The case of Hitchman Coal and Coke v. Mitchell grew from a critical issue in West Virginia history and became a landmark decision in U.S. constitutional law. Beginning in 1906, the Hitchman Coal and Coke Company, located in the Northern Panhandle near Benwood, notified each man who sought work there that he could be employed only if he agreed not to join the United Mine Workers of America. This kind of agreement, called a yellow-dog contract, was already common practice in much of the West Virginia coal industry.
The UMWA, which had working agreements with coal operators in northern states, was under pressure from those operators to organize the increasingly competitive and largely non-union West Virginia mines. In 1907, a federal district court issued an injunction prohibiting the union from seeking to influence the Hitchman workers to break their yellow dog contracts. In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court sustained the lower court ruling, thereby endorsing the combining of two powerful weapons against trade unionism, the injunction and the yellow-dog contract.
In the 1920s, the Hitchman doctrine helped to create a legal atmosphere extremely adverse to unions. Coal operators and other employers in West Virginia and across the country quickly took advantage of the judicially approved means of resisting labor organizations. The UMWA and other unions faced possible extinction until New Deal legislation and judicial decisions of the 1930s brought about a more favorable environment for unionism.
This Article was written by Jerry Bruce Thomas
Bernstein, Irving. The Lean Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
Lunt, Richard D. Law and Order vs. the Miners: West Virginia, 1907-1933. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979.