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Review of Henry Clay Frick: The Golden Age of Coal and Coke,1870-1920, by Cassandra Vivian

[Reviewer's note: I had originally intended to promote this book with the following review, but I've had second thoughts. Like the coal he mined, I think it's best to leave Mr. Frick and the culture of exploitation he represented in the ground. The less that's heard about him the better. We all need to be listening to science. The polluters and their Ayn Rand grandstanding have already had their say.]

Henry Clay Frick took thinking seriously. Which meant he took reasoning seriously, character and purpose, too. Turn him loose in a chaotic new industry -- coal and coke in Southwestern Pennsylvania -- and he rationalizes it.

Caught up in passions of the great colliding movements of the 19th and 20th centuries -- capitalism, socialism, the industrial revolution, organized labor, -- people came at him with every kind of nonsense. Didn't faze him. He just stuck with good old logic, unflinching discipline, and straightforward relationships.

He was well served by superintendent Thomas Lynch and engineer J. H. Paddock
But he sorely missed a third figure. A leader with stature among his work force he could trust and deal with. Someone freely chosen by his employees through their own organization, sanctioned and facilitated by his company.

The industry needed rationalizing same as oil, steel, and other new industries. Problem was, the owners, rock-ribbed capitalists, went overboard on control. What they thought they understood and what they assumed, was based on a contorted definition of "self" in self-interest. Left out the public interest, which rigid conservatives still have no use for today.

The story of labor-management relations in the period Vivian covers, 1870-1920, an age as sorrowful and lamentable as it was “golden,” with its betrayals, savagery, and character assassinations, was as much about the heroics that didn’t happen as what did. It was about governance.

Not until the New Deal 30's, when US Steel let their workers organize, and into the prosperous 50's, could the United Steelworkers’ Dave McDonald and USS CEO Ben Fairless tour the country touting labor-management harmony, sharing wealth and control, one big happy family.

All the tribalists in ownership ever have to do to get it right is to get what governance is all about: community, and what community is all about is fairness. The coal operators' employees were screaming in their faces about fairness. What government is for, the last thing those of extreme persuasion want to hear.

But it's too much to ask that Charles Armstrong and other bare-knuckled coal operators in Frick's era would understand that government needed to be rationalized, too. That they needed to push for legislation that would let them off the hook and let them do what capitalists are good at, meeting market demand with supply, efficiently and at a profit.

Vivian’s able research did its job: Frick clearly wasn't the demon he was made out to be. Though the portrait she paints isn’t without blemish. The "scheming two-faced" Carnegie’s taking over Frick's business was no worse than what Frick did to his competitors. Otherwise, primary sources say his workers received not the worst in workplace safety, compensation, housing, provisioning, and consideration during periods of hardship and injury, but reliably the best in the industry. "Safety First" originated with a 27-rule company-wide policy instituted by Frick's superintendent Lynch after the Mammoth Mine explosion in 1891.

Yet Frick and the coal-operator syndicate he helped organize didn't go far enough in their rationalizing. The structure they engineered balked at partnering with labor. It didn’t even consider partnering with government. They were perceived as having too much control as a consequence. They were perceived as being insensitive, intransigent, and unfair. Frick in particular, not because he failed but because he was so prominent, because he succeeded.

The perception of unfairness dispensed by an impersonal system that wasn't listening, that wasn't legally obligated to respond with respect and compassion even if it was, wasn't just hurtful. It was emasculating. It created an emotional climate so combustible that, for the communities who experienced it, it descended into a recurring nightmare of terror. If, as Vivian shows, it was the miners who eventually threw the unions out, many in the communities they took over wished they could have thrown the entire industry out.

Because Frick and his expanding empire came into prominence, it was he, more than anyone, who was expected to correct the injustice and the unrest, he who attracted attention. The case Vivian's research supports is that it wasn't that Frick did too little in the event, but that too much was expected. Well after he died, in 1919, any perceived affront to labor rights and human decency in the region, including murder, no matter the source, was attributed to him.

The price he paid in rage and hatred, in character assassination, has already lasted a century beyond his time. It is history's unfairness to him, a rendering of perverse justice, that may never end. A twist of fate that the historian will miss if she's not alert to the broader context. And miss it she did. It isn't the truth about Frick that's the point, it's the untruth, the larger meaning of his story that one will not learn from Vivian's account. If deliberate distortion of an individual's role in history is a rarity, we may count Frick's fate as a striking example.

He's been chosen to stand in for an unregulated system of exploitation that dehumanized workers, brought social unrest, disfigured the landscape, and left others to deal with unsolvable mine drainage. Regions proud of their history commemorate events with markers. As Vivian notes, Morgan Valley, from Broadford to Mount Pleasant, has sites where serious history was made but very few markers. If the truth doesn't really matter about Frick, its history doesn't seem to matter to the region. For those who experienced it and those left behind, the age of coal and coke was anything but "golden."

The coal operators' successors today in the fossil fuel industry are still at it, leaving the public "self" out of self-interest. Coke works near Frick's coal fields, at Clairton, run by US Steel, are still violating air quality standards. Yesterday, it was 80 degrees above the Arctic Circle in Siberia. There's a connection. The inequities that made Frick's coal fields a combustible mix of injury and impotent rage have expanded into our own time to cover our entire planet, potentially joining humanity itself in the current mass extinction. We, the public, are all paying the price.

The ultimate irony is that it wasn’t the coal operators’ wealth and power that their miserable workers, long-suffering immigrants, were really after. They just wanted fairness.

Those who care about fairness and the truth about Henry Clay Frick, Pittsburgh’s "Steel City" history, and the pain and chaos that marked the birth of America’s industrial revolution, are sure to appreciate Vivian’s scholarship. She writes of immigrants’ contributions to her region’s place in America’s history with the care and reverence it deserves. Passionate about the subject of her book, she is passionate about the historian’s craft as well, and brings to it an extraordinary combination of reflection and activism.

Not content with numerous publications, she has founded a historical society and a museum and written about Italian-American foods and ways. Just a few among the many gifts this talented scholar has shared with her community, a role model for responsible citizenship in a democracy. Should Vivian's readers come around to her point of view it would be a good thing, not just for her subject but for the telling of history, with its admirable attention to detail, to facts, to clarity, and to force of argument, backed by eight years researching original sources.

If I have one reservation it would be that in the pride the author takes in immigrants' accomplishments she can lose sight of their costs. Even as she faithfully records the miseries and ruinous effect of the extraction industry on our habitat, she doesn't quite get the enormity of it. What would be her assessment if she could look back on her "golden age" from a longer term perspective? From the perspective of the remnants of humanity after much of the globe is rendered uninhabitable by an intricate climate system disrupted by pollution? By a fossil fuel industry that means to go on extracting until the earth's resources are gone and life, too?

The answer would depend on how we all weigh the benefits and costs. The author can speak for herself. But the answer for this native of Pittsburgh, always eager to brag about his home town, is it wasn't worth it.

That said, the beleaguered Mr. Frick needed a historian with force of will and integrity to match his own, and he found it in Cassandra Vivian. Her book is a good read. Whether it changes minds or not, I recommend it.

David C. Harrison
A.B. American History, Harvard 1959
J. D. Harvard Law School 1963
Founder and executive director, Mon Valley Tri-State Network 1986-1995
Co-founder, Mon Valley Tri-State Leadership Academy 1991-1994
Current book in progress tentatively titled "The Story of the Child"

May 26, 2020

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