Coal for the People


IN ten counties of Eastern Pennsylvania, 162,503 miners have laid down their tools and stopped mining anthracite coal because they have failed to come to terms with their employers. They refuse to work unless they can obtain an acceptable contract. In that respect they take the same position as any individual who seeks to obtain the best wages and working-conditions possible. The majority of these men are employed by ten large coal companies which produce about 74 per cent of the anthracite coal and own about 90 per cent of the reserve coal lands. These companies are known as ‘ railroad ‘ companies because they are or have been owned by the railroads penetrating the anthracite coal fields. The so-called ‘independent’ coal companies produce the remaining 26 per cent of anthracite coal, one half of which is mined by nine of these independents. Thus the failure of nineteen coal companies and a union representing over 160,000 anthracite miners to come to an agreement. upon wages, hours, and working-conditions faces millions of people with the prospect of a shortage of fuel, inadequate heating-facilities, and high prices.

Chronic undersupply of anthracite coal for the last ten years makes this situation all the more formidable. In contrast to the effects of a strike in the bituminous industry, the loss of production of anthracite cannot be quickly made up. It is estimated that the bituminous mines in operation at present could produce about 400,000,000 tons more than our yearly demand. Whether anthracite colliery capacity is made inadequate because of physical limitations upon production, exhaustion of the most accessible deposits, decrease in labor supply, or because of the deliberate policy of the coal companies, is a matter of controversy. All of these factors may bear upon the situation, but one thing is certain —actual production is below estimated capacity. Production reached its peak in 1918, when the mines operated 293 days. Since the war the mines have been running about 270 days out of a 308-working-day year, except as the mines have been closed by strikes.

In so far as chronic undersupply may be explained by a shortage of labor, it appears to be an undersupply of miners’ laborers, who were formerly recruited extensively from the ranks of European immigrants. The United States Coal Commission reported that the present limitation of mining capacity cannot be attributed to the lack of skilled miners growing out of the Pennsylvania requirement of certification of miners. The Commission concluded that an undersupply of unskilled laborers is not a limitation on capacity over which the operators have no control. Other industries have increased their working forces since the war, and ‘it therefore appears that earnings and conditions of labor offered by the anthracite industry, viewed in the aggregate, have not attracted labor in the same degree as have the wages and conditions offered by other industries.’

In every controversy there are two sides to be heard. Both sides have a story to tell and a cause to defend. The people who want an uninterrupted supply of coal should not be an uninterested public. One-sided condemnations of either the miners or the operators will not control the conditions that cause strikes. What follows is an attempt to let each side state its case in its own terms.


From the standpoint of the miners, the controversy centres around (1) an increase in wages, (2) better working-conditions, (3) full recognition of the union, and (4) better living-conditions. Nothing startling is revealed by this classification, but the first two of these items increase the cost of production, which is guarded zealously by the operators. The demand for full recognition of the union is the result of a long-standing controversy, while the request for better living-conditions is understandable by everybody.

The miners demand a ten-per-cent increase for contract miners (pieceworkers) and one dollar per day for those employed by the day. How much this demand would actually increase the labor cost per ton of coal can only be a guess, because nobody knows how many days per year the mines will work or just how many tons will be produced. The miners are more concerned about the yearly wages they make and the standard of living they can enjoy than they are about labor cost.

The most recent, authoritative figures on wages in the coal industry were collected by the United States Coal Commission for the year 1921. According to these figures for the anthracite industry, 20 per cent of the contract miners (pieceworkers) who drew wages in the same mine on every pay-roll throughout the year earned more than $2400, and 10 per cent more than $2700. But 20 per cent earned less than $1700, and 10 per cent less than $1500. The average expressed as the earnings of the ‘ median full-year contract miner’ was $2000. These were the earnings of the highest-paid occupational group, and they do not include those who obtained part-time work by shifting from mine to mine. The average number of days on which the mines hoisted coal was 271.

Contract miners’ laborers, inside daymen, and outside day-men are also classed as major occupational groups. Of those who drew wages in the same mine on every pay-roll throughout the year, over G3 per cent of the first group, over 52 per cent of the second group, and over 53 per cent of the third group earned less than $1500. of these groups those earning more than $2700 were mere fractions of one per cent. The median earnings for these groups were $500 or $600 lower than for contract miners.

