Workers Don't Suffer

'Foreigners' were exploited by big business in the Pennsylvania coal fields a century ago, as they are exploited in the 21st-century global economy

By James O. Castagnera

Lawrenceville, NJ

"These men don't suffer. Why, hell, half of them don't even speak English." This is the best-remembered sentence from the closing remarks of George F. Baer to the Anthracite Coal Commission in February 1903. President of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad (later reorganized as simply The Reading Company), he was known to the world as Divine Right Baer. The nickname was attached after he wrote during the Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902:

"The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for -- not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends."

Baer's Reading was part of a J.P. Morgan trust, which by 1902 controlled 96% of all the hard coal in Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania anthracite at that time was the principal source of home heating on the eastern seaboard of the United States.

Divine Right Baer, or "George the Last" as he was labeled by Clarence Darrow, was right about one thing: the majority of the miners who dug his coal did not speak English. An influx of Southern and Eastern European peasants had shifted the dominant ethnic composition of the hard coal counties of central-eastern Pennsylvania from the English-Welsh-Irish configuration of the Molly Maguire days to a feisty brew of Slavs, Italians, Hungarians, and Poles. They might not know much English. But these most-recent arrivals to America's shores brought a tradition of tight-knit extended families and villages. Unionism, while something new to their experience, was hardly alien in its fundamental concepts and goals. Though most couldn't afford to buy, and were equally unable to read, his books, they came to idolize United Mine Workers' President John Mitchell ... Johnny Da' Mitch.

When, by the end of September 1902, about 125,000 anthracite miners out of a total workforce of perhaps 135,000 had rallied to the UMWA's call to strike for a wage increase and a shorter day, a nervous Theodore Roosevelt bullied and badgered J.P. Morgan, whom he was suing under the Sherman Act for anti-trust violations in the groundbreaking Northern Securities case, to bring the mine and railroad owners into mandatory arbitration.

The UMWA hired Clarence Darrow, destined to be the nation's most famous trial attorney. He in turn trotted 239 witnesses in front of the commission. Under Darrow's careful questioning teenage breaker boys recounted how they urinated on their fingers to warm them after hours of picking the slate from the coal in the dead of winter. Widows recalled how their husbands had died in debt to the company store for the powder, tools and lamp fuel they needed to do their hazardous jobs. Crippled men otherwise in their prime testified that they had received not a dime in compensation for their terrible injuries down in the pits. So affecting was this narrative of injury, illness and exploitation that the commissioners finally asked that the "spectacle of horrors" cease.

On March 22, 1903, they awarded the miners a 10% pay increase and an eight-hour day.

In the century that has ensued the American march of progress seems hardly ever to have abated. And yet the exploitation of immigrant labor remains as great a blemish on the body politic as ever it was at the turn of the last century. Consider, for example:

• New York taxi drivers -- predominantly Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and African -- must provide for their own tools, not unlike the Slavic and Italian coal miners of 1902. Like the miners, they are considered independent contractors who must rent the cabs they drive and buy their own gasoline, so that they begin their 12-hour shifts on New York's mean streets perhaps $100 or more in debt. At the end of a bad day (or night) they can go home with less money then they had at the start of the shift.

• Mexican mushroom workers in Kennett Square, the nation's fungi capital west of Philadelphia, have been battling for years to win recognition of their union and collective bargaining agreements with the growers, such as Campbell's Soup. Considered agricultural workers, though mushroom growing in huge sheds is more like factory work, they are denied the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. Only as these workers gradually evolved from migrants into immigrants have they realized limited gains under Pennsylvania's labor laws with the help of public service lawyers and academics from the Comey Institute for Industrial Relations at nearby St. Joseph's University.

• Mega-rich Ivy League schools, notably Harvard and Yale, have come under criticism recently for resisting unionization efforts by their lowest paid employees -- janitors, cafeteria workers, and grounds keepers -- despite these universities' public protestations of political correctness and commitment to diversity. This nearly-invisible sub-stratum on campus is comprised predominantly of recent immigrants and lower-class African Americans.

• Meanwhile, trafficking in human beings for slave labor on plantations, in sweatshops and brothels, and as illegal, cheap labor in the US as well, is a major "service" industry in the global economy of the new millennium.

Clarence Darrow, who branded the mine and railroad operators "Goths and Vandals" and who in another famous case (Leopold and Loeb) described the world as "one great slaughterhouse from the beginning of time to the present," was too great a cynic to be surprised by these facts.

But we who can look back from America's lofty height, as the world's one last Superpower, to the suffering, turmoil, and ultimate justice of the Great Strike and the Anthracite Award of 1902-03, might well wonder why the prosperity and power we now defend against foreign terrorists still rides in large measure on the backs of immigrant and foreign labor.

Or perhaps, preferring not to wonder about the persistence of this evil, we might make our motto, "Why, hell, they don't suffer. Half of them don't even speak English."

James Ottavio Castagnera is a former labor lawyer and now is associate provost and associate vice president for academic affairs of Rider University, Lawrenceville, N.J.

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