the United Mine Workers of America strikes and lockouts were frequent occurrence in these States, but the adoption of the joint conference plan has had the effect of reducing labor disturbances in those particular fields to a minimum. In the States mentioned practically all the mine employees work under agreements entered into by representatives of both the operators and the union. These contracts cannot be enforced by law: the only power back of them to compel the mine workers to live up to them is the word of the United Mine Workers officials.

When the national convention of mine workers met in Indianapolis, on July 16, "for the purpose of considering a proposition for a general suspension of work by the coal miners of the United States in support of the anthracite mine workers," then on strike, President Mitchell, in advising the men in the bituminous coal fields not to violate their contracts by a sympathetic strike, said: "It has been the proud boast of the United Mine Workers of America that during the past several years, or since the organization became a power in the labor world, contracts based solely upon the honor and good faith of our union have, under the most trying circumstances, been kept inviolate." He expressed his belief that "contracts mutually made should, during their life, be kept inviolate," and that "a disregard of contracts strikes at the very vitals of organized labor." Senator Hanna, as a representative of the soft coal operators of Ohio, where such agreements exist, testifies to their efficiency in preserving amicable relations between the employees and the employers.

Such a plan President Mitchell is striving to secure for the hard coal industry. To it the operators objected. Then he suggested arbitration: "Let a disinterested third party determine what shall be the price of mine labor," he said. To this also the operators objected. Then the only course remaining, he believed, was for labor to refuse the price the intending purchasers offered until they came nearer the price asked by the representatives of this labor. The waiting period is called "a strike."

This is why 147,000 men and boys in the three hard coal fields, more than five months ago, laid down their tools for an indefinite period. They knew from experience that such action meant suffering and want to them and those dependent upon them. Business throughout the three hard coal fields was brought to a standstill. Marriages were postponed; family relations severed; nearly every tie binding together in a social bond hundreds of thousands of people was affected. Great railroad systems, which for years have been burning anthracite in some of their locomotives, were compelled to adopt substitutes, and there being no hard coal to transport to market, much of their revenues were stopped. The supply of fuel for millions of people and thousands of industries, not directly parties to the controversy, was suddenly cut off. There was hardly a person in all the great industrial centers of the East who was not affected, directly or indirectly, by the strike.

What great power! What incalculable consequences might have flowed out of its use! The source of this power was in the Mine Workers convention, which declared for the strike. But while the struggle was in progress it was all delegated into the hands of one man. It was recalled when the convention met again to declare the strike at an end; but, in the meantime, it was exercised by one man,—the son of a farmer and coal miner,—a man who, twenty years ago, when but thirteen years of age, was working in the coal mines of Illinois.

Deprived of his mother within two, and of his lather within four, years after his birth,—on February 4, 1869,—John Mitchell was early in life left in the care of his stepmother. His schooling was meager, and was secured only at intervals when there was no demand for his labor on the farm. Thrown upon his own resources when but thirteen years of age, he entered the mines at his birthplace in Braidwood, Ill. Three years later, while employed in the mines at Braceville, Ill., he was brought under the influence of the labor movement at that time directed by the Knights of Labor. It made him restless, and, with the indomitable will of his Irish parentage, he set out determined to see something of the world. He visited Colorado, New Mexico, and other Western and Southwestern States, working in the mines to support himself. Drifting back to the Illinois coal fields in 1886, he became a mine worker at Spring Valley, and took an active part in the trade-union movement there as President of the Knights of Labor "Local." When twenty-two years of age he married Miss Katherine O'Rourke, of Spring Valley; five children have been born to them, of whom four are living. At one time he served as president of the Spring Valley Board of Education.

Thirsting for knowledge he read everything that came within his reach; joined debating societies, athletic associations, independent political reform clubs and various social organizations, in which many opportunities came to him to exercise his mental faculties and to cultivate the art of speech-making. A ready talker with great personal magnetism, he quickly formed friends, and was rapidly promoted to positions of honor and trust.

