In this fine Lakawanna county courthouse with its rich wood panelling, green marble columns and original Tiffany ceiling, history was made by an extraordinary cast of characters, united in their determination to better the lives of those who toiled in the anthracite coal mines of north eastern Pennsylvania.
With a harsh winter approaching and the miners already on strike for several months a new young president, Theodore Roosevelt knew it was imperative to resolve the conflict. he appointed a seven man commission, The Anthracite Strike Commission, the first ever non violent, impartial intervention by the US Federal Government in a labour dispute, and the first comprehensive inquiry to be made of the industry.
In the years leading up to the strike working conditions for anthracite coal miners had steadily deteriorated to the enormous profit of the owners. wages were a pittance and often paid in credit at the company store or against rent for substandard housing. There was no system of regulation in weighing the coal extracted and children as young as six worked twelve hour days in dangerous and grueling conditions in the towering breaker buildings.
John Mitchell, a charismatic, self taught coal miner who had risen through the ranks of the United Mine Workers of America impressed the president with his moderate but firm demands. Mitchell had even converted to Catholicism to better unite his disparate ethnic members and was the critical figure in maintaining a common front amongst strikers.
The Reverend John Curran, The Labour Priest, a pastor in Wilkes barre, was Mitchell's trusted counsellor and testified at the hearings. A former breaker boy and mule driver, he knew first hand the harsh working conditions of the mines. He remained a life long friend of Mitchell's and indeed of President Roosevelt who visited him in Scranton on several occasions.
Clarence darrow seized the opportunity to parade before the international and domestic press over 500 witnesses, many testifying to the horrendous conditions of the workers and their fasmilies and exposing the cruel child labour practices of the time.
Before 1902 the federal Government had used brutal military intervention rather than peaceful arbitaration to settle labour disputes. Now a board of concilitation was formed and new precedents established. The commission's award laid the foundations for all future wage and working conditions negotiated across the country.
The coal miners had won a great victory, and despite the ongoing attempts of the owners to undermine these acheivements and their reluctance to abide by the spirit of cooperation, Mitchell, Darrow and Curran had prevailed.
The full moon that lights the night sky lights also the courtroom wall.
The figure of justice speaks.
Fiat Justicia Ruat Caelum......Though the heavens may fall, let justice be done.