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Court of Industrial Relations

Shaft mine No. 6 of the Crowe Coal Company about 1904In November 1919, coal miners in southeast Kansas went on strike in response to the United Mine Workers (UMW) call for a national work stoppage.  When President Woodrow Wilson declared the action illegal, the UMW called off the strike, but the Kansas miners ignored the order.  Led by Alexander Howat, 10,000 miners stayed out on strike and shut down the coal fields.

Faced with a harsh winter and dwindling fuel supplies, the state could not withstand a lengthy strike.  After negotiations with the miners failed, the Kansas Supreme Court empowered the state to take control of the mines.  When the miners still refused to return to work, Governor Henry J. Allen called for volunteers to work the coal fields. Over 10,000 men responded, many of them from colleges and universities. Some answered a call for volunteers at half-time of that year's Kansas University-Missouri University football game.

Governor Henry J. AllenThe strike was soon settled.  State control of the coal mines lasted only about three weeks, but Governor Allen was alarmed by the possibility of future strikes which could affect vital public services.  In the month following the strike, therefore, Allen called a special session of the legislature to consider establishing a labor arbitration board.  The result was the Kansas Court of Industrial Relations, created in 1920.  The court was actually a three-man board which could make rules, settle disputes, and even take over and run businesses if necessary.  Collective bargaining was allowed, but strikes were prohibited.

Alexander Howat was opposed to the Court of Industrial Relations and his actions led to fines and imprisonment.  His instance on continuing to strike after the UMW had called them off led to his explusion from the union. 

Because it was a unique experiment, the court attracted national attention and was strongly criticized by organized labor.  The experiment came to an end after the United States Supreme Court overturned several of the Industrial Court's rulings and curtailed its powers.  The Kansas Legislature abolished the court in 1925.  Although it heard 166 cases in the five years of its existence, the Court of Industrial Relations generally has come to be regarded as an interesting, but ineffective, experiment in labor relations.  The published annual reports of the Court of Industrial Relations are available on Kansas Memory.  Correspondence with Governor Henry Allen and a selection of newspaper articles about the Court of Industrial Relations are also available on Kansas Memory.

Entry: Court of Industrial Relations

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2003

Date Modified: January 2020

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.