WEST PITTSTON — In the troubled history of anthracite coal mining in Northeastern Pennsylvania, there is little that can compare with the long-term battle between labor activist Sicilian mine workers and the hard-nosed Erie companies that employed them.
Their struggle erupted into shootings, bombings and seemingly endless strikes, nearly all of them screaming out from newspaper headlines. It rocked the area from Pittston to Scranton for decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fueling the perception of the anthracite region as a place of lawlessness.
“This was one of the most bitter chapters in American labor history,” said historian Robert P. Wolensky. “This was really rough stuff up here.”
Wolensky, a Wyoming Valley native who teaches at the University of Wisconsin/Stevens Point, offered some insights into his latest book Sunday at an event sponsored by the West Pittston Historical Society. William Hastie Sr., a former mine worker, is co-author of that book “Anthracite Labor Wars.”
While dealings between mine workers and their employers were never cozy, the Sicilians and Erie, owner of the Pennsylvania and Hillside operations, had an especially acrimonious relationship. That is because the Sicilians arrived in America not only as experienced miners from the sulfur pits of their homeland but also as men accustomed to aggressively pursuing labor’s cause. When they ran into Erie, the smallest but highest-profit and lowest-paying of the major coal producers, the result was, said Wolensky, “a perfect storm.”
The conflict was played out largely in the area from Pittston to Scranton, the upper reaches of the Northern Coal Field, an area encompassing essentially Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. That area had more than half the mine workers employed in the three coal fields, the others being the Middle and Southern.
Successive waves of European immigrants — first from Western Europe and later from Eastern and Southern Europe — poured into the anthracite region through the 1800s. The more-recent Italians, many of them Sicilian, made up a large percentage of mine workers by the turn of the 20th century. It was a time, said Wolensky, when young boys were put into the mines to learn lesser tasks, while their elders did the even-more-dangerous work of blasting and chopping to fill rail cars with what was often called “black gold.”
With the formation of the new union, the United Mine Workers of America, workers began to press for higher wages, and the first decade of the 20th century saw a series of strikes that drew national attention, anthracite being a vital fuel. President Theodore Roosevelt involved himself, as did Bishop Linus Hoban of the Diocese of Scranton and local priest Msgr. John J. Curran. A papal encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” put the Roman Catholic Church on record supporting labor rights, and UMWA President John Mitchell became a revered man among mining families.
Yet there seemed to be little progress overall, said Wolensky. A sticking point in worker-owner relations, he said, was mine owners “subcontracting” — allowing other companies to run their mines, while absolving themselves from any blame for conditions. In 1907 the leftist labor group International Workers of the World involved itself, but to little avail. Even the government of Italy sent an envoy to negotiate. Then from subcontracting, mine owners progressed to leasing their mines to outside operators, distancing themselves still more from the workers’ plight.
In time, the mine workers grew frustrated. Violence in the Northern Coal Field reached a peak in the 1920s, with murders and assassinations occurring as mine owners remained intransigent and labor factions jockeyed for position. That decade also saw a series of long strikes.
A new union, United Anthracite Miners of Pennsylvania, arose in the 1930s and siphoned off about half of the UMWA membership. Pittston, said Wolensky, was nicknamed “Little Chicago,” while Railroad Street was known as “Machine Gun Alley.” An outbreak of mail bombs as late as 1936, the so-called “Good Friday Bombings,” was an outgrowth of disputes between two unions, he said.
Despite the blood and anger and internal warfare of that era, said Wolensky, the tale of the Sicilian sulfur miners battling ovewhelming forces is an inspiring one.
“I think it’s a story that’s important to tell. It’s amazing that they took on Goliath.”
The book is available at Barnes & Noble, the Lackawanna Historical Society and the Anthracite Heritage Museum, Scranton.