Coal Mine Contract Signed

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Coal Mine Contract Signed

United States 1870


The first written contract signed between coal miners and coal mine operators had its origins in the first attempt to organize coal miners in the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania. The resulting union formed in 1849 but was soon dissolved. Organizational activities resumed in the early 1860s as local unions formed throughout the coalfields of Pennsylvania. During this same period of time, mine owners organized into two operators' unions. In 1867, acting upon a new law establishing an eight-hour workday, John Siney led a movement to enforce this legislation. The union that formed in 1868 from the consolidation of local unions was named the Workingmen's Benevolent Association, and its first president was Siney. Both miners and owners were now well organized, and disagreements and strikes occurred on a regular basis, especially with regard to the eight-hour day and suspension of work by the operators. A written agreement was eventually reached and signed on 29 July 1870 by the major participants of both sides, the committee of the Anthracite Board of Trade and the committee of the Workingmen's Benevolent Association.


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  • 1853: Crimean War begins in October. The struggle, which will last until February 1856, pits Russia against the combined forces of Great Britain, France, Turkey, and Sardinia-Piedmont. A war noted for the work of Florence Nightingale with the wounded, it is also the first conflict to be documented by photojournalists.
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  • 1867: Dual monarchy is established in Austria-Hungary.
  • 1871: Franco-Prussian War ends with France's surrender of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, which proclaims itself an empire under Prussian king Wilhelm, crowned Kaiser Wilhelm I.
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  • 1876: Alexander Graham Bell introduces the telephone.
  • 1880: Completed Cologne Cathedral, begun 634 years earlier, with twin spires 515 feet (157 m) high, is the tallest structure in the world, and will remain so until 1889, when it is surpassed by the Eiffel Tower. (The previous record for the world's tallest structure lasted much longer—for about 4,430 years following the building of Cheops's Great Pyramid in c. 2550 B.C.)

Event and Its Context

Anthracite coal, or hard coal, was discovered in eastern and northern Pennsylvania in the late 1790s. The coal industry was slow to develop within these fields primarily because of scarce coal markets and undeveloped transportation routes. Poor working conditions, low wages, and irregular employment characterized miners' jobs during these formative years. However, a commercial market for anthracite coal as a domestic heating source eventually developed. Because of its high efficiency and clean burning qualities, anthracite coal substituted for charcoal. Also, with the building of canals and the improvements to waterways, transporting anthracite coal to such markets as New York City and Philadelphia became less expensive.

First Association: Bates' Union

By 1849 the anthracite coal miners of Pennsylvania in the Schuylkill field, located between the cities of Harrisburg and Allentown, organized under the leadership of Englishman John Bates. The organization that resulted was called Bates' Union, with Bates installed as its first president. With a membership of 5,000 men, the first action by the union was to call a strike in order to counter many years of unreasonable demands by the mine owners. This union is generally considered the first association of miners in the United States, and the strike that followed its creation is considered the first general strike by miners in the United States. Unfortunately for the miners, the strike failed, and they were so discouraged by the defeat that Bates became very unpopular, and the newly established union was dissolved in 1850.

From 1850 to 1868 there were few successful organizational efforts of workers in the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania, and those that succeeded did so only at the local level. At the same time, small, independent operators controlled many of the anthracite mines. One noteworthy local group organized in 1860 when the miners of the Forrestville Improvement Company formed a local union that soon prompted nearby miners to form similar organizations. Because of the increasing demand for coal and the shortage of laborers, especially during the inflationary times of the Civil War, the leaders of these unions were able to secure giant wage increases paid to the miners, since the mine owners were able to sell their coal at extraordinary prices. However, the end of the Civil War reduced the need for coal throughout the reunited nation and, as a result, coal prices plummeted, as did the corresponding wages to miners. The union dissolved after four years of organizing attempts.

Owners and Employees Organize

In response to economic conditions and the actions of coal miners during the Civil War, the mine owners organized in 1867 under two organizations. The Mahoney Valley and Locust Mountain Coal Association organized within the region south of Broad Mountain (located north of Schuylkill County), and the other group, the Anthracite Board of Trade of the Schuylkill Coal Field, formed for the district north of Broad Mountain. Both employer organizations were formed specifically to oppose the demands of coal miners and to work together in order to coordinate worker contracts.

The coal miners saw the mine operators aggressively organize their companies and responded with their own efforts. With wages cut twice since the end of the Civil War, the miners saw their power being diminished. In addition, over a seven-year period in Schuylkill County, problems such as accidents, explosions, fires, and floods contributed to the deaths of 566 miners and the serious injury of another 1,665 workers. With such terrible conditions existing in the mines, the leaders of the local coal unions saw the need to organize under one central union in order to counter more efficiently the actions of the two powerful owner groups.

In 1867 the Pennsylvania legislature enacted a law that made the eight-hour workday legal (beginning on 1 July 1868) so long as there was no agreement between employer and employees that went against the newly established workday length. In order to enforce the new law, the coal miners met in a convention in the early part of 1868 to form the Workingman's Benevolent Association (WBA). This new organization was a combination of the workers in the major coalfields in the region. John Siney, who helped to organize the new union, was elected its first president when it was chartered on 6 April 1868.

The new union consolidated all the local unions of the anthracite coalfields in Pennsylvania, which at its height under Siney's leadership possessed 30,000 members. The WBA drew up a constitution that included a scale of wages and provided for care of sick and disabled miners (along with widows and orphans if a miner should die). Siney, an honest, well-liked man with good organizational skills, was a good choice for the union.

