Coal Mining

views updated May 23 2018



In 1912–1913 the European coal industry reached its peak. At that time coal was the unchallenged energy supply not only for heavy industry and transportation but also for public and domestic heating. In Great Britain coal represented 95 percent of total energy consumption and was also used to produce electricity and gas. Coal mining remained a labor-intensive activity based on a male labor force. The United Kingdom alone counted more than one million coal miners before World War I, the most important group of workers (10 percent of the country's male labor) both in numbers and in trade union power. Coal mining was also a major industry in France, Belgium, Germany (Ruhr, Saarland), Poland (Upper Silesia), the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Ukraine (Donetsk).


The history of coal mining in twentieth-century Western Europe contrasts with that of Eastern Europe and the United States. After World War I coal output in Western Europe entered a long phase of stagnation and, after a period of recovery from 1945 to 1958, a structural decline. For instance, Great Britain produced 292 million tons in 1913 (a level it would never reach again), 245 million in 1930, 220 in 1950, 128 in 1975, and 50 million in 1996. The picture is the same for all other Western European countries. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, output continued to increase after World War I. Poland, the largest producer except for the Soviet Union, produced 32 million tons in 1920, 38 in 1930, 78 in 1950, 172 in 1975, and still 137 million in 1997.

In Western Europe coal mining suffered from a slowdown of demand because of technological improvements to reduce energy consumption in heavy industry and transportation as well as the growing competition of American coal on the international market. While Great Britain was the major coal exporter in the world in the late nineteenth century, the United States took the lead in the 1920s. Moreover, on the European continent itself British coal had to struggle with the growing export of cheap, high-quality coal from Poland. The British coal position also was challenged by France and Germany. The collieries of Nord-Pasde-Calais that suffered heavy damage in the war were modernized in a major program of reconstruction. French coal output increased from 41 million tons in 1913 to 55 in 1930 and reached its peak in 1958 with 60 million tons. The recovery of German coal mining after World War I was even more impressive thanks to the efforts of cartels such as the Rhenish-Westphalian. German coal mining was mechanized: in the Ruhr 66 percent of coal output was cut by machines in 1926 as against 22 percent in Britain. The German output increased from 118 million tons in 1924 (after the occupation of the Ruhr) to 188 million tons in 1939. Finally, during the interwar period new coalfields were opened, such as the Campine in Belgium, and Dutch coal mining expanded rapidly (Dutch production was only 2 million tons in 1913 but reached 14 million in 1937). Meanwhile American and Polish coal mining were concentrated in large concessions big enough to invest in mechanization, while most of the collieries in Western Europe were still too small, fragmented in innumerable concessions (areas of land granted by governments to mining companies) dating from the mid-nineteenth century.

The stagnation of demand in the 1920s made clear the fact that West European coal mining suffered from an excess of capacity, insufficient productivity, and too much expensive coal. With the economic crisis of the 1930s its precarious position grew still worse except in the German Reich. British output fell from 262 million tons in 1929 to 210 in 1933.

Miners, however, remained a strong group able to paralyze a country by strike actions. The labor-intensive character of coal-mining operations encouraged miners' trade unions to fight for social provisions, higher wages (such as the British minimum wage legislation of 1912), better working conditions, and reduction of working hours per day (the British Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1908, known as the "Eight Hours Act"). With a very high level of trade union participation, unions were well placed to apply pressure to industrial affairs. Owners also were organized, in associations such as the Mining Association of Great Britain. The coal industry was thus characterized by repeated miners' strikes. In Great Britain the movement culminated with the strike and lockout of 1926. Though the strike ended in defeat for the miners, the sector did not recover. Many other actions were taken by coal miners' trade unions in the Weimar Republic, Belgium, and France. At the same time, coal increasingly became the source of political and even military intervention: the Ruhr coalfields were occupied by French and Belgian troops in 1923 to force Germany to pay war reparations.

