by Earl W. Mayo
This article was scanned from Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, November, 1900.
To the thoughtful observer the armies of peaceful toil are more impressive than the panoplied hosts of war. Such an army, a hundred and fifty thousand strong and mighty in deeds of labor, springs into view every afternoon when the sun is slanting across the rugged Pennsylvania hills. Black with the soil of a hundred cycles past, they emerge from the thousand yawning pit-mouths that scar a thousand mountain sides, rising out of the very earth like the growth of the dragon's teeth that Jason sowed. With soot-grimed hands and faces they seem part and parcel of the soot-grimed landscape. Broad-backed Slavs and Lithuanians are there; burly Welsh and Cornishmen, nimble Irish, sturdy Poles, lithe Italians and stolid Huns: strangers in tongue and manners, but bowed with the same weight of heavy toil, blackened by the sooty touch of a common occupation, united in the performance of the same body-crushing labor. These are the fuel-finders of the world, the motive power behind the dashing express locomotive, the warming power in our cosy winter hearths, the driving power of the whirring mills that turn out the silken fabric of my lady's gown and the coarse weave of the workman's blouse.
It is an instructive lesson to stand upon some vantage point of the carbon hills of an afternoon and watch this army moving homeward with heavy-footed tread from its daily battle for the reluctant treasure of old Mother Earth. At four o'clock the scene is deserted and desolate, save for the spurts of steam that rise from the gaunt, spectre-like breakers scattered here and there about the hills, or the friendly smoke of the little houses clustering under their black shadows. At five o'clock the scene is alive with men moving silently in little groups of two or three toward these same houses. It gives one a better understanding of what each blazing fuel lump means in the muscle and sweat of human toilers to watch the progress of a single regiment in this vast army of mine workers—the army that laid down its weapons of attack on the seventeenth of September last and instituted the greatest strike, in point of numbers at least, that the country has ever seen. It gives one a better understanding of the extent of the anthracite coal industry in the Pennsylvania fields—the most extensive deposits of their kind that are being worked anywhere in the world—and it enables one to judge more clearly of the great difference in the daily sum total of the world's work that has been caused by the action of these miners.
Comprehension of the subject is scarcely helped by the statement that the amount of coal taken out of these hills during the year 1899 was more than 54,000,000 tons. A better grasp of the immensity of the industry may be gained perhaps by computing that the 4,500 fifty-ton cars of coal mined during each working day would form a solid train more than thirty miles in length. A million dollars for every five days of idleness is the price paid by the miners in wages for laying down their tools. What the industrial loss has amounted to in other ways has been told with graphic effect in the newspapers from day to day. It has been written in inexorable form on the careworn brows of anxious wives, on the pinched faces of hungry children, in shops deserted of customers, in the records of crime and pauperism in a dozen counties, in all the score or more of ways in which an industrial war —the most costly of all kinds of organized conflicts—makes itself felt.
The causes. real and alleged which brought about the conflict at this time have been explained in the daily prints until they are thoroughly familiar. In a general way it may be said that the strike was precipitated by the leaders of the mine workers' union because they saw a chance in the face of a rising market and an enormous demand for coal to win the battle, and, if successful, greatly to strengthen their union. This is the explanation advanced by the operators of the mines, and it is undoubtedly true. But granting its truth, it shows that the strike leaders did no more than to take a fair business advantage as the laws of business are generally interpreted. It merely goes to prove their tactical shrewdness.
The assertion that the miners or the families of miners were starving upon the wages that they received is not true. In the face of multiplied misstatements, personal observation compels this admission. That they were paid enough nobody who knows the work they do will be prepared to say. Their toil is the most severe that the hands of man perform anywhere in the earth. Two-thirds of their waking life is spent down in the dungeons of the soil, where the air is always vitiated and where the danger of sudden death, from which the devout pray to be delivered, is always present. It kills ambition early, and bows the frame beyond the power of muscles to straighten it.
Almost every third man one meets in the mines bears on his arms or face the peculiar blue marks which are the imprint of falling coal. Nearly all the older men have experienced the horrors of mine imprisonment at one time or another, and there is seldom a day in the coal fields that some woman is not widowed by the mines.
