Labor Revolt in Alabama
The Great Strike of 1894
By Robert David Ward, William Warren Rogers
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1965 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Early Efforts at Organization
A violent and protracted strike began in Alabama coal mines on April 14, 1894. The strike involved more than 8,000 miners seeking to protect themselves against wage reductions in a time of depression, and hoping to gain peripheral improvements in living and working conditions. This strike, the largest demonstration by organized labor in the state during the nineteenth century, lasted through four violent months. In an era of industrial warfare the Alabama strike was a product of its time, a part of the struggle between management and labor that accompanied the post Civil War decades of industrialization. In many ways the Alabama strike shows the usual symptoms of the 1890's: clashes between strikers and company guards, the use of Pinkerton detectives, and the ultimate employment of the state militia to quell violence both real and potential. On these bases the Alabama strike would remain an isolated provincial example of labor unrest, overshadowed by the labor conflicts of the more industrialized North.
The Alabama coal mine strike, however, cannot be so easily categorized, for in several ways it was unique. The 1894 strike was fought out in a society still basically agrarian in its attitudes and its values, a society not yet fundamentally affected by the changes to be wrought by blast furnace and rolling mill. In such a setting the strike was alien, a foreshadowing of the future. It intruded on past and present in its use of the coercive power of the group in a society still operating on personal relationships. This was a Southern strike, and as such it transcended the accepted elements of industrial warfare. Here the difficulties of improved wages, better working conditions, and attempts at unionization were compounded by the convict lease system and volatile racial animosity. Here, in 1894, the political movement of agrarian reform joined with the cause of the proletariat to produce a turbulent upheaval.
The strike of 1894 was the product of its own peculiar genesis, half colored by national developments, half formed by its sectional setting. A background that requires consideration and understanding produced the four months of crisis.
The coal fields of Alabama are divided geographically into three major segments. On a line running roughly from southeast to northwest through the center of the state lie the Coosa, the Cahaba, and the Warrior coal fields, each named for the river that drains these valley basins. Despite the extensive area underlaid by the coal measures, the commercial exploitation of coal has centered in a compact group of counties, notably in Jefferson, Walker, Bibb, Tuscaloosa, St. Clair, Shelby, and Talladega.
While coal was mined in Bibb and Shelby counties as early as 1815, nothing approaching the status of a coal industry was discernible until the eve of the Civil War. This relatively slow development of the state's extensive coal deposits was attributable in part to the basic capital deficiencies of the time, but even more to the fact that prior to the Civil War the limited utilization of Alabama iron ore was not dependent on coal. A charcoal-based iron process placed no premium on the large-scale mining of coal.
In 1856, "the first regular, systematic, underground mining" was begun near Montevallo in the Cahaba field by the Alabama Coal Mining Company. In 1859, the company installed a steam engine for mine haulage, a technical improvement put to good use with the arrival of Joseph Squire, an English-born, practical mining engineer. At that time it cost the company $10.00 a ton to mine its coal. With the new equipment and better organization, Squire soon cut this expense to $2.50 and at the same time raised the wages of his miners to $1.00 a ton.
While the slow infiltration of technical advance and better management provided a basis for industry, it was the temporary stimulus of the Civil War and the demand for coal and iron by the Confederate government that brought rapid growth in production. Though the Shelby Iron Company played an important role in supplying the Confederacy with critically needed iron, events soon showed that the demands of war were a transitory basis on which to found an industry. The Shelby works were destroyed by Union raiders in 1865; the end of the war brought a cessation of demand; the small operators drifted away; and the mine sites returned to the brier-ridden abandonment of a rugged country.
The resurrection of coal and iron production in Alabama was a hesitant part of the unprecedented national growth that followed the Civil War. With little native capital, inadequate transportation, and a host of technical unknowns, the exploitation of Alabama coal and iron nevertheless drew individuals willing to run the risks of the untried in hopes of profit to come. The creation of a relatively complex industrial economy in a war-impoverished agrarian society met with delay and frustration. The requirements of the retail market could support a few mines as a source of domestic fuel, but such demands were far too small to activate large-scale coal mining. Greater coal production could only come as a side effect of the development of an iron industry, and both were dependent on railroad building to open the mineral region to development. It was this interrelationship of need between coal, iron, and railroads that posed the major impediment to growth in the immediate postwar period. William Crawford Gorgas, former head of Confederate Ordnance, wrote, "the mining interest and the Rail Road interest must go hand in hand — the latter must lead the former & must then be sustained by it...." From 1866 to 1868 Gorgas tried but failed to produce iron profitably at the Brierfield Iron Works near Ashby, Alabama.
