John Mitchell (1870-1919) was born on February 4, 1870, in Braidwood, a mining village in central Illinois. Raised as a Presbyterian by his widowed mother, Mitchell worked in coal mines from an early age. Danger, low pay, and the callousness of mine operators convinced him to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) at its founding in 1890. He began teaching himself labor law and economics and, in 1891, married Katherine O'Rourke. Mitchell rose rapidly within the UMWA and in September 1898 became president, a position he held until 1907.
The 1902 anthracite strike pitted the UMWA against the railroad companies who owned, and the managers who operated, hard-coal mines in Pennsylvania. With mid-term elections approaching, Republican Party leaders concerned about the effects of the strike on the election convinced President Roosevelt to seek a settlement. Roosevelt brought Mitchell and representatives of the owners to the White House, eventually convincing them to accept the findings of a presidential commission. Roosevelt appointed the Catholic bishop of Peoria, Illinois, and Edger E. Clark, the grand chief of the Order of Railway Conductors, to the commission on Mitchell’s recommendation.
Mitchell’s UMWA presidency was characterized by growth in membership and influence. He brought the UMWA into the American Federation of Labor (AFL), for which he served as a vice president. He and AFL leader Samuel Gompers became active in the National Civic Federation (NCF), an organization dedicated to ending conflict between labor and capital with which President Roosevelt expressed himself “in hearty accord and sympathy.”
In August 1910, Mitchell accompanied Theodore Roosevelt on a tour of the anthracite region. They admired a life-sized portrait of Roosevelt, while chatting with mining families who implored Roosevelt to run again for the presidency.
Mitchell’s popularity with UMWA members waned because of his National Civic Federation ties, and the union forced him to resign from the NCF in 1911. In 1914 he was appointed commissioner of labor for New York. The UMWA honors him every October 29 by celebrating “Mitchell Day.”