The rapidly increasing use of coal in the late nineteenth century required hundreds of thousands of workers to dig that coal out of the ground, sort and load it into railroad cars, and ship it to the urban and industrial centers that consumed it. Most coalfields were sparsely populated compared to the cities they supplied. Workers had to be recruited and lured to the coal camps. Company representatives traveled across the agricultural south, recruiting Black workers from former plantation areas as a new wave of white violence followed the collapse of Reconstruction. Recruiters also went to struggling towns in Southern and Eastern Europe, paying voyage fares for men who promised to work in the coal mines on arrival. By the turn of the twentieth century, close to half a million workers—mostly men and boys, but also some women in smaller, family mines—toiled in the American coalfields.
The reality of the coal camp often looked very different from what had been promised. Pay was low, and the company, which often owned miners’ housing and ran the supply store, frequently controlled their cost of living. Miners were paid by the ton, and conflicts frequently arose over the process of weighing the coal. The industry’s cyclical nature meant that mining employment also could be irregular and precarious. Coal camp living conditions were often squalid, with social life dominated by the company and basic freedoms of speech, movement, and assembly restricted by private mine guards and company-paid sheriffs.
Mining coal was incredibly dangerous work. During the industrial coal boom between 1880 and 1923, more than 70,000 miners died on the job. Many more perished from occupational diseases, but weren’t tallied in official statistics. Miners were crushed to death in roof collapses, killed by gas explosions and by machinery, and more. In the first decade of the twentieth century, three major mine disasters—one each in Utah, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania—killed 201, 362 and 239 miners respectively. The West Virginia and Pennsylvania disasters occurred within two weeks of each other in 1907, during the winter period that miners called “explosion season” because the dry air amplified the dangers from methane and coal dust. More common were deadly and frequent disasters that took miners’ lives in ones and twos, but never made headlines. As urban energy intensification made cities safer, healthier, and more convenient during the Progressive Era, the everyday violence of the energy system was largely hidden from view in rural mining communities.
To improve their working conditions and their treatment by company employers, coal miners and their families organized unions, including the United Mine Workers of America, the Progressive Miners Union, and the National Union of Mineworkers. The diverse labor force, which included miners from many racial and ethnic backgrounds, often speaking different languages, provided opportunities for class solidarity across those differences, but also made labor organizing and resistance more difficult and fractured.
State governments and the federal government also recognized the need for action. A wave of safety legislation passed in states between 1905 and 1915, and, at the federal level, the Bureau of Mines was established within the Department of the Interior in 1910. These reforms were largely organized around the inspection of mines by regulators, however, and there were always more mines to inspect than regulators to inspect them. Even when inspections did occur, a combination of corruption, market pressures, intimidation, and weak enforcement mechanisms limited their utility in preventing accidents.
Violent conflicts between workers and employers, called the “mine wars,” defined labor relations in the Progressive Era coalfields. Different issues and events triggered each of the specific conflicts, which began in 1890. In 1912, miners on West Virginia’s Paint and Cabin Creeks struck for higher pay; when the coal operators called in the notorious Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to break the strike, violence erupted. Miners armed themselves, and marched to the state capitol to read a declaration of war. Violence continued throughout the summer, leaving dozens dead, and the governor ultimately imposed martial law. In 1913, a yearlong “war” broke out in Colorado when miners struck for union recognition, an end to the company guard system, and a list of demands that would have given workers more control of their lives in the mines and in their communities. The Colorado conflict is best remembered for the 1913 Ludlow massacre, in which ten children and two women, the families of striking miners, suffocated when their tent colony caught on fire as they hid in an underground pit from an attack by an anti-union militia. In 1920 violence broke out again in Matewan, West Virginia. Then in 1921, the largest armed uprising in the United States since the Civil War broke out in Logan County, West Virginia, drawing in striking miners, the companies and Baldwin-Felts detectives, the West Virginia State Police and National Guard, and the US Army. At least 133 people died, mostly miners. The regularity and frequency of the violence prompted journalist Winthrop Lane to declare the Appalachian coalfields in a state of “civil war.”
The passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 finally resulted in a truce between labor and capital, with the federal government acting as intermediary and mediator. The law protected the right to collective bargaining, and the United Mine Workers used these protections to organize new mines and the mines it had lost in anti-union campaigns. Within months of the law’s passage, the UMW had secured the first wage agreement for the Appalachian coalfields. Miners compared the impact of the New Deal legislation to emancipation from slavery. In addition to breaking the absolute power of companies over workers in the coalfields, union mines also were safer, and occupational fatalities decreased (but still remained far too high). Miners saw the government acknowledging that they and their parents had been in the right as they fought to organize the coalfields and survive their workday.
Cite this overview:
Kahle, Trish. “Overview: Coal Mining and Labor Conflict.” Energy History Online. Yale University. 2023. https://energyhistory.yale.edu/coal-mining-and-labor-conflict/.
In the late nineteenth century, young “breaker boys” worked in anthracite coal mines in Pennsylvania removing impurities such as slate from the coal before it was shipped out. The coal would be broken into smaller pieces in the coal breakers and the young workers, hunched over conveyor belts, would pick through it to remove contaminants.
In 1908, the National Child Labor Committee hired the photographer Lewis Hine to photograph children at work. Hine’s photos of the “breaker boys” and other child miners helped build public support for legislation barring child labor.
Coal companies often paid workers in company “scrip,” a form of company money that could be redeemed at the company store. Examine the photos of scrip in the Arthur Kilgore Mine Scrip Collection.
What similarities and differences do you see between company scrip and government currency?
How would a miner use scrip? What limitations would using scrip put on miners and their families?
Coal operators resisted miners’ efforts to organize unions in the coal mines to improve pay and working conditions. Labor contracts, such as the one attached here, explicitly barred workers from joining the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) or the International Workers of the World (IWW).
Why would a worker sign one of these contracts? If a mine’s workers wanted to organize a union, how would they go about mobilizing workers who had signed these agreements?
Coal companies used their financial power and their control over the land to control their labor force. The companies established settlements for workers located next to the coal mines. The company built and controlled the housing, the commissary (or store), and many of the other amenities, such as the amusement hall, available to workers and their families.
In this 1890 report on company stores in West Virginia, how did the stores function as a way to increase the leverage of the company over its workers?
Coal miners worked long hours inside the mine, often traveling by elevator deep underground to extract coal from the coal seam. In the nineteenth century, miners worked largely by hand alongside animal labor. As new technology emerged, underground mining increasingly depended on heavy machinery.
Company towns like the Stonega coal camp near the town of Appalachia, Virginia included the mine and related mining facilities, as well as houses, a commissary (company store), and amusement hall. All was owned by the company. The company towns doubled as a way to attract and support workers and as a means to subject employees and their families to company control.
Unrest in the southern West Virginia coalfields in early 1922 prompted Congress to launch an investigation of miners’ living and working conditions. As the hearings began, a contract dispute between miners and coal operators had escalated into a nationwide United Mine Workers strike. Only 10% of the nation’s mines continued to operate. By the time J.P. Luterancik, an interpreter and union representative, testified before the House Committee on Labor in April 1922, the strike had been going for three weeks. By mid-summer, as the strike dragged on with sporadic violence, U.S.
Florence Reece wrote the song “Which Side Are You On?” during the violent conflict between miners and coal operators in Harlan County, Kentucky in the early 1930s. Reece reportedly drafted the lyrics after her husband, a union organizer, narrowly avoided being captured by armed men hired by the coal company. In 1941, Pete Seeger and his pro-union folk music group, the Almanac Singers, recorded “Which Side Are You On?” for their popular 1941 album, Talking Union.
Two letters written by miners to the United Mine Workers Journal after the signing of the 1933 Appalachian wage agreement offer insight into how miners viewed the New Deal and its impact on the coalfields.
How did these miners see the relationship between their identities as workers and as Americans?
What does freedom mean to them? How did the New Deal change their everyday lives?
Andrews, Thomas G. Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Bailey, Rebecca J. Matewan Before the Massacre: Politics, Coal, and the Roots of Conflict in a West Virginia Mining Community. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2008.
