John Mitchell: Devout Determination

John Mitchell, national president of the United Mine Workers of America, 1902. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)
John Mitchell, national president of the United Mine Workers of America, 1902. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

The history of Northeast Pennsylvania cannot be told without mentioning the integral role that the coal mines played in the lives of the people who lived there. Labor conditions in these mines were not anywhere near today’s standards thus creating long, difficult days for those who worked in them. Many people worked very hard each day in these mines accepting the conditions because it was their only means of supporting their families, and due to this necessity, these conditions persisted. However, this story is the story of a man who refused to accept treatment and conditions that he knew were wrong. This is the story of John Mitchell. It starts with a small dream, a simple question. But John Mitchell ran with this dream and worked tirelessly until the answer to his question became larger than anyone at the time could have imagined.

The story is told by the daughter-in-law of John Mitchell. Mitchell, who was born in 1870, is 12 years old when our story begins, and he is living and working in the mines of Braidwood, Illinois.

He was 12 years old when he started to work in the mines. And at the end of the week, when they paid off, the man would just stick his hand in his pocket and give him what he felt like giving him. And that is where he started to get the bee in his bonnet. This little thing twelve years old, imagine it. His back would be broke you know. And he would lay awake at night, and he used to tell his children that the house had little eaves in it and he said, “I used to keep my feet up on the ceiling and lay there and think. Now what could be done so that you could get paid properly for your hard labor?” He was only 12 years old when he conceived the union in his mind. He felt that if he could only get the men all together and tell the men, “Unless you go and complain, nothing is going to be done.” And he called his first group together at the age of 12. It wasn’t a union. It was just like a little meeting. “Do you think that’s right?”

And, he finally got the men together. I think it was in a little town, his first meeting was in a little town called Braidwood, Illinois. I think just a small group, like the March of Dimes got started or something like that, you know. A few people, and somebody else got interested and somebody else got interested. But he knew how to command the people to listen to what he said. They say that it was just amazing, just amazing.

No formal education. He had no formal education at all. He studied and studied and studied. My husband was brilliant. And my son is the same way. They were not men who could go out and set the world on fire by making a good living, but they could give you all the answers. They were just scholars. John Mitchell was that way. They evidently inherited this from him. A retentive memory. Like a photographic memory, remembers everything.

The story fast forwards 16 years. John Mitchell’s hard work has helped him move up from his small scale organizing to become the president of the United Mine Workers Association at the young age of 28. In his new role his focus has expanded from the mine he worked in as a 12 year old boy to the plight of mine workers across the country. This battle eventually brought him from Illinois to Pennsylvania and other parts of the country.

I always used to say that Johnny Mitchell was having labor trouble and my mother was having labor pains in 1899 [Laughter]. And the unions were good honey. Oh God they needed them when they got them.

You see that is why they’re made, they’re born for it. There comes a time in the destiny of every man, that he is destined to fight a cause and win it.

He was an idealist. Money meant nothing to John Mitchell. When he married, Mrs. Mitchell had money. She was a woman of property, as they said years ago. She owned a lot of property, a lot of houses. And she never cared about how much money he brought home while he was fighting a cause. She took care of the children. “You do it John.” She was a great influence in his life. “You do that. The miners need you, and I’ll feed the children and take care of them.”

He was an idealist. The only one that I always compared him with was Pope John. Whatever Pope John would say, we would remember it. And John Mitchell was that kind of a man. They said that is eyes were so brown and beautiful. They were sad eyes, but they were eyes that just simply held you. He was a fine handsome man.

He always worked through the priests and the ministers. The Church. I can remember he had all the Pope’s encyclicals which he read religiously.

They’d approach someone who belonged to that particular ethnic group. Who, let’s say was a good union man and they’d ask him to talk to other people in that same ethnic group.

[In accent mimicking ethnic miner:] “I go see what Joe thinks. You want me to go union? I go see what Joe think. I go for Joe. Joe, what you think union?”

“Union good. Union good.”

That’s when Johnny Mitchell started to come in. That would be nineteen hundred and. Well that would have been before 1902.

I think unionism was forced on the illiterate miner. They didn’t know much what it was all about. Say you had a foreman. Not a big boss but he’s a foreman. He wants more money too, and he’s smart enough. He’d start realizing that united we stand and divided we fall. You can get more by being in the union so he’d go to the boss. The man he could rub shoulders with. He’d have to go through a few doors to get there. So the organizers would get ahold of a man like that.

And they’d say, “get the man to join the union. Join the union. Get organized. You’re not going to put up with this company store. You’re not going to put up with this. You’re not going to put up with that.” That is how they’d become a union you know. Because some of them couldn’t write their name. That’s how a lot of them got different names than they ever had. They would say their name and the boss at the mine would write it the way it sounded. Some of the names would be that long you know. But still pronounced very simply. And the boss would write it the way it was pronounced. And that name stuck to them for the rest of their lives in America. And that is the way that unionism got started. Through the little guy. It’s the way anything gets started.

He always worked through the Church.