Though slow at first, the industry's growth began even before the period of Reconstruction had run its course. In 1872 native capital was invested in a renewal of iron production when Daniel Pratt, Alabama's pioneer textile manufacturer, his son-in-law, Henry F. DeBardeleben, and Henry D. Clayton took over the prewar Oxmoor furnace under the name of the Eureka Mining Company. The success of this venture perhaps seemed the more assured when in the same year the old South and North Railroad, authorized by the state in 1860, was finally completed under the ownership of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. The road ran through the heart of the mineral region, but whatever dreams of profit the officers of the L. & N. may have had in controlling transportation from Nashville to Montgomery, they were long in realizing them. The Panic of 1873 found the L. & N. overextended and without credit. The extensive coal mines and iron works on which the route was premised did not yet exist, and the few that did offered scant traffic and less revenue. As the vice-president of the L. & N. morosely put it, the railroad "will not pay for the grease that is used on its car wheels."
At the same time the Oxmoor experiment of the Eureka Mining Company was faring little better. Its furnaces went into blast in the early winter of 1873 in time to be hit by the panic that drove pig iron prices from $40.00 a ton to $8.00. DeBardeleben, who had been acting as general manager, resigned, and although the company was reorganized as the Eureka Mining and Transportation Company it remained short of capital and technically hindered because of its reliance on charcoal.
It was not until four years after the Panic of 1873 that the basic questions of Alabama's industrial future were answered. In 1876 it was demonstrated that good quality iron could be made with coke, a discovery that immediately produced the first systematic examination of the coal fields. The leaders in this exploration were Truman H. Aldrich, a trained mining engineer from New York who had bought the Montevallo mines in 1873; James W. Sloss, an interested party in the South and North Railroad and a member of the board of managers of the Eureka Company; and DeBardeleben, once more drawn into the business of coal and iron.
In 1878 Aldrich, Sloss, and DeBardeleben formed the Pratt Coal and Coke Company and began major mining operations in the Pratt seam of the Warrior coal field. From this point onward the expansion of the coal industry was rapid because new capital flowed into the business and the consolidation of small companies began. Although opportunity for the small entrepreneur remained open for some time, high production costs caused a trend toward control of the industry by a few major companies. While concentration of management produced economics in operation and greater economic power for the owners, it also increased the effectiveness of labor pressure once the difficulties of union organization were overcome.
The Pratt Coal and Coke Company of Aldrich, Sloss, and DeBardeleben was itself the basis for further expansion and consolidation. In 1881 Aldrich left the company to organize his own larger Cahaba Coal Mining Company. In the same year Sloss resigned and organized the Sloss Furnace Company. DeBardeleben, under the apparently erroneous assumption that he was suffering from tuberculosis, sold the Pratt Company to Tennessee interests headed by Enoch Ensley. Ensley, in 1884, combined his new property with the Alice Furnace Company and the Linn Iron Works to create the Pratt Coal and Iron Company.
The next round of organizational change carried concentration much farther. In 1886 the Pratt Coal and Iron Company was, in effect, bought out from under Ensley when majority control was acquired by the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, up to now an exclusively Tennessee-based concern. In the same year DeBardeleben returned to the scene of action and established the DeBardeleben Coal and Iron Company. The ingredients were now in place for the major merger that came in 1891. In that year the Tennessee Company acquired not only DeBardeleben's large holdings, but took over the Cahaba Coal Mining Company of T. H. Aldrich as well. In 1892 the Tennessee Company elected new officers for its consolidated holdings, with Nat Baxter of the original company as president, DeBardeleben as first vice-president, and Aldrich as second vice-president and general manager.
Thus constituted, the Tennessee Company held the major portion of the coal business of the state. It operated ten mines at its Pratt Mines Division, the heart of the old Aldrich, Sloss, and DeBardeleben company. In addition, its Blue Creek Division carried on operations at the major mines of Adger, Johns, and Sumter, and the Cahaba Division mined three slopes at Blocton and two at Gurnee. The closest competitor was the Sloss Iron and Steel Company, organized in 1887, with mines at Coalburg, Brookside, Cardiff, Brazil, and Blossburg.
