February 2011

Historical Metallurgy

Social problems in the mining industry—a historical essay (Part 1)

By Fathi Habashi, Laval University, Quebec City


Labour Day originates from the movement by Robert Owen (1771-1858) in 1817 advocating the eight-hour work day


Throughout history, miners have struggled to survive harsh living and working conditions. Disputes between mine owners and workers were frequent, and strikes and lockouts were common, mostly unsuccessful and frequently ending in violence or even death. Mining companies held a great deal of control over their employees. Employers’ rights were enforced, often with the assistance of the police, military, magistrates and governments.

Most miners lived in company towns where homes, schools, doctors, clergy and law enforcement were provided by the company. In addition, many mining companies paid their employees in “script” (pieces of paper that were only accepted at company-owned stores), which often resulted in miners becoming deeply indebted to the company store. As government regulations in the mining industry were practically nonexistent, workers were poorly paid, worked long hours and dealt with unsafe working conditions.

Companies maintained an oppressive working environment, prohibiting workers from talking or gathering, to discourage the creation of unions. Mining companies also steadily reduced their investment in the town and its amenities while increasing prices at the company store. If a miner participated in union-bulding activities, he was either black-listed or fired, thus rendering him unemployable.

It was typical in the early days of the coal industry to pay miners by the ton of coal mined and not compensate them for any other work they did to make the mine operable, such as laying rails, installing wooden supports, etc. As oil and natural gas became more popular sources of energy, economic conditions in the coal mining regions deteriorated even further.

The mining community

Mining is an integral part of society. The following sections relate some of the factors that have influenced working conditions in the mining community over time.

Labour Day and the unions

Labour Day is an annual holiday celebrated worldwide to honour the economic and social achievements of workers. In the United States and Canada, it is celebrated on the first Monday in September; however, the majority of countries around the world celebrate on May 1. Labour Day originates from the movement by Robert Owen (1771-1858) in 1817 advocating the eight-hour work day.

The International Working Men’s Association, a socialist organization founded in 1864 in London aimed at uniting different left-wing political groups and trade union organizations, favoured a May 1 labour holiday. The Knights of Labour was a union founded in 1869 by a group of Philadelphia tailors that demanded an end to child and convict labour, equal pay for women, a progressive income tax and the cooperative employer-employee ownership of mines and factories. They organized a parade on September 5, 1882, in New York City, which became an annual event. Following Chicago’s Haymarket riots in early May of 1886 [see below], U.S. President Grover Cleveland feared that a May 1 holiday would commemorate the riots and as such, in 1887, he supported the Knights of Labour’s suggestion to celebrate Labour Day in September.

The United Mine Workers of America represents workers in the mining sector that fought for collective bargaining in the early 20th century. It was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890 by the merger of two groups. The following year, the union successfully achieved their goal of an eight-hour work day. Around 1917, the group comprised about 90 per cent of miners and achieved collective bargaining rights in 1933. Two years later, as part of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” progressive labour legislation protected the rights of most workers in the private sector to organize labour unions, take part in strikes and collective bargaining. It also barred employers from firing workers who participated in union activities.

In 1969, the United Mine Workers of America convinced the United States Congress to enact the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which provided compensation for miners suffering from black lung disease. The union’s history is filled with examples of members and their supporters violently clashing with company-hired strikebreakers and government forces.

In Canada, coal miners in Nova Scotia were first organized in 1897 by the Provincial Workmen’s Association. In 1917, it joined forces with the United Mine Workers of America and formed the Amalgamated Mine Workers of Nova Scotia. The 1941-42 Kirkland Lake gold miners’ strike for union recognition influenced the eventual passage of collective bargaining legislation in Canada in 1944, similar to that of 1935 in the United States.

International Labour Organization

Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the International Labour Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations that deals with labour issues (its secretariat is known as the International Labour Office). Based on the initiative of French socialist Albert Thomas (1878-1932), the organization was established as an agency of the League of Nations following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which ended World War I. France issued a stamp in Thomas’ honour on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the organization’s founding, while Switzerland issued a stamp showing a miner at work. In 1969, the International Labour Organization received the Nobel Peace Prize.


A scab (or strikebreaker) is someone who works despite an ongoing strike, who refuses to join a union or who works for less pay. Confrontations between striking miners and scabs often get out of control, resulting in bloodshed. Companies have often had to hire a detective agency to protect the scabs or replacement workers from strikers.

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