Wednesday, September 9, 2015



By James B. Jones, Jr © 1994

Coal Miners' Strikes in Tennessee, 1894.
The Great Coal Strike of 1894, unlike the Coal Creek War of 1891-92, was a national event beginning on April 21, 1894. Nearly 200,000 miners in the bituminous fields of the U.S. participated in Pennsylvania, Washington, Wyoming, Colorado, Indian Territory, Missouri, Kansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. "The object of the movement was to force employers to adopt a uniform scale for mining [wages]. Cost of the strike was reckoned at $20,000,000, while its "indirect cost in sorrow, suffering, and want to thousands of women and children will never be calculated." This source blames both the hard-headed mine owners and union leaders. "...greed was on the part of the mine owners in refusing to pay living wages....[and] criminal folly on the part of the [union] leaders to bring on the contest."1
On April 20, the day before the strike action, miners at the Jelllico district in Tennessee declared they would join the suspension at noon the 21st. This meant some 3,000 miners in the eleven mines in the Jellico district would go on strike.2
On April 21 it was reported in Knoxville that 3,000 miners from Jellico and the Mingo Mtn. Districts "obeyed the order of President McBride, of the United Mine Workers' Association, and went out on a strike at noon....The miners at Coal Creek, where there is little organization, held a meeting and decided not to obey the order. The striking miners are very orderly and no serious trouble is anticipated."3 Yet, by the next day, April 22, rumors abounded in Knoxville that the Coal Creek district miners, who were no strangers to industrial strife, would go on strike within a week. Their initial reluctance was said to have been a result of their desire to ascertain if the strike was truly national in scope.4 Six days later it was reported that "hundreds of miners" at Coal Creek met in the evening to be addressed by union organizers and then voted "almost unanimously" to join the strike on May Day. "This relieves more than anything else the tension existing in that district, as it is believed that in case of a refusal to strike, those who favored cessation of work would cause trouble by endeavoring to compel others to come out."5
In Knoxville on April 30 word was received that Coal Creek miners are on strike, except for those in the Coal Creek Coal Company's mines, but they'll quit on May 1. "The striking miners dislike very much the idea of the convicts turning out from twelve to eighteen cars of coal a day while they are on a strike. There is considerable talk among some that an attempt will be made to release the convicts." This raised the specter of a repeat of the 1891-92 Coal Creek War, but was discounted
unless the strike lasts so long that the coal supply of the other companies gives out and convicts mine enough coal to fill the orders, giving them all to the Knoxville Iron Company. In this instance they would likely be influenced by the operators to turn the convicts loose.
Additionally, the "miners at Jellico are jubilant over their success in getting the Coal Creek miners to come out."
The strike was initially successful and only a handful of miners were reported to have gone to work on May 1. Two days later a mass meeting was held at Coal Creek where a majority of the miners vowed not to return to work until they received a wage of 50 cents per ton of coal.6
The walkout was in its fifth day when the Knoxville Rolling Mills shut down its operations completely because of the absolute lack of coal. "If the situation is not soon relieved," worried one contemporary source, "other manufacturing industries will be forced to shut down."7 Already then, the Tennessee UMW strikers were strangling the state's nineteenth-century industrial base.
By May 11 some miners in the Coal Creek area and in Kentucky voted to return to work. By May 14 a "careful investigation of the east Tennessee coal mining districts to-day reveals the fact that the great strike is almost over." The optimism was fueled by a national meeting of the UMW being held in Cleveland, Ohio, beginning May 15. At Coal Creek the miners voted to return to work, "regardless of the result of the results of the Cleveland convention." At the Royal Mines the miners went back to work taking a 10-cent cut in their wages. The day the national convention of the UMW began it was reported that it was "an assured fact that the miners at the Jellico and Mingo mines will return to work this week, and when the start is made it is only a question of time when all the miners in District No. 15 will go back."8
The meeting in Cleveland between the mine owners and the UMW failed to reach any agreement as to a minimum wage. According to the UMW President McBride, in an statement to the mine owners directly stated: "...the business interests are building upon the starvation and degrading wages paid the laborers I represent. We want you to give us living wages and increase the price of coal so you can get a fair profit." In any event, no solution to the strike was found.9
Nevertheless, on May 25 the estimated 4,000 miners in the Coal Creek mining districts who went out on strike on April 21, all returned to work. "The men have been in utterly destitute circumstances since the strike went into effect and were compelled to return to work or starve." While these miners gained no increase in wages, neither did they lose any. "The operators refused to accede to any of their demands and are monarchs of the situation. Everything is perfectly harmonious and the strike is broken so far as this district is concerned. The miners at Jellico, however, continued their strike. while those at Oliver Springs agreed to return to work.10
Yet by June 1 the Coal Creek miners "laid down their picks and shovels...and refused to work this morning." Apparently a delegation of strike leaders from the UMW local at the Jellico fields were successful in their attempts to reinstate the walkout in Coal Creek. "It is now understood that the men will remain out until their wages are restored and a national settlement is effected." Violence was neither present nor expected.
The effects of the strike were again felt in Knoxville when on June 2 it was announced that the Knoxville Woolen mills might have to shut down, leaving 700 operatives out of work. It was feared all factories in Knoxville would have to shut down "if the strike is not ended."
