by William H. Benson
March 9, 2006
Clarence Darrow, the Chicago attorney, is most remembered today for his defense of John T. Scopes at the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. But earlier in his career Darrow had represented John Mitchell and the United Mine Workers in their strike for better wages, shorter working hours, and better working conditions. Where the Monkey Trial had turned into a farce, Darrow’s defense of the miners had achieved something of lasting value for all working Americans.
John Mitchell, the President of the United Mine Workers, was honest, incorruptible, the son of a bituminous-coal miner, who had gone down into the mines at thirteen. But he had had a hankering for books and knowledge, and had spent his spare hours studying. He understood better than most a labor union’s potential. He was a swift-thinking Irishman who could speak and write as forcefully as the company’s lawyers.
And yet Mitchell needed his own attorney, and so he picked Clarence Darrow.
Mitchell had called for the anthracite-coal strike in May of 1902, and 150,000 miners had walked out, crying out for higher wages and healthier working conditions.
The company expected their workers to live in worthless shacks and then charged them $2.50 per month. It insisted that they work 12 hours a day 365 days a year, with no weekends or holidays off. It required the miners to buy their own tools and explosives at the company store, but where the company paid $.90 per unit for the explosive, it charged the miner $2.50 per unit. The miners owed their very souls to that company store.
It paid a worker about $200 per year, but after buying their working supplies, they had little left to feed, clothe and educate their children. And so boys in their teens were forced to quit school and to work in the mines to support the family; the girls went to work in the nearby textile mills. And then the work in the mines was so dangerous and unhealthy, that a man in his fifties after four decades underground was broken.
Because the strike brought the coal industry to a halt that summer, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened, appointed a commission, and demanded that both union and management abide by the commission’s decisions.
Darrow did his homework. He met the miners, visited in their homes, listened to their complaints, and then he prepared his speech.
In February of 1903 Darrow stood before the commission at the Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia and spoke:
“This demand for eight hours is not a demand to shirk work. It is a demand for the individual to have a better life, a fuller life, a completer life. The interests of law and all social institutions is to make the best man they can. That is the purpose of every lawmaking power. It is the purpose of every church. It is the purpose of every union. It is the purpose of every organization.
“The laborer who asks for shorter hours asks for a breath of life; he asks for a chance to develop the best that is in him. It is no answer to say, ‘If you give him shorter hours he will not use them wisely.’ Our country is based on the belief that for all his weaknesses there is still in man that divine spark that will make him reach upward for something higher and better than anything he has ever known.”
On Saturday, March 21, the commission ruled that all miners get a ten-per-cent raise, and they were put on an eight-hour day, with Sundays off. Even though the commission failed to place any restrictions on the company store, it was a victory for the union.
To no one’s astonishment, civilization was not destroyed by the decision, nor did American industry collapse. Miners and operators worked together in peace for many years, and the miners turned out as much or more coal as they had under the longer hours.