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were necessary to meet demand, most of them enticed into production by the boom times at the turn of the century; the resulting overproduction meant that few mines worked all the time. Finally, just prior to the spring expiration of the biennial wage pacts between the miners and the coal operators, major coal consumers stockpiled coal in anticipation of protracted contract disputes. Accordingly, demand for coal slumped badly after the signing of each new contract as large customers drew upon these fuel reserves to meet their needs.
Stockpiling, then, along with ordinary seasonal reductions in demand, occasional strikes, and shorter layoffs scattered throughout the rest of the year, kept most miners idle for four out of every ten working days. In the year ending June 10, 1913, Sangamon County mines worked an average of only 181 days out of a possible 300 working days.
The exception to this rule were the "captive" mines owned by larger corporations (usually railroads or power companies) which consumed the bulk of their output. One local miner ruefully called such captive mines "some of the best in the state, because they worked continually all the year around. (The miners') pockets would jingle practically all the time, unless there was a strike in progress or something and they had to quit working for a couple of months. They suffered more than we did, because we were used to it. We never made any money when we was striking and we never made any when we wasn't."
The economic effects of irregular work on the miners and their families were devastating. The Sage Foundation survey team reported:
Miner after miner told the same story of idle days and uncertain work. A few instances will illustrate. An "entry" man who could make $15 to $20 a week counted on work only half the time. A German miner who could make up to $8 a day usually received only $24 to $30 for two weeks' work. The wife of a Lithuanian complained that her husband's work was always irregular—only one or two days of work a week. If he could have only three full days of work at $5 a day regularly, she would be perfectly content. An experienced miner forty-four years of age could make $7 a day. Even with three days of work a week his wife declared she could save. She was seen on May 29, and he had had no work since April 1 and there was no prospect of any until September . . . .
A Sangamon County miner in 1914 was paid from 57 cents to $1.27 a ton for coal, depending on the nature of the seam being worked. At these rates a miner working steadily could bring in $5 a day, and in some cases as much as $7 or $8; his potential yearly income thus would amount to $2000. In fact, many of Sangamon County's 3500 miners, their potential incomes slashed by more than a third by forced idleness, earned less than $600 a year. "I put in twenty-seven years in the underground coal mines," one miner recalls, "(and) I was never out of debt in those years."
Half-empty bellies and emptier pockets forced many miners to seek work elsewhere when the mines were shut down. Some of the men picked up odd jobs as hod carriers, wagon drivers, ditch diggers, or farm hands wherever they could get on. A few possessed a second skill with which they could earn a living, but these men were forced to pay initiation fees and dues to a second union for the privilege of practicing that skill. Most miners found no extra work at all. They had to buy their groceries on credit and let rent and other bills pile up and hope that the pits would reopen before their creditors' patience ran out. Art Gramlich, another veteran miner, remembers what layoffs and strikes meant to the miners:
When (the miners) came out on a strike, when the contract expired, you just as well get yourself ready for a hell of a long goddam time, because you could strike all summer, because (the operators) didn't need the coal anyhow—at least most of them didn't. They would just wait until November. By that time you was pretty well wrinkled up in the gut. You'd pretty near sign for anything, because the grocery man was hollering and the rent man wanted you to pay some rent because you been there six months and hadn't paid a dime.
A lone miner could, to a considerable extent, rely upon his own skill, strength, and mining savvy to protect himself against the natural disasters which threatened his life underground. But against the mine owners, who determined when and for how much he worked, and against layoffs, which determined whether he worked at all, and against economic hard times, which determined how much his work was worth, the lone miner had no defense. Against these enemies he needed the union.
* * *
The year was 1861. News of South Carolina's secession from the Union had driven the nation's economy into a slump, a situation made worse in Illinois by the final collapse of the state's shaky banking system. Stung by falling coal prices, the coal operators of St. Clair County cut wages in their mines from 22h$ to 24 a bushel. To the miners, 24 a bushel was not enough. Man by man, mine by mine, they stopped work, until the largest coal field in Illinois was completely shut down. It was a strike, perhaps the first such widespread work stoppage ever undertaken west of the Alleghenies.
