The Mine Wars

Oblinger.book

From 1932 to 1936, Central Illinois was ground zero for one of the most important labor conflicts of the early 20th Century. Three eloquent sources on the Central Illinois “Mine Wars” and the Progressive Miners of America, which was formed by immigrant Italian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Polish and Slovak miners and their descendants, are http://www.minewar.org/?page_id=40, http://sangamoncountyhistory.org/wp/?p=3316 , and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPzmqqLO07o

Immigrant miners in Illinois were soft-coal, deep-shaft miners who cut and loaded their daily quotas (as much as 5 tons) by hand. By the late 1890s, the Central Illinois coal mines had been organized by the United Mine Workers. District 12 of the UMW (state of Illinois) had a strong democratic rank-and-file tradition, according to Carl Oblinger’s book, “Divided Kingdom: Work, Community, and the Mining Wars in the Central Illinois Coal Fields During the Great Depression.” Local wildcat strikes here protesting harsh working conditions, sporadic shut-downs that threw miners out of work, and increasing mechanization that cost miners’ jobs, were supported by the UMW leadership prior to World War I.

(Early 20th-Century mine work in Central Illinois was seasonal, at best, due to slowdowns or strikes almost every April as annual contracts expired, and mines regularly being closed for the summer due to a lack of demand for coal. Many Lithuanian miners excavated basements by shovel or hand-scythed grass in local cemeteries during the summer, in addition to tending gardens and livestock to keep their families fed. For more details, see https://lithspringfield.com/lithuanian-local-history-2/the-mine-wars/the-mining-life/ on this site.)

During the 1920s, under the leadership of John L. Lewis of Springfield, according to Oblinger’s book, the UMW began collaborating with local coal companies–against Illinois locals and their rank-and-file–in order to strengthen and centralize the UMW’s authority. This included undermining job-sharing and other “time-honored” labor-friendly contract provisions, and even expelling 24 locals where the membership challenged centralized UMW authority.

UMW chief John L. Lewis of Springfield  (Courtesy of minewars.org)

UMW chief John L. Lewis of Springfield (Courtesy of minewars.org)

The struggle came to a head 1932-36, when the UMW attempted to force upon Illinois miners already on strike an already rejected contract that ignored their concerns about mechanization and resulting mass layoffs during the deepest trough of the Great Depression. In accordance with their unionist and immigrant communal traditions, most of the local miners wanted to negotiate a slower pace of mechanization, along with job-sharing, so that no miner worked overtime while another miner was unemployed. Mutual aid in the tight-knit ethnic mining communities could compensate for the sporadic unemployment that was typical of the industry–and a certain pace of job loss–but not the draconian wage and job cuts planned by the industry and the UMW.

According to Oblinger’s book, Lewis and the UMW also joined with operators to cut wages and jobs and bring in mechanical cutters, loaders and conveyor belts to “save” the Illinois coal industry, which by 1930 was in crisis because coal here was more expensive to mine than other parts of the country. The result was a confrontation that put Central Illinois at the center of of one of the most important–and violent–struggles for U.S. labor rights of the 1930s.

IllinoisCoalMiners,UnderwoodandUnderwood,1903-600

One of the most famous incidents in the Mine Wars, the Easter Sunday riot of 1935, in which Edris Mabie was killed, occurred at Sixth & Washginton St. in Springfield. Progressive miner Thomas Urban, 36, a Lithuanian-born timberman who lived in Divernon at the home of Tony and Barbara Budreski, was shot and killed at the Peerless Mine at Clear Lake and Sangamon Ave. in 1933. That same year, Mrs. Andrew Blazis, wife of a Progressive miner, was injured by a bomb placed in the corner grocery in front of the Blazis apartment at 431 E. Iles. There were also bombings or bomb materials found at the Cornell St. railroad crossing and the Hazel Dell railroad underpass in Springfield. However, most of the unprecedented violence of the 1932-36 “Mine Wars” occurred south of Springfield in the so-called Midland Tract of Christian County from Taylorville west to Kincaid and Pawnee.

While Lithuanians nearly equaled Italians in the mines of Sangamon County, in Christian County they had a significant presence only in Taylorville (and in Bulpitt, where they were as much as 90 percent of the population), according to Oblinger’s book. Italians were the dominant immigrant group through the rest of the Tract, where Peabody had sunk several new coal mines–even building the company town of Kincaid–and planned to invest heavily in mechanizing its new mines.

In the spring of 1932, when operators wouldn’t negotiate on major wage and workforce cuts, miners in the Tract saw no alternative but to reject the proposed contract and strike to save their jobs, families and communities. Instead of trying to negotiate better contract terms for its local members, the UMW took the operators’ side and issued an emergency order for the strikers to return to work under the discredited contract. When strikers organized mass protests and pickets, the UMW brought in members from other areas to break the strike. That’s when the Progressive Miners of America (PMA) formed to pursue a life-and-death struggle against both the operators and what was once their own union.

