John Mitchell was born February 4th, 1870 in Braidwood, Illinois to Robert Mitchell and his second wife, Martha Halley. His mother died and a few years later his father died after being trampled by a runaway team of horses. He was raised in poverty by his father's third wife and early on was forced to drop out of school in order to support his stepmother and his siblings. Mitchell was abused by his stepmother and suffered from loneliness, making few friends as a child. When he was twelve, he became employed at the Chicago, Wilmington, and Vermillion Coal Company and began to gain the skills of a miner. He then joined his first union and as a member of a union, he was able to participate in a joint conference between the miners and the mine owners after the owners decreased the miner's wages. This was when he first witnessed the power of workers uniting to make negotiations with those in charge. The union won.
At age 16 he went west and spent several years looking for work. In 1892, he met and married Katherine B. O'Rourke and the couple settled down in Spring Valley, Illinois. They ultimately had six children together. In 1894, he became the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA)'s subdistrict organizer, and a few years later, was elected to be the subdistrict's secretary-treasurer. He faced both successes and failures in those positions until he was elected vice president of the union in 1898 and then finally president in 1899, making him at age 28 in charge of the most powerful union of the period.
As UMWA president, Mitchell's goal was centralization of the union; rather than leaving power with the districts, Mitchell wanted the union to have national power. Economic growth and expansion supported his success as president as union membership dramatically increased nationwide. Employers across the United States were beginning to sign contracts with unions and were accepting the push for collective bargaining. Mitchell then reached a turning point in his career with the anthracite strike of 1900. When the anthracite miners went on strike, Republican politicians pushed Mitchell to find an expedient end to the strike so that it would be a peaceful election year and President McKinley could be reelected. Mitchell managed to arrange an end to the strike after five weeks by reaching a settlement for both sides, although it did not address some of the worker's leading demands. Nevertheless, the end of the strike propelled Mitchell into fame for his skill as a negotiator and labor leader. The strike gave him the opportunity to refine these skills and he was also able to make important friends in Washington which would be of use to him later. He was viewed favorably by the press and was declared to be a responsible, respectable, and reasonable union leader who could be trusted. This was the beginning of his transition from labor activist and organizer to conservative leader of a bureaucratic institution.
Unions nationwide experienced incredible growth between 1898 and 1904 as the plight of the union worker began to gain more public sympathy. Mitchell at this time began to work with the National Civic Federation (NCF) whose goal was to bring together leaders from capital, labor, and the public to deal with the "labor problem". Over Mitchell's career, NCF greatly helped with the national process of improving labor-capital relations. By 1901, Mitchell was viewed as the spokesperson for the entire labor movement. This position was not without controversy, however, as the standard union worker as well as the reformer was deeply disappointed with his increasingly conservative views. Mitchell was far more likely to accept the status quo than to support the progressive viewpoints of some of his contemporaries.
What turned John Mitchell into a larger than life symbol for the labor movement was the Great Strike of 1902. The strike lasted for five months and involved 150,000 anthracite mine workers. Initially, John Mitchell and the NCF tried to enlist the help of President Theodore Roosevelt, but after reviewing the situation, Roosevelt determined that he did not have the constitutional authority to intervene. Even so, as the situation grew dire, Roosevelt ultimately changed his mind and tried to pressure Mitchell into ending the strike. Mitchell refused to settle before coming to better terms in the negotiations, and Roosevelt even considered sending in the army to take over the coal fields. When the strike finally came to an end, elites, businessmen, conservatives, and the president all praised Mitchell as a hero, while socialists and many of the mine workers were outraged. While the victory was not clear-cut for the miners, organized labor gained some legitimacy, Mitchell gained personal prestige, and most were simply happy it was over.
During the strike, President Roosevelt described Mitchell as "cool, calm, self-controlled and polite, earnest and forceful in presenting the cause of the miners, yet never overstepping the bounds of gentlemanly courtesy." Despite his lack of education, Roosevelt said "he shows himself the mental equal, if not the superior" of the operators. In the years following the Great Strike, Roosevelt and Mitchell actually became genuine friends and the two would consult one another on labor matters.
While John Mitchell had great success in the court rooms during the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission in 1903, he began to decline in national favor starting with the failed Colorado strike of 1903-1904. The country was experiencing anti-union backlashes after the gains made during the previous few years. 1906 was a disastrous year for Mitchell as he continually disappointed the miners in the UMWA by making concessions instead of delivering them from their problems. This led to a sharp decline in union membership. In 1908 at age 38, Mitchell stepped down from the UMWA presidency and switched to a full time position with the NCF. These final few years, however, were plagued by personal problems and serious alcoholism. He eventually became less and less involved with labor affairs and he died on September 9th, 1919 of pneumonia at age 49, mostly forgotten.
While on many occasions John Mitchell disappointed union members with his conservatism and bureaucratic approach to unionism, he successfully stayed the moderate line between socialism and militant anti-unionism. His incredible skill as a leader and negotiator allowed unions to become a legitimate vehicle for employer-employee conflict resolution and he played a large role in the growth of unions at the start of the 20th century. Always working on behalf of miners, perhaps his biggest accomplishments lie with the gains he made for them - their working hours, wages, and safety over the course of his career.
Phelan, Craig. Divided Loyalties: The Public and Private Life of Labor Leader John Mitchell.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Print.
Last updated: March 31, 2012