World War II and its aftermath, reconstruction, created such a huge demand for coal that it provoked, as Régine Perron has written, the "myth of scarcity," in which Jean Monnet (one of the founding fathers of the European Coal and Steel Community, or ECSC) and others warned that Western Europe would suffer deeply from a shortage of coal in the following decades. Therefore the goal was to increase output and improve productivity as quickly as possible. A "battle for coal" ensued in 1945–1946, especially in Belgium and France. In the first years of the ECSC the High Authority continued to encourage production, but the energy market was dramatically changing due to the competition of cheap, abundant coal from the United States and Poland and, after 1958, the challenge of oil and natural gas, which remained low-cost until 1974. (Civil nuclear energy remained a marginal supplier until the 1970s). Drastic changes in the energy market were not peculiar to Europe; between 1950 and 1970 the world's energy consumption is estimated to have tripled. Even with increased energy consumption, however, the production of coal declined in Europe because coal was too expensive and oil increasingly competitive.

In 1958–1959 the demand for coal fell, paving the way for the structural decline of coal mining in Western Europe. In the short term (1958–1960), many companies had to struggle with increasing stocks and excessive capacities. In the long run, restructuring the entire sector became a priority: closing unprofitable collieries, concentrating production on larger concessions (as in Campine in Belgium), accelerating mechanization, improving the quality of the product, and finally, reducing the number of coal miners. This meant the disappearance of an enormous occupational class, with its know-how, its strike tradition, its own culture. For instance, the 1.1 million coal miners Great Britain counted in 1913 fell to 700,000 in 1945, 300,000 in 1975, and fewer than 11,000 in 2000.

From the early 1960s onward all the countries of Western Europe adopted national planning, supported by the High Authority of the ECSC, to reduce and even to stop coal mining. Indeed, since World War II coal mining had been under state control as a strategic sector. In Great Britain the nationalization of the sector (already envisaged by the Coal Mines Act of 1930) became effective in 1947 with the creation of the National Coal Board. France nationalized the coal industry by the law of 17 May 1946 and the creation of Charbonnages de France. In the Netherlands coal mining was under state control from the beginning, while in Belgium private companies were placed under strict state control after 1959.

In the 1980s, after some attempt to maintain production during the oil crisis, the exhaustion of most of the coalfields, more severe safety regulations, and new environmental protections made European coal too expensive in comparison with coal imported from China or South Africa. In the early 1970s the Netherlands was the first to decide to close down its coal-mining operations; the last colliery was closed in 1992 in Belgium, after social conflicts of great violence, then in 1994 in Portugal and 2005 in France. While Germany has not yet made the decision to close its last pits as of 2006, Great Britain is engaged in a drastic reorganization of its coal-mining industry. Spain, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania also have started to reduce the number of collieries.


The fact that coal mining was a sector in decline in Western Europe does not imply obsolete technology. On the contrary, since the end of World War II the idea was to increase productivity by closing mines that were not suitable for mechanization and to modernize the most profitable ones.

The traditional system of work organization to cut coal at the coal face was the room-and-pillar system that was used in coalfields presenting disturbed geological configuration. However, the longwall method, imported from the United States, was used in England (Yorkshire, Lancashire) and later in countries such as Poland, where the coal seam permitted it. The advantage was that the longwall method permitted the mechanization of coal cutting. American mechanical coal cutters with loaders were introduced into the Midlands in 1936.

However, this method was inappropriate for most of the coal mines on the Continent (except in Poland) due to geological constraints. Consequently coal cutting had to bedone by hand with pneumatic picks. In the Ruhr however, mechanical coal cutters were developed during World War II. The German face conveyor or armored flexible conveyor became one of the key inventions of modern mining and by the 1960s it had been installed on all major longwall faces in Britain.

