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On mine labor in the nineteenth century

From Robert E. Morsberger, “The Molly Maguires in the Valley of Fear,” in Caverns of the Night: Coal Mines in Art, Literature, and Film (Ed. William B. Thesing. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000):1

If the Molly Maguires [—a secret society of mineworkers who reportedly plotted murder and sabotaged mines in protest of poor wages and working conditions; the society was made famous by Allan Pinkerton in his sensational The Mollie Maguires and the Detectives, but it may never have existed at all—] resorted to terror, so did the railroad and mining companies. Workers were often made to live in substandard housing in company towns and buy inferior but overpriced goods at the company store; otherwise, they would lose their jobs or never be hired int he first place. Wages were usually a dollar a day or less for a twelve- to sixteen-hour day of dangerous and unhealthy work, and in the company towns, workers were paid not in cash but in scrip redeemable only at the company store. Mine workers were charged for equipment they used, such as explosives, so that it sometimes happened that workers got a bobtail check, meaning that after rent and company store and equipment charges were deducted, they got nothing or even less than nothing—they could end up owing money after a week’s work. Boys who worked in the mines, sorting out slate from coal in the breakers,w ere charged for transportation and sometimes ended up working for less than nothing. There were seldom health or safety precautions, which the operators did not want to pay for; an average of ten miners a week died in mine accidents. If someone was invalided or killed, he became part of the human slag heap; there were no benefits to the injured person or the dead man’s family. Instead, one boy, Andrew Chippie, was made to work for years at no salary to pay off his dead father’s debts at the company store. This was slavery pure and simple. Yet, George Baer, one of Gowen’s successors as president of the Reading Railroad and the mines it owned, who believed in the “divine right of stockholders,” said, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for, not by the labor agitators, but by Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control fo the property interests of this country.” During the railroad strike of 1877, when federal troops were used as strikebreakers, the courts defined a labor union as a “malicious conspiracy.” Miners who struck or were active in the union were given punishing jobs or blacklisted. Order was maintained by a private army of Coal and Iron Police, who searched people’s homes without any clear jurisdiction and maintained martial law. The editor of the operators’ Miners Journal advocated lynching miners, and Pinkerton, who bragged of the murder of members of the AOH, wrote that he wanted vigilantes to kill Mollies.

How great it is that the mistakes of the past have passed, progress has taken hold, and the exploitation of workers has become a thing of the past is somewhat better than it was!

1 Parenthetical references to sources have been removed in the passage.



Thanks for posting that. I think it’s useful to be reminded of the genealogy of the labor movement from time to time, as a means of keeping your focus in the whirlwind of corporatist/Republicanspeak.

I really like the “divine right of stockholders” line, in which property owners are the only arbiters of truth and godliness.

As brazen and ungenerous a claim as it is, I have to remind myself that it’s completely without irony. Property has been as much a justification for morality as anything else has. And the notion that property ownership defines one’s participation in civic life still hasn’t completely dissipated….