March/April 2011

Historical Metallurgy

Social problems in the mining industry—a historical essay (Part 2)

By Fathi Habashi, Laval University, Quebec City

 Riot-Mold-North-Wales Mines riot in Mold, North Wales 

Riots and massacres

The harsh working conditions in underground mines, the potential for cave-ins and fires, meagre wages and mine management’s strong opposition of the creation of unions have, throughout the years, led to confrontations that resulted in property damage, injuries and even loss of life. Following are some of the more notable confrontations that took place around the world.

Miners’ revolt at Real del Monte in Mexico (ca. 1766)

In the late eighteenth century, the silver mining industry of New Spain was in full swing, incurring great capital investment. The metal was exported to Spain and controlled by the Crown; however, each company had its own unique set of customs, traditions and rules.

The first Mexican labour strike (also the first strike in North America) took place in the summer of 1766 at the Real del Monte silver mines, about 100 kilometres north of Mexico City. Although this was not the first time the miners had ceased to work – miners at Guanajuato had walked off the job over taxes being imposed on tobacco and over the expulsion of Jesuits from the site – it was the first time a walkout occurred because workers wanted to make changes to their contracts. Mine owner and well-known industrialist Pedro Romero de Terreros (1710-1751) [pictured, left] implemented 12-hour shifts. However, it was when he tried to cut wages to make up for the cost of having to drain water from one of the seams in the mine that the strike occurred.

On July 28, 1766, acting on the advice of their priest, miners persuaded a scribe to draft a petition. Seventy signatures were collected and the workers’ grievances were presented to officials at the Royal Treasury in Pachuca. A few days later, on August 1, a new petition was drafted and during a meeting, it was decided that it should be sent to the highest authority in the land – the Viceroy of New Spain in Mexico City. The situation quickly worsened. On August 8, four of the pivotal strike leaders were arrested and during the riot that ensued seven days later, both the district manager and a foreman were stoned to death. Over the next few days, approximately 4,000 armed men, women and children roamed the area looking to settle old scores.

An emissary from the Viceroy eventually arrived on August 27 to consult with workers, foremen and management. The discussions resulted in a solution that was favourable to the workers and in antagonistic administrators being dismissed by the Viceroy. Over the next ten years, Spanish authorities and mine owners made sure that the recommendations were carried out.

The Mold riot in Wales (ca. 1869)

It was the extensive development of the mining industry near the town of Mold in North Wales during the 18th and 19th centuries that first defined it as an industrial town. The iron, lead and coal that helped power Britain’s Industrial Revolution were all mined in this area.

In the summer of 1869, some troubling events occurred. Miners were angered by a series of decisions made by the manager, an arrogant Englishman who had sought to ban Welsh miners from speaking their native language when underground. However, it was his announcement of a wage cut that sent workers over the edge, leading to the manager being attacked and his house vandalized. Two men were later arrested and sentenced to a month’s hard labour. As they were being taken from the court to be transported to jail, the angry crowd began throwing stones at the guards. In retaliation, nearby soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing four and injuring dozens. These tragic events led authorities to change the way in which they dealt with public disorder.

Schuylkill coal mines disturbances in Pennsylvania (ca. 1877)

On June 21, 1877, a day also referred to as Black Thursday, ten Irish miners were hung for the murder of 24 mine foremen and superintendants in the Pennsylvania coalfields. Known as the Molly McGuires (also written Molly Maguires), this secret band of men took revenge on the Reading Railroad and its mine managers for the terrible conditions at the mines. The group was infiltrated, captured, tried and hung by the Pinkertons and the railroad for these crimes.

Hocking Valley coal strike in Ohio (ca. 1884)

Hocking County was founded in 1818 halfway between Columbus and Athens in the state of Ohio. In 1884, miners working for the Columbus and Hocking Coal and Iron Company went on strike when company management lowered wages by 25 per cent. During the nine-month strike, scab labourers were hired to replace the striking workers and armed guards to protect company property. Violence quickly erupted – seven mines were set on fire and three railroad bridges were destroyed. The strike finally ended in the spring of 1885 when workers agreed to the company’s terms.

Haymarket riot in Chicago (ca. 1886)

In October 1884, a convention held by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions set May 1, 1886, as the date by which the eight-hour work day would become standard. As the date approached, American labour unions prepared for a general strike in support of the eight-hour day. On Saturday, May 1, rallies were held throughout the United States. In Chicago, the movement’s centre, an estimated 40,000 workers went on strike. The following day, someone threw a bomb at the police. The blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and an unknown number of civilians. Riots started and quickly became violent.

Four anarchists were tried for murder and put to death, while another committed suicide in prison. The area where the incident took place was designated as a Chicago Landmark in 1992. The Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument in nearby Forest Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark in 1997.

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