Safety conditions were greatly improved by the introduction of the powered roof support in the mid-1960s and by new techniques in tunneling and shaft sinking. However, one of the most important improvements of the twentieth century was electrification. After the 1902 international exhibition in Düsseldorf, electricity not only revolutionized coal mining itself (with electric headlamps for miners and fixed lighting in the galleries) but ushered in the age of the coal-fired power station.

Modernization and the closure of obsolete coal mines dramatically increased productivity (see table 1). Increased productivity also resulted from improvement in safety conditions, especially after the tragedy of Courrières (Nord-Pas-de-Calais) in 1906, which cost the lives of eleven hundred miners.

GermanyUnited KingdomFranceBelgium


Coal mining companies had always been confronted with the difficulties of recruiting and keeping workers. This problem became severe after World War I, when miners and other young workers deserted the collieries for healthier and better-paid occupations. Consequently the companies had to recruit foreign workers, usually on a temporary basis (guest workers). In France the first Italians were accommodated in the basin of Briey in 1905. After the war they were followed by Poles and Czechs. In the small coalfield of Albi, Czechs and Poles account for 40 percent of the manpower of the miners in 1925. They flowed especially into Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Recruitment of foreign workers increased dramatically after World War II. The coalfields of Europe became a multiethnic society formed by people who shared the same occupational know-how and who forged a local culture that had no equivalent in other industries or other places. However, in Europe, coal miners are now part of history, not of the future.

See alsoGeneral Strike (Britain); Industrial Capitalism; Strikes; Trade Unions.


Ashworth, William. The History of the British Coal Industry. Vol. 5: 1946–1982: The Nationalized Industry. Oxford, U.K., 1986.

Leboutte, René. Vie et mort des bassins industriels en Europe, 1750–2000. Paris, 1997.

Michel, Joël. La mine: Une histoire européenne. In La Documentation française, bimestriel no. 8010. Paris, 1999.

Perron, Régine. Le marché du charbon, un enjeu entre l'Europe et les Etats-Unis de 1945 à 1958. Paris, 1996.

Supple, Barry. The History of the British Coal Industry. Vol. 4: 1913–1946: The Political Economy of Decline. Oxford, U.K., 1987.

RenÉ Leboutte

Coal Mining

views updated Jun 11 2018


From the late Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century, coal had been occasionally used as a fuel mainly for house heating in various places in Great Britain, the Low Countries, France, and Germany. Starting in the sixteenth century, coal mined around Newcastle and Durham was shipped to London and other towns. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century the First Industrial Revolution opened new markets for coal: the iron and steel industry using coke in blast furnaces, and steam engines associated with the development of textile and manufacturing industries. The Industrial Revolution provoked a spectacular development of coal mining not only in Great Britain but also in Belgium, Upper Silesia, and Rineland, Germany. According to E. A. Wrigley, the Industrial Revolution was a revolution in energy supply. Between 1770 and 1830 the European economy gradually shifted from an advanced organic economy based on natural, renewable energy resources (wind and water power) into an economy mainly based on mineral, nonrenewable energy resources—coal. For the first time in history, James Watt's steam engine managed to transform thermal power (steam produced by coal) into mechanical power. Coal rapidly became "the bread of industry." In the 1870s and 1880s the improvement in steel production (via the Bessemer, Siemens-Martin, and Thomas-Gilchrist converters) and the invention of the dynamo for producing electricity (1869) paved the way for the Second

Estimated consumption of U.K. coal by uses, 1816–1913 (percent)
source: Mitchell, p. 12.
Iron and steel11.021.026.517.013.0
Gas and electricity3.
Collieries and others7.

Industrial Revolution, associated with a boom in coal output. The new electrical sector constituted a new market alongside the market of gas power stations. Increasing urbanization from 1870 to 1914 was also associated with improvements in domestic coal-based heating systems. Cheap coal stoves made coal heating affordable for even modest households.

