Chapter 2: Pennsylvania Under the Reign of Big Business
"I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money. . . and out of your profits, you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money."
- Pennsylvania Senator Boies Penrose, 1896
In 1869, 111 miners died in a cave-in at Avondale, Pennsylvania, several months after 3,000 miners had petitioned the state legislature for a law providing standards for mine safety and inspection. Because the mining company had built the Avondale breaker, where coal was dumped and sorted right over the mine, only one escape shaft existed. Responding to popular outrage, the legislature passed a mine safety bill outlawing the construction of breakers on top of mines and requiring two exits for safety. State Senator Hunter, who represented Avondale and Luzerne County, then ensured that the new law did not apply in the county where the disaster that had inspired the law had taken place. Subsequent mine disasters repeatedly demonstrated that even when the state passed laws to protect workers they were rarely if ever enforced.
This story is not at all atypical of Pennsylvania. The vast majority of bills passed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were private or local measures, designed to facilitate a particular project desired by a legislator. These items usually passed the house and senate without being read three times as required, and frequently representatives had no idea what they were voting for, as clerks rattled off dozens of bills approved by the Republican Party bosses. Outraged at the practice, Governor Martin Brumbaugh vetoed 400 such bills between 1915 and 1919. Most of the bills granted privileges to businesses, and no business received more than the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR).
The late 1800s witnessed the emergence of mammoth industrial corporations, led by the PRR, Standard Oil Corporation, and Carnegie Steel, which through their wealth and power were able for decades to dominate Pennsylvania politics, government, and law enforcement, and to shape the state's laws, courts, and culture to their will. The state's leading captains of industry on both the state and city level worked hand-in-hand with Republican Party bosses, the first of whom, Simon Cameron had engineered the sale of the state-owned and funded Pennsylvania Main Line canal system to the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857, and secured railroads' exemption from taxes in 1861.
After the Civil War, the legislature created dozens of charters that allowed companies to engage in businesses of almost any sort, and to hold stock in out-of-state companies. Credit Mobilier, the greatest financial swindle of the period, used a seemingly innocuous Pennsylvania charter to build the Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad's executives then gave congressmen free stock while charging the Credit Mobilier company extraordinary sums, which they then pocketed to build the railroad. (Pennsylvania's honest but naive governor John Geary pardoned those convicted under Pennsylvania law in the futile hope that he could collect significant taxes from the company if its officers remained free. The legislature voted the Pennsylvania Railroad several of these charters, which it then doled out to favorites. One of these, in 1871, went to John D. Rockefeller, who used it to consolidate his holdings under the South Improvement Company and then create Standard Oil.
The late 1800s witnessed the rise to power of American corporate capitalism, and the belief that the economy operated best when government let the economy operate under its own "natural" laws. This system received justification in a new philosophy called Social Darwinism, which misapplied the ideas of Charles Darwin to argue that the growing inequalities in American society were part of a process natural selection that made both the economy and the nation strong. In 1889, Andrew Carnegie reworked this idea into "The Gospel of Wealth," insisting that the wealthy, being the strongest and the brightest, were best able to decide how to spend the money created by industrialization, for the good of the nation. In practice, however, government was never neutral. It, in fact, operated as the maidservant of big business, supporting and subsidizing its activities, and often at the expense of the Commonwealth's citizens.
Reflecting the widespread belief that an unregulated economy brought the greatest good to the greatest numbers, Pennsylvania's courts pushed private enterprises' pollution of the air and water into the category of "trivial harm" and for decades were reluctant to punish polluters. In case after case, they dismissed the sufferings of families poisoned by a lead-pipe factory or deprived of water by acid runoff from coal mines as "a mere personal inconvenience," and ruled that the illnesses suffered by residents of towns whose air and water were contaminated were less important than the rights of industries to dump their wastes without restriction. During labor disputes, the courts consistently ruled in favor of employers' over workers' rights.
Between the 1870s and the 1930s, no other state in the Union employed so wide a range of law-enforcement agencies. In the 1860s the Commonwealth passed two laws creating private railroad and then private Coal and Iron Police, which enabled companies to employ private police forces with all the powers of city policemen. For decades the infamous Coal and Iron Police enforced the will of their employers, especially in the isolated coal patch towns of northeastern and then western Pennsylvania.
In the anthracite coal regions, the Irish miners in 1868 formed the Workingmen's Benevolent Association and won the first collective bargaining contract in the coal industry. In response, Frank Gowen, powerful president of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal Company, determined to destroy the union. He outlasted it in a strike in 1875 and forbade union contracts in the industry. But his real triumph came in linking the union with the Molly Maguires, which Gowen's informant James McParlan testified was a terrorist and vigilante organization that had been murdering Republicans and mining officials since the Civil War. In 1877, the state executed twenty men, after an infamous trial that Gowen had controlled from the gathering of the evidence through the rendering of the verdict.
Later that summer, Pennsylvania Railroad President Tom Scott persuaded Governor John Hartranft to send the state militia to Pittsburgh during the great railroad strike of 1877, an unprecedented nationwide wildcat strike that had erupted in response to cuts in wages by the railroads. The arrival of the out-of-town militia led to a confrontation with strikers in which its enlistees killed twenty and wounding seventy more strikers and their supporters. Then President Rutherford B. Hayes, at Scott and Hartranft's request, sent in federal troops to restore order and run the trains, on the constitutional ground that the government was required to deliver the mail. It was the first time in American history that federal troops were used during a labor action.
The use of both private and public forces to quash labor protests continued for decades. In 1892, at Homestead, one of Carnegie Steel's great steel plants, company manager Henry Clay Frick tried to break a strike by hiring Pinkerton detectives to attack the Homestead plant by water and free it from the union workers and their families who were preventing non-union workers from entering. In the battle that ensued, nine steelworkers and seven Pinkertons died before the state militia arrived to restore order and bust the union. Five years later, a local sheriff and his newly deputized coal and iron police fired into peacefully protesting coal miners in the town of Lattimer, killing nineteen and wounding thirty-six.
The Coal and Iron Police again attempted to enforce the will of the coal operators, who had the support of Pennsylvania Governor William A. Stone, during the coal strike of 1902. This time, however, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened on behalf of striking miners. Four years later, Pennsylvania created the state police. Known as "Cossacks" to striking workers, they continued to break strikes and preserve order - which often meant protecting industrial establishments from workers - during the 1910s and 1920s. Only during the 1930s, with the protection and sanction of both the state and federal government, did unionization and better working conditions come to most of Pennsylvania's workers.