In order to approximate more closely what the anthracite workers are now earning, it is necessary to add the tenper-cent increase received in their last contract of 1923. But it must be kept in mind that these figures ot earnings are not actual rates and that they will vary according to the number of days worked, according to the differences in wage-rates paid for each occupation, and according to the differences in working-conditions in each mine and each district. Furthermore, they do not represent the wage situation as affected by part-time work because of labor turnover. The above figures apply simply to two thirds of all contract miners and inside day-men, to three fourths of all outside day-men, and to one third of the miners’ laborers. Therefore the use of these figures to characterize anthracite wages presents the most favorable aspect of the wage situation.

In the mind of the miners this constant conflict over wages is caused by the claims of the investors accelerating at an intolerable rate as against the claims of the employees and the public. These investors’ claims take the form of charges for depletion, interest, royalties, and profits. The miners pointed out to the Coal Commission, to which was delegated the task of investigating the causes of strikes, that they had been taught by ‘bitter experience that the main cause is the ever-accelerating claim of the holders of anthracite securities. For every increase in national demand for coal, for every increase in technology and productivity, the investor demands the full increment, keeping prices at the maximum which the traffic will bear, and wages at the minimum upon which the miners can be made to exist. There is no solution for the economic problem of anthracite until this intolerable grip is relaxed; until the public-service function of the industry is frankly recognized; and until the claims of investors are confined to reasonable limits, the standard of living of the miners permitted to grow with the productive expansion of the industry, and the price to the consumer adjusted to these two factors.’

Whether or not one agrees with the miners, this is a statement in no uncertain terms of an issue that affects the present and the long-time adjustment of wages.

The employers resist the demands of the miners for wages, hours, and working-conditions that will increase the cost of production of coal. They claim the miners enjoy higher annual earnings than any other workers of whom they have found record. They want the miners to make a long-term agreement ‘with provision for the adjustment of wage-rates during that term so that wages may be conformed to changing economic conditions.’ No elaboration is made of this principle of ad justment that would indicate whether or not wages would be changed merely in connection with changes in the cost of living. Nor is there any mention of the way the principle would bear upon the adjustment of working-conditions that largely determine the miner’s opportunity to work and earn.

But, aside from the question as to whether or not the miners should receive the increase which they have demanded, there are many other factors that affect their earnings. These they have included in their demands in a form that has meaning mostly for the operators and for those who may happen to be familiar with mining conditions.

They demand uniformity in dayrates, and the carrying-out of the task of equalization of rates that was delegated to the Anthracite Board of Conciliation by the last contract. This diversity of rates is an inheritance from the days of individual bargaining, which was crystallized into the form of a precedent by the award of the Anthracite Coal Commission in 1903. The demand involves more nearly equal pay for equal work.

They demand that when pieceworkers are put in abnormal working-places, in which it is impossible to make the usual wage, the miner shall be paid the average of his customary earnings. This shifts the cost of producing coal in abnormal places to the operator, to whom it belongs. The payment of a uniform rate per ton to the pieceworker, regardless of adverse mining-conditions, puts the burden on the miner.

The miners request that they be paid twenty cents per inch for the removal of refuse ten feet in width, and thirty cents per inch for blasting top and bottom rock. The issue here, again, is whether the miner can make his usual wage at the rates agreed upon.

The law of Pennsylvania provides that the contract miners shall be paid according to the weight of the coal which they send out, rather than according to a rate per car, which may vary in capacity. But it also permits the operators and miners to agree to some other form of payment than according to weight. This is the joker in the law that has always left the advantage with the operators. If the operators insisted on payment by the caras a condition of giving employment, the acceptance of that mode of payment constituted an agreement. Payment by the car permits the operators to increase the capacity of the car and to compel the miners to do more work for the same rate. For these reasons the miners demand that the wage-rate shall be based on a ton of 2240 pounds.