For most of the nineteenth century Great Britain was the major coal producer in the world. According to B. R. Mitchell, British output skyrocketed from 13 million tons per year in the period from 1801 to 1805 to 67 million tons in 1856 to 287 million tons in 1913. Most of the British coal fueled domestic heating in London and other cities in 1800, but in the following decades, it was mainly used in manufacturing, iron and steel plants, and stationary and locomotive steam engines. Coal was not only used for British industries and transports (railways, steamers) but also shipped worldwide (see table 1). In 1910, two-thirds of the coal exported on the world market was mined in Britain. Coal production and export were stimulated by the development of railway networks and steamships in Europe from 1840 onward. The famous smokeless steam coal of South Wales—suitable for new steamers—gave birth to an important overseas market after 1840. Cardiff became the world harbor for steam coal trade.

During the late nineteenth century, Germany and the United States seriously challenged Britain's coal production supremacy (see table 2). By 1900 U.S. production had surpassed that of Britain.

Until the 1960s, coal mining remained a labor-intensive industry. Most of the underground work was performed by men using picks and shovels at the coal face. Therefore, coal miners constituted a key element of the working class. In 1908 Europe counted more than 1.8 million coal miners (966,000 in Britain, 591,000 in the German Empire, 191,000 in France, and 145,000 in Belgium).

One of the major problems of coal trade was the prohibitively high cost of inland transportation. This is why the first coalfields mined were situated alongside the seashore—in northeastern England—or rivers. Since the eighteenth century, ship canals made British coal relatively cheaper and more abundant. The challenge of coal transportation also gave birth to railways, which were primarily used to carry coal to harbors (starting with the Stockton & Darlington Railway, which began operating in 1825). Because of the high cost of haulage, industrial coal consumers, including iron and steel companies, manufacturers, and glassmakers, moved to the coalfields. A truly new landscape emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century: the industrial districts that were coalfields too.

"King Coal" was not present everywhere in continental Europe, however. Six major coalfields formed a "coal arc" between northern France and the eastern Ruhr. The oldest exploited fields were those alongside the Haine, Sambre, and Meuse Rivers in Wallonia (Belgium). The French Valenciennes basin extended from this so-called Belgian Borinage and has been mined since as early as the 1750s. Because of prohibitive transportation costs, however, Valenciennes coal was consumed locally until 1845 when it could be shipped by canal to Paris. From that time onward, new coal mines were opened in the Nord and Pas-de-Calais departments, as well as in Lorraine. There were other coalfields in central France that have been associated with regional industrialization, including Le Creusot, Saint-Étienne, Decazeville, and Carmaux. Compared to Britain and Germany, France was disadvantaged not only in terms of coal location and quantities but above all in terms of coal quality. France lacked coal suitable for coke and had to import it from Britain and from the Ruhr. In the German Empire the main coalfields were located in the Saar district, the Ruhr, and Upper Silesia (now in Poland), the huge basins in the latter two

Coal production (thousands of tons)
(*) in short tons of 907 kilograms
source: Gruner and Bousquet, p. 6.
United Kingdom40,000146,969225,181263,774
German Empire49,978109,290148,900
Austria (Bohemia, Galicia)55,88910,99213,713
Hungary(1882) 799(1902) 1,00211,397
Donets Basin (Russian Empire)(1855) 70(1885) 1,90011,300(1907) 17,380
Poland (Russian Empire)(1855) 70(1885) 1,8004,190(1907) 5,490
United States (*)71,482269,684(1908) 415,843

regions ruled by the Prussian government. The Ruhr was the most impressive industrial basin in nineteenth-century Europe. Industrialization started after 1815 when the Ruhr took advantage of the Prussian kingdom's industrial support and the establishment of the Zollverein monetary union. The high quality of coal seams and the discovery of a perfect coking coal near Essen dictated the location of the German iron and steel industry. In fact one of the main characteristics of industry in the Ruhr was the early integration of collieries and ironworks in single large firms during the second half of the nineteenth century. The Ruhr was also characterized by the formation of cartels such as the Rheinisch-westfälisches Kohlensyndikat (Rhineland-Westphalia Coal Syndicate), a coal-trading cartel created in 1893.