From this spontaneous, leaderless beginning the National Miners' Association, America's first national miners' union, was born. A campaign of lockouts and mass dismissals by owners in Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, however, soon drove the fledgling union from the fields. It was the kind of defeat that many such unions were to taste through the 1870s and 1880s as the diggers were bullied, beaten, and starved into submission by mine owners anxious to preserve unchallenged sovereignty over the kingdom of coal.
The bitter opposition of the owners and factional rivalries within the union movement stymied all attempts to establish a single national coal miners' union until the United Mine Workers of America was organized in 1890. The UMWA was to grow into the most formidable labor organization in the country, the vehicle through which thousands of miners, including those of Sangamon County, were able to impress their collective will upon the coal operators, the public, even, in time, the government of the United States. But this same union, whose very existence was one measure of the long dreamt-for unity among American coal diggers, would be cause for a fratricidal war in Sangamon County and central Illinois that left wounds so deep and so bloody that they have yet to heal.
In 1920, the United Mine Workers entered the most tumultuous era in its brief history when John Llewellyn Lewis took over as international president. Lewis was thirty-nine years old when he assumed control of the union, a self-educated miner's son who'd gotten his start in union politics as president of the local in Panama, Illinois, fifty-five miles south of the Illinois capital.
Lewis was a man of remarkable talents and equally remarkable ambitions. His physical strength was legendary—he was reputed to have settled an argument with a vicious mule by braining the beast with a single blow with a roof timber—and his courage matched his strength. He was every bit as adept at handling the English language; C. L. Sulzberger once said of Lewis' rhetorical skills that "He can use his voice like a policeman's billy or like a monk at orisons. He can talk an assemblage into a state of eruption. He can translate a group of people into a pageant of misery and back again."
On those occasions when eloquence was insufficient to move his opponents Lewis used any weapon handy. Lewis guarded his authority with a zeal and ruthlessness that no enemy was able to equal. His tenure as UMWA president was crowded with examples of vote fraud, demagoguery, and violence. By the late 1920s Lewis had banished or disarmed most of his challengers, and the union which had begun as one of the most democratic of American labor unions was reduced to a practical dictatorship.
The internecine struggles within the UMWA were part symptom and part cause of the union's increasing lack of success at the bargaining table. The coal industry in the late 1920s was reeling from the twin blows of depression and overproduction. In 1926 it had been estimated that the nation's coal-producing capacity was fully twice that needed to satisfy demand. The resulting glut of coal on the market drove prices steadily downward; prices paid for coal by the railroads, for example, had slipped from $4.20 a ton in 1920 to $2.40 a ton in mid-1929. In 1924, Lewis had managed to persuade the coal operators in UMWA fields to extend the prevailing $7.50 per ton wage rate for three more years, but the agreement proved a hollow victory. Mines in the southern states were unorganized and thus were able to undercut the price of union-dug coal until they had captured nearly half the national market. Individual mines squeezed between falling prices and the inflated wage rate simply ignored the contract and slashed wages by as much as 30 percent; the union, lacking the means to contest the violations in the courts, could do nothing. Thousands of miners unable to get steady work (Sangamon County shipping mines, for example, worked only an average of 168 days in 1929) left the industry for jobs elsewhere. Even some miners who stayed in the pits abandoned the union. Suggestions that the UMWA might collapse—suggestions which would have been laughed down just months earlier—were becoming a common topic of conversation among union men from Pennsylvania to Kansas.
Many union leaders insisted that the only solution to the crisis was for the UMWA to organize the non-union fields of the South and to put its weight behind a legislative program to close marginal mines and cut overproduction. Lewis chose to do neither. A more immediate danger, Lewis felt, was the fragmentation of authority within the union. Control must be left firmly in the hands of the international officers who could put the weight of the national union membership behind their demands for improved wages and working conditions. Strip the international of its authority over local and state negotiations, he argued, and the UMWA would be reduced to a loose alliance of dozens of independent unions, none of which would be strong enough to escape domination by the owners.
