The lesser known strike, 1889 in Braidwood

Sandy Vasko

    I have written much about the 1877 strike in Braidwood that brought the state militia into town along with some very bad publicity. It resulted in long court cases costing the coal companies a small fortune.
    They obviously learned nothing about the miners they were employing, especially their tenacity and sense of solidarity. Today we look at the next big strike, wider in scope, but no less violent.
    The first problem I faced is that Wilmington newspapers are totally missing from March of 1888 to April of 1890, the very time the strike took place. So, for our information we are forced to look at out of area newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, the Joliet Signal or Weekly Sun.
    It all began in January of 1889 when the National Progressive Association of Miners and Mine Laborers met in Bloomington. James McLaughlin was the key note speaker.
    He gave an overview of what had come before and then gave a list of “recommendations” for future negotiations. They were to institute semi-monthly pay days, to abolish the screen system and the truck system, and bring about an eight hour day.
    Needless to say, none of the recommendations were taken seriously by the coal companies. On May 1 the miners' contract expired.
    By May 22 we read, “Word has been received here (Chicago) from Braidwood that the miners at that place are providing themselves with arms and threatening to burn the mines.”
    Two days later Will County Sheriff Houston wired the Governor saying that state militia would be necessary in Braidwood if violence was to be avoided. On May 28, the trouble started.
    We read, “Five hundred strikers yesterday marched to the J shaft, drove off the workmen and wrecked the shaft. They then left, saying they would be back shortly to burn the shaft.”
    The Governor sent in two companies of militia the same day. Eight companies of the 4th Illinois National Guard pitched their tents and immediately arrested 25 miners. They then began a systematic search of the Italian neighborhood.
    We read, “It is asserted that the Italians are rallying at Godley, Coal City, Gardener and Braceville for an all-out attack. The plan of Colonel Bennett is to attack the Italian settlements in detail before they can rally.
    “Great activity is noted in the Italian quarters, and crowds are seen gathering to rescue their arrested brothers. The residents say that the Italians mean fight and do not care for their lives.
    “The whistle in the “J” shaft blew for work this morning, but no miners reported.”
    By the next day Braidwood was under martial law. We read, “Everything is quiet here today, and very little fear is entertained of further trouble as long as the military remain on the ground.
    “A small body of rioters was surrounded by a squad of soldiers this morning, and 4 of them, who were found to be armed, were arrested the militia have made excursions into the neighboring mining settlement and have confiscated what weapons they could find.”
    Any thought of keeping the mines open during the strike were abandoned. On June 4, 1889, we read in the Chicago Tribune, “A notice was posted at the office of the Chicago and Wilmington Coal Company yesterday, announcing that the mines will be closed for an indefinite period and notifying all men having tools in the shaft to take them out.”
    In modern labor parlance, the workers were under “lock-out.”
    Local miners were not alone in their strike. Unlike 1877, when each individual coal company made their own rules, by 1889 all of the coal companies across the nation had colluded to set wages and working conditions.
    Miners had also formed bonds with fellow miners across the country, and this strike included mines from Pittsburgh to Colorado.
    Neighboring Indiana miners were also suffering. On June 22, 1889 Clay City, IN, another striking town, sent a committee to Braidwood to see how their brothers were fairing.
    They reported, “They found many cases of want and starvation in the households of miners, nearly all of whom have large families of children. The committee calls upon the citizens to give what they can for the relief of the suffering families of miners.”
    The Tribune also sent a reporter who wrote, “Most of the single men and some of the married men have left town in search of work. I discovered many families with six, eight or 10 children, without a morsel of food in the house.
    “Some who have gardens are living on potatoes and lettuce. Many have not tasted meat this year.”
    It was the same old situation, just a different year. Would this strike end like the last? We will answer that question next time.