Productivity in coal mining mainly depended on geological factors. In the period from 1874 to 1878, for instance, the annual output in metric tons per worker varied from 135 tons in Belgium, to 154 in France, 209 in Germany, and 270 in the United Kingdom; Upper Silesia, meanwhile, enjoyed the highest productivity in Europe. If technological improvements contributed to increase output and productivity from the late eighteenth century onward, coal mining remained a labor-intensive sector. In order to improve productivity, new technologies were introduced. The "long-wall method" of laying out coal replaced the older pillar-and-stall techniques in the early nineteenth century. Coal shafts received special attention from engineers. New methods of sinking and consolidating shafts were introduced, while cages progressively replaced baskets for coal raising and for ferrying workers. Shafts usually reached 800 to 1,000 meters (2,600 to 3,280 feet) deep in the mid-nineteenth century. To reach such depths, increasingly powerful steam engines were introduced for pumping water from the bottom of the shaft, for ventilating underground galleries, and for haulage. Good ventilation of underground galleries and coal faces was necessary not only for the activity of workers and horses, but also for preventing the accumulation of gas and firedamp explosions. It was for this reason that safety lamps replaced candlesticks from the 1820s onward. The first safety lamp, invented by Sir Humphry Davy in 1815, was quickly adopted in British collieries as well as those in Belgium. Davy's safety lamp received major improvements by Mathieu Mueseler in Belgium and Jean-Baptiste Marsaut in France. As far as mechanical ventilating was concerned, various types of mechanical ventilator fans were introduced between the 1830s and 1850s, but the ventilator invented by the Belgian engineer Armand Guibal was largely adopted in Europe by the mid-nineteenth century. Horses progressively replaced pit boys (and girls) for underground haulage from the 1820s onward. Pneumatic boring machines were introduced in the late 1850s, and a new rock drill (the Dubois-François rock drill) debuted in the 1870s. Some attempts were also made in the 1860s to introduce coal-cutting machinery, but these efforts were not successful until the introduction of electricity in underground galleries. Electricity, the

last major technical improvement of the nineteenth century, was introduced in the 1880s for lighting, pumping, and underground haulage.

All these improvements and the development of coal mining itself were stimulated by public authorities. On the Continent, the French Revolution had abolished the ancien régime mining legislation. A law enacted on 28 July 1791 declared coal and ore mines to be at the disposal of the nation. Only the state could give a mining concession. The Conseil des mines de la République (Council of mines of the Republic) was placed in charge of inspecting and encouraging the adoption of new technologies. On April 1810 new legislation reinforced the fundamental principles of the previous one and became the model for mining legislation in Belgium, part of Germany, Italy, and Spain. The French legislation continues to be in force in the early twenty-first century.

See alsoIndustrial Revolution, First; Industrial Revolution, Second.


Debeir, Jean-Claude, Jean-Paul Deléage, and Daniel Hémery. In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilisation through the Ages. Translated by John Barzman. London, 1991.

Gruner, É., and G. Bousquet. Atlas général des houilléres. Vol. 2: Texte. Paris, 1911.

Hempel, Gustav. Die deutsche Montanindustrie. 2nd ed. Essen, West Germany, 1969.

Leboutte, René. Vie et mort des bassins industriels en Europe, 1750–2000. Paris, 1997.

Milward, Alan S., and S. B. Saul. The Economic Development of Continental Europe, 1780–1870. London, 1973.

Mitchell, B. R. Economic Development of the British Coal Industry, 1800–1914. Cambridge, U.K., 1984.

Wrigley, E. A. Continuity, Chance, and Change: The Character of the Industrial Revolution in England. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

RenÉ Leboutte

Coal Mining and Organized Labor

views updated Jun 27 2018


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 .