Company consolidation was a by-product of the basic enlargement of the industry that was taking place. From 13,000 tons of coal mined in the state in 1870, production rose to over 5,500,000 tons by 1892. Almost nine-tenths of the total production of the state was centered in the three counties of Jefferson, Walker, and Bibb, with Jefferson, the center of the iron industry, producing one-half of the total state production. The total value of the coal produced in 1892 was estimated at $5,788,898. In coal mining alone the New South's version of big business had arrived by 1892.
Several cities were direct products of Alabama's coal and iron production, but Birmingham's growth was the most spectacular. In 1869 the coal, iron, and other mineral deposits around the small village of Elyton in Jefferson County were noted. From this town and the surrounding area the city of Birmingham was to grow. By the spring of 1871 Col. J. R. Powell's land company had surveyed 300 acres of land, divided it into blocks, and subdivided these into lots, and was offering them for sale at prices ranging from $75 to $150. The South and North Railroad built a depot, and a local paper announced, "the prospects of Birmingham on the whole seem flattering." That this was an understatement may be seen in the census returns for the next decades. In 1870 Jefferson County had 12,345 persons; by 1880 the population had grown to 23,272 and by 1890 to 88,501. Birmingham itself increased from 3,086 persons in 1870 to 26,501 in 1890. "The sky and the horizon were their limits, and they laid the foundations accordingly," an admiring chronicler wrote of the founders. City tax values leaped from $2,500,000 to over $40,000,000 in the period from 1879 to 1887. But, as the center of the state's industrial production, Birmingham also became the center of industrial strife and discord.
Coincident with enlarged production and the control of Alabama coal mining by a few companies, the labor force to be employed in mining was taking shape. It was the composition of this labor force that vitally affected both the movement for unionization and the difficulties facing unions in their use of the strike. By 1889, four groups comprised the mining labor force of the state. Native-born whites made up 34.9 per cent of the total. While many in this group were miners drawn in from other states, it seems certain that most were native Alabamians, still closely tied to their agrarian past. The second group of miners, 18.7 per cent, came from abroad, principally as immigrants from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Many of the early mines in Alabama were named for the nationalities of these miners, as the ruins of the Irish Pit and the Dutch Pit near Montevallo testify. The Dutch (probably Germans) are reputed to have built their own brewery because of distaste for the local product. Because their background and language were, for the most part, similar to those of the native-born, this group did not constitute a seriously divisive element in the labor force.
While Northern Europeans entered Alabama mining with a minimum of friction, the Southern Europeans often met an unyielding hostility. As early as 1879 an editor welcomed immigrant workers "provided you are not tramps, strikers, communists, nor Mollie Maguires...." In 1885, twenty-three Italians were brought in by the management of the Warrior Coal Mines. The Italians, either in festive or hostile mood, made a grand entrance into town firing revolvers. The local miners, acting in the belief that the Italians "were imported to reduce wages for mining," were moved to counteraction.
A committee representing 400 of the miners had the Italians arrested on a charge of firing weapons, thus precipitating a local debate on the question of importing foreign labor. The leader of the local miners stated that "we do not intend to harm the men who came here, but they are not going to take our places in the mines. We came here first and propose to stay. It is no use talking, it is our men or no other miners." These sentiments were sharply attacked by a spokesman for property as an example of "mobocracy" when such men "presume to tell an intelligent community of business men that they propose to dictate who a man may employ and who he shall not employ." When the Birmingham Iron Age defended employers in importing labor, it was rebuked by the Birmingham Sunday Chronicle on the grounds that "no foreign labor broker should be allowed to plant his transient colony in the state to absorb the wages that should belong to our citizens...."
If an incident such as this occasionally roiled the labor waters, the problem of foreign labor was not great enough to produce a major disturbance. Of far greater import and influence were the Negroes employed in coal mining. In 1889, 46.2 per cent of coal miners in the state were Negroes. While they did not outnumber the whites, they served as a bar to an effective labor movement and as a strikebreaking force always available to the coal mine operators. Many Negroes were loyal supporters of unionization, but the use of Negro strikebreakers intensified existing racial bitterness and made the Negroes' role in the union movement eminently more difficult. Whatever the common economic interests shared by white and Negro miners, the labor force's mixture often tended to transcend and obscure the more immediate demands of labor solidarity.
The white-Negro mixture in the labor force was not the only element affecting labor-management relations. To further complicate relationships there was the convict lease system of the state government and the employment given to convicts by the major coal companies. Union labor, white and black, competed against nonunion labor; white miners competed against Negro miners; and all groups of free miners were in competition with convict labor. (Continues...)
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