So, instead of taking the advice of those who argued that the solutions to the union's problems lay outside the union, Lewis strove to further concentrate his power within the union. As long-time Lewis foe John Brophy complained, the union leadership "demanded blind loyalty to the Lewis machine. Criticism of the machine was construed as evidence of disloyalty to the union. It suppressed free discussion at a time when there was the greatest need for it."
Lewis' quest for domination of the union had long been frustrated in Illinois, however. Since the collapse of the national negotiations in 1928 had left control over wage agreements in the hands of the District 12 leadership, the state's union officers had managed to steer clear of the iron grip of the international president. Much of the anti-Lewis agitation in the UMWA boiled up from within the borders of his adopted state. Resentment against his tactics (lent a cutting edge by the wit of the Illinois Miner, the district's official newspaper) was perhaps more bitter here than in any other important coal state. Lewis had to break the resistance in Illinois, and in the summer of 1929 he got a chance to do it.
In June of 1929 Lewis, exercising the power granted him by the UMWA charter, revoked the charter of Illinois Subdistrict 9 (Franklin County). Lewis charged (with apparent justification) that the elected Franklin County officials had misused strike funds given them by the international, and removed them from office. They were replaced by a slate of provisional officers chosen by Lewis.
Subdistrict 9's officers, however, refused to step down. They pointedly ignored Lewis' demand that they stand trial at UMWA headquarters as required by the union charter, and counterattacked by filing a libel suit against the international and obtaining a temporary injunction preventing Lewis from carrying out his revocation order. The executive board of District 12 voted to stand behind the Franklin County officers.
Lewis answered these challenges by revoking the charter of District 12 and replacing the stubborn Illinoisans with a provisional slate of officers to oversee the union in Illinois.
The Illinois Miner issued an impassioned appeal to the Illinois rank and file to support their elected leaders against the international. Alexander Howat, president of the Kansas UMWA, and John Brophy immediately lent their support to the move, as did John Walker, another Lewis foe then serving as president of the Illinois AF of L.
It was left only to decide how best to proceed against Lewis. The dissidents' chance came when Lewis, trying to avoid what surely would have developed into a circus of revolts and counter-revolts, canceled the scheduled 1929 UMWA convention. Since the union charter stated that the union's constitution was in force only until reaffirmed at each annual convention, and since that convention had been canceled, the union apparently had legally ceased to exist.
The insurgents, who were more keenly aware than most of the folly of opposing Lewis from within the union, boldly moved instead to take over the union. A call was issued to the membership for a convention to be held in Springfield on March 10, 1930. Upon re-adoption of the lapsed UMWA charter, they argued, the insurgent group could legally claim title to the union. Beyond that enticing prospect, the convention organizers agreed with John Brophy that the move, if successful, would enable the anti-Lewis elements in the union to "reestablish the miners' union in harmony with the principles which once made the United Mine Workers . . . the greatest labor union on the American continent."
Lewis, however, was much too wily a tactician to allow his union to be stolen from under him through a legal technicality. If control of the UMWA was to be settled by a convention, then Lewis would have a convention too. He issued a call to the faithful to meet in Indianapolis on the same day as the Springfield group was set to convene. Thus began what came to be known as the "race for the name."
At 10:00 A.M. on March 10, the Springfield convention was gaveled to order. The 450 delegates who had crowded into Springfield's Knights of Columbus hall wasted little time getting to the principal business of the meeting. At precisely 11:21 A.M. those parts of the constitution spelling out the name and jurisdiction of the union were adopted. Forty minutes later, their counterparts in Indianapolis extended the old UMWA constitution. The rebels had won; on paper at least, the UMWA was theirs.
If the outcome of the race had been decided by rhetoric rather than the clock, the contest would have been a toss-up. The speeches echoing through the K. of C. hall had a single theme -the perfidy of John Llewellyn Lewis. John Brophy, for instance, earned the applause of the crowd with this assault:
The history of the United Mine Workers under the regime of John L. Lewis has been an unbroken series of calamities, throwing hundreds of our members and their families into the depths of poverty and destitution.
