Rossiter is a rural "back road" community in Western-Central Pennsylvania. It’s on the northern border of Indiana County, approximately 5 miles south of Punxsutawney. If you were to travel through Rossiter today what you would see is a tiny bedroom community with an aging blue collar population. But on closer inspection the reminders of the once booming coal mining settlement can still be found, including the historical marker commemorating the 1927-28 strike. The events surrounding this strike have been largely forgotten, but the impact it had on the national Labor Movement must never be!
Please join me for "the rest of the story" ...
Let me begin the story with a little historical context and background:
In the late 1800's vast amounts of bituminous coal was discovered deep under the rolling hills of Northern Indiana County. Soon after, the Clearfield Bituminous Coal Company (CBC) purchased 1,000 acres of the resource rich land from a single landowner, Jacob Smith. By 1901 a large town had risen up from the farmlands as the mine became fully operational. The sole purpose of this particular mine was to provide coal for the New York Central Railroad and so the town was named for the railroad's treasurer, William Rossiter, who had never set foot there - ever.
Coal companies depended on immigrant labor and Rossiter was no exception. By the 1920’s the town's population peaked at nearly 6,000. With a captive labor force of well over 1,000 supplied primarily by the influx of European immigrants. The most predominate groups came from Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, & Wales. There was also a large "native" population that included those with English, German, and Scotch-Irish heritage. Each of these groups had their own churches and social clubs in their own little ethnic "neighborhoods," yet there was a sense of community throughout - a "class-based" solidarity. Surprisingly, religious and ethnic differences did not cause divisiveness. The men worked together, the children went to the same schools, and on Sundays the entire town participated in BASEBALL - the great "uniter" of the time!
In fact, relations between the groups were better in the coal fields than what existed in their homeland at that time.
The political structure of a Company Town was highly authoritarian. The economy was based on coal with other businesses springing up to support the industry and growing population, however, the company held a monopoly on jobs, housing, utilities, and the basic necessities. Food, clothing, and household items had to be purchased at the company store. Workers were also responsible for all their own equipment and "safety" gear, all purchased from CBC.
Early miners were paid in scrip, not cash. Scrip could only be used in the Company Store. This was true in both bituminous and anthracite coal towns throughout Appalachia. It was a form of indentured servitude. On pay day the CBC would take what was owed to them before paying the miner, who often received nothing. They called this a "snake" because in the log book beside their name would be a squiggly line, meaning they would not get paid that week.
"I owe my soul to the company store," sums it up perfectly!
Mining for coal was extremely dangerous work for early miners. Mortality rates were high and the mineworkers would pray together each day before entering the mine. There was no safety net. If a miner was injured or killed at work they received no compensation - at all. Mine widows had to rely on the kindness of neighbors to survive. Many would quickly remarry or take on boarders.
There were no laws or regulatory agency to keep them safe. What really brought it home to me was a visit to a mining museum in Rossiter and seeing for myself the machinery, explosives, and so-called "safety" equipment used by these early miners.
The Rossiter Strike (1927-28)
In August 1927 approximately 800 Rossiter miners joined 45,000 Pennsylvania miners and 200,000 striking miners nationwide as part of a protest over wage reductions.
A State of Emergency was declared by anti-labor Republican Governor John S. Fisher resulting in martial law, with the National Guard being called up to help the State Police and the private Coal and Iron Police "control" the strikers.
The private police forces were called "Coal and Iron Police" and received commissions from the state although their salaries were paid by the various coal companies for whom they worked.
Although they were hired to protect the property of their respective coal companies and the homes of coal company officials, they were used to intimidate and break up striking mine workers, and if necessary, evict them and their families from their homes. In some communities the coal and iron police were accused of assault, kidnapping, rape, and murder. On June 30, 1931, newly elected Governor Pinchot revoked all coal and iron police commissions.