Coal Mining

views updated May 14 2018

Coal Mining

The primary industry of Pennsylvania in the 1860s was coal mining. The number of mine workers peaked in 1870 at around fifty-three thousand, compared with twenty-five thousand in 1860. Of these thousands, one-third were Irish immigrants. (See Irish Immigration .)

The Irish were targets of discrimination and prejudice during those days, both in the United States and elsewhere. Many Americans disliked the Irish because of their Catholic roots and because they were the least educated of all the immigrant groups in general. In addition, unlike other foreign workers in the coal mines, the Irish did not accept unfair treatment as just another part of the job. Instead, they fought back when anyone tried to take advantage of them. They did not hesitate to speak out in their own defense because they knew no one else would speak for them.

Some of the biggest mines in the coal regions were British-owned. The English stockholders appointed white, American Protestants (non-Catholic Christians) to run these mines. These white Protestants, in turn, hired Welsh and English miners who worked on a contract basis, meaning they were paid per ton of coal mined. The more coal mined, the higher the wage. These contract miners hired laborers to do the hardest work. Most of the laborers were Irish, and they were paid only a fraction of what the contract miners received.

Mine bosses were usually Welsh, though some were English. When a top mining job opened up, these supervisors usually filled it with another Welshman or Englishman. The Irish laborers, who worked harder yet received lower pay, constantly saw others being promoted while they remained in the lowest positions. Normally, a worker can go to a boss to complain of unfair treatment, but in this case, those Irishmen who complained were blacklisted—that is, their names were put on a “do not hire” list that was shared among all mines throughout the coal region, and they could not get jobs at all. They had no way to change policy and procedures.

No life of leisure

The life of a miner was one of intense hardship. Some men began working the mines at the age of eight. Before electricity was commonly available, their work in mines 1,200 feet below the ground was in total darkness except for the tiny flame on the front of their helmets. Mine shafts were so cold that miners’ fingers would crack and bleed daily.

Miners faced great danger every day. The lamp on a miner's cap was fueled with fish or whale oil, and its light was poor and dangerous.

Mines were filled with the earth's natural gases, and many gas explosions were ignited by the flame from a miner's cap. Mines were damp and filled with carbon dioxide, gas, dust, and smoke. Miners in general did not live long lives. Many died of black lung, a disease that results from breathing coal dust. For the most part, the younger the man was when he began working the mines as a boy, the younger he was when he died.

Perhaps the biggest injustice of all was the miner's wage. The average laborer earned less than twenty-five cents an hour until 1913, when his wage was raised to an even quarter an hour. With this money, he had to buy all his own mining tools and supplies, including lamp oil, clothing, gloves, and picks. There was little left to buy his family food and other necessities. To make matters worse, wages at some mines were paid in scrip that was redeemable only at mine-owned company stores, where prices for basic goods were higher than at regular general stores and shops. These miners earned less money than laborers in many other industries, and they were forced to pay higher prices for everyday items.

The anthracite coal strikes of 1900 and 1902

Anthracite (hard) coal mining was much more treacherous and difficult than bituminous (soft) coal mining. Anthracite coal lies deeper beneath the earth's surface, and it was harder to pick out of the mines. Between thirty-two thousand and thirty-five thousand men died in Pennsylvania anthracite coal mines between 1870 (when these statistics were first recorded) and the early twentieth century. John Mitchell (1870–1919) was a bituminous coal miner from Illinois when he was elected in 1898 as president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), a labor union. Labor unions are formally organized associations of workers that advance members’ views on wages, work hours, and labor conditions. Mitchell had taken part in a successful coal strike in 1897 that resulted in better wages and working conditions for the miners.

As president of the UMWA, in 1900 Mitchell tried to negotiate with anthracite coal mine operators in Pennsylvania for a settlement similar to the bituminous coal miners’ settlement three years before. The mine operators refused to negotiate, so Mitchell called for a strike on September 17. Eighty percent of all anthracite coal miners joined in the strike. It did not last long. On October 29, 1900, the strike ended in victory for the miners, who received a 10 percent wage increase, their first in twenty years. Still, mine operators refused to recognize the UMWA as their employees’ representative.

