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Donald Miller : The Men Who Mined the Coal
Donald Miller Miners worked together as a team. You had the head miner, who was a skilled miner licensed by the state, and you had two helpers who worked with him. And the miner, a lot of people don't realize this, paid his helper. So that in the very structure of the industry there was a set-up that was beneficial to the bosses in that the helpers' complaints were addressed to the miner and not to the company.

Miners worked at a pace that was set by the nature of the market. If there was a heavy demand for coal, miners could work as long as 10 and 12 hours a day. If there was a light demand for coal, they worked five and six hours a day. And they went into the mines and worked on their own, on their own time. They worked, you know, not for wages, but they worked on the basis of how much they produced. So they produced a certain amount of coal in a day. Say, in the anthracite region there might finish their work at three and three-thirty in the afternoon.

Miners usually worked straight through the year and their work schedule was key to the production schedules of the mining companies that they worked for. So if there was a heavy demand for coal, if there was an unusually harsh winter, for example, in New York City, that's where a lot of the anthracite coal went, for example, miners worked straight through and sometimes even on Christmas day. Generally in coal mining you had a six-day week, with Sundays off.

The anthracite region in 1900 is the energy center of the country. And these are the guys that get that coal out of the ground that powers the American Industrial Revolution. And it's gotten out in a primitive and almost medieval manner that's so much at variance with the modern age of technology. You couldn't mine coal through some sort of automated Henry Ford assembly line process. Coal was a cottage industry and these miners remained, in their habits, customs and ideas and ideal, they remained throw-backs, in a sense. They were individualistic and they went at their work in a very individualistic manner, yet at the same time they had this sense of cooperation, this feeling for one another. Miners, don't forget, didn't work for wages; they were paid by the amount of coal they actually produced. And that was being lost as you begin to have a salaried working force. Mining still remains a very old-fashioned industry in the way miners go about their work. They control their tools. They control their work place. They have an independent intransigent spirit. They don't take orders very easily. They don't make good husbands. They're primeval. They actually are and they're working with the basic elements of the Earth, exactly, in these confined and exceedingly dangerous places. And the work is almost heroic. It's the most dangerous job in the world and it's been the most dangerous job in the world since the 12th century.

From the very beginning, they bring the coal out and it's checked by the ton and a miner had to come out with about 3300 pounds of coal, because there's going to be a lot of rock in there. And if you've got 3300 pounds in your cars, that as considered two thousand pounds of coal. That's what they complained about, and that was a big issue in the strike of 1900, that they were getting docked 1300 pounds and for loading all that rock and hauling it out of the mine.

There's an impulse built into the industry that you want to get as much coal out of that mine as you possibly can. So you start to take chances. And so the burden is put on the miner and the incentive is put on the miner to go get as much coal as you can. For example, in mining coal, miners used the coal itself as pillars to hold up the ceiling, if you will, of the mine. But then when it got to the point where there was no more coal in that particular breast to work, they robbed the pillars. They started mining the pillars and the mine collapsed around them as they worked. And many miners were caught in cave-ins like that. And impelling factor, again, is trying to support your family, trying to pull a decent wage out of that, and the incentives are there to go after that coal wherever it is.

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