John Siney was born in Ireland. After working as a miner in Lancashire he emigrated to America. He settled in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania where he found work in one of the local anthracite coal-mines. Most of the miners were immigrants from Wales, England, Germany and Ireland.
In 1868 Siney formed the Workingmen's Benevolent Association (WBA) with the objective of trying to improve pay and working conditions. The conditions in the mines were horrendous and the men had to endure accidents, floods, fires and explosions. In one seven year period in Schuylkill County, 566 miners were killed and a further 1,665 were seriously injured.
One of the worst disasters took place at Avondale colliery in 1869 when a fire killed 179 miners. This resulted in Schuylkill County passing legislation that stated that all mines had to have more than one opening and that it was the responsibility of the mine-owners to provide effective ventilation. State mine inspectors were employed but because of the power of the mine-owners this legislation was rarely enforced.
Siney was a moderate trade unionist who believed in negotiating with the employers and strictly forbade the use of violence by his members. However, the mine owners were extremely hostile to the Workingmen's Benevolent Association, complained that it was under the control of the Molly Maguires, a group they believed was responsible for the murder of several coal-mine managers in the area.
The Workingmen's Benevolent Association threated strike action and after a short dispute the coal-mine owners agreed a small wage increase. Part of the deal involved Siney promising that he would not allow miners who used or advocated violence to remain a member of the union.
Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, was unhappy about the increasing power of the WBA. Gowen had considerable investments in the coal-mines of Schuylkill County and feared that the activities of the WBA would result in lower profits. In 1873 Gowen approached Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, about the best way of destroying the union.
In 1873 Allan Pinkerton employed the Irish immigrant, James McParland to infiltrate the Molly Maguires. Over a two year period he collected evidence of their activities. In 1876 and 1877 McParland was the star witness for the prosecution of these men. Twenty members were found guilty of murder and were executed. Most of the convicted men were either members or former members of the Workingmen's Benevolent Association. As a result of these investigations the WBA came to an end.