Hand in hand with the numerical and financial disintegration of our union has gone the loss of its morale and degradation of its institutions. Election stealing, convention-packing and the slugging of delegates have reduced the old time democracy of the union to a ghastly farce . . .
The real leaders of the miners have heen knifed, one by one, through intrigue, conspiracy, and skullduggery. All opposition was crushed with a ruthless hand. Through threats of expulsion, through removal by provisional government for the frame-up, the officials and membership were terrorized into silence . . .
John L. Lewis killed more than the United Mine Workers of America. He killed more than the leaders of our union. He killed its very soul.
Lewis, who had come up a winner in many a past verbal brawl, opened the Indianapolis meeting by noting that "over in Springfield there is a little band of malcontents, representing the offscourings of this organization . . . a ragtag and bobtail element gathered there muttering in their beards." The United Mine Worker, official organ of the Lewis faction, emptied the thesaurus with this barrage, calling the insurgents . . . a convention of discontents, malcontents, oppositionists, brawlers, wranglers, branglers, moral contortionists, kickers, janglers, whoopers, soreheads, squallers, bellyachers, bunglers, marplots, double-crossers, destructionists, union-wreckers, disappointed office-seekers, and traitors of the United Mine Workers of America.”
The rebels, who had dubbed themselves the Reorganized United Mine Workers of America, or RUMWA, adopted a unity resolution which they forwarded to William Green, president of the national A F of L. By then, however, Lewis had lost whatever small appetite he may have had for reconciliation. He persuaded his friend Green to address his gathering, thus winning at least the tacit support of the powerful AF of L. The charter of Alexander Howat's Kansas district was summarily revoked (Howat had been elected president of the RUMWA) and the leaders of the Reorganized movement, twenty in all, were ordered to stand trial before the international's executive board to show cause why they shouldn't be expelled from the union. Finally Green, at Lewis' request, stripped John Walker of his post as president of the Illinois AF of L.
Stung by Lewis' rebuff, the leaders of the RUMWA matched him ouster for ouster. They refused to accede to the demand that they stand trial (they were ultimately thrown out of the union for their refusal) and ordered the mighty John L. himself to answer to the charge of dual unionism. The Panama local of which Lewis had once been president demanded the return of his union card with this terse statement: "You are unfit to be a member of the United Mine Workers."
But words were only a measure of the real battle being fought out in the coal fields. The RUMWA had behind it an estimated 80 percent of the Illinois rank-and-file and the combined prestige of out-of-state leaders like Howat and Brophy. Lewis on the other hand still controlled crucial locals in southern Illinois and all state organizations except Illinois, and was able to count on the support of the national A.F. of L. To survive, the RUMWA would have to expand its hold beyond the borders of Illinois. Of critical importance were those coal states which were still unorganized, where armies of workers offered tempting prospects of thousands of new recruits.
Lewis, for his part, was ready for an organizing fight. He drafted platoons of organizers and speakers to pound the coal fields for support. Against the puny treasury of the RUMWA (which had voted to not require dues from unemployed miners and thus pinched the flow of much-needed cash into the union's coffers) Lewis devoted some $40,000 from the international.
Within weeks after the adjournment of the Springfield convention, the RUMWA's drive to organize the non-union fields stumbled. The Depression had left most of the bargaining cards in the hands of the producers, and the AF of L's refusal to acknowledge the RUMWA crippled their efforts to represent themselves as the "true" United Mine Workers union. It soon became apparent that they would have to fight to hold even Illinois. Lewis men trailed RUMWA organizers everywhere, breaking up meetings with heckling and shouting and occasionally buying the loyalty of the undecided with grocery money and booze.