While the miners at Coal Creek who had rejoined the strike mysteriously returned to work on June 4, a committee of three miners, one from Coal Creek and two from Jellico, arrived in Knoxville to confer with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Their purpose was to enlist the engineers' help by asking them "to refuse to handle coal mined by 'scabs.'" It is not known how the Brotherhood reacted, but the Jellico operators and miners could reach no agreement in an all-day and late night meeting on June 16.11 On July 17, 1894 the 3,000 miners in the Jellico district who had been on strike since May 1 reached and agreement with the mine owners and greed to return to work no later than August 1.12
The strikes in 1894 were in the coal fields located in Anderson, Campbell, Claiborne, and Morgan counties in the Third District, in Hamilton and Scott Counties in the Second District, and in Marion County, in the First District. Two strikes, at the Thomas Mine at Whitwell, in Marion County, and at the Sale Creek Mine at Sale Creek in Hamilton County, were evidently manifestations of class solidarity as they were sparked by "[n]o cause...other than sympathy with other miners on strike." Both of these strikes began in the third week of April and lasted until September 17, and June 14, respectively. In nine cases the cause of the strike was obedience to UMW orders and demands for higher wages. At the Paint Rock Mine at Almy in Scott County, the Indian Creek Mine at Oliver Springs, in Anderson County the miners made no demands whatever but followed the orders of the UMW. Only at the Fork Ridge Mine at Fork Ridge, in Claiborne County, was a one-month strike conducted in January that was not part of the movement of the summer of 1894. Apparently there was no upward movement in miners' wages, only reductions.13
Name of Company Name of Mine County
TCI&RR Thomas Marion
New Soddy Coal Co Soddy Hamilton
Sale Creek Coal Co Sale Creek Hamilton
Glen Mary Coal Co. Glen Mary Scott
Paint Rock Coal Co. Paint Rock Scott
Poplar Creek Coal Co. Poplar Creek Morgan
Winters'Gap Coal Co. Winters' Gap Morgan
Indian Creek Coal Co. Indian Creek Morgan
Coal Creek Coal Co. Fraterville Anderson
Black Diamond Coal Co. Black Diamond Anderson
C.C. Wilson & Co. ............ Anderson
Pine Mountain Coal Co. Pine Mountain Campbell
Woolridge Jellico Co. Woolridge Campbell
Mingo Mtn Coal Co. Mingo Claiborne
Bryson Mtn. Coal Co. Bryson Mtn. Claiborne
Fort Ridge Coal Co. Fort Ridge Claiborne
Reliance Coal Co. Reliance Claiborne
It must be remembered that America was in the throes of a major economic depression that began in June 1893. Failing banks led to a decrease in confidence on the part of depositors which stimulated still solvent banks to call in loans which in turn led to the failure of an increased number of commercial and industrial firms. All these failures led to "conservative estimates [that] placed the number of wage workers...deprived of employment at not less than 1,000,000, who, being deprived of wages, ceased being consumers, thereby adding to the general demoralization." Tennessee didn't escape the turmoil, yet while there were strikes there was no destruction of property as would occur in Pullman, Illinois. The famous Pullman Strike began on May 11 and soon threatened to tie up all railroad traffic in the United States. Sympathetic railroad men throughout the country refused to handle Pullman cars, repair cars, or even to drive locomotives. On July 3, for example, no freights were move in or out on the Iron Mtn. Road (Memphis), while all others were to remain open. Further disturbance in Memphis on July 5, 6 and 7 were followed by a strike in Nashville. A large and curious crowd gathered at Union Station. Local Policemen were detailed to protect the property of the Nashville Chattanooga & St. Louis railroad. By July 13 the strike was over in Tennessee.16 Yet the most pronounced strikes in Tennessee were, as has been shown, part of the Great Coal Strike of 1894.
According to the Fifth Annual Report of the Tennessee Bureau of Labor, Statistics & Mines there was but one coal strike in 1895, at the Royal and Cambria Mines in Campbell County at Coal Creek. The three month walkout began in the Royal Mine on April 1, as a dispute over "the unpopular management of the superintendent placed in charge of the Royal Mine about the first of January" who required day laborers to work during the noon hour "paying for that hour their regular wages." Two weeks after the strike had begun "a small riot took place" when two miners were "killed while attacking supposed company men...." The owners of the mines, the Royal Coal & Coke Company, soon there after hired "[a]n entire new force...and work was resumed about July 1." Thus the strike was unsuccessful and any workers organization most likely crushed as well. "Nothing was gained by either side, excepting the loss of time to the laborers and the loss of patronage to the company."17
Aside from the coal strike there were, according to the Bureau, two other strikes "of any interest" in 1895, namely the tailors working for Berry, Bailey & Co. of Nashville and the coopers at three Nashville milling firms. The course of these two strikes followed a pattern similar to those in the rural coal fields, at least insofar at the outcome. Both reflect the continuing adverse effects of the depression.
After three weeks of unsuccessful negotiations, the Nashville Coopers' Union Local No. 20 met to formally reject the "reduction of wages demanded by the bosses and the mill-men." Rock City coopers had been working under a contract with the local mill owners and it had run out in September. On the 24th of September the local ordered a strike "against a reduction of two thirds cent per barrel in their present scale of wages." The shops of R. Wernet, M.L Andrews, and C.H. Mocker, and involved 115 union coopers.
