He rose from boy laborer in the mines to become the president of the United Mine Workers of America.
John Mitchell was born to one of the many poor Irish families that had immigrated to Illinois to work in the coal fields. His is a story of a man who rose from a boy laborer in the mines to become the president of the United Mine Workers of America, from which position he led the coal miners through one of the most significant strikes and victories in the history of labor.
Orphaned at the age of six, he soon entered the mines to help support his many siblings and step mother. At the age of fifteen he joined the Knights of Labor, and in 1890 at the age of nineteen, he joined the newly formed United Mine Workers of America.
In the late nineteenth century, labor unions were reinventing themselves to be more inclusive of the changing work force, but his was not accomplished without considerable internal friction. In southern Illinois where Mitchell did much of his early organizing, the Irish population from which he had come was quite resentful of the newest group of immigrants: the Germans, Poles and other European peoples. One of Mitchell's great accomplishments as a labor leader was to bridge language and cultural gaps and, with the help of local leaders and the clergy, include these new workers in the U.M.W.A.
Mitchell became vice-president of the union in 1897, and president in 1898 when the then-president left the union to become President McKinley's Secretary of Labor. Under Mitchell's leadership, the ranks of the union swelled from 34,000 to 300,000 members, largely due to his efforts organizing the miners in the anthracite* fields in that region was ended when President Theodore Roosevelt forced the hostile mine owners and operators to come to the table with Mitchell and the U.M.W.A. Mitchell acquired a favorable and long-lasting contract for his workers that included such concessions from the mine operators as the eight-hour day and a guaranteed minimum wage.
In the years following Mitchell's presidency, he would fall from favor largely as a result of his membership in the National Civic Federation and his belief in this organization's principles. These principles were based upon the organization's relatively conservative program of "class collaboration" in which the benevolence of capital coupled with a moderate union, was assumed to bring about a greater good for all. Despite accusations of radicalism in his earlier days as union president, Mitchell always sought a peaceful reconciliation to capital-labor disputes, and dedicated his life to creating a strong and ethnically diverse labor union.
Mitchell made his home in Spring Valley, Illinois.
*Anthracite is an extremely hard and clean-burning coal, differing from the softer and less pure bituminous coal found in other regions.
Gluck, Elsie. John Mitchell. New York: John Dya, 1929.
Madison, Charles A., American Labor Leader: Personalities and Forces in the Labor Movement. New York: Frederick Unger Publishing Co., 1962.
"Mitchell, John" Biographical Dictionary of American Labor. ed. Gary M. Fink. Westport, CT,: Greenwood Press, 1984.