Down in the depths of the Coleraine shaft a miner told me of the Hazleton horror of half a dozen years ago, when the water came into the mine and shut him off along with sixteen of his comrades; of how they crept up on the "pigeon breast" for safety and lay there gasping for breath, killing mine rats for food, and dying, one by one through nineteen long days, until at length four unconscious survivors were drawn out by the rescuers. He told it simply and without emotion; for it was only an incident of mine work, an accident the like of which any old miner can recall from his own remembrance, but it afforded a vivid picture of the burden and horror of mine work, the daily playing with death which makes up the miner's life.
The old men know it and bend every energy to keep their sons from being condemned to the life in the mines. The young men know it but are drawn into it by stern necessity. A brawny young miner at Milnesville voiced the penalties of his occupation with truth that was pathetic when one viewed his physical perfection.
"It's killing work,'' he said, "and I know the end of it as well as you or anybody. I'll die from the gas or get caught in a fall some day when there is an accident. If I don't I'll be a broken man at thirty-five. The mine dust and the damp get into a man's blood and bones in time. It's killing work but it's the only work we know."
Unfortunately these are not the considerations that regulate the rate of wages. The unchangeable law of demand and supply decides that, and has settled it on a basis which the miners may improve someway, but which they cannot greatly alter.
Judged by a standard of comparison with other classes of labor, the coal workers are not poorly paid. Their earnings vary from $1.15 to $4 per day. according to the kind of work performed. An examination of scores of pay checks before the beginning of the strike showed that the men holding them had received from thirty to one hundred dollars for their month of work. The average rate for all classes of mine workmen probably is not far from two dollars per clay. The apprentice millers, during the first six months of their employment while they are learning the occupation, are paid from $1.15 to $1.38. Some of the boys employed by the mines receive as little as fifty cents a day, but this is for very light work and the average wage of the "breaker" boys is from $1 to $1.25 per day. The clerks in the big city shops and the mill operatives in the manufacturing towns of New England and the South earn very much less than do the men who work in the mines. Were the rate of wages the only question involved it is not likely that the strike of the coal workers would have become general.
The question of monthly or bi-weekly payments resolves itself into a question of convenience in book-keeping and making up accounts on the part doctor and for some other items which figure frequently in their bills. They demanded payment at the end of every fortnight instead of at the end of the month, a change that would go far toward relieving them of their dependence upon the company store. They urged the appointment of inspectors from their own number to pass upon the coal that they mined and to fix the deductions for impurities in it. On general principles, they demanded an advance in wages, but these were their chief grievances.
In regard to the question of powder, many of the mine operators acknowledged that they charged the men $2.75 for powder which costs at wholesale from ninety cents to $1. Their defence was that the price was agreed upon to offset a previous advance in wages granted to the men. This, if true, was a subterfuge on the part of the operators, a subterfuge not likely to be understood by the men who compose the major class of miners. Wages are certain sooner or later to seek their proper economic level without regard to such charges, and there seems to be no reason why the miners should not receive their powder at cost from the company or else be permitted to purchase it in the open market.
The question of monthly or bi-weekly payments resolves itself into a question of convenience in bookkeeping and making up accounts on the part of the mining companies. There is no good reason why the request of the men should not be granted, and it would have the good effect of freeing them from their dependence upon the credit system and the company store.
In the question of "docking" and inspecting a more important point is involved. It is not likely that the mine owners desire to be unfair to their men, but it is equally certain that there are frequent abuses on the part of these officials. It was proposed by the striking miners that the "docker," the official who passes upon the amount of slate and rock in each car of coal and who fixes the fines therefor, should be selected by them from their own ranks, and that the fines imposed should go to the treasury of the labor union, instead of passing into that of the company. To grant this contention would be no great hardship upon the companies, but it would involve a recognition of the labor unions. That was one of the vital points of the strike, and one upon which the companies never have been disposed to yield.
The attitude of the mining companies toward the miners throughout the larger portion of the coal region is one of complete paternalism. The mine worker ordinarily lives in a house belonging to the company. He buys his goods at a company store. His family's ills are treated by the company doctor. This result is brought about, not by a policy of coercion, but by the far more dangerous one of convenience. The miner rents a house from the company because he can rent it cheaply and because it is conveniently located. He buys his supplies at a company store because it is convenienent to buy there, not because he is compelled to do so.
