New Deal Labor Policy and the American Industrial Economy

By Stanley Vittoz | Go to book overview

3

The Miners' Bargain

Union bargaining power had an important impact on the imperatives of entrepreneurial survival in the bituminous mining industry during the 1920s. The details of the issue strongly complement the main interpretive themes advanced in the preceding treatment of the garment manufacturing and cotton textile industries. In fact, a close examination of the economic foundations of industrial politics in the mining of soft coal should make it possible to perceive with utmost clarity the general pattern or direction of what I would characterize as a historically unique structure of forces and interests that emerged by the end of the first postwar decade to play a premier role in the course of events culminating in June 1933 with the New Deal's endorsement of many of the American labor movement's most fundamental organizational goals.

In the business of coal mining, the success or failure of the labor force to present a well-organized bargaining front nearly always has been a principal economic concern in relation to the simple dynamics of competition within the industry. In bituminous mining, specifically, there has been a tradition of union strength since the 1890s in the so-called Central Competitive Field, which consists of districts where the mineral is extracted in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. The long-standing commercial primacy of this region deteriorated quickly after World War I, however, because of the accelerated growth of output in southern Appalachia and other outlying districts where mining operations, and ultimately the sale price of coal, were much less likely to be influenced by the economic constraints of a unionized work force. The situation in this respect had become so pivotal to the economics of the industry by the end of the 1920s that unless union operators could rid themselves of any further obligation to abide by the relatively costly terms of the standard wage agreement, they found themselves having much to gain by the advent of circumstances that forced their more cost-efficient competitors to bear up under the same obligation—that is, to recognize, and to bargain with, the union. When the time came, therefore, even though the perception of individual interests was still governed purely by the logic of the market, mine

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