Friday, April 18, 2008

A Book of Decline (Coal, not Republicans)

Review of "The Face or Decline" by Thomas Dublin and Walter Light

This book is a well-researched and very gripping analysis of the history of the decline of Pennsylvania’s anthracite industry. This tells of the events creating this industrial giant. It then details the circumstances that destroyed this once financial dynasty.

Pennsylvania was once a leading input towards our nation’s economic strength. It’s approximately 500 square miles of anthracite coal, which is 95% of the world’s known supply, accounted for 16% of American’s energy needs during the industrial era of the 1890s. The demands for increased energy during the 1910s due to World War I kept demand for Pennsylvania anthracite thriving. Yet, after the war, people turned to lower cost alternatives, such as oil and gas. Anthracite over time has found it increasingly difficult to compete. In 1917, Pennsylvania saw 100 million tons of anthracite was extracted by 181,000 miners. In 2000, less than 1,000 miners produced 4 million tons.

With the decline of industry came the decline of coal communities. This is a region that has gone from almost 1.2 residents in the 1930s to 836,000 today. This is more stunning compared to the population boom throughout most of the rest of the country. As the authors note, these towns have more than the typical share of abandoned commercial sites, elderly, and people requiring public assistance as the only available income option.

As the Depression of the 1930s forced many mine investors to close their companies, unemployed miners still wanted jobs to feed themselves and their families. They created “bootleg” companies and continued mining, up to 5 million tons in 1939, without authority of the owners. This led to a period of literal mine wars, where armed labor protectors would do battle with armed mine police. Governor Gifford Pinchot responded by declining to send in state police officers as mine owners requested.

World War II produced increased energy demands, and many mines officially reopened. Unfortunately, many mine owners, many absentee investors and many often operating in partnership with union officials, liquidated and diversified mine assets in ways that was profitable during wartime, yet financially crashed upon peacetime. Several public redevelopment projects attempted to stem the economic collapse of this region, yet the projects were haphazard with no overall plan. They may have helped stem some losses, yet they failed to resolve the larger challenges as the area was thrown into a downwards cycle, according to the authors.

The Pennsylvania state legislature played interesting roles in this history. A key issue has always been the transportation of all this coal. At first, it was legislated that coal and rail interests be kept separate, and that no transporting company could own a mine. Railroad companies hired lobbyists who, in 1860, persuaded the legislature to end this ban. What resulted was investors, in particular J.P. Morgan, owning both rail companies and coal mines. Coal mines not owned by rail companies discovered that no rail company would ship their coal, or would do so at exorbitant rates, and they were driven out of business and absorbed by the rail and coal conglomerates.

Anthracite coal mining was not an easy occupation. Nor was it safe, as over 10,000 workers are known to have perished in these mines. In 1869, the legislature and Governor enacted the first notable mine ventilation laws, yet only for mines in Schuylkill County. When 108 perished from lack of oxygen in a mine the following year in another county, the law was extended for the entire region. In addition, the law required two means of egress and provided for five qualified inspectors.

The authors point out that stronger safety procedures and laws requiring them were known. England had stricter mine safety rules. Pennsylvania lawmakers lagged behind the British in their abilities to enact these tougher requirements. This demonstrated the political strength of the mine owners and their ability to influence elected officials.

Pennsylvania law in fact allowed private Coal and Iron Police who in actually were a militia that kept mine employees mostly controlled. An early attempt of a mine strike by the Workingman’s Benevolent Association (WBA) led to a failed strike that lasted six months and can concluded with wage reductions and the demine of the WBA. Over time, disgruntled mine employees likely killed some mine foremen and superintendents and burned and bombed company offices. Pinkerton investigators claimed members of the Molly Maguires were behind the disturbances. In 1877, ten were convinced and executed for these crimes over evidence that, to today, is debated as to whether those blamed, perhaps due to their political activism and perhaps over discrimination over their Irish ethnicity, were in fact innocent.

A strong union created with greater employee approval, the United Mineworkers, emerged in the 1890s. Crashes between union members on one side and Coal and Iron Police and local Sheriffs and their deputies on the other side, at one point led to 19 deaths and 73 arrests. The clash resulted in increased union membership and made the union even stronger.

In 1900, about 100,000 coal miners went on strike led by such organizers as “Mother’ Jones. U.S. Senator Mark Hanna (R-Pa.), fretted that this continuing shutdown of coal supply could endanger the administration of President McKinley during a reelection year, tried to get union President John Mitchell to travel to meet J.P. Morgan. Mitchell declined. Union members were offered 10% pay increases and on October 29, union members accepted. For many years, October 29 was celebrated throughout Pennsylvania as Mitchell Day.

In 1905, the Pennsylvania legislature prohibited children age 13 or younger from working in mines. Even this law provided a loophole where all it took was a parent swearing to the age of a child. Thus, many underage children continued mine work.

The legislature and Governor approved the state’s workers’ compensation law in 1915. The legislature again found a loophole for mine workers, as the law did not cover black lung disease. Many injured mine workers relied upon help from friends and ethnic benefit societies.

Subsequent mine strikes became a national controversy. Sen. William Borah (R-Idaho) began an effort to nationalize coal mines. Governor Pinchot helped the sides reach an agreement. The authors believe Pinchot hoped this would gain him much national prominence, yet the accord led to higher coal prices, disgruntled consumers, and diminished Pinchot’s public favorableness. Pinchot later attempted to get the legislature to restrain rising coal prices, yet coal lobbyists saw to it that the proposal never was reported from committee.

This is a very useful history of Pennsylvania anthracite coal mining. The authors have captured this period and how it affected the people living and working there. This book would interest people interested in coal mining, Pennsylvania history, and the sociology of coal mining areas.