St. Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store.
Nobody’s sure who wrote “Sixteen Tons.” People usually attribute the song to Merle Travis, who recorded it in 1946. A singer-songwriter named George S. Davis claimed he wrote it during the Depression. I don’t know if there’s any way to settle that question. But the couplet above sums up what it felt like sometimes to be a coal miner in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America.
Before labor reforms were enacted and enforced, the life of a coal miner, like that of sharecroppers and other laborers, was often just one step above slavery.
Coal mining was vital for the widespread industrialization that got underway in the nineteenth century. Before then, there were two types of coal mines: drift mines and bell pits. They were small-scale operations that yielded coal for homes and local industry. But the growing demand for coal due to industrialization made coal mines deeper and mining more dangerous. And there was a lot of money in consideration.
Mining operations were in remote, rugged areas, naturally, so mine owners had to provide housing for their workers. In fact they provided just about everything for their workers, typically. This was because paying the miners posed a problem.
You have to remember that this was before there was a national currency in the United States. Neither was there a sufficient supply of coins. Mining operations were far from banks and stores. Mining companies saw great advantage in the closed economy that resulted from creating the company store and paying in scrip.
Whatever a miner needed he could buy – and often had to buy – at the company store. The tools of his trade he bought there, along with whatever other goods he and his family needed. If the company store didn’t have it in stock, he had to do without it. The company store could charge whatever the mine owner wanted. If wages were increased, the company store could increase prices to make up for it.
Some companies paid exclusively in scrip. Others used scrip as a form of credit that miners could use between paydays. In this case, the scrip amount would be charged against the miner’s payroll account and deducted from his next pay. Some companies let their workers trade scrip for cash, but not always at full value. Some paid as little as 50 cents on the dollar; others paid as much as 85 cents per dollar.
Not only were the supplies for the miner and his family deducted from his pay, but so were his rent for company housing, utilities, fuel coal, and doctor’s fees.
Mining companies were creative in withholding as much money as they could from workers. One practice they engaged in was cribbing. A coal miner was paid per ton of coal that he brought up. Each car brought from the mines was supposed to hold a specific amount of coal – 2,000 pounds, for instance. But companies would alter cars to hold more coal than the specified amount, so a miner could be paid for 2,000 pounds when he might have actually brought up 2,500. Workers were also docked pay for slate and rock mixed in with coal. How much to dock was left at the discretion of the checkweighman – a company man, of course.
On payday, a miner was given a pay envelope with all the check-off deductions listed and any balance due him inside. Often the envelope contained a few pennies, or nothing at all.
The United Mine Workers, a merger of two older labor groups, was founded in 1890. This organization – whose first convention barred discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin – set about to make mining safer, to gain miners’ independence from the company store, and to secure collective bargaining rights. Among its specific goals:
- a salary commensurate with dangerous work conditions
- an 8-hour workday
- payment in legal tender, not company scrip
- properly working scales: improper or outright dishonest weighing was a big concern for miners
- enforcement of safety laws and better ventilation and drainage in mines
- an end to child labor: “breaker boys” as young as 8 would remove impurities from coal by hand – hazardous work that led to accidental amputations and sometimes death
- an unbiased police force: mine operators owned all the houses in a company town and controlled the police force, which would evict miners or arrest them without proper cause
- the right to strike
The UMW was able to secure an 8-hour workday for coal miners in 1898. During its first ten years the UMW successfully organized coal miners in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. It finally achieved some recognition in West Virginia in 1902. It spent the next several decades organizing strikes – some of which ended up being deadly – and getting involved, controversially, in politics to further its goals.
Labor contracts and legislation eventually outlawed the use of company scrip. World War II marked a turning point for scrip, and by the end of the 1950’s almost all coal mining operations were paying their workers in legal tender.
What a long haul.