Thurber 1921---Lockout or a Strike? And Tent City
To this day there is the misconception that the miners struck in 1921. Therefore the miners, not the company, were responsible for the end of coal mining in Thurber.
By 1921 most railroads had changed to oil, and with the discovery of the nearby Ranger Oil Field, the Texas and Pacific Coal and Oil Co. decided to phase out its coaling operation. In 1921 the company proposed a 33% pay reduction. The Union countered with 20%. The company reneged on a current labor contract which still had a year before expiration and on May 1, 1921 the company temporarily closed the mines. But since the Company still had to honor existing coal contracts, the plan was to close all mines except #10 and New #3, evict miners not willing to work at lower pay and hire "scab" labor.
lockout---the refusal by an employer to allow his employees to come into work unless they agree to his terms
The proposed pay cut was devastating to miners, particularly those with families. In 1920 the pay was $2.40/ton. At Mine #10 a miner averaged almost 2-1/2 tons per day and worked about 14 days a month. When a debit of about $40. was deducted for rent, lights, smithing, Doctor, train, UMW dues and scrip, the average miner's take-home pay was about $43.a month. Most miners refused to work at lower pay but continued to live in company housing, hopeful the company would agree to the Union's proposed 20% pay reduction. But there were enough "Scab" workers willing to take up the slack.
Although the Union shipped some Mexican miners back to Mexico, the bulk of the "Scab" labor force was Mexicans and this is reflected in Church Baptismal records. In the five years preceding 1921, there were a total 404 Baptisms: 168 Mexicans (42%) and 236 all other nationalities (58%). In the five years following 1921, there were a total 217 Baptisms: 155 Mexicans (71%) and only 62 all other nationalities (29%). So the Mexican Baptisms decreased only 13 (168-155) but all other Baptisms dropped 174 (236-62).
On September 10, 1921 the company gave notice that all miners in company houses "…who have not paid their rent, water, light and gas charges…" must make settlement or these services will be discontinued. In effect, this was an eviction notice.
To take care of the evicted miners and their families the UMW set up "Tent City" on 20 acres of company land which was located a half-mile north of Thurber in Grant's Town. From houses with gas, electric lights and water, about 25 families now had to live in WWI surplus tents with army cots, kerosene lamps and heaters and water from barrels. With the cold weather and some typhoid, the winter of 1921-1922 was harsh for Tent City families. Until they were able to relocate, some evicted Thurber families were taken in by friends in Thurber Junction and Strawn/Lyra. In April 1922 UMW shut off funds for Tent City but Lawrence Santi, an Executive Board Member of UMW District 21 and Secretary of the Italian Local, valiantly begged money, clothing and food from local merchants, often signing his name as collateral. Tent City gradually faded away as families moved on to other parts of the country, primarily to the mine fields of Illinois.
Lawrence Santi: "1921 was a lockout, yes."
John Bagatti of Highwood IL, a Thurber miner in 1921: "It was not a strike! Positively!...That was a lockout…And there is no question about it…They were trying to tell the people the miners struck which was an absolute falsehood…"