In September 1945, Josephine Roche arrived in London as part of a European trip to investigate coal mining across the Atlantic and to attend the conference of the International Labor Organization, to which she was delegated by President Harry S Truman.
Josephine Roche – photo credit: Library of Congress
Roche was the remarkable owner of the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, operating several coal mines in Colorado’s Northern Coal Field. Her career spanned everything from working as Denver’s first woman police officer, serving as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and running the United Mine Workers’ Welfare and Retirement Fund. She promoted workers’ rights, aided immigrants, ran for Colorado governor, supported Progressive Party politics, and fought for social and civic reform.
After Roche’s parents died in early 1927, she inherited her father’s minority holdings of the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company. After a strike, violence, and six deaths at the RMFC-owned Columbine Mine, Roche gained majority control of the company. She announced that employee welfare would be a key component in the way the company was run. The first permanent mutual union agreement ever signed by a coal mining company in Colorado was between the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company and the United Mine Workers in 1928. This was considered a groundbreaking agreement for coal miners’ rights. Roche became known for her concern for her employees and their rights.
As Assistant Secretary of the Treasury beginning in 1934, Roche was the second woman to serve under a United States President. She worked in the areas of education, finance, health, and welfare, helping to shape the Social Security Act and the National Youth Administration. Her work in the realms of health and welfare laid the foundations for Medicare and Medicaid.
Her prominence in the political realm, in labor relations, and in the coal mining industry are all key contexts to her European trip immediately following the end of World War II. Roche spent several days in London conducting background research, then traveled to Paris to attend the ILO conference.
Thirty-nine countries sent delegates to the International Labor Organization conference, held at the Sorbonne. In her autobiography of Roche, Elinor McMinn writes of the conference, “The delegates described their wartime struggles to survive and expressed their common concern: to activate Europe’s paralyzed industrial and economic facilities and increase production of food, clothing, coal, and shelter.” Roche was assigned by the ILO to study European coal production. Robyn Muncy writes in Relentless Reformer, “Suffering terrible fuel shortages by war’s end, both France and Britain had nationalized their coal industries, and Roche was interested in how nationalization was affecting workers and whether the mines in each country would be able to retool fast enough to provide fuel for winter heating and industrial production.” Roche also was commissioned by the Department of Industrial Studies of the Sage Foundation to collect information on British coal mining. In addition, she wrote articles for the Survey Graphic and New York Herald Tribune about her findings and experiences – highlighting the interest in the United States for information about coal mining, industrial, and labor issues abroad.
After the end of the ILO conference, Roche toured coal mines of the Nord and Pas-de-Calais, reportedly becoming the first woman to descend into a French coal mine. She perceived the French coal mining industry as being in a more positive position than the British because they had regained their pre-war production levels.
Traveling back to Britain, she embarked on a tour arranged by the Ministry of Fuel and Power. Roche inspected the coal fields of Wales, northern England, and Scotland, going down into at least one mine per day, and discussing mining conditions with everyone from superintendents, engineers, miners, and even the miners’ wives. She also studied the history of coal mining in Britain from medieval times. Roche found that the root of current problems in the coal mining industry was the ownership structure, which she believed would have continued repercussions after nationalization. McMinn writes, “Approximately four thousand families owned all the mines and leased them to many different operators, who all worked simultaneously to produce quick royalty profits for the owners. Thus, an excessive number of small and poorly designed mines operated with a capacity inadequate to justify the equipment or technical staff essential for efficient mining practice.” Mines had also been neglected and had inadequate technology, and also produced far less coal per day than American mines. In addition, there was a postwar shortage of labor.
During her trip, the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act was introduced in Parliament and subsequently passed on 12 July 1946. The Act established public ownership and control of the coal industry, set up the National Coal Board, and aimed to tackle issues with efficiency in the country’s coal mines.
Roche believed that a better course of action would be to empower the coal miners through strong unionization. She stated, “The chief need in the English coal mines, where production remains a million tons a week below pre-war levels, appears to be a strong national union headed by a leader who can get results.” She did not think that organizing coal mines to work in the national interest necessarily would be in the workers’ best interests. Muncy writes that Roche believed the British Labour Party had betrayed the miners. She approved of the government taking some role in economic intervention or regional planning, but in this case believed that miners “had simply exchanged one set of employers for another” without having a chance to bargain collectively for higher wages and safer working conditions.
According to Muncy, on this European trip, “what had crystallized for Roche was a belief that, in the achievement of economic justice, the crucial thing was not whether government or private interests operated an industry; the crucial issue was whether workers maintained independent power.” After returning to the United States, Roche’s views of the European coal mines were part of her speeches on the lecture circuit, as audiences were eager to learn of post-war conditions abroad.
Leigh Campbell-Hale, “Remembering Ludlow but Forgetting the Columbine: The 1927-1928 Colorado Coal Strike” (Unpublished PhD Diss., University of Colorado, 2013).
Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame: http://www.cogreatwomen.org/project/josephine-aspinwall-roche
Larry Dorsey, “Josephine Roche, a ‘Grand Old Gal,’” Superior Historian 3, no. 3 (Winter 2005).
Elinor McGinn, A Wide-Awake Woman: Josephine Roche in the Era of Reform (Denver: Colorado Historical Society, 2002).
Robyn Muncy, Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).