“In addition to isolation and darkness, the [coal] miner sometimes works in mud and water, sometimes stripped to the waist because of the heat, sometimes in suffocating gas and smoke.” Those words from a 1922 U.S. Department of Labor report told only part of the story. Coal miners also faced lung disease, explosions, and cave-ins that trapped miners underground, where they often died.
Coal filled 90 percent of U.S. energy needs at the time. Some 10 million tons of coal was mined annually in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.
The miners, some of them boys as young as 10, worked 10 or more hours a day to supply the coal the country demanded. Their pay was low, and many were in debt to the mine owners, who owned the stores at which miners bought food.
The United Mine Workers (WMW), formed in 1890, tried to improve the lives of the miners, but the owners fought bitterly against the union. They even hired their own armies to beat or kill striking miners. But under the leadership of John L. Lewis, who became the union’s president in 1920, the UMW gradually achieved its goals: Child labor was prohibited. The mines were made safer. And miners worked fewer hours and earned higher pay. A song from the 1830s shows how important the UMW was to coal miners:
My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
Till ev’ry battle’s won.