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Workin' in a Coal Mine Goin' Down, Down, Down

The ancestors of this piece of coal are what caused all the fuss
James walks into his job Monday morning to find a pink slip taped to his computer screen announcing that as of 5 o'clock today, he is no longer employed. James has been quite vocal lately about intolerable working conditions at his job. On any given day the lights don't work properly on his floor, the office must pay to have drinking water, and their lunch breaks as well as work time are intensely scrutinized. All of this has created a hostile working environment that has affected the quality of work that James and his co-workers produce. Now because of the petition that he circulated he has been "railroaded".


At home in the Warrior

Speaking of railroads, before the days of toiling in front of computers, people toiled in coalmines. Instead of receiving pink slips, people were murdered. That's right, I am talking about a group of migrating, coal mining, people shooting, soon to be hung Irishmen referred to as the Molly McGuires. This group of miners and other laborers took action when wronged by their capitalist employers. The name comes from Ireland, the old country. An elderly lady was about to be evicted from her home and put out on the street. Before this could happen a group of men came and beat up her landlord and forced the eviction to be stopped. That elderly woman's name was Molly McGuire.

It was that same type of equalizing spirit that the Irish brought over to America. Starvation, hard times and social unrest led them to this great land. Yet when they arrived their problems were not over, as they may have expected. The northeastern Pennsylvania region that was coal-mining country was rife with poor working conditions. Miners were faced with inadequate housing, as well as inadequate pay for all of their hard work. In addition they could be evicted without advanced notice, especially in the event that the coal mining corporations (who owned most of the town's buildings) needed the space. They were even forced to buy all of their supplies in stores owned by the mining companies that they worked for. Imagine receiving a paycheck that could only be cashed at the store owned by the company that you work for. Much of the check would be spent on overpriced groceries and supplies. With so much control exerted over these disadvantaged workers and their families, what course of action did they have left? The men got together to form a union called the Worker's Benevolent Association. Any advances they had made were significantly set back by a 20% pay cut set by the coal masters, and soon after another 10% cut. As a result they needed to make a stronger effort to improve conditions for their fellow workers, but something went terribly wrong.

The place where many Mollies were McGuired! Ahhh!
Between the years 1860-1876 a host of murders and physical assaults occurred in the Pottsville, PA area. One example of this was the Morgan Powell Murder. Morgan Powell was the superintendent for the Lehigh Coal Company. He was shot and killed outside the Summit Hill Tavern. The people convicted in the murder were Alexander Campbell and Yellow Jack Donahue. Yellow Jack and Campbell were hanged in 1877. Even a night watchman, Fredrick Hesser, was killed while on the job.

John "Black Joe" Kehoe was said to be the mastermind behind the killings. He was actually an elected official, born in Ireland, and his presence meant much to the Irish community. He eventually stood trial for conspiracy and the attack on Bully Bill Thomas in 1875 and was executed. Many say the trials were unfair and were a direct attack by the coal corporations and the media on the Molly McGuires. One reason many believe the trials were unfair was that the juries were all German speaking. According to this theory they were executed as examples to anyone else who was trying to stop the flow of happy cash into the pockets of railroad tycoons. Yet the interesting thing about the Kehoe case is that someone who worked for the establishment organized the attack.

James McParlan was a detective for the Pinkerton Agency and pretended to be an Irish miner in order to join the Molly McGuries. He was able to help plan and conduct many of the infamous attacks and murders that the Mollies participated in. In his role as an undercover officer he answered to Benjamin Franklin, (this guy was everywhere!) who was the head of the Pinkerton Agency's Philadelphia Bureau at the time. In addition, Franklin B. Gowen who was the president of the Reading Railroad was also another individual who had his claws set into the Molly McGuires. He was able to literally buy the police in order to control any potential demonstrations or strikes led by the Irish coal miners. Surely, many potential demonstrations were quelled by the hanging of 6 Molly Maguires in 1877. Eventually 20 more were hanged between 1877-1879! After Kehoe's execution he was given an official pardon, but a lot of good it did him then!

The resting place of John Kehoe
How do the Mollies and their plight reach into our daily lives? Beyond the mind-boggling maze of who was a true Molly, who killed whom, and who was executed as a result is a compelling story for us even today. Mark Major of the Schuylkill County Visitor's Bureau says there are questions of ethnic, and religious discrimination, and issues of capital punishment in the Mollies' story. Do you think that killing the Mollies really solved the labor disputes that the Mollies began?

Mark Major cheeses for the camera
More importantly is how these cases are used to muddy the more important issue of class discrimination, and class struggle. Many are so busy focusing on hating the next person because of their color or what religion they subscribe to they don't ever think, or at least don't put much energy into the way corporate America steals and capitalizes off of their hard earned money. How many McDonalds can you count on an average drive down the street? Trekking across the country I have personally lost count. What about a Burger King, or Dunkin' Donuts? I always think of how horrible it must be to have to support a family of 5 making less than $10.00 an hour, while someone in the corporate offices of the company is making a six-figure salary with no one to support but themselves.

What they were fighting over wasn't worth a heap of coal
The amount of money that the people who serve food and bag groceries make is greatly disproportionate to those who reside in the upper rungs of companies. These individuals work for billion dollar corporations, but they only make about $6.00 average an hour. The mining companies would try to convince workers that the interest of the workers and bosses were actually the same and things were fair, but apparently this was not the case. A correspondent of Karl Marx, named William Sylvis said it best: "If workingmen and capitalist are equal co-partners, composing one vast firm by which the industry of the world is carried on and controlled, why do they not share equally in the profits? Why does capital take to itself the whole loaf, while labor is left to gather up the crumbs?" You tell me.


Please email me at: kevin1@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - Anarchy and angry ghosts in the Battle of Homestead
Stephanie - Sweet sugar's evil, mean streak
Teddy - It's hard to say good-bye, but farewell it is
Kevin - Thanks for the memories!
Rebecca - Billy-clubs and bayonets: this ain't no May Day parade
Team - Labor Day: More than just the non-official end of summer
MAD - McNasty Mickey D's