A Brief Worker’s Utopia: Employee Ownership in Lattimer, 1938-1939

The spirited revolt that led to the massacre was, to a certain degree, a utopic one. The migrant laborers that struck during during the summer of 1897 imagined a better world for themselves, one that offered them the baseline of equal living and working conditions to the longer-established nativized miners. They sought the same kinds of protections as nativized Americans, and in this sense their utopia was not all that different from what was offered within the principles laid down within American democracy itself. They also sought reforms that would help all employees and families living under the control of the collieries as well: the abolishment of the company store and housing system and the enforced use of company doctors. Far from these modest goals (arguably, for which they were shot…) was the hope for an upending of the vertical relationship between employees and employers. Amazingly, for a short period of time in 1938 this change did occur. What some newspapers described as a “unique experiment” occurred at Lattimer and four other collieries owned by the Pardee Brothers and leased to the Lattimer Coal Company: the workers took control of the company.

In February of 1938 the Lattimer Coal Company went bankrupt, filing papers for a loan with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) in Washington D.C. Immediately, negotiations between the workers, the company and the United Mine Workers took place regarding the future of the company. In the front of everyone’s minds were the nearly 1000 jobs provided by the work and the matter of whether the $65,000 in back wages owed to miners and laborers would be paid (Shamokin New Dispatch (SND) 17 February 1938: 15). Boyd Osler, now in charge, pursued a loan and a company restructuring effort to negotiate the sale of the company. In early March, however, the RFC rejected the application suggesting that the efforts of the ownership and management were insufficient to save the company. In March, bypassing the company ownership, employees of the company along with the UMWA appealed this ruling. As a result the RFC agreed to reconsider the loan (SND, 14 March 1938). Negotiations lasted until the end of May with a variety of bids rejected by the committee.

By the end of the month a meeting between the employees of the company and the Hazelton Chamber of Commerce hashed out the beginnings of what newspapers described as a “Unique Experiment” (SND 18 July 1938: 1; Pittston Gazette 18 July 1938). By the beginning of June, with company ownership admitting failure and an inability to affect a plan, a coalition of officials from the UMWA and the workers presented their own plan to bankruptcy referee William K. Goldstein. In early June it was announced that the 1,000 employees of the company would run the company for a time, using profits to repay themselves the back wages (Harrisburg Telegraph 1 June 1938: 5). On the June 1, 1938 The Harrisburg Telegraph ran the victorious banner at the top of their paper, “Workmen to Operate Closed Mine Near Hazleton.” The plan required that the workers would work for thirty days without pay, and after an additional ninety days would begin repayment of their back wages in ten percent increments. In a show of support the Hazleton business community contributed investment money to get the operation underway (SND 4 June 1938: 12). By October the Shamokin News Dispatch (1938: 7) reported that $250,000 in wages including a 10 percent payment on back wages had been paid and $100,000 in debts had been met.

An article from the Evening Journal (Harrisburg) from 1 June 1938 reporting on employee ownership of the Lattimer Colliery

An article from the Evening Journal (Harrisburg) from 1 June 1938 reporting on employee ownership of the Lattimer Colliery

Newspapers report that in the period of employee ownership, the company rapidly paid their debts, both from wages accrued by the employees and to the many creditors seeking returns on credit. The experiment was reported in the news as a great success and miners in similar situations throughout the region studied the operating plans the miner’s at Lattimer adopted (SND 26 July 1938: 10; 3 December 1938: 2).Representatives from Lattimer reportedly visited mines in Gilberton and elsewhere to consult and share tactics for adoption in similar conditions of company liquidation.

Presumably, when the debts to worker’s wages were paid, the operations of the colliery were to return to the oversight of the board. Newspapers and company documents provide little in the way of illuminating how this transition transpired. Undoubtedly the short period of company ownership which the company resolved itself of significant debts to creditors and to the workers themselves was a point of great pride.

An important question remains regarding the negotiations conducted between the RFC, the UMWA and the workers of the Lattimer Colliery during the early summer of 1938. This was a significant year for the villages of Lattimer No. 1 and 2 as the companies divested themselves of the housing in each town, selling it off to renters. Was this settlement negotiated by the employees of the company as part of the restructuring deal? If so, the short period of worker control at Lattimer had broad reaching implications.