UMWA History

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A Brief History of the UMWA

The UMWA was founded in Columbus, Ohio in 1890 by the merger of Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No.135 and the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers. The constitution adopted by the delegates to the first UMWA convention barred discrimination based on race, religion or national origin. The UMWA founding fathers clearly recognized the destructive power of discrimination at a time when racism and ethnic discrimination were accepted facts in some parts of American culture. The delegates also called for miners to obtain a fair share of the wealth they created fully compatible with the dangers of our calling. "The delegates pledged to use all honorable means to maintain peace between ourselves and employers; adjusting all differences, as far as possible, by arbitration and conciliation, that strikes may become unnecessary."

The UMWA has provided leadership to the American labor movement. Among the great UMWA leaders were John L. Lewis, Phil Murray, Bill Green, William B. Wilson, John Mitchell and Mother Jones.

UMWA history is full of legendary and often tragic names. The Molly Maguires; the Lattimer Massacre and the Ludlow Massacre; Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain; Paint Creek, Cabin Creek and Buffalo Creek; and Bloody Harlan are some of many legendary stories that have been handed down in the oral history of mining families.

Despite the threat of physical harm and economic ruin, miners have constantly struggled against great odds to achieve their goals: the eight-hour day in 1898, collective bargaining rights in 1933, health and retirement benefits in 1946, and health and safety protections in 1969.

The UMWA was an influential member of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and was the driving force behind the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Organizers from the UMWA fanned out across the country in the 1933 to organize all coal miners after passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act. The law granted workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers.

The UMWA was an early pioneer of health and retirement benefits. In 1946, in a contract between the UMWA and the federal government, a multi-employer UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund was created. The UMWA Fund would change permanently health care delivery in the coal fields of the nation. The UMWA Fund built eight hospitals in Appalachia, established numerous clinics and recruited young doctors to practice in rural coal field areas.

The UMWA has also been a leader in the field of worker health and safety. Since its beginning, the UMWA has pushed for technical and statutory advances to protect "life, health and limb." Because of the dust created in coal mines, the UMWA was forced to become expert in occupational lung diseases such as silicosis and pneumoconiosis. In 1969, the UMWA convinced Congress to enact the landmark Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. That law changed a number of mining practices to protect miners' safety and provided compensation for miners suffering from black lung disease. Perhaps most important, it was the first time that Congress mandated the elimination of a man-made occupational disease. Despite reductions in coal mine dust concentrations, after 25 years this mandate still has not been fulfilled--coal miners still suffer from black lung.

Today, the UMWA continues its primary role of speaking out on behalf of American coal miners. But it also has taken on an active international role by working to end apartheid in South Africa and by helping workers in the former Soviet Union and developing nations form democratic labor unions.

More information on the UMWA can be found at www.UMWA.org.

Mary Harris Jones was a powerful UMWA organizer and workers advocate in the early 1900s. She was fearless in standing up to corporate executives, governors and gun thugs. She was thrown into jails and vilified by the public press for advancing the cause of coal miners and other workers.

Because of her courage and indefatigable spirit, she became known as the Miners' Angel. Wherever the miners were on strike, there you would find Mother Jones, giving the miners inspiration and advice. She was involved in the Lattimer strike in Pennsylvania in 1897, the Ludlow strike in Colorado in 1913, and the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strikes in West Virginia in 1920.

Mother Jones died in 1931 at the age of 100 after fighting for workers for more than half a century.

Mother Jones said, "Pray for the dead, but fight like Hell for the living."

 

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United Mine Workers of America

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