William Bauchop Wilson was born in Blantyre, on April the second 1862, the third child of Adam Black Wilson and Helen Nelson Bauchop Wilson.
During a pit strike in February 1868 in Haughhead, in Hamilton, Wilson’s family was evicted from their company-owned house. Although the strike was settled within a few weeks, the family did not have a place to live and roomed with two other families in an abandoned stable. Adam Wilson had two options: return to the pits and betray the cause of better working conditions for the miners, or leave Blantyre to find other employment. Adam Wilson sought work as a miner unsuccessfully in other parts of the country, but as it was coal-masters refused to hire anybody who had been involved in strikes in other districts.
After several more moves, Adam chose to emigrate to the United States to find work. With the meager savings he and Helen had accumulated in the Cadzow Cooperative Society, Adam sailed to New York in April 1870 leaving Helen with the children, William, Joseph, and Jessie, until he could save enough money to send for them.
Adam chose to settle in the coal mining area around Arnot, a small village in Pennsylvania. After several months, Adam had saved and borrowed enough money to send for his family in Scotland. On August 27 1870, Helen, the children and her father, John Bauchop, sailed from Glasgow to New York. Despite being academically gifted, young Wilson had to leave school at age nine to help his father down the pit, as he became ill and unable to load the coal he’d won into bogeys.
Aged eleven young William Wilson joined the first mining union in Pensylvania, the Miners and Laborers Benevolent Association. The next year Wilson decided to start a union for the boys who worked as trappers, opening and closing doors for ventilation in the mines. The boys followed Wilson’s lead when their wages were reduced by 10 percent and decided to strike. Taking the role of spokesman for this group of young militants, Wilson was physically beaten by an oversman and as a result decaled the strike over! Reflecting on this in later life, he commented: “It helped impress upon my mind the fact that until working men were as strong, collectively, as their employers, they would be forced… to accept whatever conditions were imposed upon them.” W.B. Wilson.
Following this period of “union-bashing” by 1876, there was only a handful remaining in the local union. With the decline in membership, Wilson was “pressed into service as secretary” of the local Miners’ and Laborers’ Benevolent Association. Wilson began to correspond with labor leaders around the country who expanded his knowledge and understanding of the labor movement.
His pathway as a union stalwart and social reformer was established and twenty years later he had become Secretary-Treasurer of the United Mine Workers of America. The pinnacle of Wilson’s career was reached when in February 1913 he was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to be Secretary of Labor in the newly formed cabinet post. W.B. Wilson took office on March 5, 1913.
William Bauchop Wilson died aboard a train in Georgia returning home after holidaying in Florida on May 25, 1934. This man from Blantyre man helped shape America, advocating eight-hour workdays, strong unions, workers compensation, child labor laws, and workplace safety during his years of labor activism and political influence.
From “Blantyre Explained” by Paul Veverka (c) 2018
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