According to a notice printed in Nashville papers on the 24th:
The cause leading to this trouble originated in a failure of the flouring mills to fulfil [sic] promises made to the coopers eighteen months ago.
The managers of the mills...came before the Coopers Union in March, 1894, at the time when the country was suffering from business depression on every hand...and asked upon these grounds that the Union grant them a 1 cent reduction per barrel for six months, and promised to restore our wages to us at the expiration of the six months. They only restored one-half of the amount.
....This contract was faithfully kept by the Union, and when it expired business confidence was restored throughout the country....[Businesses] all over the land were restoring...wages...that had been reduced during the...depression....
In the face of these facts...the Union asked to have their old scale of 101/2 and 121/2 cents per barrel; but after full discussion...determined to demand 10 and 12 cents per barrel. And upon this proposition and against any reduction the Union stands pat.
Every labor organization in Nashville was visited by the Executive Board of the Coopers' Union in an effort to enlist support for a boycott. They also visited the cities' retail merchants and "requested them to refrain from handling the products of the Cumberland and Liberty Mills." M.L. Andrews, owner of the Andrews Cooperage Works had earlier agreed to the Unions wage demands and all 35 union coopers had returned to work there, while the Model Mill, which purchased Andrews barrels, was also excluded from the boycott.18
By September 26 the "locked-out coopers of Local Union No. 20" warned the population of Nashville not to purchase flour from those mills using "second- hand barrels" and to patronize "only those brands of flour which are packed in union barrels." Adding credibility was the news that this boycott and the coopers' action was endorsed "by the Trades and Labor Council and all labor organizations of Nashville."19
According to an request for an injunction against the Coopers Union filed by the mill-owners, technological advances had resulted in a smaller demand for human labor.
"These machines were used and largely reduced the work of finishing up a barrel." This also meant a cut in the cost of production justifying a corresponding decrease in the coopers' wages. The companies managed to keep up with demand with their non-union and reduced work force until business boomed and they hired scab coopers from Louisville, Kentucky. A committee of Local No. 20 coopers visited the scabs shortly after they arrived in the city and "notified them that they must quit work or take a whipping." Moreover, "a committee from [the] Local Coopers' Union meets every train, and either induces them to go back or threatens them and prevents their going to work. They told complainant that force and intimidation to the extent of bloodshed will be used to prevent coopers going to work. Complainant pays the way of the workmen to Nashville and the committee takes the workmen and sends them back." These actions and the boycott were an "unlawful conspiracy...between the defendants and certain parties unknown to destroy the business of [the mill owners]...." These actions had been going on for weeks and threatened to continue said the mill owners "unless complainant...abandons his improved machinery and employs union men at price to be fixed by them." [Emphasis added.] Chancellor Thomas H. Malone granted the injunction request.20
Certainly it came as no surprise that the Local Coopers' Union requested its own injunction on October 9. It denied any wrong doing on the part of the Union and reaffirmed their view that wages the mill owners would pay were "starving wages, and that no man whose desire is to make an honest living for his family can afford to work for them." President of the union stated that the coopers from Louisville were deceived by misleading advertisements and once they were told of the lock out "they did not feel bound by their contract and returned home." There had been no intimidation, and there had been nothing illegal about the boycott, and the Union asked for a dissolution or modification of the injunction.21
It was modified so mildly as to make the judgment a mere moral victory for the Local No. 20. While the strike would continue for at least two more years, further information is at this time unavailable concerning the ultimate outcome of the strike. However, at a union meeting on December 17, 1895, Mr. W. C. Myers of the Model Mill Company sent a letter in which he "declared from this time on no barrel that did not bear the union label of the Coopers' International Union should ever come into the Model Mill."22 [Further newspaper research for September -December 1895 and into say March 1896 is needed.]
The Nashville Tailors' strike beginning March 18, 1895, was most likely the first such strike in the city since September, 1852.23 The strike in 1895, like its counterpart 43 years earlier, was over wages. Tailors' Union No. 85 of the Journeymen Tailor's Union of America voted for a general boycott against Berry, Bailey & Co., merchant tailors, because they refused "to sign the scale of prices." Like the coopers the tailors visited all labor organizations in the city and secured endorsements for the boycott. Announcing the boycott in the Nashville American of March 20, 1895, Tailors' Union President M.J. Noonan demonstrated worker solidarity by saying:
All the union men responded to the call, and the tailoring establishment Berry, Bailey & Co., is endeavoring to delude the public into believing that they can turn out first-class work when their force of workmen consists only of three non-union, all of whom are incompetent.
Berry, Bailey & Co.'s [wage] scale is forty per cent. lower than that of any other house in the city, and it is plainly apparent to any fair minded man than no competent workmen will be found by them to take the places of their late employees.24
According to the Bureau's history of the strike the union tailors were very energetic in their boycott of the firm "and had a large number of tailors at the depots to meet the trains, and endeavor to persuade the non-union tailors who arrived not to go to work, and in a number of instances were successful."25
An injunction against Local No. 85 of the Tailor's Union from interfering with the business of the firm was issued on April 4, by Judge W.T. Smith of the Fifth Circuit Court. The outcome of the labor/management dispute was unknown by the time the State Bureau of Labor went to press with its Fifth Annual Report which ominously recorded: "The strike is still on."26 [It is not yet known how the strike was resolved.]
