John Siney came to the Coal Region from Ireland during the worst of the Civil War. He arrived in the Schuylkill County coal town of St. Clair as the conflict raged at places like Gettysburg and Chickamauga.
He found an occupation in the anthracite mines near St. Clair, but immediately became aware of the dangers facing his fellow mineworkers and the struggle against coal operators in a battle for better working conditions and a living wage. He joined a controversial coal strike in Schuylkill County in 1864 that threatened to cut off the supply of coal during a crucial moment in the Union war effort.
After the conflict, Siney became a labor organizer and worked his way to the top of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. This early union promoted the position of organized miners in the anthracite coal fields in direct opposition to the coal operators that dominated the area.
Siney spread the influence of the WBA in September 1869 in the wake of the Avondale Disaster in Luzerne County, where 110 workers were killed after a fire in a coal breaker suffocated the entire workforce in the shaft beneath. “You can do nothing to win these dead back to life,” he told those gathered outside the burned-out breaker, “but you can help me to win fair treatment and justice for living men who risk life and health in their daily toil.” His efforts pushed for the enforcement of mine safety laws that could prevent future disasters like the nightmare at Avondale.
Siney continued leading organizations in a fight to organize miners and laborers in industrial and coal regions across the eastern United States. But each time, he faced steep opposition that crushed their attempts to strengthen the position of workers.
In the end, John Siney perished from the same disease that claimed the lives of many of those who toiled deep underground in the mines of the Coal Region. His lungs filled with coal dust, “miner’s consumption” claimed the life of this early American labor organizer on April 16, 1880 at the age of 49.
More than 1,500 people attended his funeral and the throng that followed his body to
Saint Mary’s Catholic Cemetery stretched to more than a mile in length.
In response to his death, an editor from a pro-labor newspaper in Pottsville wrote this brief, but glowing remembrance of John Siney:
Personally, John Siney was a man who was generally respected. A giant in stature and mental capacity, but without educational advantages, he made his power felt wherever he chose to use it. He was not an orator, but in his plain, vigorous way he suited the intelligence of those he addressed, and led them to do his bidding. But he was single handed and could not grapple the vast resources brought to bear against him and his society, and with it he was crushed. He had no rivals within his sphere and for years no opponent could equal him. In his efforts as an agitator he forced many concessions, and although well paid therefore spent all he got to further the interests of those who followed him.
John Siney’s efforts presaged the work of a future leader of mineworkers, who in 1902 finally brought labor to the table with the coal operators – John Mitchell of the United Mineworkers of America.
On a visit to St. Clair in 1905, John Mitchell made a visit to the grave of John Siney. “With heads bare the company paid reverence to the memory of their former Champion,” wrote a spectator who witnessed the occasion. “It was an impressive scene.”
Featured Image: John Siney and coal miners at work in the 1860s