Soft Coal, Hard Choices: The Economic Welfare of Bituminous Coal Miners, 1890-1930

Soft Coal, Hard Choices: The Economic Welfare of Bituminous Coal Miners, 1890-1930

Soft Coal, Hard Choices: The Economic Welfare of Bituminous Coal Miners, 1890-1930

Soft Coal, Hard Choices: The Economic Welfare of Bituminous Coal Miners, 1890-1930

Synopsis

While most studies of labor in the coal industry focus on the struggle to organize unions, this work offers a more diverse and quantitative examination of the labor market. It regards the economic lives of the bituminous coal miners in the early twentieth century. Fishback's analytic framework encompasses competition among employers for labor, the legal environment, institutional development in response to transactions costs as well as the impact of labor unions on the coal industry. Utilizing economic theory and statistics, Fishback reveals the models hidden in the descriptions of events, and then tests their internal consistency as well as the hypotheses they generate.

Excerpt

My first studies of the bituminous industry dealt with the treatment of blacks and immigrants, applying economic analysis and modern statistical techniques to test for discrimination. While reading about the coal industry, the descriptions puzzled me. There were constant references to monopolistic company stores and towns, yet the workers were described as constantly moving from town to town. Rather than focus on local monopolies, it seemed to me that the relevant market to study was the regional labor market. The coal labor market is particularly fascinating because the employment package included not only wages and working conditions but also the conditions in the town. Insights derived from the study of economics led me to ask a series of questions about the coal labor market in the early 1900s. Why did companies own their own housing? Did miners really owe their souls to the company store and pay exorbitant prices? How did housing in company towns compare to housing in towns of similar size? Did wages rise to compensate miners for higher store prices, higher accident rates, higher rents, or other negative features? Why pay some workers piece rates and other workers by the day? How did coal miners' hourly and annual earnings compare to those in manufacturing? How much did unionization raise wages? Did labor unions and government regulations improve mine safety? What was the miner's net gain from striking? Why did operators and miners resort to violence? This book seeks to provide answers to those questions. Several of the findings were originally reported in journal articles. Those findings are summarized here along with the results of additional inquiries.

Looking back over ten years of writing a dissertation, journal articles, and a book manuscript about bituminous coal miners, I realize that an enormous number of people have helped me along the way. My deepest scholarly debts are owed to professors and friends from graduate school. Robert Higgs has helped guide my studies from the time I started writing a dissertation. He has served as mentor, friend, editor, and critic. Throughout I have valued his advice, and more importantly his friendship. Douglass North first attracted my interest to economic history. After luring me into the field, he has always encouraged my efforts and opened the door to many opportunities. Morris Morris opened my eyes to the enormous complexities of studying economic history, while Daniel Benjamin encouraged me to dig deeply into the subject. John Wallis, Sumner LaCroix, and Mark Plummer shared the travails of completing a dissertation and have been valuable friends and critics ever since. Lee Alston, Mark Schmitz, Randy Rucker, and Torben Andersen read substantial parts of all my studies and offered valuable comments. Mary Wellnitz shared the worst and the best of my life during the early phases of this study.

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