Sunday, October 19, 2008

TR's Square Deal & the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902

In the fall of 1902, the United States of America was threatened by a continuing strike in the anthracite coal mines of Pennsylvania and the surrounding region. For the first time in American history, the President of the United States sought to arbitrate a great labor strike, forcing the mine owners and the representatives of the mine workers to settle a strike and subsequent lock out that threatened, in the least, to leave millions of citizens without adequate winter fuel, and, at its worst, to boil over into widespread violence and federal military intervention to seize and operate the mines.

Where previous presidents had used federal troops to literally bust strikes and labor actions by union workers, Theodore Roosevelt sought to grant the United Mine Workers a seat at the table. The story of how Roosevelt appointed an arbitration committee is, indeed, a profile in courage and innovation. Frustrated that mine owners would not agree to a position for a “mine workers union representative” on the arbitration panel, T.R. did win from the mine owners the agreement to allow an “eminent sociologist” to be appointed. Boldly, T.R. appointed John Mitchell, President of the United Mine Workers, as the “eminent sociologist” and mine owners went along with the arrangement.

On October 15, 1902, the Anthracite Coal Strike was settled. Neither side was entirely happy. Workers received a small increase in pay and little else. Mine owners continued to refuse recognition of the union. Still, disaster was averted, and T.R. asserted a right which now seems to be a presidential responsibility. When major disruptions occur between labor and management, especially in areas determined to be critical to our economic well-being, we now look to the President of the United States to bring opposing sides together, to forge a Square Deal where otherwise great harm might be done.

To celebrate, on October 15th, I planned to visit Theodore Roosevelt Junior High School in Altoona, Pennsylvania. I did so, but I was struck and saddened by the reality that Theodore Roosevelt Junior High School housed its last students this past summer. Today, the teenagers of Altoona are studying across the street in a state of the art school, renamed generically the Altoona Area Junior High School.

As I watched the wrecking crew work on the old 1923 building and as I toured the new school, I couldn’t help but feel some remorse for the fact that students would no longer have that visceral bond with history that I think comes from attending a school named after a great American. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of these children had great, great grandfathers whose jobs were saved and lives improved in the mines of Pennsylvania by the man in the White House who was committed to securing for the American worker and his family a Square Deal.

In my own mind, if the leaders of the Altoona Public Schools were looking to give their students a Square Deal, they might have done more to keep the name and legacy of Theodore Roosevelt alive on their school.

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