Founding convention, Progressive Miners of America, Gillespie, 1932. (Courtesy of minewars.org)

Founding convention, Progressive Miners of America, Gillespie, 1932. (Courtesy of minewars.org)

Through it’s stated opposition to the anti-foreign sentiment that had characterized the UMW, the PMA enlisted many local second-generation immigrant miners who had not previously belonged to the UMW. Thousands of women also participated in the new union’s Auxiliary and encouraged their husbands to break with the UMW, join the PMA and organize mass strikes and picket lines. Women collected and distributed food and other aid, and participated on the picket lines in the most dangerous direct confrontations with replacement workers (called scabs), armed company enforcers, and the state militia. Ten thousand white-hatted women from the PMA Auxiliarly marched on the State Capitol in Springfield in 1933 to protest violence against strikers and violations of their civil rights by hired thugs and local law enforcement. See http://www.minewar.org/?p=1273

Women's Auxiliary march on the Illinois Capitol, 1933. (Courtesy of minewars.og)

Women’s Auxiliary march on the Illinois Capitol, 1933. (Courtesy of minewars.og)

Early in “Mine Wars,” 20,000 PMA strikers succeeded in closing all mines in Randolph, St. Clair, Christian, Madison, Washington, Sangamon and Fulton Counties, and in re-opening some smaller mines under their own contract. However, according to pages 24-25 of Oblinger’s book, “Peabody Coal, the largest and most advanced of the coal companies in Illinois, opposed re-opening under the PMA contract, (reopened their mines under the UMW contract) and made extraordinary efforts to defeat the new union and the striking miners…They hired large numbers of strikebreakers from southern Illinois; imported gun-toting “enforcers” from the same southern Illinois coal fields; and organized an extensive campaign of sabotage aimed at (framing and thereby) discrediting the striking miners.” The sabotage largely took the shape of bombings, especially of the Illinois Central Railroad, a campaign for which PMA strikers were blamed by law enforcement and the public.

See this link for the names and timeline of the murders of 22 PMA miners/family members http://www.minewar.org/?page_id=67 (There was one victim from Springfield: Fred Gramlich, Sr., killed on May 23, 1936.) Mass arrests and beatings were also common.

Peabody also used its production powers to break the strike. The company concentrated production at its more efficient, more mechanized mines in Christian County while closing or interrupting operations at older/smaller mines. This created irregular employment at Peabody’s Springfield mines, where many Lithuanians worked, while simultaneously channeling full employment to mines in the Midland Tract that were running on 50+ percent replacement workers.

State Militia at Peabody #7, Kincaid, Ill., 1932.  Law enforcement and the powers of government were consistently against the PMA.  (Courtesy of minewars.org)

State Militia at Peabody #7, Kincaid, Ill., 1932. Law enforcement and the powers of government were consistently against the PMA. (Courtesy of minewars.org)

Facing a total siege in which state and local authorities sided with the UMW and mine operators, the PMA strikers had no choice but to begin trickling back to the UMW and the mines they had struck as initially successful communal relief efforts like PMA commissaries flagged over time and eventually ended. Those who trickled back sooner were more likely not to permanently lose their positions to replacement works in the Peabody Mines.

On page 35, Oblinger writes: “The non-competitive nature of the PMA mines and the advantage mechanization gave to Peabody Coal were decisive factors in the demise of the PMA and the capitulation of the striking miners. But the most chilling factor was the 1936 indictment of 41 PMA strikers and miners for bombing the Chicago and Illinois Midland Railroad tracks near Taylorville.” According to MineWars.org, “41 federal indictments were issued in connection with 23 railroad bombings, six attempted bombings, and one railroad bridge burning which occurred between December 17, 1932 and August 8, 1935. This was the first time in U.S. history that indictments were returned on the federal anti-racketeering act against a labor union.”

Thirty-six of the accused PMA miners and leaders were convicted of interfering with interstate commerce and obstructing the mails in a federal district court jury trial in Springfield in 1937 and ultimately received sentences of two years and fines of $10,000 each. One of the convicted was 27-year-old Lithuanian-American Anthony Chunes. Another was a relative of Fred Gramlich, Sr., who had been killed a year earlier. A Lithuanian UMW member, Fred Markunas, was also famously shot and killed in Taylorville by Springfield District PMA board member Ray Tombazzi in 1934, three years before Tombazzi was convicted in the mass trial for railroad sabotage.

Newspaper reports at the time said the evidence in the mass trial was “circumstantial.” But a non-immigrant, non-mining jury voted to convict. Most of the men appealed, but ended up serving out their two-year sentences in Joliet and Leavenworth prisons. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt commuted the $10,000 fines for each convicted miner by Executive Order. However, Oblinger’s book concludes that the mass trial, “many…believed, broke the spirit of the strikers and strengthened the hand of the UMW. After that episode, peace existed in the Christian County coal fields for the first time since 1932.”

The Mother Jones monument at Mt. Olive where many PMA victims of the Mine Wars are buried.  Mother Jones died in 1930, just before the outbreak of the famous conflict between the UMW  and Peabody Coal vs. the PMA. (Courtesy of minewars.org)

The Mother Jones monument at Mt. Olive where many PMA victims of the Mine Wars are buried. Mother Jones died in 1930, just before the outbreak of the famous conflict between the UMW and Peabody Coal vs. the PMA. (Courtesy of minewars.org)

See this recent post about the responsibility of Peabody for inciting violence when the Progressives began as a peaceful movement–and the responsibility of Peabody to pay reparations today: http://www.minewar.org/?p=1428

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