Historical Markers
William B. Wilson [Politics] Historical Marker
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William B. Wilson [Politics]

Allegheny National Forest Region


Marker Location:
U.S. 15 just S of Blossburg

Dedication Date:
October 29, 1948

Behind the Marker

Head and shoulders, sepia photograph.
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William B. Wilson, National Secretary Treasurer of the United Mine Workers of...
In decades surrounding the dawn of the twentieth century, the anthracite region of northeast Pennsylvania experienced sustained, bitter, and often violent struggles between the coal operators and mine workers. Outraged by the failure of the Republican-controlled state government to come to their aid and opposed to many Republican candidates, whom they viewed as the henchmen of their Protestant bosses, the coal miners and their supporters elected more Democrats, Socialists, and other third-party candidates than in any other part of the state.

In the 1870s, national Knights of Labor presidentmarker Terence V. Powderly was also the mayor of Scranton. In the early 1900s, voters in the city of Reading elected state Socialist Party leadermarker James Maurer to represent them in the Pennsylvania state senate. From 1919 to 1921, two members of President Woodrow Wilson's cabinet, Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson and Attorney General marker A. Mitchell Palmer were both from northeastern Pennsylvania. They had served as pro-labor congressmen from Tioga (1906-1912) and Monroe counties, (1908-1914), respectively.

A large group of men sitting at and standing around a desk, posing for a group photograph.
Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson with his staff of directors, circa 1913.
Born in Scotland in 1862, William Wilson came as a child with his family to Arnot, Pennsylvania, a company town in the mountains of Tioga County where the coal operators kept the miners in line with the threat of eviction if they dared to strike. Pulled from school after the second grade, Wilson went to work in the mines, and as a young man began to organize miners.

Blacklisted by the mine owners, Wilson then worked as a mill hand, lumberjack, and on the railroads. By 1891, he was a member of the National Executive Board of the United Mine Workers of America, a union he helped found. Elected the UMW Secretary-Treasurer in 1900, he worked with President John Mitchell in organizing the marker great anthracite strike of 1902.

In 1906, Wilson was elected to the first of three terms as a Democratic congressman from Tioga County. In Congress, he introduced federal legislation that created the Bureau of Mines to promote mine safety, set an eight-hour work day for women in the District of Columbia, and established the Department of Labor. In 1912, he became chairman of the House labor committee.

Defeated for a fourth term in Congress, Wilson in 1913 was appointed by President Woodrow as the nation's first Secretary of Labor, a position he held for eight years. There he established the Employment and Conciliation Services, which prevented numerous strikes, and a Woman in Industry Service to regulate the conditions under which women labored. He also created a federal employment service that during World War I moved more than six million workers to places where they were needed, the cost paid by the businesses that profited from their work.

Wilson took the initial steps to provide soldiers with War Risk Insurance for their families during the war, established the Bureau of Industrial Housing and Transportation to provide housing for war workers, and as a member of the Council on National Defense obtained assurances from government contractors to keep up raise workers' wages to meet rising prices. He then implemented the administrative machinery to determine the cost of living.

 William B. Wilson, (center) sitting with Terence V. Powderly to his left and Commissioner-General of Immigration Anthony Caminetti on his right, 1915.
William B. Wilson, (center) sitting with Terence V. Powderly to his left and...
Wilson left his post as Secretary of Labor in 1921. In 1926, he was beaten in a race for the United States Senate by Congressman William Vare, boss of the powerful Philadelphia Republican machine. Vare outspent Wilson $788,000 to only $10,000. Vare, however, would never occupy the seat that he had purchased so dearly. In a three-way Republican primary, Vare had defeated both incumbent George Wharton Pepper and Governormarker Gifford Pinchot.

Convinced that Vare had stolen the election through voter fraud, Pinchot refused to ratify Vare's election, and themarker Senate refused to seat him. In truth the election was probably no more corrupt than any state contest. Pinchot had nothing but contempt for Vare, a former trash collector, whom he excoriated as a "a gangster by profession and a Republican by convenience." Vare's seat remained empty until a special election in 1929 was won by Republican Party stalwart James Davis, then serving as President Herbert Hoover's Secretary of Labor.

William Wilson lived in retirement until 1934. Turning down with scorn any deals offered by businessmen and corrupt union officials, marker he never acquired wealth. Today, the William Wilson American Legion post in Blossberg is the only post in Pennsylvania named after a non-veteran. Its members did so in honor of his efforts for American workers and soldiers during his eight years as Secretary of Labor.

To learn more about Wilson's career as a labor leader with the United Mine Workers of America, markerclick here.
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