Repost: “Coal Miners and Company Scrip,” by Alpha Unit

Saw this old Alpha post she wrote seven years ago. Seven years! Jesus. We’re practically a married couple by now! No wait! She’s already married and she’s against bigamy. Plus her husband is a big, badass former Marine named “Big Dog,” if you can believe that.

He’s White. A White guy with some sort of Black chick fetish. And Alpha’s got a “White guy her age fetish.” Whoops, don’t say that!

Panmixia baby! I’m sure Jason approves.

If this site is anything, it’s pro-Black-White integration. And it’s run by a White guy and a Black woman, just to show what integrationists we are. Yay! We are hardcore integrationists here and I personally think Blacks should spend more time with Whites and vice versa provided the Black person is not from that half of the Blacks that are those people, you know.

Alpha’s probably one of the most un-ghetto Blacks I’ve ever encountered. She’s the polar opposite of a ghetto Black. She acts Whiter than I do! She called me up once and she sounded like a librarian. If she’s anything, she’s unfailingly, Southern Belle, graciously proper polite. Which I guess makes sense because she grew up in Mississippi! And I just thought of that!

From what Alpha has told me about him, I really like her husband. He’s seriously chill, and he actually understands women. He’s an ultra-laid back, don’t give a damn, reserved (actually just properly chilled I think), brief, pithy words of wisdom type guy from Polar Bear’s state.

And he totally doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about his Black wife. I like that. This guy knows how to not be bothered. I like that. I’ve also heard that he knows how to be bothered if it must come to that, and I would not want to tangle with the guy.

Anyway, to show my gratitude for all the free work Alpha does on this site,* I will repost this post from probably way back when when we first met, which is another story altogether!

*She does all the categories!

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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4 thoughts on “Repost: “Coal Miners and Company Scrip,” by Alpha Unit”

  1. Thank you, Robert, for reposting, and for your kind (and funny) words about my beloved. He would get a kick out of your description of him lol.

    1. Run it off and show it to him.

      Am I right about him? I’m just going on your comments about him over the years. If there’s anything I got wrong, let me know. I am practicing my people-reading skills and I’ve never even met this guy.

      1. Your take on him is cool. The thing about him, though, is that he’s not really into talking about himself. I talk about him sometimes, but he’s not the type to draw attention to himself or to what he’s capable of. In fact, one of his favorite sayings is “Forget what people say. Watch what they do.”

        But yes, you will not meet a finer human being.

        1. The thing about him, though, is that he’s not really into talking about himself…but he’s not the type to draw attention to himself or to what he’s capable of.

          I get that totally from him. He thinks that behavior is stupid. But he also probably thinks a lot of guys act that way, and that’s just what it is. He’s also a bit reserved from what I can tell. Not shy or introverted. Just sort of man of few words, but he really makes them count when he says them. He speaks in aphorisms and bits of wisdom.

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