Just as the Coopers felt some anxiety promoted by new machinery that threatened their very jobs so the typesetters in Nashville longed for the end of the depression and feared modernization brought about by mechanization. According to a lengthy statement authored by John J. Straub, of Typographical Union No. 20 of Nashville:
Type setting by machinery. Imagine the exclamations of amazement that would be uttered by either Guttenberg, Faust, or even our own Benjamin Franklin, should they awake from their slumbers and walk into a modern newspaper office.... machines...capable of turning out 10,000, or 15,000 characters per hour....
Experience has shown that in a newspaper office ten machines can set as much type as thirty-five or forty men could by hand, which, of course, cheapens the cost of getting out a newspaper, but it is...very probable that the printers of the United States will in a few years receive as large a sum total in wages as before the introduction. But there is no denying the fact that many printers are added continually to the already large army of the unemployed.
Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville daily papers are also equipped with type setting machines, and it is a conservative estimate to state that one half of the newspapers compositors in the four larger Tennessee cities has been displaced by them. [Emphasis added]
Another thing that keeps alive hope in the struggling printer's breast is the their that cheaper composition will naturally result in newspapers springing up, and that eventually all will again find remains to be seen whether or not those now seeking work will find it or whether the ranks of the unemployed will be further augmented by the "manipulators of the silent messengers of thought."[sic]27
Another group of skilled workers feeling the effect of the depression were the barbers. According to a statement attributed to the Journeymen Barbers' Union No. 79, of Nashville, barbering in Tennessee was big business, the source of an income for over two thousand persons of "all classes of citizens...from the old stool and pan-lather operation to the finest parlors and best workmanship that money and unceasing practice can produce." The barbers apparently had a problem with Sunday operation. Even though it was orthodoxy for Barbers to shun Sunday operations the want of work caused by the depression had led to increased competition that led to some Sunday operations. In fact it was a law that was emulated in other states.
The Acts of 1887, making it a misdemeanor "for anyone engaged in the business of a barber to shave, shampoo, cut hair, or to open his bath-rooms on Sunday," was declared unconstitutional, and justly so, for two reasons: Duplicity, in that it embraced two distinct subjects..."barbering" and "bathing," in violation of Article II, Section 17, of the State Constitution; and second, on the ground of class legislation, in that it permitted persons other than barbers t operated bath-rooms on Sunday, while barbers were prohibited, thus the title being "barbering" and "bathing" both, and as these terms are not synonymous or convertible, the law therefore failed to stand the test of the Supreme Court.
...the Legislature of 1891 corrected that error by framing a law prohibiting the carrying on of barbering on Sunday, which not only met the tests of the courts, but won the approval of other states and has been made apart of the laws thereof.
This laudable anti-Sunday barbering statute was, however, opposed by some who "did not raise their voices in defense of the Sunday rest in the perilous hours when the enemies of Sunday rest were bombarding our legislative citadel with the hope of tearing from our statues that law which is in conformity with moral teaching and approved by the better element of barbers through the State. 'Hallow the Sabbath day to do no work therein.'"[Emphasis added.]
The two large Barbers Unions, organized in Nashville in 1891, and although divided upon racial lines, worked together to have the state law made into a local ordinance, defying local custom. The ordinance also resulted in setting 8 o'clock as the mandatory closing hour along with "living prices" which resulted in "living wages." Soon thereafter, however, as a result of the depression, competition resulted and many Nashville barbers had forgotten that " hold land maintain that which has already been accomplished, it is necessary to remain organized, many of the barbers abandoned the ship of unionism...until the result is that prices for work are shattered into tatters - many shops which heretofore charged 15 cents for shaving and 35 cents for hair cutting now...[charge]...10 and 25 cents, respectively; and many who had been charging 10 cents for shaving and 25 cents for hair-cutting now charge 5 and 10 cents respectively." These "cut rate" shops were multiplying rapidly since the onset of the economic depression, a fact that was "to the disgust of those [union barbers] who hope to raise the dignity of their calling."[added] According to the statement:
When the barbers of Nashville (both white and colored) [added] were thoroughly organized only one "cut-rate" shop was in existence, and as the unions gradually decreased in membership the "cut-rate" shops...increased. These "cut-rate" shops are composed very largely of inexperienced workmen. Men and boys who served a few months as porters or boot-blacks, don a working jacket, get in those "cut-rate" shops and style themselves "tonsorial artists." Again, the cheap material used in these "cut-rate" hops, and the frequent and oft-repeated use of the same towel, without allowing it to go through the necessary process of some laundry, makes it dangerous (if the germ theory be true) for those who come in contact with them, to say nothing of the pain and peril which the customers undergo.
