By Talcott Williams
A GREAT anthracite coal strike, laying idle 160,000 men and
boys and affecting the profits of some $1,000,000,000 of capital, is not the simple thing
many people think it. In a great streetcar strike the strikers are all on a parity. In
textile strikes they are of two or three closely related classes of labor. So in railroad
strikes. In iron and steel they are of two classes; but of these only one, the skilled
laborer, is admitted to the union or seriously regarded, the mere laborer being excluded.
Lastly, and most important of all, these are all parts of an industrial machine in which
the plant of production is closely geared to the need of consumption.
The anthracite coal mines have three distinct classes of
labor,miners, laborers, and men employed on engines and pumps and as mine bosses.
The last class is employed through the year; pumps must be kept going whether mining is in
progress or not. Their posts are permanent. The laborers work, as already described, at
loading what miners have detached. The miner employs them, and receives in general
two-thirds of the proceeds of the joint labor. The contract miner's object is to detach in
the shortest time each day the largest amount of coal. Hours do not count with him. If he
can gain in 200 days of 4 to 6 hours the wage of a year,as in 1901,he is
satisfied. Nothing helps him but a pro rata advance in the sum paid for
"mining" a ''ton" of coal. The laborer must work a ten-hour day,the
miner sees to that,and the laborer has two objects: he is working at day labor in
the hope of becoming a miner. This was once easy, when the anthracite output was
expanding, and more miners were constantly needed, selected from laborers speaking the
same tongue and of the same race as the miners. To become a miner has grown to be hard.
The laborer must by law work two years in a mine; he must pass an examination,stiff
for him,in English, not his native tongue, and he must be selected for a
"chamber" by a boss of another race, who prefers miners of his own tongue and
stock,English, Irish, or Scotch. Pay and hours mean less to the laborer than
promotion, and a larger share in the joint wage of himself and the miner. Lastly, the men
employed on pumps, engines, etc., care nothing for the tonnage, are free from the
irregular days of anthracite miners, and are interested only either in reducing hours or
increasing per diem pay, or both.
To weld these three diverse and conflicting interests in
one union, and get them to strike together, is a remarkable proof of the strong tendency
toward organization, and the determination of labor, in large homogeneous bodies of
artisans, to trust to the collective rather than the personal bargain. This determination
may be wise or unwise. Carried too far, it has dealt English industry a visible blow in
the world competition of the day. The tendency exists. It must be reckoned with. No
capital, however anxious to receive the largest output at the lowest cost, can wisely
disregard it. As in the case of the United States Steel Corporation, it is wiser to accept
it, and be guided by it in reaching a yearly standard of wages; but to keep
"open" establishments, where men working free from union rules can provide, by
the largest practicable output and individual initiative, a standard of product which
matches and supplements the union's standard of wages.
The anthracite coal strike of September, 1900, was
primarily for miners' wages. Pro rata, it advanced the wages of the mine laborers.
Promotion having been, for eighteen months, slow during a period of great prosperity and
unprecedented output, the laborers last winter demanded a larger proportionate share on
the weigh check or aggregate paid to the miner and the laborer. This plea was disregarded
by the union. Had there not been a strike led by miners against operators, there would
probably soon have been a strike led by laborers against miners. If the strike of
September, 1900, was primarily for miners' wages, the strike now was primarily for
laborers and engine men, pumpers, etc., and as to organization primarily for
The coal mined is coal and slate. The coal paid for is
coal, alone. Amazing as it may seem the net coal mined is a matter of guess. The guess is
close. It is like all guessing when men guess often, generally accurate. But it is a
guess; and being a guess, is at times highly inaccurate. The actual coal mined is at times
more than the coal for whose mining men are paid. Nothing could belittle worse. It
irritates men. It loads the company weigh-sheets with the smell and savor of injustice.
Like the old charge made for powder, it is a survival which, in the total, works little
injustice. But in paying wages, the employer must not only be just,he must seem
just. When the men asked for a net coal weighing, they asked for something not easily
done, costing some readjustment, trouble, and expense, but wise and worth, in reducing a
sense of injustice, such loss of a shaving of profit and such increase of clerical force
as it might demand. In such increase of return to labor as this brought, the Slav laborer
The demand of the miner's union for an eight-hour day for
pumpers, engineers, etc., was intended to give this class of permanent labor a reason for
coming out. They hold permanent positions. They had not gained in the previous strike in
the same way that the miners had. Being permanent, and an intermission of their labor
working a permanent injury to their mines, it has been the unwritten law of coal strikes
that a pumper could keep on working in a strike without being a "scab." Calling
them out in a strike was like cutting down date trees in Arab warfare. The union could
have done nothing without calling out its allies at the pumps; but when it did this, it
very greatly embittered railroad managers and operators. Compromise became difficult and
conciliation almost impracticable when this extreme step was taken.
