"Coal Miners and Company Scrip," by Alpha Unit

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.

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5 thoughts on “"Coal Miners and Company Scrip," by Alpha Unit”

  1. St. Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go;
    I owe my soul to the company store.

    Don’t we all owe our souls to the company store, nowadays? It may not be as harsh a life but there are similar mechanics in place.

      1. It’s probably even worse now as both sexes are taken advantage of by the boss class. Used to be, a Western Family could get by on the paternal salary. Now daddy and mammy are working and they still need credit in the company store.

  2. What’s changed?
    By way of Steve Sailer’s blog.
    Canada wants Mexican stoop laborers’ production, not reproduction
    From the Washington Post:
    Canada’s guest worker program could become model for U.S. immigration changes
    By Nick Miroff, Saturday, January 5, 3:20 PM
    OJOCALIENTE, Mexico — When Oscar Reyes heads north for seasonal work every spring, he no longer pays a smuggler to sneak him through the desert past the U.S. Border Patrol.
    He takes Air Canada.
    Reyes earns $10.25 an hour tending grapes and spraying pesticides at a vineyard in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, working eight months straight, seven days a week
    He was one of nearly 16,000 temporary workers from Mexico imported by Canada last year, part of a government-to-government agreement that Mexican officials view as a potential model for an expanded “guest worker” program in the United States. …
    With President Obama’s reelection in November, and the overwhelming support he received from Hispanic voters, expectations are high that he will take up the nettlesome cause of U.S. immigration reform in his second term.
    If so, the most contentious issue is likely to be the fate of the 11 million or so illegal immigrants living in the United States. But the debate is also expected to include proposals for a massive expansion of temporary worker programs to meet future U.S. demand for legal, low-skilled labor.
    Emphasis mine. Notice that this massive expansion being mulled is to solve the problem (if it is a problem) of “future” demand for low-skilled labor, since there isn’t all that much present demand. Crops will be rotting in the fields by 2019 unless we act now to lower wages for the low-skilled.
    The United States gives out about 50,000 seasonal agricultural visas per year, nearly all of them to Mexican workers. But U.S. farmers, immigrant advocate groups, labor unions and Mexican officials say that the current U.S. program is a mess: inefficient, bureaucratic and vulnerable to abuses by swindlers and shady recruiters who charge potential workers thousands of dollars to find jobs for them and prepare their visa applications.
    Hey, I just thought of a solution for this messed-up program! Abolish it.
    The frustrations have left many looking north, to Canada, where government officials partner with their Mexican counterparts to recruit workers, expedite visas, guarantee health and safety standards, and coordinate travel arrangements and pay.
    They also go to extraordinary lengths to make sure the workers go back to Mexico at the end of the season, raising criticisms that the arrangement treats them as little more than human machines.
    You mean Canada doesn’t want stoop laborers to stay around? That’s racist!
    Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, said that he has told Obama that his administration is keen to “contribute” to a push for U.S. immigration reform.
    Such talk would have been too politically sensitive just six years ago, when the volume of Mexican migrants crossing the border was seen as out of control and the U.S. Border Patrol was making more than a million arrests a year.
    Last year, the Border Patrol made just 340,000 apprehensions, the lowest level since 1971, a result of a tighter U.S. job market, stiffer U.S. enforcement and widespread fears in Mexico of the kidnapping crews and drug gangs who roam the borderlands.
    Overall, nearly as many Mexicans are now leaving the United States, whether voluntarily or as deportees, as the number who arrive, a trend that has raised alarms of labor shortages in industries such as food service and farming that are historically dependent on low-paid migrants.
    Have you ever noticed how any argument and its exact opposite are both treated by the prestige press as good arguments for more immigration of unskilled labor? Six years ago, when Mexicans were illegally flooding in, the Administration and the media argued that was a good reason for a massive expansion of guest worker programs. And now they are arguing that the opposite conditions are a good reason for a massive expansion of guest worker programs.
    “For anybody who believes that there will be a wild and endless flow of [Mexican migrants] into the future, that’s just not realistic,” said Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations at the American Nursery and Landscape Association, a trade group.
    According to industry estimates, U.S. farms hire more than 2 million workers each year, at least half of whom are thought to be in the country illegally.
    Farm laborers already tend to earn minimum wage or more, experts say, so employers wouldn’t necessarily have to pay higher wages to guest workers than what they currently pay illegal migrants.
    Still, some U.S. farmers and other employers fear that if the illegal workforce is granted legal status or “amnestied,”, many of those workers will seek jobs in less-arduous occupations.
    Between 1942 and 1964, U.S. “bracero” programs issued 4.5 million visas to Mexican guest workers, and today some of the same U.S. labor unions that pushed to have the programs eliminated support bringing in more guest workers.
    “We don’t want to see domestic workers displaced, but we also recognize the legitimate needs that U.S. growers have,” said Erik Nicholson, a national vice president of the United Farm Workers, which wants to unionize the Mexican laborers even before they arrive in the United States.
    A guy named Erik Nicholson, B.A., Duke University, is a spokesman for Cesar Chavez’s old union? And nobody finds this funny or even notices?
    This part of the article is interesting:
    Only married men are eligible for the Canadian program, preferably those with young children, and their families must remain in Mexico. Another incentive to return home: a cut of the migrants’ wages is placed in a Canadian pension fund, receivable only if they return to Mexico.
    Then there are the other elements of the Canadian system that U.S. labor unions and farm worker advocates say they would not want to see copied.
    Once in Canada, the workers live like monks, sleeping in trailers or barracks, under contractual agreements that forbid them from drinking alcohol and having female visitors, or even socializing with other Mexican workers from different farms.
    Canada wants Mexicans’ production, not their reproduction.
    Most of their time in Canada is limited to sleeping, eating and working long days that can stretch to 15 hours, without overtime pay.
    No overtime?
    … Now Tenorio spends eight months on a berry farm outside Vancouver and comes home every winter with thousands in savings and duffel bags stuffed with chocolate-covered blueberries.
    “Everything is nice there. It’s not all disorganized like this,” he said, back in his home town of Troncoso, where armed men park their pickups on the hill near his house at night, watching the highway below as lookouts for drug traffickers.
    Like many workers here, he said he’s torn between the need to earn money and the long separations from his wife and daughter.
    “Honestly, I’d rather be able to do work in the United States and bring my family with me,” he said. “But only with a visa.”
    Or sneak in to the U.S., get amnestied, and have more kids. Nobody in power in America, unlike in Canada, ever thinks about the impact of reproduction

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