Hamstrung by the charge of dual unionism, its treasury bled dry by the organization campaigns and legal expenses stemming from a tangle of suits and countersuits over the legal status of the two unions, the RUMWA in the early months of 1931 was on the verge of collapse. The end came in the same city in which the RUMWA had launched its abortive coup d' etat. On March 6, 1931, Judge Harry Edwards of the Sangamon County Circuit Court decreed that Lewis had not had the authority to suspend the District 12 leadership. In one sense, the ruling was a victory for the rebels, for it stripped Lewis of his control over the largest and most important bituminous state in the nation. Edwards also ruled, however, that the UMWA constitution had not lapsed in 1929 as had been alleged by the RUMWA. Lewis' UMWA was still the only UMWA. The Reorganized United Mine Workers were legally dead. On March 12, 1931, its leaders sold their office furniture, locked the doors of their headquarters, and left Springfield for good.
* * *
The capitulation of the RUMWA was only one in a series of disasters suffered by central Illinois miners in the early 1930s. Blast furnaces and assembly lines across the country lay idle as business activity staggered under the weight of the Depression. Idle factories do not burn coal, and miners were able to measure the deepening crisis by cuts in work schedules. In 1932 nine of Sangamon County's twenty major shipping mines did not work a single day, and the remaining eleven (which together accounted for 92 percent of the coal dug in the county that year) worked an average of only ninety-one days. Having just lost a bitter fight for control of their union, the miners were losing another fight with much high stakes—the fight to survive. They had bought the argument put forth by union leaders during the 1930 wage negotiations that a 20 percent cut in wages was necessary to protect their jobs by enabling Illinois coal to stay competitive in the national market. Instead, the miners in 1932 found themselves with reduced wages and fewer jobs.
The economic depression was only partly the cause of the hard times in the Illinois field. In spite of the 20 percent wage cut agreed to during the 1930 contract talks, Illinois miners were still paid the highest wage rates of any state selling coal in the Midwest market. Illinois pick miners, for example, were being paid anywhere from 87 cents to $1.07 a ton while their counterparts in northern West Virginia were getting 29 cents a ton. Higher labor costs boosted the price of Illinois coal well above that sold out of the non-union fields, and operators were losing more and more of their market to unorganized mines in Kentucky and West Virginia. Stranded without contracts and saddled with a wage rate they could not afford to pay, 201 Illinois shipping mines (54 percent of the state's total) closed down between 1923 and 1931. The cost in jobs of these cut-backs was high even by Depression standards—50,000 men out of work.
A producers' association pamphlet issued in 1932 described the situation like this:
No miner needs to be told that conditions have gone from bad to worse in the Illinois coal industry. The evidence is apparent on every hand. Formerly prosperous mining communities are reduced to a state approaching poverty, their banks closed, their merchants and other business men in large degree insolvent. Thousands of miners are going without work and their families are slowly starving.
Illinois coal diggers had looked to John L. Lewis and their union to protect their jobs and the union had failed them, or so many of them believed. In any event the frustrations and resentments felt by more and more idle Illinois miners were focused on the UMWA president. Observers anticipated the approaching 1932 contract talks certain that there was going to be trouble in Illinois. As labor historian Irving Bernstein notes, "For a year there was an uneasy truce in Illinois. The miners of that district and Lewis eyed each other suspiciously across a no man's land. Each waited for the excuse to pull the trigger." The excuse both sides were waiting for came in the spring of 1932.
* * *
On April 1, the contract between the union and the Illinois Coal Operators Association expired. The owners demanded another 30 percent cut in wages; the union leadership refused even to consider it. For three months, 50,000 Illinois miners were idle while both sides tried unsuccessfully to break the deadlock. In an attempt to end the walkout, District 12 president John Walker agreed to a new proposal cutting the basic wage from $6.10 to $5.00 a day. The miners balked—they had after all agreed to a 20 percent pay cut only two years earlier—and they were in no mood to agree to a further reduction. In a July referendum on the issue, the proposal was voted down two to one. Walker was caught between his conviction that wage cuts were inevitable and his inability to soften opposition to such cuts among his increasingly militant rank and file. Unable to move one way or the other, Walker reluctantly called John L. Lewis and asked him to take over the negotiations on behalf of District 12. In a bitterly ironic end to their long jurisdictional fight, Lewis finally had control of the Illinois organization, handed to him by the very men who had risked career and reputation to keep him out of the prairie state.