The company store, against which so much that is iniquitous has been charged, is simply a general store, situated, usually, near the group of houses which surrounds each colliery and owned and operated by the company vhich owns the houses and operates the mine. Any miner employed by the company is permitted to buy goods on credit from the store. The amount of his purchases is figured up at the end of each month and deducted from the month's earnings. In this way the company runs no risk and a miner's family need not go hungry so long as he is employed. Moreover, the company gets back, in profit on the goods sold to its employees, a large part of the money paid to them in wages. Superficially viewed, this is a convenient arrangement for both parties concerned.
It is an easy thing to say, and it has been glibly asserted, that these company stores charge exorbinant prices for everything that passes over their counters, and that the miners are compelled to deal with them by fear of dismissal from the company's employ if they do not. Careful investigation fails to support this charge. Apparently none of the mining companies pay any attention to the question whether its employees patronize the company or not. A comparison of the prices charged in these establishments with those demanded in other stores similarly located shows that they do not overcharge their customers.
The ill effect of the company store comes from quite another cause—its intimate relation to the company and the fact that it can take money from the workman without directly touching his pocketbook. The testimony of universal experience is that when men buy on credit they are not so careful in their purchases as when they must go into their pockets and produce spot cash for every article obtained. Miners are not usually of that frugal class which practices thoughtful foresight. When once immersed in the credit system they rarely get far enough ahead to have a month's leeway between their cupboards and the storekeeper. Here is the real iniquity of the company store system, and it is inherent in the system, not in the store.
Medical care is provided for the miner on a somewhat different plan but one that is open to the same objection- it takes away from the miner the necessity for fore-thought. From the monthly pay of each unmarried miner fifty cents is deducted for the doctor, and from the pay of the married man seventy-five cents is taken. The men and their families may then command the services of the physician whenever they are required. It is cheap medical insurance but its advantage in this respect is not appreciated by those for whom it is intended. The single men complain that they have no occasion to employ a doctor even once a year on the average while the married men aver that they wish to exercise the privilege of choice in the selection of a physician. In some cases an amount similar to that taken out for the doctor is charged for the priest, and the material side of the miner's spiritual welfare is looked after by the paternal company.
The demand for a uniform rate of payment for mining work has been a specious argument in inducing the men to strike. It was used with telling effect by the labor agitators, but it is not likely ever to be granted, for the reason that it is impossible and would be unfair in effect.
To understand this fact it is necessary to understand the peculiar features of coal mining as an industry. It differs from most other occupations in the fact that there is no uniformity in the work. Two shafts which are located close together may vary greatly in the amount of labor involved in getting out the coal. It may be that in one the coal is mixed with a much larger amount of slate or other refuse, or that the work of mining in one is much harder than in the other. Thus, of two miners working only a few yards apart, it is quite possible that one may easily get out four cars of coal each day while the other, working as hard and as skilfully is scarcely able to get out two.
These differences have resulted in many different modes of payment for mining work. Some miners are paid by the car, and the rate in different mines varies from ninety-five cents to $1.15, according to conditions. Each car holds presumably two and a half tons, although the miners claim that in order to pass the inspector the cars must be heaped so high that the weight in reality is between three and four tons. Some miners are paid by the day and others still by the yard—so much for each square yard taken from the face of the "breast,'' as the cross passage in which each individual miner works is called.
Most of the miners—those whose earnings are based on piece-work—employ assistants, whom they pay out of their own receipts. In many cases these "buddies"—in the lingo of the mines a miner's assistant is known as his "buddy" —are raw immigrants who are learning the work, and are paid very little during the period of their apprenticeship.
To each miner is assigned a certain "breast" leading off from one of the gangways and marked off for him by the mine surveyor. Ordinarily the breast is ten yards wide, but frequently it is narrower, depending upon the nature and slant of the vein. Into the vein the miner works his way, drilling holes into the face of the coal, blasting it down with charges of powder, breaking it up with his pick and shoveling it into a car. The particular breast in which he works is his domain, and no other miner is permitted to work it without his consent until he leaves the employment of the mine.
Behind the miner, as he works his way into the wall of coal, comes the "timber gang," putting up props to keep the roof of the passageways from caving in, building doors and ventilating shafts to conduct fresh air into the portions of the mine where the men are at work. It is not always necessary to timber a mine, but in most cases it is the part of safety to do so and in most of the mines that have been worked for a long time from twenty to thirty men are constantly employed in this work.