That wasn't all, however, as the rise of so-called "barbers' colleges' in Nashville also served to undercut union strength and wages. The diploma toting graduates of these schools "invariably find a position in the cheap shops. There could be no objection...if these students were required to remain there long enough to be efficient and become full-fledged artists in the true sense of the word" but that was not the case. The leadership of the Journeymen Barbers Union No. 79 of Nashville, while they considered a 10 cent shave and a 25 cent hair cut too low, realized that there could be no increase in wages until "the barbers alone...see that the prices for work do not drop lower and the number of hours of work does not increase."28
Labor in Tennessee's cities was evidently well organized in 1895. For example, in Nashville not only was there a Trades and Labor Council composed of representatives of each trade union in the city, but there were as many as eighteen different trade unions, representing coopers, typesetters, molders, locomotive engineers, cigar makers, retail clerks, federal workers, locomotive firemen, painters, hodcarriers, shoemakers, carpenters, brewers, pressmen, barbers, tailors, and car inspectors. Local No. 379 of the Knights of Labor lasted only eight months in Nashville.29
In Memphis there was also a high degree of labor organization as the Trades and Labor Council there represented the unions of 24 different trades, including: barbers, bricklayers, railway carmen, horse-shoers, iron molders, plumbers, steam and gas fitters, carpenters and joiners, cigarmakers, saddle and harness makers, hackmen, coopers, hodcarriers, machinery molders, machinists, tin, sheet-iron and cornice workers, typestters, steam engineers, locomotive engineers, brewers, pressmen, stonecutters, and tailors. There was also an Knights of Labor Assembly (no. 471) in Memphis.30
While there was no mention of labor organizations in Chattanooga in the Fifth Annual Report, Knoxville also had a Central Labor Union, the oldest such organization in the state, three Knights of Labor locals, (nos. 4845, 4695, 4608), and trade unions representing typesetters, cigar makers, carpenters and joiners, and railway conductors, and even delegates from the numerous miners unions in the adjacent coal fields.31
The purpose of the Trade and Labor Councils is perhaps best understood by the example of the Nashville organization. Composed of three delegates from the different unions in Nashville, it more than any other "single body...has exerted a greater influence for the cause of labor throughout the State of Tennessee..." As early as 1889-1890 "labor unions were scarcely known in the city of Nashville, save for the Typographical Union, Molders' Union, and possibly one or two other unions." Unionization increased, however, once the Nashville, and possibly one or two other unions." Unionization increased, however, once the Nashville Evening Herald fired all its union printers and hired non-union workers to replace them. This stimulated the typesetters union to call a meeting of the four or five unions in Nashville to meet at the old Olympic Theater to attempt to form a primary labor organization. By August 24, 1890, the Central Labor Union, later to be called the Trades and Labor Council, was formed and took out a charter with the American Federation Labor. The Council likewise issued a newspaper, the Journal of Labor. [no copies are known to exist]
This Nashville Council was most responsible for the passage of the passage of the Tennessee child labor law, the barber's Sunday closing law, and others as well.
The aim of the Nashville Trades and Labor Council illustrate the class consciousness of southern urban workers in the late nineteenth century. Among their objectives were: higher wages, shorter work days and "absolute Sunday rest," the removal of children under 15 from "the hard and straining ordeals of factory and workshop labor by compelling them to attend school...." The legislative committee of the Trades and Labor Council worked hard to lobby for such legislation. Additionally, the Council was instrumental in having several municipalities pass ordinances "prohibiting the working of convicts an municipal works, prohibiting barbering from being carried on in the city of Nashville on Sunday, and compelling city contractors to pay their employes [sic] off in legal money. Of perhaps the most importance to employers, however, was the fact that "fewer strikes and lockouts have occurred under the guidance of this body then any similar one of its size in the United States." Its success was attributed to a "conservative spirit" that allowed reason to prevail.32
Labor union activity in 1896 was generally a characteristic of the urban centers of the Volunteer State. For example, in Chattanooga the Central Labor Union (CLU) represented "every local organization in Chattanooga and vicinity..." Chattanooga's CLU additionally successfully defeated a the granting of the granting of a monopoly in the form of a "perpetual street-car franchise that was engineered through the City Council." Additionally, Chattanooga workers were "instrumental in the formation of the State Labor Council. Its first and then present president being Mr. A.A. Cowdery, delegate from Chattanooga Central Labor Union." The formation of a State Labor Council speaks as well to the growth of worker consciousness in Tennessee, of an awareness that to be helped they must help themselves. All CLUs, as in Knoxville, were considered "progressive, having the interest of the State and city in view at all times...." In Memphis the CLU was "on record in nearly all important matters...and their strength, usefulness and influence is daily recognized by the citizens of Memphis." Indeed, because any notable strike activity in 1896 apparently occurred in Memphis, and the CLU would play a role as negotiator in two of the three strikes.33
The Bureau reported that in Memphis, by 1896 "there have been scarcely any difficulties, especially of a serious character, between employer and employee. Only three strikes are recorded, the largest...that of the journeymen plumbers." This strike was unlike most inasmuch as the employer was the Master Plumbers Association of Memphis.
