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Rossiter Strike Injunction Historical Marker
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Name:
Rossiter Strike Injunction

Region:
Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies

County:
Indiana

Marker Location:
Shaffer Field, Central St. at West Side St., Rossiter

Dedication Date:
October 6, 2004

Behind the Marker

Outdoors photograph the Rossiter Mine with loaded and empty coal cars.
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Coal cars near the Rossiter Mine, Indiana County, PA, circa 1927.
The 1927 national coal strike was one in a series of strikes that the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) undertook during the 1920s to defend wages and other gains. The UMWA had won pay hikes and a shorter work day in 1919, and preserved these gains in contracts with mine operators in 1922 and 1924.

During the decade, however, mine owners faced growing competition for shrinking markets. They increasingly pressed the UMWA to cut wages to reduce labor costs. Many operators disavowed the 1924 agreement soon after signing it. They reduced wages, declared that they would run mines without recognizing the union, closed mines, and shifted production to nonunion mines with lower pay rates (see markerJohn Brophy).

In response, the UMWA staged strikes against operators who abrogated the 1924 agreement, but met little success. When the 1924 contract came up for renegotiation in 1927, the union and operators could not come to agreement. Mine owners demanded pay cuts, and the UMWA responded by calling a strike on April 1, 1927, supported by 200,000 bituminous miners nationwide.

Photograph of the Senators posing for photograph as onlookers stand in the background. Senators are from Left to right: Senator Wagner, New York; Senator Pine, Oklahoma; Senator Gooding, Idaho; chairman Senator Wheeler, Montana, with newspaper in his pocket.
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United States senators visit striking coal miners, Rossiter PA, February 1928....
The 1927 strike was one of the longest and most bitter strikes in Pennsylvania coal-industry history. The walk-out effectively closed down all mining activity in the bituminous fields of western Pennsylvania. Operators imported strikebreakers from around the country, including blacks. The UMWA condemned strikebreakers, particularly blacks, and miners directed ambushes, beatings and bombings at strikebreakers.

Employers fired strikers, blacklisted them from future employment, and required miners to sign "yellow-dog" contracts in which they agreed not to join the UMWA. Operators also hired private armed guards, including the notorious Coal and Iron Police, (see markerPennsylvania State Police) to protect their property and strikebreakers and to intimidate and arrest strikers. Owners also evicted 12,000 miners and their families from company housing between July and December, 1927. A reporter for the New York Daily News went to western Pennsylvania towns during the strike and wrote:

"I have just returned from a visit to Hell-in-Pennsylvania." I have seen horrible things there. We saw thousands of women and children, literally starving to death. We found hundreds of destitute families living in crudely constructed bare-board shacks. They had been evicted from their homes by the coal companies. We unearthed a system of despotic tyranny reminiscent of Czar-ridden Siberia at its worst. We found police brutality and industrial slavery."

Head and shoulders circular painting of Wagner wearing a suit and tie.
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Portrait of New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, by Steven Polson, 2004
One of these towns was Rossiter, which at the beginning of the strike was the last union holdout in Indiana County. The Clearfield Bituminous Coal Corporation operated the mine in Rossiter and had adhered to the 1924 contract. When about 750 Rossiter miners joined the strike on July 1, 1927, however, the company and local officials fought hard against the strikers. Rossiter miners held rallies and marched to area mines to bring other workers out. Since strikers were arrested if they met on company property, they congregated on two of the few pieces of private property in Rossiter: lots owned by the Magyar Presbyterian Church. There they sang hymns to dissuade passing strikebreakers from entering the mine.

In August, the Indiana County sheriff banned gatherings of three or more people. In a major setback for the union, the company brought in strikebreakers and reopened the Rossiter mine in September. The company also served 230 eviction notices on miners and their families by October 29.

Another, much more publicized setback occurred in November, when Judge J. N. Langham issued a sweeping injunction that banned the UMWA from doing anything common to an industrial strike, such as picketing and gathering for meetings and rallies. Especially galling to miners, his injunction prohibited hymn-singing or holding church services on the two lots owned by the Magyar Presbyterian Church. As the strike continued into early 1928, the union responded by holding rallies, building barracks to house evicted families, denouncing evictions and police violence, and soliciting aid from union locals, merchants, churches and fraternal organizations.

The publicity spawned by Langham's injunction attracted out-of-state journalists, and a United States Senate investigating committee that came to Rossiter in February 1928. The senators, who included Senator Robert Wagner of New York, heard testimony from Rossiter miners, company officials, and Langham, and pointedly questioned the judge and company attorneys about the injunction's marker denial of civil liberties and free speech. The company continued to import strikebreakers and rely on Coal and Iron Police, and by the end of August virtually every Rossiter-area mine operated on a non-union basis. In October 1928 the national strike officially ended in a major defeat for the UMWA.

The disastrous effects on the UMWA continued for several years. The Senate investigating committee issued no recommendations for changes in laws. The UMWA's power and membership continued to decline, with membership sinking to 84,000 in 1929.

The national strike and events in Rossiter, however, had telling effects on Senator Wagner, bolstering his sympathy for labor. Allied with Senator George Norris and Congressman Fiorello La Guardia, Wagner co-sponsored the Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932, which greatly restricted the use of labor injunctions.

In 1933 Wagner sponsored the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which called for collective bargaining between unions and management. This act enabled the UMWA to resume its growth with membership reaching 400,000 in 1934. In 1935, after the United States Supreme Court invalidated the NIRA, Wagner sponsored the National Labor Relations Act, which reinstated the NIRA's collective bargaining provisions and established the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections and prevent unfair labor practices.
 
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