Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 Should President Roosevelt Take Control of the Nation's

Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 Should President Roosevelt Take Control of the Nation's

Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902
Should President Roosevelt Take Control of the Nation's Anthracite Mines?


In October 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt (R, 1901-09) set up a meeting between the anthracitecoalminers'union and the mine owners in an attempt to settle a five-month strike by the miners. In doing so, Roosevelt became the first president to become personally involved in the resolution of a strike. However, some people called on him to go even further, arguing that the federal government should take over the mines—or "nationalize" them—and operate the mines itself.

Anthracite is a hard coal, which burns hotter and cleaner than bituminous coal, a softer coal. Because anthracite burns cleanly, producing little smoke, it became the most common fuel for heating homes at the turn of the century. It was also used as fuel for trains, and the nation's anthracite mines, located in eastern Pennsylvania, were largely controlled by the railroad companies.

The process of extracting the anthracite coal from underground mines was dangerous, and the miners, who were mostly immigrants, received low pay and struggled to make a living. In early 1902, the anthracite miners sought to negotiate better wages and working conditions with the mine owners, but the owners refused to meet with them. After the owners rejected several requests for meetings, the miners went on strike in May.

While expressing concern about the situation, Roosevelt acknowledged that there was nothing he could do to help end the strike. It was a private dispute between the miners and the mine owners; there were no grounds for federal intervention unless the strike turned violent and the governor of Pennsylvania requested federal action to help restore order. But even then, the government could not be responsible for settling the strike.

However, as fall came and the weather turned colder, Roosevelt began to express greater concern. The months-long strike had caused the price of coal to increase more than five fold, and a coal shortage loomed. Warning that the nation faced a humanitarian crisis if there was not enough coal to heat people's homes in the winter, Roosevelt increased his search for a way to intervene. The president sought a "Square Deal" for the labor unions, corporations and private citizens, one in which there would be no winners or losers.

Roosevelt took a bold step in October, when he requested the mine owners and a labor representative to attend a meeting over which he would preside, knowing that they could not refuse the offer of a visit with the president. In doing so, he made a major break with precedent. In the past, presidents had intervened in strikes only by sending in troops to keep order or, in the case of President Grover Cleveland (D, 1885-89, 1893-97) in the Pullman strike of 1894, by enforcing a court injunction against the strikers. Roosevelt was the first to use his influence as president to help push both sides toward resolving the dispute.

Nevertheless, the owners rejected all attempts at compromise, and the meeting was judged a failure. The following week, Roosevelt's secretary of war, Elihu Root, met with influential financier John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan, who was heavily involved in the railroad industry. Roosevelt expressed hope that Morgan could influence the owners to reach an agreement with the miners. Root and Morgan produced an agreement forming an arbitration commission to examine the dispute and issue a final settlement that both sides would have to accept. The miners agreed to the plan and went back to work in late October.

The agreement made unnecessary a more far-reaching solution to the strike—that of nationalizing the mines. As the strike had worn on with no appearance of resolution, many members of the media, politicians and the general public had argued that the government should take over the mines and operate them itself. They claimed that the government had the authority to do so under the principle of eminent domain, in which the government could take over public land if it was in the public's best interests. Critics countered that the plan amounted to Socialism.

Was federal ownership of the anthracite mines the best way to ensure that the public would have its vital coal? Or would nationalizing the mines violate the right to private ownership?

Supporters of nationalization asserted that the government had the right to take over property, while providing fair compensation to the owners, if it decided such action was necessary for the public good. The Constitution also made the government responsible for promoting the "general welfare" of the people, they noted. Guaranteeing that people had enough coal to heat their homes so they would not freeze to death in the winter fell into the category of being necessary for the public good, proponents insisted.

Supporters also pointed out that the dispute between anthracite owners and miners was a long-standing one. Any solution reached through negotiation would be only temporary, until the next flare-up between labor and the owners, they argued. However, nationalizing the mines would provide a permanent solution to the problem, they asserted.

Critics of nationalizing the anthracite mines countered that the government enjoyed no power of eminent domain, since that power was not granted in the Constitution. And even if the government had such a power, they said, it did not apply in the case of the coal mines. Anthracite coal was a luxury, they insisted, not a necessity, and the government did not have to provide the people with luxuries.

Opponents also argued that nationalizing the mines would violate the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees that all duties not specifically enumerated in the Constitution as belonging to the federal government would fall to the states. The Constitution mentions nothing about operating coal mines, critics pointed out, so that duty fell within the states' domain. Nationalizing the mines would amount to Socialism, they warned, depriving the owners of their right to private property and setting a dangerous precedent for the government to seize control of other industries as well.