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Coal Mining and Organized Labor


COAL MINING AND ORGANIZED LABOR. One fourth of all known coal reserves in the world are located in the United States. Anthracite (hard coal) mining is concentrated in five counties of east central Pennsylvania, and various bituminous coals (soft, volatile coals) are mined in Pennsylvania, Ohio, the Virginias, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Alabama, and, to a lesser extent, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, Colorado, Utah, and Alaska.

From the Civil War to 1950, coal was the nation's chief source of fuel. Its decline began after World War I when other fossil fuels began to displace coal. Following World War II, rapid substitution of competing fuels, swift mechanization of underground mining, and massive strip mining accelerated the decline in production and employment. Contributing more than 90 percent of the country's thermal energy in 1880 and 53 percent in 1940, coal furnished barely 23 percent in 1970. Employment in bituminous mines fell from the 1923 peak of 704,000 workers to less than 140,000 in 1970. Anthracite employment fell from its peak of 179,000 in 1914 to fewer than 7,000 in 1970. Obviously these contractions profoundly affected the industry and its workers.

Always dirty and exceedingly dangerous, coal mining has been historically an industry plagued by instabilities of production, consumption, and price. The existence of many dispersed production units, ranging from a host of small marginal mines to the great captive mines (those owned by and producing coal for the steel and railroad companies), have either engendered or threatened cutthroat competition. They also have made private, as well as governmental supervision, inspection, and regulation extremely difficult, although from the industry's earliest days operators and workers alike have generally conceded the necessity of many types of regulation.

Early Unionization and Its Obstacles

Unionization of mine labor began in the 1840s. It was variously a response to fraternal impulses among workers, unhealthy and dangerous working conditions, unsatisfactory

wages, truck payments (payment in goods), abuses by company towns and privatized police, the introduction of scab labor, blacklisting and yellow dog contracts, and seasonal and chronic unemployment. Unionization was complicated by the presence of thousands of immigrant workers in the pits; by the use of slave and, later, convict labor in mines; by ethnic, cultural, racial, and linguistic barriers among and between foreign and native-born workers and the general public; by the isolation of miners from one another; by their relative immobility; and by dual unionism and organizational mistakes.

Since January 1890, miners have been chiefly represented by the UMWA, an industrial union that was founded by bituminous miners from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan but quickly encompassed anthracite miners also. Creation of the UMWA was preceded by half a century of abortive unionization. Prominent among the early unions were the Bates Union of 1848; the American Miners' Association, formed by Illinois and Missouri miners in 1861; John Siney's famed Workingmens' Benevolent Association, which in the 1870s sustained the Long Strike and battled the Reading Railroad; the Miners' and Laborers' Benevolent Association of the 1870s, also led by Siney; and the Knights of Labor, which, in company with the National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers, carried unionism into the 1880s. Of these early unions, nearly all were led by English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and occasionally Polish or Hungarian immigrants. Nearly all, contrary to myth, were moderate and conciliatory, favoring arbitration over strikes. Although all of these unions were short-lived, all contributed to educating mine workers about their condition and their rights.

Employers' reactions to mine unionism varied. Sometimes they tried to undermine unions by associating them with subversive or violent movements, as in the anthracite fields in the mid-1870s, when unions were invidiously associated with Molly Maguires or, as in the efforts to unionize southern fields in the 1930s and 1940s, when they were associated with communism. Sometimes employers have resorted to armed repression, although evictions, lockouts, and strike breaking have been more common reactions. On the other hand, employers have often recognized the conservative influences of mine unions and tacitly accepted and often cooperated with them to help stabilize the industry and discipline labor.

Government reactions to mine unionism have also varied. The use of local police, state militias, or federal troops against unions was common in the nineteenth century, becoming rarer after the militia violence against miners killed twenty men, women, and children in 1914 at Ludlow, Colorado. The Wilson administration invoked the aid of the courts to forestall a coal strike in 1919, and injunctions against union activities were frequent in the 1920s.