The miners also insist on the abolition of unreasonable penalties and dockage for impurities that may have been loaded with the coal. They demand that the penalties and the amounts docked shall be a matter of agreement between the local mine committee and the management.

The practice in most modem industries is to furnish the workers with the supplies, equipment, and tools that are needed to perform their tasks. The list of these things for which the miners demand payment indicates that the anthracite industry is far behind other industries.

When the miners are asked to work overtime they demand time and one half, and double time for Sundays and holidays. A desire to furnish the operators with an economic incentive to reduce overtime and to obtain more time for leisure and home life lies behind this demand.

The miners claim that in the last two years 1000 men have been killed and 40,000 have been injured in the anthracite collieries. On the grounds of hazard they demand an increase in wages that will enable them to leave their dependents better protected.

In response to the demands of the miners for improvement in working-conditions, the operators consider such demands primarily to discover whether they increase the cost of production. As yet the operators have published nothing that indicates in detail whether they are prepared to concede any of these demands. The degree to which improvement in working-conditions makes for better industrial relations and greater productivity is relatively an unexplored field.

Closely related to the rates received per ton or per day is the opportunity to work and to earn. When contract miners, through no fault of their own, are not permitted to work in their regular working-places, they demand that they be given work by the day. When the mine works, they expect the management to readjust its working force.

When men are laid off, those longest on the working force expect to retain their jobs; when rehiring begins, the oldest in point of service expect to be called upon first. This is the gist of the demand for seniority rights.

If a company has several collieries, the men expect that an equal division of work should be made between collieries, instead of closing down some and keeping others on full time. They believe this should be done regardless of the increase in the cost of production from part-time operation.

Finally, they demand a five-day week, seemingly on the theory that enough coal can be produced in that time and that it will be conducive to greater regularity of production.

The adjustment of these demands for the improvement of the opportunity to work and earn would not only be affected by the methods that the management employs in each mine, but it would also be influenced by the general regularity or irregularity of the operation of the mines. In both cases the effect on the cost of production would play a large part in the adjustments. Better methods of management and greater regularity of operation usually reduce the cost of production. But the demands for a more equal division of work between the collieries of any one company and for a five-day work-week might easily increase the cost of production under some circumstances. The operators have not answered these demands in detail. In the adjustment of such important demands, the need is apparent for more thoroughgoing cooperation between the operators and the miners in order to arrive at a more reasonable solution than would result from the arbitrary action of either party.

The operators want the miners to agree to continue work during further negotiations whenever they fail to reach an agreement before the expiration of the contract. In case further negotiations do not result in an agreement, the operators desire the miners to submit disputed points to arbitration. But the experience of the past has undermined the confidence of the miners in regard to the impartiality of ‘disinterested public representatives,’ and they believe that an agreement in advance to arbitrate cuts off the possibility of reasonable adjustment in joint conference. Furthermore, their president said, ‘when the man who toils in your collieries agrees to let some tribunal or third agency say what his conditions of employment shall be, what hours of labor he must work, and what compensation must be given, then he gives to that agency or that tribunal or that arbitration commission the power to determine the character of the house in which he shall live, the kind of food he shall eat, the degree of education his children shall receive, and to determine his standard and his status as a citizen. . . . I do not know anyone except the man who works with his hands who is asked to arbitrate those fundamentals.'

Neither the professions nor ‘the trades or industry on the side of capita ! . . . yield to some creative agency the right to determine for them what their (service or) products may be worth in the market of the world.’

The operators believe that an agreement in advance to arbitrate disputed points leads both parties to try to reach a direct agreement ‘rather than incur the burdens, uncertainties, and vexations of arbitration.’ Furthermore, they contend that such an agreement furnishes incentive to both sides to moderate and compromise their demands rather than attempt to maintain unreasonable positions. Arbitration becomes a ‘spectre in the background which all desire to avoid.’ In the opinion of the operators, they can take no more conciliatory attitude than to agree to let ‘represen tat ives of the public fix the wages they shall pay, ‘ if they fail to reach an agreement with their employees.