If the vein of coal is a deep one the breast is taken away to a height of about six feet, so that the miner is able to stand erect at his work. But if it is narrow or slants away at an abrupt angle, he may find it necessary to work in extremely narrow quarters, perhaps upon his knees, which of course adds greatly both to his labor and discomfort. Whatever the course of the vein, it is followed until it gives out or until the distance or the amount of slate makes it unprofitable. Then it is cleaned up—a process known as "robbing the breast"—and the miner betakes himself to a new section.
From the foot of the shaft or slope the cars of rough coal are hoisted to the surface by means of cables operated by engines on the surface. From the mouth of the mine they pass up the long incline to the breaker, where they are dumped. It is at this point that the "docker" stands beside a blackboard bearing the number of each miner, and as the coal is passed from the car upon the big slides the "docker" watches it closely and charges against each man the amount he considers fair in accordance with the impurities in the coal. This must be in large measure, of course, the result of pure guesswork.
From the slide at the top of the breaker the coal slips down upon a big sieve-like "shaker," which sifts out the coarse impurities. Thence it falls upon revolving cylinders with apertures of different sizes. These "sorters" separate the coal according to size, and drop it into smaller chutes, down which it passes to fall into the grinders, which crush it to uniform sizes, from "star lump" to "chestnut" or "pea." From the grinders the coal slips down smaller chutes along which water is running to carry off the lighter impurities and passes between the lines of "breaker boys " who pick out the slate, sticks or stones that may have escaped the sorter, and throw them aside.
The boys sit in rows in narrow boxlike compartments and pick out the slate with their fingers from the black stream that is continually rolling past them. It is rough work, this apprenticeship to King Coal. The air is full of flying dust, the sharp edges of the coal lumps callous and cut the fingers, and the crash of the breaker machinery makes it almost impossible for one to hear himself shout. When the boys leave the breaker after a day's work they look like sooty little imps; but dirt has no power to dampen their spirits, and they are quite as jolly and full of mischief as any other class of working boys.
The contrast between these boys and their foreign-bred fathers is remarkable The stolid look of the elder generation is replaced by a bright, shrewd expression that is characteristically American. Half a dozen nationalities may be represented side by side on the benches in the breaker, but they all are approximating to one type, and that type is the American.
When the coal has passed the slate pickers it has been assorted into market sizes, and has been washed clean. It is then ready for market, and all that remains to be done is to load it into the railway cars that are run up to the different breakers over the many little branch lines of track that grid-iron the coal country. The loading ordinarily is an easy process, and is accomplished simply by lowering a chute above the ear and letting the coal run down.
From the depths of the mine to the railway car the coal has passed through a dozen different pairs of hands representing as many classes of workmen. The miners proper do not comprise more than one-quarter of the employees of a colliery. Although much handling is required to prepare coal for market, it is done on so great a scale and so largely by the aid of machinery that beyond the initial expense of mining the process is not costly.
Taking the mine of average productivity, it is a fair estimate that each ton of coal prepared for the market costs the mine operator $2. This includes the wages of miners, timber-men, engineers inspectors and slate-pickers. To it must be added the cost of transportation in estimating the operator's final return. This item of transportation is one of considerable importance because of the great bulk of coal in proportion to its cost: but even allowing all advance of twenty per cent for this expense, it will be seen that with coal selling for $4.20 per ton at tidewater, there is money in the business. As a matter of fact the coal trade has been very prosperous for several months past. The vast requirements of thriving domestic manufacture have been supplemented by a newly-arisen European demand for American coal. It is fair to say, however, that this prosperity was as preceded by a long period of depression, low prices and frequent enforced periods of idleness.
It must be acknowledged by any careful observer that conditions among the mine workers as a class are far from being satisfactory or encouraging to their development as American citizens. It is not so much a matter of wages as of the social and economic conditions by which their lives are ordered. These are not calculated to encourage independence, ambition or thrift—the very qualities which form the basis of intelligent citizenship.