It seems the Journeymen Plumbers'Association entered into an agreement with the Master Plumbers' Association which stipulated that no journeyman plumber could work for any but a member of the Master's Association. "The journeymen also agreed to stand by the masters in the enforcement of laws governing their organization." Subsequently one large plumbing firm, also a member of the Masters' Association, was found to be in violation of one of the group's rules and fined $200. The firm refused to pay the fine and was thus expelled from the Masters Association. The journeymen, in accordance with their agreement with the masters, called their men out. As with the Coopers' and Tailors' strikes in Nashville earlier, workers "were imported from other cities and put to work for less than the union scale of wages" which allowed the outcast firm to underbid projects and resulted in the loss of work for union members. This state of affairs led other master plumbers to reduce daily wages from $3.60 to $3.00. As a result "a general strike was declared in December, 1895." This bitterly contested strike was eventually settled although the settlement "proved unsatisfactory to all parties concerned." Ruling by injunction, the Master Plumbers' Association succeeded in maintaining their monopoly and wage cuts by limiting the right the journeymen, their "friends or sympathizers...[to] speak in behalf of the striking plumbers for fear of contempt." Very little was gained by the journeymen. The Central Trades and Labor Council played no recorded role in this strike.34
There were other strikes in Memphis in 1896 by the Building Laborers' Union, in dispute over wages, which was brought to a settlement by intervention and negotiations on the part of the Memphis Central Labor Union. The Saddle and Harness Makers struck the Hart Manufacturing Co. for three days in the early fall of 1896. After returning to work the workers "...soon found that the company was flagrantly violating the agreement, and orders were issued (after attempts to adjust matters had failed) to quit work." The strike continued and by early 1897 the Bureau reported that while there had been no settlement yet the Memphis Trades and Labor Council had established a special committee to ameliorate the predicament.35
Thus, by 1897 strikes seem to have had little positive effect upon the wages of Tennessee's unionized urban industrial workers and miners. Yet, judging from the outcomes and causes for the strikes these workers seemed justified in their attempts to join together in efforts to better their lives through unionization. It must have appeared obvious to them that only they were could advance their interests, and that the business community viewed them only as a cost factor in their capitalist endeavors.
The 1896 Annual Report of the Bureau included information relative to the working classes of two premier cities, Nashville and Memphis, that shed light on the lives of ordinary working people in the late nineteenth century urban Tennessee. In Nashville, for example, there were twenty four labor organizations representing printers, hod-carriers, machinists, brewers, pressmen, plumbers, stove molders, stone-cutters, coopers, paper-hangers, harness-makers, black and white barbers, hackmen, bottle washers, retail clerks, carpenters, tailors, metal workers, painters and decorators, brick layers and cigar makers. African-Americans dominated in the occupations of hackmen, of which fully 90% were black, and of hod carriers virtually monopolized by blacks. The 15 cigar makers earned wages of $8.00 to $15.00 per thousand, and it was lamented, "Nashville should support 100 cigar makers, and this could be done if the consumers would smoke home-made cigars." Most of the stone-cutters were at work along the Cumberland River, working of locks and dams, and while the tinners were well organized in 1894 their organization had recently been determined moribund. The potential for class or racial conflict brought about by competition was indicated by the disparity between the black and white barbers' unions. For example, African-American barbers worked on a percentage plan and earned $12.00 a week for skilled labor and $7.00 per week for unskilled labor, for an average wage of $9.00 per week. The forty or so black barbers worked an average of 13 hours a day, and according to the report, charged 10 cents for shaving and 25 cents for cutting hair. The white barbers, on the other hand, earned an average of $10.00 a week, getting $15.00 a week for skilled work and but $8.00 a week for unskilled work. The seventy white barbers worked the same 13 hour day, six days a week, as did black barbers. All the thirty five brewers worked for the William Gerst Brewing Company. Harness makers faced competition from the penitentiary, where ridiculously cheap labor resulted in unfair competition by the State. Among the best paid workers were the Retail Clerks, earning from $65.00 to $100.00 a week, and the stationary engineers who earned $85.00 a month. The following table will illustrate the average monthly wage per trade in 1896 in Nashville:
Printers 200 $12.50/week 10 hours
Hod-carriers 35 1.65/day 10 hours
Machinists 75 16.00/week 10 hours
Rtl. Clerks 1000 50.00/mo. 15-18 hrs.
Bricklayers 55 65.00/mo. 10 hours
Carpenters 500 40.00/mo. 10 hours
Cigar makers 20 13.50/week 6 hours
Boiler makers 35 15.00/week 10 hours
White barbers 70 10.00/week 13 hours
Black barbers 50 9.00/week 13 hours
Coopers 55 8.50/week 10 hours
Engineers 70 65.00/mo. 10 hours
Hackmen 150 7.00/week 14 hours
Stove Molders 85 50.00/mo. 10 hours
Pressmen 35 15.00/mo. 10 hours
Plumbers 45 18.00/week 10 hours
Stone cutters 70 3.50/day 10 hours
Metal workers 50 1.75/day 10 hours
Tailors 75 2.50/day Piece work
Brewers 35 60.00/mo. 10 hours
Bottle Washers 25 35.00/mo unknown
Painters and
Decorators 100 1.75/day 10 hours
Paper Hangers 40 20.00/week 10 hours
Harness makers 75 7.00/week 10 hours36
The information for Memphis is somewhat less comprehensive, but shows the following configuration:
Brewers 13 $65.00/mo. 10 hours
Bottlers and
Washers 38 40.00/mo. 12 hours
Bricklayers 53 ---------- --------
Barbers 89* 10.00/week 13.4 hours
Boilermakers 28 .25/hour 10 hours
Carpenters 400 2.25/day 10 hours
Cigar-makers 40 12.00/week --------
Clerks 1200 50.00/mo. 80 hours
Coopers 53 12.00/week 10 hours
Draymen 1078 7.50/week --------
Engineers 68 90.00/week 12 hours
Horseshoers 34 .35/hour 9 hours
Harnessmakers 30 10.00/week 10 hours
Hackmen 149 10.00/week --------
Hod-carriers 40 1.75/day --------
Molders (stove) 96 3.00/day 10 hours
(machinery) 62 3.15/day 10 hours
Machinist 90 3.00/day 10 hours
Painters &
Decorators 76 2.00/day 10 hours
Printers 150 12.50/week 10 hours
Pressmen 25 15.00/week 10 hours
Stone-cutters 42 3.00/day 10 hours
Tin and sheet
iron workers 25 2.75/day --------
Tailors 46 10.00/week --------37
* While it is most probable that white and black barbers were segregated as in Nashville it is not known if two separate barbers' unions existed in Memphis, as in Nashville.
