The Archivist’s Nook: Speaking Labor to Power – W. B. Wilson

Photos of John Mitchell and W. B. Wilson from the pamphlet ‘Speech of William B. Wilson on Mitchell Day, October 29, 1901,’ Box 127, John Mitchell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Scottish immigrant and Pennsylvania coal miner, William Bauchop (W. B.) Wilson (1862-1934), became the voice of workers speaking to power as a founder of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union, the first representative for labor in Congress, and the first secretary of labor in the Woodrow Wilson (no relation) administration. Although not a Catholic, W.B. worked during the Gilded Age and Progressive era to advance labor’s cause along with many Catholics such as T. V. Powderly, John Mitchell, John W. Hayes, and ‘Mother’ Jones. Wilson’s papers reside with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, but his documentary trail is well represented in the papers of his Catholic colleagues at the Catholic University of America Archives, and the digital version available by subscription at The History Vault.

W. B.’s family settled in the tightly controlled coal company town of Arnot, Tioga County, in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. In 1871, not yet 10, Wilson went to work in the mines. As a young man he began to organize his fellow workers, becoming blacklisted by mine owners, and thus working a series of jobs as lumberjack, mill hand, and railroad worker. Active in the Knights of Labor, where he was a supporter of leader Terence V. Powderly, as evidenced by his letter of March 5, 1895. W. B. was also a founder of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1890, serving on their National Executive Board though he remained an active coal miner until 1898. He served as UMWA Secretary-Treasurer, 1900-1908, working closely with President John Mitchell as his “wise and sagacious counselor”¹ during the Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, winning higher wages, shorter working days, and national recognition of the union. During this time he also became a colleague of celebrated labor activist, ‘the Miner’s Angel,’ Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones, who usually addressed him as “My Dear Comrade’ in her numerous letters.²

Letter denouncing John W. Hayes, who had engineered the ouster of T. V. Powderly from leadership of the Knights of Labor. W. B. Wilson to T. V. Powderly, May 24, 1895, Box 48, T.V. Powderly Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

W. B. went on to serve three terms, March 4, 1907-March 3, 1913, as a Democratic congressman from Tioga County. In Congress, he introduced legislation creating the Bureau of Mines and established a Department of Labor, which included the Bureau of Labor Statistics that had been headed successively by Catholic University professors Carroll D. Wright and Charles P. Neill. In 1912, W. B. became chairman of the House Labor Committee but was defeated for a fourth term in Congress. However, incoming Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson appointed W. B. as Secretary of Labor, heading the department he had created from March 5, 1913, to March 5, 1921. There he conciliated numerous potential strikes, regulate working conditions for women, and during World War I created an employment service moving more than six million workers to places where workers were needed. He also worked to provide insurance for military members and housing and higher wages for war workers. W. B. also worked diligently to restrain excesses of Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer during ‘The Red Scare’ regarding Communist threats in 1919-1920.

W. B. left the Labor Department in 1921, where incidentally he had been reunited with his former Knights of Labor chief Powderly who now reported to the Secretary from his position as head of the department’s Information Bureau. Out of government, W. B. engaged in mining and agricultural pursuits near Blossburg, Tioga County. He made a foray back into politics for an unsuccessful run for the U. S. Senate in 1926. Thereafter, W. B. did some work as an arbiter in Illinois coal fields but otherwise lived in retirement until dying on a train returning from Florida near Savannah, Georgia, on May 25, 1934. He is buried beside his wife, fellow immigrant Agnes Williamson, whom he married in 1883, in Blossburg’s Arbon Cemetery, not far from other family members. He is remembered for speaking labor’s “truth to power.”³ He was also an occasional poet, poignantly expressing the immigrant’s longing in Memories (1916):

Group portrait of Anthony Caminetti and T. V. Powderly flanking their boss, William B. Wilson, at the Labor Department, n.d., This photo and others of Wilson can be found in both the John Mitchell and T. V. Powderly online digital photo collections.

True, there stood Penn’s forest as stately as ever,
And, there, the wide meadows and tall growing grain,
And down in the valley the swift flowing river
Fast winding its way to the billowy main.
Yet though my heart loves them with loyal devotion,
My memory dwells on sweet visions of yore,
And pictures that country far over the ocean,
The land of my fathers, old Scotia’s loved shore.

Special thanks to the best online source for William B. Wilson: Blossburg.org. I also owe a personal debt to ‘Dunny’ Dunlap, an aged corner store owner in my hometown of Cherry Tree, Pennsylvania, who would regale me with stories about his wife’s uncle, W. B. Wilson.


¹ Craig Phelan. Divided Loyalties: The Public and Private Life of Labor Leader John Mitchell. State University of New York Press, 1994, p. 91, citing the United Mine Workers Journal of June 18, 1903.

² See Edward M. Steel (ed.) The Correspondence of Mother Jones. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

³ To borrow an iconic phrase attributed to later civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

The Archivist’s Nook: John Mitchell – Apostle of Labor

Contemporary newspaper depicting the people and events of the Anthracite Coal Strike, 1902. John Mitchell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Contemporary newspaper depicting the people and events of the Anthracite Coal Strike, 1902. John Mitchell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

May First is a date full of meaning as ‘May Day’, a traditional European spring festival, the Feast Day of St. Joseph the Worker for Roman Catholics, and International Workers’ Day for leftists. However one marks this day it is certainly an appropriate time to note one of the most important figures in American labor history, John Mitchell, whose archival papers, including an online digital collection of his photographs, are housed at Catholic University. If Terence V. Powderly can be called ‘Labor’s American Idol,’ Mitchell was widely recognized as The Apostle of Labor after he led the fledgling United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union through one of history’s most significant strikes, the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. He also wrote two books, Organized Labor (1903) and The Wage Earner (1913), arguing capital and labor could work together if both were linked in prosperity.

Mitchell was born 4 February 1870 in the coal mining village of Braidwood, Illinois, to poor Irish immigrants. Orphaned at a young age, he had little opportunity for education, and by age 12 was working in the coal mines. He joined the Knights of Labor in 1885 and in 1890 was a founding member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He became an international union organizer in 1897, working alongside the celebrated “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, before being elected UMWA Vice President that same year, and President in 1899. Union activity in this era was a risky business as coal operators controlled the mines, coal towns, and coal miners who were forced to endure horrible conditions and long hours. Miners were often paid with coupons that could only be redeemed at company stores at inflated prices and had to buy tools and supplies such as dynamite for blasting and oil for lamps. As UMWA president, Mitchell, with his priestly mien, worked to incorporate new workers from various immigrant groups, mostly Catholic, who showed their affection by nicknaming him ‘Johnnie da Mitch.’   Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: John Mitchell – Apostle of Labor”