It should be borne in mind that the anthracite coal region contains the most mixed population to be found anywhere in the world. Twenty-seven separate dialects and tongues are spoken in and about Hazleton. There are half a dozen Hungarian dialects, Magyar, Bohemian and the like, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Arabic and German, Welsh, Italian, Greek and Syrian and others that only the philologist can name. These peoples have been clumped upon our shores by the shipload. Inevitably they have clung to their own customs and modes of life. By driving through the little clusters of houses that lie within a radius of three or four miles of any one of the big mining towns one may visit half a dozen European countries. As Father Phillips, the good Catholic priest who lives and works among these people, pointed out to me, they are in a transition state. They have not yet cast off the garments and habits of their old life nor taken on those of the new. They have entered upon a process which will require at least a generation for its completion. By the end of that time the children of these close-herded foreigners may be living in comfortable houses, decently kept, as are the descendants of the Welsh and German miners who came to this same district a generation or more ago.
It would be a mistake to assume that even the most dilapidated homes are always the abodes of misery. One may see happy faces there as often as not, and of a Sunday one may watch crowds of well-dressed men and women going from these same houses to the church. They have their own pleasures which they enjoy in their own way: the daily gossip of the women round the butcher's cart or at the iron pipe which does duty as a town pump; the music of concertina or flute or violin, some one of which is to be found in almost every house; an occasional dance, and the great events such as weddings and christenings, which are celebrated with much elaboration.
There is much of the picturesque in the lives of these European-Americans—the brick ovens in which all the housewives of a street bake their loaves, the brilliant colors of the women's gowns and headgear, the chatter and music that fill the air at evening time. There is much, too, that is sordid and appaling. But the conditions as they exist are not to be changed in a day or by an increase of wages. They can be altered only by the slow processes of time. Meanwhile it is a fact that some of the very Huns and Italians who have figured as starving miners have snug bank accounts accumulating to take them back to their European homes, and the postmaster at Hazleton says that from $30,000 to $75,000 is sent abroad every month through his office by these same men.
There are two great evils to be dreaded by the miner's family: one is lack of work, the other is drink. For several years past the production of coal has had a tendency continually to overrun the demand. This has meant the frequent closing down of collieries and enforced idleness on the part of hundreds of men. There have been seasons in which the miners who earn good wages have been hard put to it to live, because of the lack of employment. Lack of employment means scant paychecks at the end of the month, and it means also the quick disappearance of credit at the company store.
The second evil is by no means confined to the mines, but it is one that is particularly in evidence there whenever a strike or shutdown occurs. It would be unfair to accuse miners as a class of being addicted to drink. Many of the men, particularly the English-speaking ones and those who have been long at the work, are exceptionally temperate. Most of the heavy drinking is among the recruits, the foreign-speaking workmen and those who have not been long at the occupation. For this it is easy to find a psychological explanation in the reaction which follows work that endangers life and limb. The same tendency is found in men employed in other dangerous occupations.
As may readily be imagined, it is no easy task to organize the discordant elements representing a dozen different nationalities into a labor union. In practice it has been found necessary to form the unions on the lines of language. Among the employees of a single company there will be found an English-speaking union, an Italian union, a Magyar union, and perhaps half a dozen others. Their meetings are separate, unless the proposal for a strike calls for united action and obliges them to meet together.
It is difficult to imagine any scene more picturesque and dramatic than one of these union meetings, where different and ordinarily discordant races are gathered under a single roof and for a single purpose. The day before the big strike was ordered I attended such a meeting a few miles outside of Hazleton. Six different organizations were represented and all the proceedings were carried on in six different tongues—English, Magyar, Bohemian, Polish, Lithuanian and Italian. The district president of the United Mine Workers—an Irishman, by the way—was present, and was the controlling spirit of the assembly. His active part in the proceedings, however, was confined to giving his instructions to the heads of the different unions, all of whom spoke English.
When the meeting had been called to order, the proposal to join the strike came up for discussion. First of all a few of the English-speaking men gave their opinions pro and con in awkward and ungrammatical, but terse and common-sense speeches. When they had finished, and before the question was put to vote, the Magyar and Bohemian leaders rose and explained, each in his own tongue, the object of the meeting. Workmen from the nationalities which they represented then addressed the meeting, some advocating and some opposing the strike. They were in strong contrast to the previous speakers. Heavily built and slow of utterance, they spoke deliberately, in the harsh, consonant accents of their native tongue, punctuating their remarks with heavy-handed gestures, while their compatriots leaned forward listening intently, but with unmoved expressions.