The operators look upon the strike as ‘a legitimate weapon to drive an economic bargain with a selfish employer,’ but they claim that ‘ there is no moral right, or social justification, to organize strikes or lockouts in basic industries or transportation where (when?) disinterested agencies for adjustment and adjudication are available. ‘ Since the anthracite operators recognize and deal collectively with the union, they feel that ‘no group of workers in the United States is better protected against tyranny, injustice, and oppression than the anthracite workers. ‘ This being the case, they arrive at the conclusion that general strikes in the industry are open contests between ‘organized industry and organized society. ‘ No comparison is drawn between the right of the operators to refuse to produce coal except at a profit and the right of the miners to refuse to work except for a wage which supports or betters their standard of living. But the logic of compulsory arbitration cuts both ways and would affect the rights of both parties to produce or not to produce.

The miners ask for ‘full recognition’ of their union. Since the operators were compelled by the award of the Anthracite Coal Commission of 1920 to abandon the fiction of dealing only with the representatives of their employees, the request for ‘full recognition’ is evidently for the purpose of establishing the ‘check-off,'1 or deduction of union dues from the miners’ pay-envelopes, which the United Mine Workers practise in the bituminous industry. The miners claim that to grant their request woidd not be any great expense to the operators. They list twenty-nine items that the operators deduct from the miners’ pay. These items range from supplies and equipment that the miner uses in connection with his work to subscriptions for Liberty bonds, Red Cross, and various charitable and community projects.

To disabuse the minds of the operators of any fear that they will be increasing the power of the union or of any dislike of building up what they conceive to be a more effective opposition, the miners call the attention of the operators to the fact that they have already acquired sufficient membership, without the aid of the check-off, to control the labor situation in the industry. Thus the miners would leave the operators to infer that the agreement to the check-off would be a mere minor concession, which the operators can easily grant in spite of their fears and prejudices of the past.

The miners point to the fact that their members are no different from business and professional men who belong to first-class clubs and who neglect to pay their dues. But the organization lias about a half-million members to deal with, and it is subjected to considerable administrative expense in collecting dues. Therefore the miners appeal to the operators to grant their request on the grounds of encouraging greater administrative efficiency of the union, the need for which the operators have stressed much in the past.

The attitude of the operators toward the check-off may be summed up by their statement that no union should be relieved of the ‘burden of collecting its own clues for its own war chest.’

Finally, the miners request that the operators give more attention to repairs, rebuilding, and the erection of houses in the anthracite-mining towns. To this request the operators have as yet made no reply.


The question naturally arises: How has it come about that the miners and operators have reached this impasse in their relations? Such a question is particularly pertinent considering that a system of collective bargaining has been evolved for dealing with just such crises. However, to understand these crises it is essential to know how existing attitudes have developed, as well as to be familiar with the conditions out of which organization arose for adjusting wages, hours, and conditions of labor. The merits of the controversy can be appreciated better in the light of such an understanding.

The miners made two attempts, one in the middle seventies and the other in the latter eighties, to establish a union for the betterment of wages, hours, and working-conditions. In both cases their efforts were defeated. As a result, until 1902 the operators were free to make the best bargains they could with their employees individually. They took advantage of their opportunity to such extent that abuses in the exercise of their power became a matter of outstanding complaint.

It was during this period that the ownership of coal lands was consolidated; that trusts for the control of the production and the sale of coal were formed; that the railroads extended their ownership of coal companies; that discrimination in freight rates between railroad coal companies and independent coal companies helped to eliminate the independent companies; and that the banking interests gave assistance in developing consolidation and control of the anthracite resources. All of these developments played a large part in making it possible for the operators to abuse their power. Such an alignment of business interests was simply too powerful for a disorganized lot of workmen largely made up of twenty-two nationalities of immigrants.

When the United Mine Workers were successful finally in organizing and calling the anthracite miners on strike in 1902, the operators had ‘nothing to arbitrate’ — an attitude which is now expressed by the miners. But the award of the Anthracite Coal Commission appointed in 1902 to settle the controversy was chiefly devoted to the elimination of abuses that had grown up under the régime of individual bargaining. The Commission raised the wage-rates, but refused to award recognition to the union. It recommended that the operators deal with representatives of their employees in making collective agreements.

