Coal Mining and Labor Conflict

Teaching Unit Elements

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.

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?

In the late nineteenth century, young “breaker boys” worked in anthacite 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 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?

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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.