Westmoreland Coal Miner’s Strike l910 – 19ll
Westmoreland County Coal miners went on strike for union recognition, payment for dead work, an eight hour day, a checkweighman, and union wages. When the miners went on strike, they were evicted from company housing. Tent communities sprung up all over the county. Despite ethnic diversity, the miners held together through sixteen arduous months. Miners had the support of the community, progressives, several church leaders, and the sheriff. However, the mining companies had the courts, the state police, detective agencies and the coal and iron police on their side.
Miners had to worry about violating injunctions, but they also had to deal with charges of trespass and disorderly conduct. During the strike, coal companies posted their property and the roads leading over their property. In Herminie, residents needed a pass from the superintendent of the mines to go in and out of the village. Infractions came before the justices of the peace. One thousand miners were arrested for trespass or disorderly conduct.
Deputies, coal and iron police and state police were aligned on the side of the coal companies and they were brutal. Coal companies hired guards ostensibly to protect strikebreakers and their property, but in reality to break the strike. The guards were deputized which gave their actions the force of law. The guards could be commissioned by the sheriff as deputy sheriffs or by the Court of Quarter Sessions as deputy constables. The coal and iron police were commissioned by the governor, but housing and salaries were paid by the coal companies. Mine superintendents were all members of the coal and iron police. Deputies were recruited from detective agencies. The l915 commission on Industrial Relations called detectives working for private agencies “lawless criminals” and urged regulation or abandonment of the practice. The Pennsylvania State Police, though not paid by the companies, took the side of the coal companies and used the same tactics as the deputies and coal and iron police. Slovak miners referred to the State Police as “Cossacks.” The l915 Commission on Industrial Relations annual report highlighted the brutality of the state police. The report stated that violence increased when the state police were present and that they were efficient when it came to breaking the strike but they were not when it came to keeping the peace.
A few incidents highlight the problems the miners faced. On one occasion armed and drunk Taney Detective Agency detectives and members of the state police arrived at boarding house demanding to see one of the strikebreakers who had been talked into leaving the employ of the coal company. When they were informed that the individual was not present, they fired randomly into the crowd that had gathered around the boarding house. Thirty persons were injured and Paul Renomeno, who was standing by the front gate of his house, was killed. When the sheriff learned what happened, he fired the deputies involved in the incident. He had previously hired the deputies at the request of the coal companies, but he had given orders not to abuse the miners. The coal companies then stopped using the sheriff to deputize detectives. They went to the Court of Quarter Sessions and had those same deputies sworn in as deputy constables. The Court had no problem obliging the coal companies even though they knew why the sheriff fired them.
Violence frequently ensued when the deputies and coal and
iron police disregarded local officials.
One time, miners had secured a permit from the town of
On another occasion, the miners were traveling from one town to another to hear officers of the United Mine Workers union speak. To avoid company property, the miners would have had to go five miles out of their way. They chose the shortest path. When the miners tried to cross the coal company property, the mounted state police brandishing guns and rode into the crowd of miners. Two miners were shot and several beaten.
The sheriff objected to the disregard of local law enforcement official and to the abuse of the miners. He was at odds with the state police, the courts, and the coal companies. He made powerful enemies and he became a victim himself. The sheriff began to appoint the striking miners as deputy sheriffs to try to keep the peace. They served without pay. The sheriff’s miner deputies accompanied marches and parades. On one of the marches, the miners passed Penn Gas Coal Company. The constables and coal and iron police fired 150 shots over the heads of the miners. The sheriff’s deputies, who could identify three of the assailants, secured a warrant for their arrest. The deputies went to Penn Gas Coal Company, showed the chief deputy the arrest warrant, and asked that they turn over the men named. Instead, the chief deputy, assisted by the coal and iron police, arrested the sheriff’s deputies and took them to the justice of the peace and charged them with trespass. The justice ignored their reason for being on the property and sentenced them to five days in jail. The sheriff was annoyed and did not put the deputies in jail. Three months later, on an order from the same justice of the peace, the sheriff was arrested and charged with malfeasance in office for allowing prisoners to escape. The sheriff quickly put the deputies in jail, but he was indicted anyway. At the trial, the sheriff’s attorney tried to introduce the reasons for the sheriff’s action, but the judge refused to allow any airing of evidence from the lower court since the case was on appeal. The sheriff was found guilty and sentenced to one year and three months confinement at hard labor. Ten of the jurors petitioned the court requesting that the sheriff be given a new trial. Their request was ignored and the sheriff served his time.
In the end, the miners had to give up. The leaders of the strike were blacklisted.