Father Curran played a big part in the 1902 strike. They were very (inaudible). Father Curran and Teddy Roosevelt and John Mitchell. Oh they remained friends all through their life.

The 1902 strike that she mentions is the Anthracite Coal strike. This strike was organized in eastern Pennsylvania by the United Mine Workers Association which was led by John Mitchell. During this strike, John Mitchell worked with President Theodore Roosevelt to eventually reach an agreement with the mine owners in which the workers were given a higher wage and better working hours.


You know, he was a load of thunder that Theodore Roosevelt. He wouldn’t sit down with his feet under the table much. He’d get up and run around and rave. John Mitchell was not that way. John Mitchell could sit quietly. That is why he was accepted into society. Because John Mitchell fit into every category. He would fit into the category at a miner’s table or at a king’s table. He certainly was a learned man. He knew everything that was just right and he did things beautifully. I knew that from the home that I went into. It was that kind of a house.

You see John Mitchell became Commissioner of Labor of New York State before he died. So he was in his office and it was Christmas Eve and he thought, “well I better buy the girls some presents.” So he put on his hat and coat and he went to Macy’s. Ah no it wasn’t Macy’s, it was Franklin Simon. And he went to Franklin Simon, and it was getting late in the evening, close to closing time, and he walked right smack to the glove counter, and he had a slip of paper of every color glove he wanted and every size he wanted. And he takes his paper out and the clerk comes to wait on him. And he said, “now listen dear, I want you to sit down and I will give you this list. You must be very tired. It’s been a long day for you I know on your feet. So go on and sit down now.”

And she said, “Oh dear sir there is no place to sit.”

And he said, ‘what do you mean there’s no place to sit?’

And she said, ‘We don’t have a place to sit.”

He said, “so you have to stand all day?”

She said, “Yes unless we get permission to go off the floor.”

‘Oh’ he said. So he walked all around the store and he gets the, the floor walker I guess you would call him. So he said to the man, “you mean you don’t provide sitting down for these women when they’re not busy. That they have to stand waiting for a customer to come in your door to sit down.” And he just took the glove thing and he tore it up and he said, “forget the gloves honey, I’m going back to my office to figure out I can get you sitting down.” And he went back to his office and he didn’t even get home for Christmas Eve. And he started writing the bill that he wanted presented to put seats in the back of the counters for sales girls to sit on. And he got it. The legislation was passed.

You don’t have it today. They threw them out. The girls have to stand today, but if Johnny Mitchell was going through the stores they’d still. They used to open up you know? Like a seat in a car did. Like on a little spring. And it would fold down when they were busy and when they wanted to sit down it came up. And he had that law passed in the state of New York.

That to me, are the little stories that made this man great. He was for the comfort. Comfort made a better worker. Respect made a better worker. He wanted the workers respected and paid for an honest day’s pay. An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

Oh and he was just everything for the miners, just everything you know. He was fighting a cause, and he loved the miners. He just died loving them.

Shall I tell a little story here?

John Mitchell was a convert. I don’t know if he ever lived up to it after he got better, but he was a convert. It happened in Columbus, Ohio. And he and William Greene who was then the American Federation of Labor. William Greene was with him and they were on a convention in Columbus and they were staying at this hotel and John Mitchell became very ill. Which today would be called a heart attack I would imagine. And he called William Green to his room and he said to him, ‘William, I have to talk to you’ he said, ‘I want a Priest.’ But he said, ‘I want to talk to you first before you get this Priest for me.’ He said you know I’m married to a Catholic woman, my children are all Catholic. And he said, ‘I think I’m going to die. And he said I want to ask you a question and I want a truthful answer. And he said, ‘then you can get me a Priest.’ And he said, ‘Do you think that tonight if I were to accept the faith of a Roman Catholic that it would hurt the cause of the United Mine Workers of America?

And William Greene looked at him, who was not a Catholic, and he said, ‘John if that were to influence them then neither you or I have no business fighting for them if that’s all their worth. He said, ‘Do you want me to get the priest, but he said, I don’t know where to find one.

He said, ‘just find a church with a cross on it and ring the bell, Mr. Mitchell said. And he did. A young priest, late at night, a young priest came to the door. They stayed friends all their life these kids to this day even our grandkids have met this priest. He’s an old priest now, but he was a very young priest. And he came with him. And John Mitchell received the rites of the Church, and everything that night. And he recovered however.

But William Greene told this story at the monument the day that it was dedicated. And he said, ‘You have often heard that greater love hath no man that he would lay down his life for his friend. But he said, ‘I was there, and greater love hath no man than he would sacrifice his immortal soul for the United Mine Workers of America.

John Mitchell died in 1919 at the age of 49. During those 49 years he accomplished much more than most would have expected from a 12 year old boy who worked in the mines to help support his family. Many would say that he overcame his circumstances to achieve great things, but in reality it was his circumstances that drove him to achieve great things. While most simply accepted the structure of the time, John Mitchell pondered why things were so unfair and worked to make sure that things would be more fair in the future. It is this vision and passion that makes men great, and this vision and passion helped John Mitchell become a man who accomplished great things.