Conflict Arises

The demand by the WBA for the enforcement of the eight-hour day was the first item that engendered conflict between the two sides. The owners refused to obey the law, and a general strike followed in order to show the owners that the miners demanded acceptance of the new law. The miners eventually went back to work without securing all of their demands but with an adequate compromise of a 10 percent wage increase along with the return to the 10-hour workday. Because of this strike, the union leaders learned that they could put a stop to coal production whenever they felt the coal market was being oversupplied. (The overabundance of coal normally reduced coal prices and, as a direct result, reduced miners' wages and their ability to demand their rights and higher benefits.) In fact, union leaders saw that a work stoppage was even more effective when prices and demand for coal were rising. As a result, on 20 April 1869 the executive committee of the WBA, headed by Siney, issued a notice in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, stating that its members would suspend all digging of coal beginning on Monday, 19 May 1869.

The public and the local newspapers denounced the action and demanded that the union resume production of coal. The union leaders ignored the admonishments, knowing that if all else failed, the miners could move to other coalfields, while the owners had to stay at the mines they owned and operated. With the surplus coal almost depleted, the union leaders issued a second notice in Mahoney City, Pennsylvania, on 9 June 1869. They stated that even though the newspapers declared that the union's intention was to raise the price of coal to high levels, they only wished to maintain a healthy market for coal and healthy working conditions for miners. They announced that on 16 June 1869 the union miners would resume all work. The mine owners agreed on a sliding scale (or basis) for wages that varied depending on the location of the mine and on the month that the coal was sold. With a successful conclusion to their strike, the miners went back to work.

Signed Contract Obtained

As a result of further disagreements concerning the issue of a sliding scale for wages, Siney held the first joint meeting of miners and owners at Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1869. The two sides reached an agreement during this discussion, but not until 29 July 1870 did the committee of the Anthracite Board of Trade and the committee of the Workingman's Benevolent Association formally sign a contract. The agreement stated that throughout the year of 1870, the WBA would not keep members discharged by employers for incompetence, bad workmanship, poor conduct, or any other cause.

On the owners' side, the committee of the Anthracite Board of Trade agreed that no WBA member would be fired as a result of actions or duties required of him by the association. Moreover, WBA members would be assured of work on a regular basis, and wages would be reduced by specified amounts during any month that expenses exceeded gain. A shared structure for determining the sliding scale, or basis, of wages was also part of the agreement. To arrive at the basis figure, representatives of the WBA and the owners were scheduled to meet on the twenty-fifth day of each month. They were bound to select five operators who would, on the twenty-fifth day of the following month, produce a statement confirming the prices of different sizes of coal, and those prices would fix the wage rate (and the basis) for that month.

William Kendrick, J. K. Sigfried, M. P. Fowler, Baird Snyder, and Samuel E. Griscom of the mine operators and owners, and John Siney, George Corbett, George Athey, James Barry, and Robert Weightman of the coal miners' union signed the agreement. This historic agreement is considered the first written contract in the United States signed by a coal miners' union (in this case the Workingman's Benevolent Association) and a coal mine owners' organization (in this case the Anthracite Board of Trade of the Schuylkill Coal Field).

After-effects Weaken the Union

At this time the Workingman's Benevolent Association had a membership of 30,000 of the 35,000 miners in the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania. Although the gains it had supported and won were impressive, the WBA suffered losses during an extensive strike in 1875. Failure of the strike forced miners back to work on the operators' terms. The WBA was further weakened by its attempts to organize across ethnic and regional lines. Disagreements erupted among workers from different backgrounds (and corresponding technical abilities and experiences) at a time when mine owners introduced new technology and increased the use of machinery. This led to periods of increased violence, including murder, involving the infamous group known as the "Molly Maguires," which eventually contributed to the end of the WBA. Although eliminated from the union environment, the Workingman's Benevolent Association made a significant contribution to union organization in coal mining, especially with regard to the first employer-employee contract.

From 1875 to the middle of the 1890s, organized labor had virtually no representation in the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania. Attributes such as ethnicity, age, wage levels, and jobs all contributed to the difficulty labor leaders experienced in trying to organize the mineworkers. In addition, the mine owners and the powerful railroad executives, who now controlled many of the coalfields, aggressively opposed them. Although many militant workers attempted strikes during this period, none were successful. The combination of these conditions made the task of organizing by the United Mine Workers an uphill battle. From the earlier pioneering work of the Workingman's Benevolent Association, the United Mine Workers of America eventually organized its first local union in the Schuylkill fields of Pennsylvania in 1894.

Key Players

Siney, John (1831-1879): Siney was born in Ireland and raised in England. Siney learned the basics of organizing labor unions while employed in the Lancashire textile mills of England. He immigrated to the United States in 1863. Siney began to work in the Eagle Colliery in St. Clair, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, in 1867, where he participated in his first strike that same year. As president of the Workingman's Benevolent Association (the forerunner of the United Mine Workers union), Siney introduced the first general strike, the first written and signed agreement, the first closed shop, the first board of arbitration, the first system of sick and death benefits, the first official miners' newspaper, and the first effective industrial union in the American coal industry. He helped to pass the Mine Safety Act of 1869 and the Mine Safety Act of 1870, both of which were designed to provide for better regulation and ventilation of mines for the protection of the miners. The requirements contained in these acts, the first mine safety inspection laws in the United States, became the foundation of mine safety legislation for the next century. Siney also conducted the first collective bargaining agreement within the coal mining industry. The Miners' National Association, the first national miners' union in the United States, was formed by Siney in 1873.

See also: Eight-hour Day Movement; Molly Maguires; United Mine Workers of America; Workingman's Benevolent Association.



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Roy, Andrew. A History of the Coal Miners of the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970.

Taft, Philip. Organized Labor in American History. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.


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—William Arthur Atkins