Organized Labor in Tennessee faced a predicament faced by most unions of the day. As A. H. Wood, Tennessee's Commissioner of Labor and Inspector of Mines put it:
Every profession and avocation has an organization or union, which seeks to promote their financial, intellectual or moral condition, and is justified in the eyes of the public; yet, the average man seems to discredit and even look upon the organization of the laboring classes with an eye of suspicion....
Thus, the state of labor organization in Tennesee in 1896, was "more thorough and comprehensive than in any other Southern State; it still can be safely said that it is comparatively in its infancy."38 As a consequence, then, it should come as no surprise that so few tradesmen’s' and workers' unions could command the respect that would enable them to improve their wages and lot in life. Generally only through the legislative committees of their Central Labor Unions, as exemplified best by the Nashville and Chattanooga Trades Councils, did organized labor manage to affect change beneficial to the workingman. The only strike action which seemed to have helped union members was only a partial victory, as illustrated by the Coopers' strike in Nashville in 1895 when the W. C. Myers Company agreed to use only union labor. Workingmen commonly toiled ten hours a day for six day weeks for a variety of wages, most of which appeared to be declining as a result of the depression of 1893. Low wages resulted in fierce competition for the dollar and worked to retard the growth of working class solidarity in Tennessee. Moreover, unions, as Commissioner Wood suggested, raised suspicions that weakened public support for trade unionism. Counting also a factor was the general lack of a trade or industrial workers' union mentality; the old Knights of Labor vision of one great big union for all who toil could not hope to direct its energies toward specific trade grievances and so would founder upon the detritus of ambiguity. Nevertheless, union activity, or at least strikes, would continue throughout the rest of the 1890s.
Information on strike activity in the year 1897 is sketchy and indicates that labor unrest occurred only in the coal fields of the upper Cumberland Plateau. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Labor, Statistics and Mines Seventh Annual Report:
The question concerning number of men involved and duration of strike was unanswered [by mine operators] in many instances and strikes of brief duration may have occurred of which no mention is made here.
Three were in the coal mining town of Hartranft, in Claiborne County. The Fork Ridge, Mingo, and Bryson Mountain Coal and Coke Companies were struck by more that 110 miners. In neither of the cases was the cause of the strike known. Suggesting that there was some larger organizing force at work is the fact that four of the fifteen strikes began on May 1 and ended on November 1, in Jellico, Newcomb, Almy, Helenwood, while the strike at Glen Mary ended on May 8. In one case, at the Buckeye Coke Company at Pioneer, Tennessee, 45 coke oven workers "objected to the Bank Boss and demanded his discharge by the Company but this the Company refused to do. The men then blacklisted the mine, but the blacklisting being declared illegal it was revoked. [sic] The mine has operated under blacklist for ten months." There was a strike in Grundy County, involving 500 miners, but the cause was not given. All in all at least 1820 miners and coke oven workers participated in strike activity in 1897.39 This is hardly a picture of consensus and contentment that commonly is believed to have prevailed in industrial and mining workers’ circles.
There were a total of eleven coal miners' strikes in 1899. The causes ranged from refusal of the company to recognize the miners union and firing of union men, who shut down the Bon Air mine for half the year; the strike involved 400 miners. In Graysville, a strike was caused by a breach of contract, lasted from April to July and involved fifty men. At the Soddy Mines at Soddy, Tennessee, 375 miners joined a two-month walkout initiated in May as the result of the company firing union men. A number of strikes were initiated in August with causes ranging from improperly cut props, company refusal to sign pay scales existing at other mines, demand for regular pay and union recognition, and objection to new larger coal cars. These strikes were in Newcomb, Coal Creek, Hartranft, and Whiteside, involving at least a total of 800 miners. Most were settled quickly as the companies agreed to worker demands. The strike of 80 miners at Sale Creek, initiated September 5, and ended October 1 was caused because "the Sale Creek Coal Company was furnishing coal to Dayton Coal & Iron Company while [a] strike was on at their mines." The refusal of the New Richland Mine and Nelson Mines at Dayton to recognize the workers' union led to a walkout of 300 miners. The outcome was still undecided by early 1900, although the company had hired non-union miners to replace the strikers. En toto, at least 2,000 miners struck in the coal mines of Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau in 1899.