Rise of the UMWA: Better Conditions for Mine Workers

The UMWA rose to power under two of the most famous and conservative unionists of their generations. John Mitchell led the union through the great coal strike of 1902, winning national notoriety for his 150,000 followers, as well as shorter hours and better wages. He also fended off challenges from rebel movements such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). John L. Lewis led the union from 1920 to 1960. During the first Truman administration, Federal District Judge T. Alan Goldsborough heavily fined both the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and Lewis for noncompliance with federal policy. In the 1920s, Lewis dealt with factional battles among union officials as union member-ship dwindled from its all-time peak of 425,700 to 150,000. Membership recovered after passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, and the UMWA went on to become the driving force behind the creation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935 (which in 1938 became the Congress of Industrial Organizations) and to help organize workers in other mass-production industries, such as steel and automobiles.

Since the 1930s, despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt's legal bouts with the UMWA and his threat to use troops to mine coal during World War II, government has generally moved positively to regulate the coal-mining industry and its labor through the Norris–La Guardia Act of 1932, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, the Guffey Coal Acts of 1935 and 1940, wage stabilization measures, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, and supervision of union elections.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, coal experienced a resurgence. Rising prices and tightening supplies of oil and natural gas, as well as the failure of nuclear power to fulfill its promise, led to increased use of coal. By the end of the century, coal was furnishing more than 32 percent of the country's thermal energy and generating more than half of the nation's electric power. Employment, on the other hand, continued to decline as operations became more efficient and machines handled more of the work. By 2000, total employment in coal mines had fallen to about 87,500. More than half of these miners were members of the UMWA, and as a result of union wage agreements in the industry, they were among the highest-paid industrial workers in the country. Better yet, even though mining continued to be a dangerous occupation, the number of injury-producing accidents declined over the last quarter of the century in part as a result of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. Years of union agitation and negotiation vastly improved labor's circumstances in the coal-mining industry in important respects (working conditions, wages, pensions, medical benefits, and other welfare programs) over the conditions prevalent until World War II, despite the diminished importance of the coal industry and the reduced mine payrolls.


Blatz, Perry K. Democratic Miners: Work and Labor Relations in the Anthracite Coal Industry, 1875–1925. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Corbin, David Alan. Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880–1922. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969.

Fox, Maier Bryan. United We Stand: The United Mine Workers of America, 1890–1990. Washington, D.C.: United Mine Workers of America, 1990.

Lewis, Ronald L. Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class, and Community Conflict, 1780–1980. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Long, Priscilla. Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

C. K.Yearley/c. p.

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Colorado Coal Strikes ; Cripple Creek Mining Boom ; Cripple Creek Strikes ; Injunctions, Labor ; Labor Legislation and Administration ; Strikes .

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coal mining

coal mining, physical extraction of coal resources to yield coal; also, the business of exploring for, developing, mining, and transporting coal in any form. Strip mining is the process in which the overburden (earth and rock material overlying the coal) is removed to expose a coal seam or coal bed. Excavators either dispose of the overburden or store the waste material for replacement after the coal has been extracted. Once exposed, the coal is usually removed in a separate operation. Surface soil is often stripped separately and spread back onto the reclaimed surface. The environment can also be protected by seeding or planting grass or trees on the fertilized restored surface of a strip mine. The term strip mining is most often used in reference to coal mining, although the process may also be used to extract certain metallic ores as well. Sometimes the terms open-pit,open-cast, or surface mining are used in the same sense, although they usually refer to metalliferous mining or the mining of other minerals. Underground coal mining is the extraction of coal from below the surface of the earth. The coal is worked through tunnels, passages, and openings that are connected to the surface for the purpose of the removal of the coal. Mechanical equipment breaks the coal to a size suitable for haulage. Alternatively, the coal is drilled, and the resultant holes are loaded with explosives and blasted in order to break the coal to the desired size. In order to protect the miners and equipment in an underground coal mine, much attention is paid to maintaining and supporting a safe roof or overhead ceiling for the extraction openings. Long-wall mining is a method of underground mining believed to have been developed in Shropshire, England, near the end of the 17th cent. A long face, or working section, of coal, some 600 ft (180 m) in length, is operated at one time. The miners and machinery at the working face are usually protected by hydraulic jacks or mechanical props which are advanced as the coal is extracted. The excavated, or gob, area is either allowed to cave in, or is filled in by waste material called stowing. The Anderton shearer is a widely used coal cutter and loader for long-wall mining. It shears coal from the face as it moves in one direction and loads coal onto an armored conveyor as it travels back in the opposite direction. It is ordinarily used for coal seams greater than 3.5 ft (9.1 cm) in thickness.

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