According to several oral history transcripts, when the cold weather set in, approximately 3 months into the strike, the "union men" and their families were forcibly evicted by the Coal and Iron Police who would come into their homes, tie a rope around their stoves and have their horses drag it out through the front door. Hundreds of families took up residence in the temporary barracks supplied by the UMWA.
The Hungarian Church of Rossiter became a safe house for the striking miners. It was strategically located on a private lot directly across from the mine entrance and it was here that miners met everyday to pray, sing, and hold peaceful demonstrations.
Coincidentally, the pastor of the church, A.J. Philips, was the vice-president of the local chapter of the UMWA. Although, the hymns selected for singing by the striking miners and their families were innocuous, some of them, in light of the strike, could take on a new militant meaning. Two of the hymns that were considered hostile by the [Indiana County] Judge and Coal Company were "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "I'm on the Winning Side with Jesus." They were sung as nonunion workers entered the mines.
The stones used for this monument came from the foundation of the Hungarian Church, which has since collapsed. What a beautiful tribute! And it's placed near the "heart and soul" of the town - the ball field
Judge Jonathan Langham served on the Court of Common Pleas of Indiana County, Pennsylvania, from 1916 to 1936. He was a pro-business Republican with "close ties to the local business and political elite."
Prior to serving on the court he had held numerous political positions, including 3 terms, as a U.S. Congressman. (R-PA)
During the infamous labor conflicts of the 192O's, Langham, who owned stock in local coal companies and whose campaigns were heavily financed by the railroads and coal companies, used the power of the bench to assist in the battles against labor and the unions.
The Judge was famous for his highly unconstitutional anti-labor injunctions, which were so sweeping and so severe they "took on a life of their own" and eventually hurting his own cause by bringing the national spotlight to the plight of the striking coal miners.
His injunctions were unilateral with no hearings for the defendants. They outlawed public meetings, marching, demonstrations of any kind, the use of media to promote their cause, church services, and hymn singing. (There goes the entire First Amendment in one fell swoop!)
These injunctions were brutally enforced by the Gestapo-like Coal and Iron Police and fully supported by Governor Fisher.
It took the involvement of the national press and the ACLU to get the attention of the Federal Government. In February 1928 a Senate Committee came to Indiana County to investigate:
Publicity surrounding the injunction against the singing of hymns focused national attention through the media on the situation. In February 1928, a subcommittee for the Interstate Commerce Committee of the US Senate, swarmed by members of the press, came to Indiana County and the town of Rossiter. They held extensive hearings over a 4 day period, hearing testimony from CBC representatives, journalists, union leaders, the Pastor of the Hungarian Church, striking miners who had received brutal treatment from the Coal and Iron Police, various community members, and Judge Langham himself, who had to be subpoenaed! Governor Fisher, in clear contempt, ignored his subpoena. He went further to make a public speech calling on Judge Langham to have the US Senators arrested!
Local and National Press Coverage:
"DRASTIC COAL INJUNCTION; Rossiter (Pa.) Strikers Forbidden to Meet on Church Lot." The New York Times November 14, 1927
"WIDE COAL INQUIRY ORDERED BY SENATE; Committee Is Directed to Look Into Evictions, Injunctions, and Wage Conditions."
The New York Times February 17, 1928
"COAL INQUIRY BEGINS WEDNESDAY; Five Senators Are Named on Subcommittee Which Will Visit the Strike Area."
New York Times: February 19, 1928
They Call Conditions Around Pittsburgh "a Blotch Upon American Civilization." Enjoined From Singing Hymns. "Getting Into Dangerous Thing."
The New York Times: February 28, 1928
INDIANA, Pa., Feb. 27.--Returning here late today from Rossiter, thirty-five miles from here, where they uncovered further startling conditions among coal strikers and strike-breakers, members of the Senate subcommittee investigating the...