With labor, however, consisting of these diverse elements,
the union could never be intrenched in full control of the conditions on which it yearly
bargained, unless all the labor was organized. The exclusion from the mines of all
non-union labor was the final aim of the United Miners' Union. Its representative verbally
admitted this at the conference held by the Federation of Labor, and when this was done
collision was certain.
Had the miner's union in the past eighteen months exerted
the rigid discipline of big well managed unions, prevented small strikes, and worked for a
cheap output, it might have divided capital. But it had not been "recognized."
Therefore, its control was often loose. Local unions irritated local operators. In the
Reading mines, the proportion of coal mined per miner fell one-eighth. It is part of a bad
system of over-manned mines under which miners try to distribute work. Output was reduced
and wages increased. The result was that the miners were without the responsible control
of a big union, and the railroad managers and operators irritated by small strikes and
ready for a fight.
When, at the Federation conference the miners' union was
adroitly led to assert, though not as a sine qua non, the right to exclude nonunion
men after eighteen months, with all the difficulties and none of the benefits of a large
union, conciliation was impossible. The demand meant "control." On wages, men
can bargain. On "control," compromise is so difficult as to be impracticable. It
has been made more difficult in the present strike by three conditions. Anthracite
railroad managers and anthracite mine operators are under a grinding competition with
bituminous coal. To accept a union of United Mine Workers of America, in which the
bituminous workers were two to one, was, they believed, to render it certain that on most
issues the management of the union would keep bituminous mines busy rather than
anthracite. Anthracite mining greatly varies from mine to mine, and a uniform
"scale," as in bituminous mines, is difficult. It cannot be impracticable, for
veins as narrow, tortuous, and varying are mined under "scale" in England. Small
strikes, on trivial causes, have been frequent,too frequent, in the anthracite
region. This is partly due to varying conditions. Partly to the habit of an irregular
industry in which, working only one hundred and fifty to two hundred days in a year, men
do not mind a day's holiday. Partly because organization has been by mines. The great
unions make strikes more serious when they come; but they do not go to war about trifles,
or stop work because a mine boss has "sassed " a miner, or the two have
disagreed on a weigh-cheek. The frequent strikes in the anthracite region have done much
to array operators against any organization.
In these issues alone there was matter for collision, but
all else was small by the side of the final facts on each side,that the union could
not keep its men together merely by maintaining the increase of October, 1900, renewed in
April, 1901,as it was, some 40 per cent. of the men voted against a strike,and
that the railroad managers and operators felt that they had been coerced by an alliance
between capital and politics, Morgan and Hanna, and humiliated before their miners by the
settlement of 1900.
This feeling (and a railroad manager or coal mine owner is
just as ready as any other man to sacrifice somebody else to gratify his feelings) has
bred obdurate temper on both sides. It has been deepened by the fatal economic situation
of the miner. Under competition, the anthracite plant is one-half larger in mines and
one-half greater in labor than the utmost demand of the public. Two-thirds of the mines
and two-thirds of the men, run more regularly and systematically, could in spite of the
lack of demand in summer, produce the coal cheaper and more profitably, and at a higher
individual aggregate average, even if at a lower per diem or per ton than the present
system. What the anthracite coal industry really needs is a reorganization like that after
the London dock strike of 1889, reducing the number of men but increasing work for each.
As it is, men who prefer working all the year to working two-thirds of the year, and often
half a day at that, have, by a natural elimination, been weeded out steadily, and have
left a large share of men, bred to a habit of irregular work and short hours. This one
fact is at the bottom of much fitful irregularity in the mines.
The railroad managers, holding public franchises weighted
by public responsibilities, have clearly no right, as they have all united in doing, to
refuse all compromise, conciliation, or adjustment, and simply stop work, letting the
public pay the cost in higher coal. They are bound either to reach an adjustment
themselves, to let some one else reach one for them, or to reorganize the whole industry
on a basis which will reduce the material and moral waste of the present system, where
poor mines are worked and men are one third of the year idle even in a prosperous year.