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Work and Labor
A coal miner's day was long and arduous, and lived constantly in the shadow of harm from the explosion of mine gas, the slumping of coal piles, or the collapse of tunnels. A miner's equipment and the environment in which he operated -- the explosive powder used to dislodge coal, the flame in his lamp, the gases within the mine -- packed lethal potential, compounded by a persistent failure to heed safety measures. In the effort to maximise profits, miners resorted to such practices as "robbing the pillars" -- removing even the supporting portions of mine walls to extract the last bit of coal. All too often the result was a cave-in, and the burial of miners.
Coal breaker, Eckley Miners' Village, PA
News of accidents was announced by the unexpected blast of the steam whistle that usually marked the rhythms of the day, alerting residents of the patch or village of possible disaster. People streamed out of their homes to see where the wagon bearing bodies would visit; some residents later recalling that if the family of the deceased were not at home, the company would simply place the body on the porch to await their return. In many cases, bodies were simply never recovered.
Such catastrophes were not the only peril facing miners. Having survived the sudden hand of fate, miners faced the protracted fate of occupational disease. Most famously, miners were vulnerable to "black lung" disease, also known as "miner's asthma," from years of inhaling particulate matter in the cold, damp underground environment. During the nineteenth century, few mining companies made provisions for the care of ailing workers, and many miners spent their final years convulsing from coughs, with family members as their only medical care.
In the days before child labor laws, children as young as nine or ten worked in the mines, usually beginning as door boys, driver boys, or breaker boys. Door boys sat for hours in the darkness of the mine to opened and shut the doors to let the mule-drawn mine cars pass. Driver boys, often in their teens, dumped the coal from the cars, after which it descended through processing machines to the breaker boys, who cleaned and inspected it. The typical breaker boy was either very young -- between nine and twelve years old -- or old and infirm.
Breaker boys, Eagle Hill Breaker, 1885
Collieries, or mining operations, often required miners to provide their own tools and powder, with company stores providing the goods for sale, and the cost deducted directly from the miner's wages. Many collieries required their employees to purchase goods from the company store and enforced this rule by paying in scrip redeemable only at the store. As a result of this system of enforced purchase of goods sold at inflated prices, employees fell perpetually into debt for both their company-owned homes and their store debt. If an indebted miner died, the company might require his sons to continue working to pay off their father's debts.
To address the hardships imposed by mining, workers repeatedly attempted to organize in the mid-nineteenth century, and some of the first coal miners' unions in the United States had ties to Saint Clair. In 1849, John Bates, a native of St. Clair, formed the short-lived Bates Union in response to the coal masters' organization of the Coal Mining Association, and called for the first regional strike. The operators' Association had set a high, fixed price on coal, and when merchants in Philadelphia and New York refused to pay, the masters refused to ship. After the operators finally forced the merchants to relent, the miners responded by striking for their own demands, including payment in cash rather than scrip. At this point, as Wallace notes, "the union's strategy became political." As the union agreed with operators that over-production had created problems for both owners and workers, they organized a "symbolic turnout" on the Fourth of July. The parade of 4,000 to 5,000 marchers wended its way from St. Clair to Pottsville.
A more radicalized union soon followed. In 1868, John Siney organized the Workingman's Benevolent Association (WBA) to protect the families of injured workers and to improve working conditions. Although the WBA represented miners of all ethnic backgrounds and eschewed violence, the organization fell prey to discord between ethnic Irish, English, and Welsh miners. It finally disintegrated after "the Long Strike of 1875" and after mine management and the media linked the union to acts of terrorism allegedly committed by the Molly Maguires.
Although WBA members were repeatedly accused of engaging in criminal acts, the union officially eschewed violence, and in many instances, the union's leadership stepped in to prevent violence. Wallace suggests that the decline in the numbers of murders and terrorist acts from 1868 through 1875 may have been the result of intervention by the WBA and its negotiation tactics, its provision of a voice for workers, and its ability to restrain the actions of potentially violent members. Nevertheless, in the political drama playing out during the mid-1870s, WBA members bore the brunt of accusations and the organization eventually succumbed.