Beik, Mildred Allen. The Miners of Windber: The Struggles of New Immigrants for Unionization, 1890s-1930s. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
Corbin, David Alan. Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coalfields: The West Virginia Miners, 1880-1922. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Dubofsky, Melvyn and Warren R. Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Eller, Ronald. Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982.
Graebner, William. Coal-Mining Safety in the Progressive Period: The Political Economy of Reform. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976.
Green, James. The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Struggle for Freedom. New York: Grove Press, 2016.
Fishback, Price Van Meter. Soft Coal, Hard Choices: The Economic Welfare of Bituminous Coal Miners, 1890-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Letwin, Daniel. The Challenge of Interracial Unionism: Alabama Coal Miners, 1878-1921. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Merithew, Caroline Waldron. “’We Were Not Ladies’: Gender, Class, and a Women’s Auxiliary’s Battle for Mining Unionism.” Journal of Women’s History 18, no. 2 (2006): 63–94.
Savage, Lon Kelly and Ginny Savage Ayers. Never Justice, Never Peace: Mother Jones and the Miner Rebellions at Paint and Cabin Creeks. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018.
Shogan, Robert. The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Trotter, Joe William. Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915-1932. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Trish Kahle is assistant professor of history at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University Qatar. She is currently working on a book examining the emergence of energy citizenship—a form of belonging defined by the rights and obligations of energy production, distribution, and consumption—from the coal mining workplace in the twentieth century US.
28 Chinese coal miners murdered by whites in Rock Springs, Wyoming, three years after the passage of the Chinese exclusion act. Most white rioters were members of the Knights of Labor, which had fomented anti-Chinese sentiment
United Mine Workers Union forms out of a merger of earlier labor groups
The Coal Creek War erupts in Tennessee in 1891-1892. Dozens are killed (on both sides), and more than 500 miners are arrested
A major strike breaks out in the anthracite coal fields for higher wages, an eight-hour workday, and recognition of the union. President Roosevelt attempted to broker a truce, and when that failed, set up the landmark 1902 Anthracite Coal Commission.
National Child Labor Committee formed
Paint and Cabin Creek Strike. Miners demand union recognition, rights to free speech and assembly, participation in coal-weighing process, ending of company store’s monopoly. More than 50 people killed, mostly miners; governor declares martial law
Colorado Coal Strike begins, culminating in the “Ludlow Massacre” in April 1914
Child Labor Act passed, but later ruled unconstitutional
Ed Whitfield and Earl Whitney, two Black miners employed by the Island Creek Colliery Company in West Virginia, are lynched in December 1919 for supposedly killing a white foreman
A gun battle in Matewan, West Virginia in May 1920 leaves ten dead, mostly Baldwin-Felts detectives. Violence continues throughout the summer as miners fight to organize
Southern West Virginia is in a state of near civil war, culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain in September, one of the largest insurrections in the United States since the Civil War
John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, calls a strike on April 1, which mostly impacts the “central” fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois
In June, three miners and twenty strikebreakers and guards are killed in Herrin, Illinois
Faced with a coal shortage and the threat of more violence, President Harding successfully presses to settle the strike in August. Harding creates the US Federal Coal Commission to study working conditions in the coal fields
Violence breaks out in Harlan County, Kentucky and the governor calls in the National Guard. The violence is mostly over by 1932, but the conflict continues until 1939
National Industrial Recovery Act passed to regulate industrial prices and wages in the interest of economic recovery, and to promote development of public works. NIRA declared unconstitutional by U.S. Supreme Court in 1935
National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (Wagner Act) establishes NLRB and provides for right to organize into trade unions, collective bargaining, and worker strikes
Fair Labor Standards Act establishes minimum wage and overtime pay, and regulates child labor
The UMW calls several wartime strikes between 1941 and 1945, seeking to take advantage of the industry’s strategic importance
During a major postwar wave of strikes, a UMW strike yields not only a contract, but also a new company-paid, union-administered UMWA American Welfare and Retirement Fund. The victory brings relative peace to the coalfields for more than two decades.