Though the union was sufficiently entrenched so that dealing with representatives of their employees amounted to dealing with representatives of the union, the operators maintained the fiction of dealing only with representatives of their employees until they were compelled to recognize the union by the award of the Anthracite Coal Commission of 1920. Thus the union, for the most part, has had to devote itself to defensive and protective measures to maintain its status. The attitudes that result from such a struggle are not conducive to leniency when the union is strong enough to refuse with impunity an offer to arbitrate.

The award of the Anthracite Coal Commission of 1902 provided for the formation of a Board of Conciliation, composed of an equal number of representatives of both sides, to adjust disputes that might arise during the period of the award. Provision was also made for the selection of an umpire by whom cases should be decided when the board failed to agree. But no organization was set up for making collective agreements when the award lapsed. The Commission simply recommended that the operators deal with their employees collectively.

When the award terminated in 1906, the operators took the position that the award was an adjustment of wages, hours, and working-conditions that needed no elaboration by further negotiations. The award was renewed for another three-year period. In 1909, except for a few minor concessions, the operators maintained the same position they had assumed in 1906, and the award was renewed for another three-year period. By 1912, however, the union had attained a strength that compelled the operators to enter into a joint conference and thoroughly discuss the grievances complained of. As a result the miners obtained a ten-per-cent increase in wages and significant concessions affecting working-conditions. However, the miners agreed to a four-year contract, carrying them to 1916.

By 1916 the effects of the European War began to be felt in this country. Conditions were favorable to obtain another increase in wages and further concessions bettering working-arrangements. However, the miners unwisely agreed to another four-year contract in the face of a situation that gave every promise of a rise in prices and the need for higher wages to meet an increasing cost of living. As a result, by the spring of 1917 they found themselves in the position of begging for a supplementary agreement to increase wages. This practice was reverted to again with success during the autumn of 1917, on November 15, 1918, and on September 29, 1919.

When the agreement terminated on March 31, 1920, conditions had developed that made the miners chary of entering into a long-time commitment. Prices were still rising, and the anthracite miners desired an increase in wages equal to what had been obtained in the bituminous industry as the result of negotiation and the award of the United States Bituminous Coal Commission on March 10, 1920. The negotiations were prolonged, and the imminence of a disagreement and a strike furnished occasion for the President of the United States to insist that the difference of the parties should be submitted to a commission similar to the one appointed for the bituminous industry. The miners believed that the award of the Anthracite Commission gave them 10 per cent less than they should have had and denied them many improvements in working-conditions. But they accepted it and worked under it until March 31, 1922. The feeling that they were granted less than was due them on this occasion is largely responsible for their attitude toward arbitration in the present crisis and for their loss of confidence in the impartiality of ‘public representatives.’

The agreements in both the anthracite and the bituminous fields expired on March 31, 1922. A failure to reach an agreement before the expiration of the contracts resulted in a strike in the entire coal industry except for a few nonunion fields in the bituminous industry. This was the first occasion upon which such unanimity of action had been taken in a basic industry in this country. The strike was a protest against a reduction in wages, and the miners won it. In both the anthracite and the bituminous industries agreements at existing wage-rates were made for only one year.

Failure to reach an agreement in the anthracite field before the expiration of the contract on August 31, 1923, resulted in a suspension of work. As a result of the action of the Governor of the State of Pennsylvania in bringing about a settlement, the miners obtained the ten-per-cent increase they felt they had been wrongfully denied in 1920, and entered upon a contract running until August 31, 1925.


The background of the present crisis largely explains why both parties maintain the attitudes they do and why they jockey for position in arriving at a settlement. Each side wants to convince the public of the justice of its case. The operators represent themselves as protectors of the consumer’s purse and refuse to yield concessions which increase the cost of production. Public protest against a further increase in prices is met by the claim that it is necessary to transfer wage-increases to the consumers instead of decreasing profits and royalties. If they are unable to accomplish these ends by negotiations and publicity, the operators wish public authority to step in and place its sanction on whatever settlement is made. If a wage-increase is denied the miners, they place themselves in the position of running counter to public authority if they continue to strike. Besides, the public will regard them as poor sports for not accepting the decision. If a wage-increase is granted, then the consumers should not complain at an increase in prices; otherwise they are poor sports too. Whichever way you will, either the miners or the consumers are bound to lose by the decision.