By 1902, the UMWA was ready to order another strike. The 10-percent wage increase granted in 1900 was only a temporary solution to the grievances of the miners. Work conditions were still poor and dangerous, and the days were still long. The UMWA still was not officially recognized by mine operators.

On May 12, 1902, anthracite coal miners walked off the job; the strike had officially begun. This bold move had far-reaching effects. Anthracite coal was used for fuelling trains, running factories, and heating homes and businesses. The strike may have been limited to Pennsylvania, but the entire nation would feel the consequences.

Newspaper coverage of the strike fed Americans’ fears of a coal shortage for the coming winter. Cartoonists and journalists focused on the power struggle between mine management and laborers. October arrived, and it was apparent that the strikers were not going to give up; drastic measures had to be taken.

On October 3, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9) called union leaders and mine operators to a meeting at the White House. UMWA president Mitchell agreed to negotiate, but the mine operators refused. Weeks passed and no progress was made on either side. Americans needed coal to survive the coming winter and keep their factories and trains running. Roosevelt made history by becoming the first president to get involved in the arbitration of a labor dispute. He threatened to have the U.S. Army seize the coal mines and operate them until the owners agreed to negotiate. Mine management did not want this to happen, so they backed down and agreed to arbitration (discussion with the laborers). Roosevelt appointed financier J. P. Morgan (1837–1913) to head a commission to arbitrate the dispute. On October 23, after 164 days of striking, miners returned to work. They received a 10 percent increase in wages and a reduction in the number of hours worked each day. To their disappointment, their union still was not recognized as their representative, and the issues of hazardous working conditions and child labor were not addressed.

The strike was a major turning point in history because it was the first time the federal government had tried to settle a strike rather than break it. Although it would be another decade before labor reform truly took hold, the laborers finally felt they were beginning to be heard.

The Ludlow massacre

Unfortunately, the 1902 coal strike was not the last. In September 1913, more than ten thousand coal miners went on strike in Ludlow, Colorado. Led by the UMWA, the workers demanded, among other things, union recognition, a wage increase, enforcement of the 8-hour-day law as well as state mining laws, and the right to choose where they shopped and lived.

The leading mine operator was the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, owned by John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937). Rockefeller had the miners and their families evicted from company housing and used the National Guard to keep the mines operating.

Without shelter, the mining families set up tents in the Colorado hills and continued striking throughout the winter. Conditions were harsh and food was scarce. But Rockefeller showed no sign of changing his mind; there would be no arbitration.

April 20, 1914, was Easter on the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Greek immigrants among the miners were celebrating. Despite the strike, the mood around the tent camp that morning was festive. At 10 AM, however, Colorado troops surrounded the camp and opened fire on the miners’ tent colony, which had been set up on public property. Company guards, strikebreakers (people hired to replace striking workers), private detectives, and soldiers had planned the attack. They brought with them an armored car mounted with a machine gun called the Death Special. As bullets sprayed the colony, tents caught on fire. Later, investigations revealed that kerosene had been poured on the tents.

By days’ end, twenty people, including two women and eleven children, were dead. Three strikers were taken prisoner and executed. Hundreds of miners were arrested and blacklisted in the coal industry. None of the attackers was ever punished. John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874–1960), who by this time was in charge of the mine, denied the massacre ever occurred and publicly stated that no women or children had died in what he described as a fight started by the miners. He spent the next decade trying to repair the damage done to the Rockefeller name by the Ludlow massacre. He gradually came to acknowledge the atrocity of the massacre, and through his efforts to right the wrongs that had been done, Rockefeller increased his family's social awareness. The Rockefellers eventually became one of the most philanthropic (generous, through charitable donations) families in the United States.

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