The 1913 Mineville Strike

On March 25, 1911, the death of 146 garment workers in the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan was a tragedy that prompted reforms in workplace health and safety across the country.  Following an enormous public memorial on April 5, a committee of teachers, reformers, and religious and civic leaders held a mass meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House that led to the formation of a Committee on Safety.  Together with other groups, they all moved on Albany. As a result, State Senator Robert Wagner and State Assemblyman Alfred A. Smith proposed legislation that was enacted into law on June 30, 1911, creating the Factory Investigating Commission.  Its primary purpose was to protect and improve workers’ health and safety.  At the same time, the American Federation of Labor was increasing its organizing activities and approached mine workers in Moriah in late 1911.  The result was Laborers’ Protective Union 8079 (Mineville) and 12,855 (Port Henry).

In January 1912, the Mineville Laborer Protective Union 8079 submitted grievances in which 77 union members provided proof in the form of sworn affidavits “to paying Superintendent Dugan to secure employment,” and that he and Foremen Wersoski and Reilly “were discriminating against those men and discharging them on the slightest provocation.”  Witherbee, Sherman President George Foote issued a statement addressing all of the complaints, saying with confidence that “the new rules in effect on January 1st would restore harmony and good feeling between the company and their employees and that he would welcome a committee at any time they had a grievance and he would do all in his power to adjust their grievances.”  New York state representatives, as well as the Mineville and Port Henry Unions were satisfied.  However, union grievances again rose in May of that year, though, they easily settled once again by P. J. Downey of the New York Bureau of Mediation and Arbitration.

At the same time, labor investigator Frances A. Kellar filed a Department of Labor report.  Her initial findings were negative.  The state of housing, sanitation, and the water supply in Mineville were all below acceptable levels, kindergarten-aged children received no schooling, the Memorial Hall was available for social activities, but none were provided and it seemed as if workers expended more energy in “drunken brawls” than in any beneficial or worthwhile pursuits for themselves or their families.  Seven months later, Kellar made a return inspection of Mineville and found nothing but improvements: new tailings block houses were being built and existing structures were undergoing repairs, outhouses, the installation of pipes and sinks and the construction of a dump and incinerator improved sanitation conditions. The imbibing of intoxicating liquors had decreased and company officials were generally pleased about the improvements and optimistic about future progress.  However, despite Frances Kellar’s report on these improvements, on January 23, 1913, the mineworkers declared a general strike.

This strike was called in the midst of an attempt by the Western Federation of Miners to increase its activities.  The American Federation of Labor also sent representatives to Mineville, who collected more affidavits that reinforced the accusation of graft by Superintendent Dugan, and foremen Wersoski. and Reilly.  New allegations were also added, which was enough to prompt a special meeting with State Senator Anthony Griffin, American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers and Western Federatio of Miners organizer Joseph Cannon.  Many allegations surfaced of coverup of accidents and worker deaths, which were reported in New York City newspapers, especially the socialist publication The Call. These newspaper articles brought immense pressure on Witherbee, Sherman, which maintained an office in New York City.  The company issued a statement denying all allegations, began dismissing Union leaders from their employ, and was reported to have deputized men to act as a company police force.  Joseph Cannon alerted NY Governor William Sulzer of the increasing violence, seemingly sanctioned by the Mineville sheriff’s department, which was essentially controlled by Witherbee, Sherman. The company threatened that if the miners did not return to work, they would never be offered work again.  Although The Call would have had its readers believe that the strike was succeeding, only a week after it began, nearly all of the strikers had returned to work of their own accord. The AFL intervened to continue the strike, with Samuel Gompers authorizing the payment of benefits and legal expenses to striking workers.

Witherbee, Sherman called in the services of strikebreakers from across the country and began serving notices of eviction.  AFL monetary support was drying up and the workers could no longer resist.  The Call could no longer maintain the façade of success as the workers’ situations grew more desperate.  The Mineville strike faded out, lasting about two months, the miners not gaining any significant advantages.