When the United Mine Workers of America was organized in January, 1890, he was among the first to be enrolled as a member in his district. He was a delegate to the sub-district and district conventions; secretary-treasurer of the northern Illinois sub-district, at that time embracing all of the State then organized; and, in 1896, chairman of the Illinois Mine Workers' legislative committee, with headquarters at the state capital to work for labor legislation. He served later as a member of the Illinois state executive board and as a national organizer.

In January, 1898, at the Columbus convention, Mr. Mitchell was elected national vice president, and in September of the same year the executive board made him acting president to succeed Mr. M. D. Ratchford, who resigned to become a member of the United States Industrial Commission. The national convention at Pittsburg, in January, 1899, confirmed this choice and elected him for the following year. He has been reelected each year since then. He is second vice-president of the American Federation of Labor, and a member of various committees of the National Civic Federation.

Trained in simplicity of living, he remains democratic in all his habits. Except when pressed with business matters, he is approachable by any one wishing to see or meet him. Usually, he makes his headquarters in hotels where the men he leads will not feel out of place when they call to consult him. He leads, and yet the men who follow him believe that he is but their servant carrying out their expressed wishes. This is the explanation of much of his power over the mine workers, particularly in strike times. Its exercise has had the effect of making him conservative in action. With his frugal habits and comparatively small salary, there is no place for "high living" or excesses that undermine mental vigor. In any industrial or commercial pursuit his marked ability for organizing and leading men would command many times his present yearly salary of $1,800.

The head of the United Mine Workers has an active brain, trained by hard and continuous work, capable of brushing aside subterfuges and at once grasping the essential points of a difficulty. He impresses one as having an almost inexhaustible supply of stored-up energy, bodily and mental. He is indefatigable; so hard does he work that his friends have more than once felt solicitous for his health. This working of his restless energy is probably best shown in what has been accomplished by the organization since he was first placed at its head, just four years ago. In September, 1898, the union had but 43,000 members; in January of this year it numbered nearly 300,000 in the 2,000 locals scattered throughout 21 of the 28 coal producing States. He has extended the eight-hour workday into the mines of Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Kentucky, and parts of Tennessee, and has secured for the mine employees of those States an increase in wages ranging from 13 to 25 per cent. An increase of 21 per cent. in the wages of other mine workers in different States has been secured through joint conventions with the operators; and an increase of 10 per cent. in wages, with the abolition of certain grievances, was, in 1900. forced from the anthracite railroad mining companies in the three hard coal districts of Pennsylvania.

Great as all these are in accomplishment, they are overshadowed by President Mitchell's recent victory, now fresh in the public mind. After five months of bitter warfare, he has fought to a successful termination the greatest conflict between capital and labor ever waged in the history of the world. He has advanced the cause of labor by leaps and bounds: he has ushered in the period when peace through arbitration promises to reign supreme over our industrial world in place of war through strikes and lock-outs. It is too early yet to realize the tremendous importance of this one accomplishment. This much seems clear, however,—by it a new era has been entered upon. Not the least of its effects will be the widening of the scope of the office of the President of the United States.

When John Mitchell, as the representative of this principle of arbitration—of this new era— stood face to face with the presidents of the coal-carrying railroads and mining companies in the presence of the Chief Magistrate of the nation, the American people had presented to them, for the first time, a full view of the new type of man who is marshaling labor's hosts and directing its battles. It was there he won his greatest fight; with the representatives of eight great corporations as his antagonists, and with millions of people as anxious, eager spectators. Under circumstances that might have tried bitterly the strength of any champion, this mild unassuming son of the plain people, demonstrated anew the teaching that it is to him only who has conquered himself is it given to conquer and lead men. When, unmoved by the attacks of his adversaries, he calmly offered to submit to commission appointed by the President all the questions in dispute, and to abide by the decision of that tribunal, even if the mine workers were not granted a single concession, he won over the public. It took sides. It forced arbitration as the means of settlement. And in doing so it has proclaimed, in no uncertain tones, its confidence in such a man.

John Mitchell's present aim is to organize thoroughly all the 455,000 mine employees in the United States into the United Mine Workers of America. That he will accomplish this purpose, unless sooner called to higher honors and wider fields of usefulness, no one who knows the man and his work entertains the least doubt.