The miners claim that their wage-rates multiplied by the number of days they have opportunity to work do not yield annual earnings commensurate with the effort they put forth and the hazard to which they are subjected. They are not satisfied with what their wages will buy or with the conditions under which they work and live. They prefer to reach an adjustment of these matters by negotiations rather than by the decree of a commission. They believe they should not be the only class whose income is determined by compulsion. The only economic power they have by which to accomplish their aims is a united refusal to work. They believe they have as good a right to refuse to work except at satisfactory wages as the operators have to refuse to produce coal except at a profit.

However, the placing of mere abstract rights in opposition will not solve the problem of equity in wages, profits, and prices to the consumer. Nor will it curb the abuse of power that may be practised by the miners, the operators, or the public. The more the strike is prolonged, the less likely is the prospect that an equitable adjustment will be made, because pressing conditions will probably bring a forced settlement.

The prolongation of the anthracite strike may also be complicated by conditions that may arise in the bituminous industry. The bituminous miners claim that the union operators are breaking the existing agreement, which runs until 1927. The bituminous operators say they cannot produce coal in competition with the nonunion fields and still pay the present union wage-scale. This complaint has been made for decades; the percentage of nonunion coal has steadily increased; and the union has been unable to organize the nonunion fields sufficiently to deprive the nonunion operators of the advantages they enjoy by enforcing individual bargaining with their employees. The nonunion operators have obtained injunctions that keep the union from organizing the nonunion miners, and the nonunion miners are compelled, as a condition of obtaining employment, to sign agreements that they will not join the union while in the employment of nonunion operators.

There are rumors of the calling of a general strike in the bituminous industry because the union operators are breaking the existing agreement. The miners are urging the nonunion miners in West Virginia to strike and join the union. A strike in the nonunion fields might or might not make the union operators more willing to stand by their agreement and thus prevent a general strike in the bituminous industry. If a general strike develops in the bituminous industry, there will soon be a shortage of coal, and the miners will be in a better position to dictate terms to both the anthracite and the bituminous operators.

In both fields the joint conference may be utilized to arrive at a settlement, if the parties concerned are willing to use existing machinery. But the probabilities are that they will be unwilling to enter upon a close scrutiny of factual data which will indicate the way to an equitable adjustment. The side having an advantage will make full use of it. Furthermore, the joint conference in the bituminous industry cannot make an agreement for the nonunion fields. This leaves the nonunion fields free to undercut whatever scale of wages is made in the union districts. Therefore, unless the union cannot stand the strain of prolonging the strike, the operators in the union fields of the bituminous industry and the anthracite operators are likely to want a settlement by a commission or commissions which can be applied to the whole of their respective industries and which, if an increase in wages is granted, will enable them to shift the cost to the consumers. Furthermore, such a sett lement will leave the miners and operators at the termination of the award no better off than they are now. They will still face the problem of maintaining industrial peace by mere haggling and without the aid of dependable data.

Whether a settlement is made in joint conference or by a commission, comprehensive data on costs, prices, and profits is a prime need for the coal industry. Otherwise there is no basis of arriving at equity between the miners, the operators, and the consumers. Such data need to be collected from year to year by the Government under conditions that will make the data dependable. They can then be used with authority by the miners and operators in joint conference in arriving at voluntary agreements or by commissions in arbitration proceedings. If the operators and miners desire to settle their affairs without the aid of the Government, they stand in the best position to do so when all the cards are on the table.

To deal with the present crisis and to establish more constructive industrial relations for the future requires a new order of statesmanship. If the leaders on both sides have the statesmanship to introduce a cooperation between the management and the union, similar to that which is in operation on certain railroads with the railroad shop-crafts, the first requisite for that end will be reliable data from year to year on actual conditions in the coal industry.

  1. Because this article offers no opportunity for setting forth contrary opinions concerning the check-off, the reader must not infer that they are either few or unreasonable. — THE EDITORS