The strike of copper miners in Isabella was caused by the posting of the following notice by W.H. Freeland, General Manager of the Ducktown Sulphur, Copper, and Iron Co., Ltd., who apparently feared a workers' revolt caused by union organization:
Official Notice
WHEREAS, It has come to this Company's knowledge that certain irresponsible persons have instigated and are promoting the organization of a union; and as such organization has the avowed purpose of dictating, coercing, and controlling the operations of this Company, The Ducktown Sulphur, Copper, and Iron Company, Limited, takes this opportunity of informing its employees that it will not recognize such union nor give employment to its members.
The strike began on September 7 and lasted until September 15. During that time the miners succeeded in gaining the dismissal of the company doctor, but could gain no ground on union recognition and reinstatement of union men. The miners worked until October 28 when a second strike began and the union demanded its recognition, reinstatement, an end to discharging of union representatives, and an eight hour day. W.H. Freeland refused to agree to any of the demands, and after the 75 smelters joined the strike and shut down the furnaces, the company hired non-union men and continued operations.40
The only other known labor difficulties for 1899 were confined to Knoxville, Nashville, and Chattanooga. In Knoxville a bricklayer’s strike was caused by a demand for a wage of 35 cents an hours. The strike ended lasted less than three weeks. In Chattanooga the woodworkers, street railway employees, and printers all went on strike. Woodworkers and street railway employees struck to obtain union recognition and lasted until at least early 1900. The printers demanded an eight hour day and lasted from November 1898 to May 10, 1899. In Nashville the theater employees at the Grand Opera House struck for union recognition and apparently gained their objective by February 15, 1900.41
The point here is that workers in rural and urban Tennessee realized that their interests would not be served by a entrepreneurial class motivated by the mean spirited apologists for capitalistic domination validated by proponents of "Social Darwinism" typical of the day. They did not strike without reason, and invariably that reason was to look after their own interests, a franchise the companies would not or could not recognize. It matters little that their walkouts were generally unsuccessful; what matters is that they organized at all. This evidence of union activity is to show that the growth of the industrial capacity of Tennessee had reached the point that workers required protection from the excesses of capitalist development that the state could not or would not provide. It is a sure gauge of the rate of industrial growth in the state at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as an indication of a vigorous class or worker consciousness, so long neglected by historians, in the state's past.
1 Tennessee Bureau of Labor, Statistics, and Mines, Fourth Annual Report to the Forty Ninth General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, January, 1895 (Nashville: 1895), pp. 42-43. [Hereafter: Fourth Annual Report.]
2 Fourth Annual Report, p. 43.
3 Ibid., p. 46.
4 Ibid., p. 48
5 Ibid., p. 49
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid., pp.49-50.
8 Ibid., p. 50.
9 Ibid., pp. 50-52.
10 Ibid., pp. 52-53.
11 Ibid., p. 53.
12 Ibid., p. 54.
13 Ibid., pp. 54-58.
14 Ibid., p. 54.
15 Ibid., pp. 1-16.
16 Ibid., pp. 17-37.
17 Tennessee Bureau of Labor, Statistics & Mines, Fifth Annual Report to the Governor and Fiftieth Assembly of the State of Tennessee (Nashville: Franc. M. Paul, Printer to the State, 1896), p. 104. (Hereafter: Fifth Annual Report.)
18 Fifth Annual Report, pp. 322-323.
19 Ibid., p. 324.
20 Ibid., pp. 325-326.
21 Ibid., pp. 326-328.
22 Ibid., pp. 328-329. Quotation from p. 329. See also: Tennessee Bureau of Labor Statistics & Mines, Sixth Annual Report, 1896, (Nashville: 1897), p. 299. Hereinafter: Sixth Annual Report.]
32 Fifth Annual Report, pp. 313-314.
23 Nashville Daily Gazette, September 7, 9, 1852.
24 Fifth Annual Report, pp. 329-330.
25 Ibid., pp. 330-331.
26 Ibid, pp. 331-332.
27 Ibid., John J. Straub, "Type-Setting Machines," pp. 320- 322.
28 Ibid., "Journeymen Barbers' Union No. 79, of Nashville, Tenn." pp. 314-318.[Hereinafter “Barber’s Union”]
29 Ibid., “Barber’s Union”]pp. 309-310.
30 Ibid., Ibid.,pp. 310-312.
31 Ibid., p. 312 and, Tennessee Bureau of Labor, Statistics, and Mines, Sixth Annual Report, 1896 (Nashville: 1897), p. 308. [
33 Sixth Annual Report, pp. 307-308.
34 Ibid., pp. 308-309.
35I bid., pp. 309-310.
36 Ibid., pp. 298-299.
37 Ibid., pp. 300-301.
38 Ibid., p. 297.
39 Sixth Annual Report, pp. .259-261.
40 Tennessee Bureau of Labor, Statistics and Mines, Eighth Annual Report, 1899 (Nashville: 1900), pp. 163-165. (Hereinafter: Eighth Annual Report.)
41 Eighth Annual Report, p. 165.

James B. Jones, Jr.
Public Historian
Tennessee Historical Commission
2941 Lebanon Road
Nashville, TN 37214
(615)-532-1549 FAX

James B. Jones, Jr.
Public Historian
Tennessee Historical Commission
2941 Lebanon Road
Nashville, TN  37214
(615)-532-1549  FAX