“Stick to the Union” – Factory girls supported union miners during Coal Strike of 1902

During the largest coal miners’ strike in American history, the women of a small mining town in Pennsylvania backed the local miners in their battle with management. They did so by writing and performing their own songs in support of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

Starting in May 1902, coal miners in the Anthracite Region in eastern Pennsylvania walked off the job in search of better pay and working conditions. More than 100,000 miners and laborers refused to work. As the strike stretched through the summer and into the fall, conditions became increasingly difficult for miners, who had little access to money during the shutdown.

President Theodore Roosevelt feared the calamity that would ensue if the strike continued into the winter; the Eastern Seaboard’s major cities used anthracite coal for to heat homes and businesses during the brutal cold weather months. He demanded that labor and management come to the table for negotiations under the watchful eye of a government commission.

Cartoon
A 1902 cartoon satirizing the situation in Pennsylvania. (Ohio State University)

As the drama played out, the residents of Williams Valley on the border between Dauphin and Schuylkill counties waited for news from negotiators. Miners in Lykens, Wiconisco, Williamstown, and Tower City and surrounding patch towns left the job and spent the summer on the picket lines. By September, the battle lines were heated, and still little news came from UMWA headquarters.

But all was not lost desperate in the towns of Williams Valley. In the late 19th century, hosiery mills had come to each of the communities along Wiconisco Creek. So as the town’s men worked deep in the earth mining coal, many women in the community tended machines making underwear and other clothing. Their wages provided important supplemental income to support families and during times of labor strife in the mines, money to sustain survival.

Women Coal Fields
Women’s unpaid, unsung labor in the household kept mining families going. In larger towns, like those in Williams Valley, work in factories provided more opportunity for wage-earning women. This table was compiled in 1908 by sociologist Annie Marion Maclean in “Life in the Pennsylvania Coal Fields with Particular Reference to Women,” 1908. It shows the population of women in the Anthracite Coal Region and the opportunities available to them in the workforce. (University of Chicago)
Looper - Hosiery
A photograph showing a young girl at work in a hosiery mill in the early 20th century. (NYPL)

As the women of Williams Valley worked on in the summer of 1902, the factory girls at Wiconisco came up with a ditty they began singing behind their machines. They titled it, “Stick to the Union.” The editor of the Lykens Register gained a copy and published the pro-union tune on September 19, 1902

Stick to the Union.

BY WICONISCO FACTORY GIRLS.

It was on the fifth day of May,

With Mitchell far away,

The miners went out on a strike;

And they’ll stick till they win,

Though there’s no flour in the bin,

For their cause is just and right.

Chorus.

Stick to the Union, men, don’t be a knave,

Show the operators you won’t be a slave,

And when the strike is over, and the victory is won,

You’ll get credit for what you have done.

The miners who are striking

Need have nothing to fear,

For the Union supports them,

And will always stand near,

And the scabs that are working,  

Yes working every day,

When the strike is over

Will be glad to move away.

Cho. –

Stick to the Union, men, don’t be a knave,

Show the operators you won’t be a slave,

And when the strike is over, and the victory is won,

You’ll get credit for what you have done.

The miner does not dress well

And the scabs are making fun,

But when the strike is over

They’ll show them what they’ve done;

The scabs say the union men

Live on molasses bread,

But when the strike is over

They’ll all wish they were dead.

A month later, on October 23, 1902, the Coal Strike of 1902 came to an end when Federal negotiators forced management to back down. Miners and laborers made major strides in cooperation with the UMWA. Workers received a 10% wage increase and an hour decrease in the work-day. With the success of the strike, the UMWA became a powerful force in labor relations in Pennsylvania.

They couldn’t have done it without the support of the ladies.


Featured Image: A hosiery mill in Williamstown, Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. (Williamstown – My Hometown)

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