I recently had the chance to visit the grave of Coal Region labor leader John Siney. As I’ve researched this figure, I’ve found his role in the area’s history to be among the most compelling, yet least known.
We’ve previously profiled Siney – you can find that article here – and after digging into his role as the president of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, I just knew I had to make the trek to St. Clair to visit his final resting place.
I’m not the first to make this journey. In 1905, John Mitchell, hero of the United Mineworkers of America, came to this same spot to honor John Siney. “With heads bare the company paid reverence to the memory of their former Champion,” wrote a spectator who witnessed that occasion. “It was an impressive scene.”
Why do we make this trip?
John Siney came to the Coal Region during the Civil War and almost immediately entered the fray between mineworkers and management in Schuylkill County. He found success as the leader of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association after the war, creating a union that sought to represent the interests of the mineworkers in the Coal Region.
He used his skills as a speaker and an organizer to unite miners and laborers in their battles for higher wages and better working conditions in the late 1860s and early 1870s. He found early success, but eventually the WBA was smashed by the increasingly powerful and monopolistic Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Its president, Franklin Gowen, sought to crush Siney and the WBA and succeeded in the wake of a disastrous strike among mineworkers in 1875.
Siney sought to spread the idea of unionizing among the working class across all industries, not just mineworkers, but found organizing during the economic downturn in the 1870s incredibly difficult. As his health worsened, he lost the ability to speak and to influence and succumbed to black lung in 1880. He died penniless in Schuylkill County.
But his supporters raised money to construct a tasteful monument to this early labor leader. Siney’s legacy created ideas and put down lessons for future unions, including Mitchell’s UMWA. It reads, in part: “Erected by his admiring friends… in memory of his firm devotion to the cause of labor.”
Siney’s struggle against the coal operators in the mid-19th century was a valiant battle ahead of its time. The lessons of his life and career are particularly relevant in our own time.
The next time you are in St. Clair, I recommend a stop by his grave. It provides a chance to reflect on the struggles of the miners in the Coal Region to gain recognition of their rights to a living wage and safe working conditions.
Died April 16, 1880
Aged 49 years.
Erected by his admiring friends, under the auspices of the M&LAA in memory of his firm devotion to the cause of labor
Featured Image: The author at John Siney’s grave in May 2019.
John Siney is buried in Saint Mary’s Catholic Cemetery on West Carroll Street in St. Clair, Pennsylvania.