The same process was followed with the Poles and Lithuanians, stalwart, coarse-haired men, who spoke rapidly with a jangle of accents that sounded unintelligible to the spectator, but which had the effect of causing an eager, though subdued, buzz of comment among their fellow-countrymen.
Then came the turn of the Italians, and before their chairman had finished his explanatory remarks a dozen ardent and gesticulating men were on their feet all talking at once in the swift-flowing speech of the sunny fatherland, pouring out a torrent of words which the chairman was utterly unable to stem.
Into the circle of space left in the center of the room suddenly bounded a man who quickly silenced the others and claimed the attention of the whole assemblage by his impassioned harangue. He was a man of thirty, dressed in the rough jeans of the miner and wearing a pair of dark-colored glasses over his eyes, but with a face that showed intelligence and education. It was impossible even for those of us who could not understand his words not to feel the force of the fiery stream of invective and appeal which poured faster and ever faster from his lips. Whatever one might think of his sentiments, it could not be denied that he was an orator of no mean ability. I learned afterward that he was a man of university education, and that he was telling his fellows of the glorious days when their forefathers were the strongest nation in the world, urging them to be worthy of the grand traditions of their race. As he wells on he threw his hat upon the floor and unconsciously reached toward his boot, where the Italian carries his ever-ready weapon. Not for an instant did he falter in his speech, which flowed like the rushing of a mountain torrent, and I have never seen a finer example of frenzied eloquence.
The effect of his oration was remarkable. Not only did it bring the audience to their feet with cries of approval and excited gestures, but it held every man in the room spellbound, so evident was the tenor, if not the exact wording of his speech.
At the conclusion of the discussion the motion was put, each of the chairmen rising and voicing it in his own language. The men all voted together, and when hands were raised four-fifths of all in the meeting were shown to be in favor of the strike. It was an impressive exhibition and an interesting study in national traits and characteristics.
It is one thing to vote for a strike when the exciting words of a labor leader arc being poured into one's ears, and it is frequently a very difterent thing to stick to the resolution such action means that the family larder must go unfilled. It has been said, and is undoubtedly true, that at least a very large minority of the men involved in the coal strike was against such action. To persons not on the spot and not familiar with the conditions prevailing there it seems strange that men outside the union, and therefore not bound by its action, should refrain from work if they desire to work. The explanation is simple. It is due to the force of public opinion. Let each man apply the test to himself. Where is there one who would have the courage deliberately to go against the conventional opinion of his class? So it is with these men. The only public opinion that they know is the opinion of their neighbors and their fellow-workmen. This opinion may be expressed in sullen silence, in shouts of "scab" and "blackleg" or in actual personal violence. However it is expressed, few dare to disregard it.
Even the women, who are always the heaviest sufferers from the privations that attend a strike, will encourage the men to persevere, though they may fear the result, and though their faces wear a strained look—the look that is caused by foreboding as to how their children shall be fed, a look that soon becomes familiar to the observer in the coal region when a strike is on.
To bring about the strike is less than half the battle for the labor leaders. To make it successful it becomes necessary to keep up the spirits of the men, and this is no light task. Frequent meetings must be held: those who persist in remaining at work must be induced by some means, peaceful or violent, to join the movement. No man works harder than a labor leader while a strike is on. He is up for eighteen or twenty hours out of the twenty-four. He is compelled to travel continually making speeches, learning the sentiment of the men, encouraging them by brass hands and processions, if necessary, or perhaps restraining the hot-headed from the violence which is fatal to his cause. The leader of a strike is like the leader of an army. He must have the whole situation constantly in hand, and must be ready to meet every attack with a suitable defence.
In the case of the coal miner, the greatest grievance is the one that has received least attention. This is the system of paternalism which keeps him dependent upon his employer and hinders his development as a man and a citizen—the company store, the company doctor, the company house and the company powder supply.
It is easy to see the tendency of this arrangement. Relieved of all necessity for taking the measure of each day's needs, the miner need only ply his drill and swing his pick to make certain that he will not go hungry. At the same time he is in perpetual serfdom to his employers, who are his heaviest creditors as well as his only debtor. He becomes a mere working automaton. Such a system can never develop good citizens.