"TO ASK ROCKEFELLER TO TESTIFY ON COAL; Senators Will Also Subpoena Schwab and Crowley and May "invite" Governor Fisher, LATTER'S SPEECH "INSULT" Gooding So Labels Alleged Talk of Governor Saying Senators Should Have Been Jailed. Report of Fisher Speech. Judge May Be Called. People Likened to Serfs." New York Times: March 20, 1928
"MINE OWNERS DEFY PROBERS OF COAL ROW: Pennsylvania Operators Refuse Figures on Mining Costs to Senate Subcommittee. PATHETIC STORIES TOLD BY STRIKERS: Miner Charges He Was Ordered To Vacate Company-Owned House After Wife Was Stricken." and "Employees of coal operators flatly refused today to furnish the senate interstate commerce subcommittee, investigating strike conditions in the bituminous fields of Pennsylvania, with any information on the costs of mining under an open shop basis."
The Atlanta Constitution. Feb. 28, 1925
The Punxsutawney Spirit and the Indiana Evening Gazette provided the most detailed and extended coverage of the strike. Pittsburgh newspapers dispatched reporters to cover the hearing and events in Rossiter. Lowell F. Limpus who reported on the committee proceeding for the New York Daily News also testified before the committee. His photographs graphically told the story of poverty witnessed by the senators. The New York Times provided coverage of the hearing on February 28 and 29, calling the injunction against hymn singing "one of the most drastic injunctions . . . in the history of labor disputes in this country."
In addition to articles about the strike, the United Mine Workers Journal printed a letter by the Rossiter Pastor and Union leader, A.J. Phillips, lamenting the poor physical condition of the miners and the decline in outside donations and requesting the passage of remedial congressional legislation.
The injunction and the call of the Rossiter miners for a general coal strike caught the attention of the Daily Worker, which described the Langham injunction as "the most drastic injunction ever granted in this state."
Based on official documents, testimony, first hand observations, and reports from the ACLU and various newspaper reporters, the Senate issued a scathing report against Judge Langham, Gov. Fisher, and the coal companies.
Unfortunately, their recommendations were completely ignored by the Governor Fisher and the coal companies. The strike was broke. With no federal protection in place to give workers the right to organize the Senate had no authority.
This must have been very frustrating for Senator Wagner. According to the transcripts of the hearings (Oh I wish I could link to these. I have hard copies and they are absolutely eye-opening!) these senators were clearly on the side of labor, especially after visiting the coal fields and seeing first hand the abject poverty and brutal oppression.
Yet their hands were tied... until...
National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) of 1935:
Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY)
Member of the subcommittee visiting Rossiter, ruthless interrogater of Judge Langham, and sponsor of the Wagner Act
Of course, Senator Wagner wasn't the only Senator to visit Rossiter, he was accompanied by Senators Gooding, Pine and Wheeler, but he is the most remembered due to his famous and long fought battles for the working class. The people of Rossiter see him as a hero of labor and rightfully so, which is why they included his name on their historical marker.
Picture of FDR signing the Wagner Act into law.
The Wagner Act of 1935 protects, for the first time, the rights of most workers in the private sector to organize labor unions, engage in collective bargaining, and to take part in strikes and other forms of concerted activity in support of their demands.
"I have pleaded your case from the pulpit and from the public platform--not in the quavering tones of a feeble mendicant asking alms, but in the thundering voice of the captain of a mighty host, demanding the rights to which free men are entitled."
John L. Lewis was president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960. He was one of the most powerful men in the United States at the time and one of the most important labor leaders in American history. He was born in Iowa, the son of a Welsh immigrant miner. He was held in such high esteem by miners and their families that his photo was often prominently displayed on their living room walls between an illustration of Jesus Christ and a photo of the President of the United States.
I just had to include pictures of FDR and John L. Lewis because they, along with Jesus, make up the coal miner's Holy Trinity, "Jesus Christ, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John L. Lewis"
Update: Links to sources and more on the story
Update: Please visit Trapper John's Diary, about the upcoming Senate vote on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), "An Appeal to the Baser Interests of Our Less Labor-Friendly Democrats"
Miss Laura explains what EFCA is in her diary,
"A Workers Bill of Rights"