Pioneer Labor Leader John Mitchell

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John Mitchell (1870 – 1919), pioneering leader of the United Mine Workers, was born on February 4, 1870 in the Braidwood Illinois hospital. His parents, who were Irish immigrants, died when he was six years old and he had to go to work in local coal mines at that age in order to support himself and his family. In 1885, when he was nineteen years old, he joined the Knights of Labor; and he became a founder of the United Mine Workers union five years later. He was elected secretary-treasurer of the 12th District in 1895. Two years later he became an international labor union organizer and was elected international vice president, and there he met and worked with Mary “Mother” Jones.

The United Mine Workers was founded in 1890 when a local Knights of Labor trade assembly merged with the National Union of Miners. One of John Mitchell’s greatest challenges was incorporating workers of different ethnicities into the union, since there were many language barriers and cultural prejudices which had to be overcome. His great success in doing this enabled him to become union vice president in 1897. He became acting president of the United Mine Workers of America in 1898, and he won election to the post outright the next year. He remained president of the United Mine Workers for a decade. In 1900 he helped to found of the National Civic Federation; and from 1898 to 1914 he served as vice president of the American Federation of Labor.

Mitchell’s leadership of the United Mine Workers saw a tenfold increase (from 30 to 300 thousand members, including not only coal miners but also clean coal technicians, Braidwood healthcare workers, truck drivers and public workers) during his ten-year term of office. At this time labor organizing was fraught with danger. Just prior to John Mitchell’s presidency, nineteen miners were killed by police at the Lattimer Massacre. Together with American Federation of Labor leaders Samuel Gompers and Frank Morrison, John Mitchell was sentenced to prison for violation of a court injunction during the Buck Stove and Range Company strike in St. Louis, MO. The United States Supreme Court later overturned this decision, finding that the appellate court had been in error when it permitted the company – rather than the district court – to bring the contempt complaint.

Mitchell had to confront violence on all sides, including the 1902 anthracite strike in which Theodore Roosevelt had to intervene to settle. This settlement included minimum wage and eight hour workday provisions. A statue of John Mitchell which commemorates his success in this negotiation was erected on the site of the settlement – the Lackawanna County Pennsylvania Courthouse. John Mitchell eventually left the United Mine Workers over a dispute with his successor, but he continued his work with the National Civic Federation until his death in Braidwood hospital in 1919.

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