Last week, in honor of Labor Day, I started a series on labor history of White County, which is mostly going to focus on the coal mining industry. The Bon Air Coal Company was a booming business in the late 1800s and, for the first decade of its existence, seems to have had no major labor disagreements. In the summer of 1898, though, Nashville newspapers were reporting that a strike was imminent at Bon Air or, by some accounts, already started. Company manager J. M. Overton, no doubt to reassure his customers, told a reporter from the Nashville American that his workers were the best paid in the state, and that things were going so well the company was about to add 100 more workers (they already had 500) as soon as they finished building housing to accommodate them. They were shipping out 40 train cars of coal per day and expected to soon be shipping out 60. When rumors persisted and the people of Nashville started getting nervous about having enough coal coming in, he spoke to the paper again and admitted that some of the miners had tried to form a union. Overton ascribed the organizing efforts to 20 men who had subsequently been fired, after which the remaining miners voted against having a union, after all. He said the remaining men were “as a rule, well pleased with their treatment.”
If so, it did not last. By February 1899, the American was receiving reports that over 400 of the men had walked off the job and that only 25 or 30 had remained. Output shrank from 40 cars per day to only three or four. The miners had two simple demands: they wanted their recent pay cut of 10 percent restored, and they wanted more reasonable prices at the company store. They were willing to settle for the reasonable prices. Apparently, some miners had already been fired and evicted from company housing, including a majority of leading voices in the proposed union. Company management denied that there was a strike and said that the radical decline in production was because the miners were temporarily doing chores around the mine instead of extracting coal. Evidently, a compromise was reached - most likely the requested lowering of company store prices – because, by Feb. 11, worried Nashville citizens were being assured by the American that the crisis had abated. On May 17, 1900, the Sparta paper reported the Bon Air Coal Company had its highest payroll ever and still struggled to meet the market demand. Soon, more mines were being opened on the mountain, and more tracks were being laid. Nonetheless, the 1899 incidents, in White County, were included in the topics for discussion at the United Mine Workers convention in Knoxville, in 1901.
In 1908, after a consortium of Alabama mine owners cut workers’ wages by 17 percent, UMW initiated a massive strike throughout the South that included 18,000 coal miners. The strike - which failed after two months, weakening UMW in Alabama - did not, however, include Tennessee miners. Bon Air Coal and Iron Company president John P. Williams remarked to reporters that his workers were all content and satisfied, and it was further noted that “the mines in Tennessee are all conducted on the ‘open shop’ principle.”
There were dramatic coal strikes out west in the years just before World War I, the most famous being the Ludlow strike, in Colorado, in which national guard troops opened fire with machine guns on a tent city inhabited by striking miners and their families, killing over 100 people. Strikes abated during U.S. involvement in World War I, in support of the war effort, but picked up in a big way once the war ended, in November 1918. This time, Bon Air miners would be in the thick of it, and a coal strike would be the background for one of Sparta’s most famous murders.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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