Huddling with representatives of the operators soon after his arrival in Springfield, Lewis renegotiated the proposed agreement. The new proposal, when announced, differed only in detail from the pact rejected in July; the $5.00 daily wage scale remained unchanged. A referendum was scheduled for August. In urging its acceptance, Lewis maintained that "the agreement, distasteful as it may be, represents every concession that, at this time, can be wrung from the impoverished coal companies in a stricken and almost expiring industry." Rejection of the reduced rate, Lewis warned, meant disaster for the miners and the end of the union in Illinois.
The miners refused to listen. Speakers sent through the coal districts as part of an "educational campaign" sponsored by the international were hooted down when they tried to argue in favor of the proposal. On the day of the vote, indications from locals across the state pointed to a second defeat for the measure.
The vote was held on Saturday, August 6. An official canvass of the vote began at UMWA headquarters in downtown Springfield the following Monday. Before the count was completed, however, the ballots disappeared. United Press, in a wire dispatch dated August 10, reported:
Return sheets on which votes cast by various local unions in a recent referendum on a proposed $5 a day basic wage scale were tabulated were stolen from two tellers of the Illinois district mine union today in a holdup as they were en route to headquarters where they were to continue tabulation of the returns.
The tellers announced the holdup as they reached district headquarters. They were Orlie Blackman, Carrier Mills, and George E. Gee, Streator. . Blackman and Gee said they had obtained the return sheets and had walked down an alley to the mine workers building in order to avert a crowd of miners stationed in front of the entrance of the building. They said two men approached them from an intersection of the alley and ordered them to turn over the package containing the return sheets. After obtaining the package, the holdup men fled down the alley and escaped in an automobile, the tellers said.
Blackman and Gee reported the holdup to district officials who in turn notified local police authorities.
There had, however, been a witness to the "robbery," a twenty-nine year old miner from Buckner named Henry Bertoni who had come to Springfield to serve as a poll watcher. Bertoni swore out an affidavit which gave a different account of the theft. According to Bertoni, he was standing outside the Ridgely Farmers State Bank at 9:05 A.M. waiting for Blackman and Gee. (The return sheets were kept in the bank's vault overnight for safekeeping.) While waiting, Bertoni "saw Orlie Blackman and George E. Gee . . . come out of the said bank," then watched as the pair "went East on Monroe Street and turned South on Sixth Street and stopped in front of the Illinois State Journal Building for a short time, when Fox Hughes, Vice President of District No. 12, UMW of A, drove up in a car." While Hughes waited in his car, Blackman and Gee approached, then dropped the bundle of ballots into the open auto. Finally, again according to Bertoni's sworn statement, "Fox Hughes then drove South on 6th Street and Orlie Blackman and George E. Gee also went South on 6th Street on foot to the alley between Monroe Street and Capitol Avenue, Springfield, Illinois, and then went up the alley West." Less than five minutes later Blackman and Gee were telling officials at the Illinois Miners' Building at Fourth and Monroe that they had been robbed of the ballots.
District officials at first expressed no particular concern over the loss of the tally sheets, since duplicates of the returns were on file in the offices of the state's locals. The loss of the return sheets meant only that the outcome of the referendum would not be known until new return sheets could be compiled and sent . . . continued on Page 3
 Lewis' mother lived in Springfield in the family home on West Lawrence Avenue. Lewis himself listed that house as his legal address for many years, and stayed there on his frequent trips to the Illinois capital. Lewis was nearly buried here, in fact, until the family's original plans were overruled shortly after his death in 1969 and his body cremated in Washington. Although many Springfield residents were fond of claiming Lewis as a native son, Lewis was only technically a Springfield resident. The house on Lawrence Avenue was more hotel room than home to him, and it was in UMWA headquarters in Indianapolis (and later Washington, D.C.) that Lewis made his career.