According to the theory embraced by John L. Lewis and Ralph Taggart alike, coal companies at last enjoyed a level playing field and uniform wages throughout most of the industry. Instead of undercutting each other in destructive price wars, now they could compete by mechanizing their mines to boost production. Mechanical loaders and other machines would offset labor costs even while individual miners’ wages were rising. In 1910 a miner armed with pick, shovel, and black powder explosives could dig about three tons of coal on an average day; now, thanks to this modern equipment, he could produce fifteen tons or more. A partnership like the Leisenring group could economize and weather the Depression by merging the managements and sales forces of Stonega and Westmoreland Coal. John L. Lewis would guarantee coal operators labor peace from one union contract to the next. The only losers would be those pesky little wagon mines that lacked the capital to mechanize. Efficiency would triumph at last over inefficiency. That was the theory.
In practice, the coal operators weren’t the only ones who needed to adjust to a union environment. America’s miners had won the right to join a union, and within a decade more than 90 percent of all miners had joined the United Mine Workers. But they had not won any voice in that union. On the contrary, throughout the 1930s Lewis systematically transformed the UMW into a monolithic bureaucracy under his absolute control. He revoked the charters of rebellious districts and locals and replaced his opponents with his own loyal subordinates. He centralized the bargaining process into his own hands. Contracts that he negotiated were not even submitted to rank-and-file UMW members for their approval. Miners