Lump of Coal


By Rosemary Fuerer

I’ve been thinking about Santa Claus and the lump of coal threat from folklore. Thinking about it in relationship to this month, which is the anniversary of one of the highest miner death tolls in a single month  in US history, December 1907.

Two of those December 1907 disasters were forever associated with Santa Claus, or at least St. Nicholas when immigrant lives were saved by their refusal to give up their holiday to their corporate masters.  In Monongah, West Virginia, and Jacobs Creek, Pennsylvania, it seemed to some that St. Nicholas had intervened on some workers’ behalf, sparing them.  Catholic immigrants were still celebrating St Nicholas in the western tradition on December 6 when the Monongah disaster struck. In the eastern tradition, the feast day was on December 19, saving Slavic immigrants celebrating near the Darr mine at Jacobs Creek. It became known as the great intercession, a tale handed down through the years and in the icons of the Church.

Mother Jones, who organized in both places, thought workers should skip the pleas for magical or divine intervention. Why do you accept the lump of coal from the bosses? Jesus would want you to rise up, not depend on him or blessings, she argued. You need to take the coal, and  create a new world from the one the heartless and soulless capitalist bosses had created.

She and other radicals in the coal fields rejected the idea that miners willingly sacrificed their life for their jobs, and cultivated a movement that refused to beg for more than the St. Nicholas holiday. They gave the collective “NO!” to the mandate that workers were willingly accepting the risk.  Human sacrifice, she said, was created by class conditions that forced those with only their labor power to sell, to sell it cheap and not hold it dear. Mine owners cared more for their mules, which they had to pay to replace, than for the miners.

Death was always the source of coal’s profitability throughout its history.  There was a reason company lawyers and their political minions argued that the only right workers had was the right-to-quit, and that when they took a job they contracted knowingly for the risk. When companies didn’t owe anything for loss of life (much less the destruction of communities and the environment), profit could be extracted. Without that equation, profit was marginal.

Well over 150,000 miners lost their lives in the late 19th and early 20th century, more than in most wars in US history. From Jones’ autobiography:

The story of coal is always the same. It is a dark story. For a second’s more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the color of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty-a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window-for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.

It was only with the Cherry, Illinois mine disaster of 1910 that compensation for death was first applied, but that was the beginning of great compromises and mixed successes. Years of struggle continued, but the bitter truth is that only strong unions and government oversight could  lessen the toll of death from coal. This kind of compensation was not satisfying to Mother Jones, and she and others argued a radical position– that the kinds of cold calculations would not end without public ownership.

Mechanization and surface mining decreased the number of underground disasters that led to cruel months such as December 1907, but the lump of coal thinking continued. Mechanization, though,  increased the amount of dust and led to increasing incidence of black lung. It, like mountaintop removal, asked workers and communities to bear the cost of profitability. Compensation for any of the destruction of life would mean no profits.

Worker death for coal trade-offs is not a story of the past. We should also recognize that worker deaths and environmental destruction are  two sides of the same coin, even though the zero-sum games of corporate greed have caused us to think of them as separate.

This is clear given the recent stories of the resurgence in black lung in Appalachia. Since 1968, when the numbers were first generated, 78,000 miners have died from black lung.

Miners, according to the reports, avoid testing for the disease until they are out of work. They trade their lives for their jobs.

“If you’re working and you go and have that stuff done and the company finds out about it, they’ll find a way to get rid of you,” [Charles Wayne] Stanley, [a Kentucky miner recently diagnosed with black lung and silicosis] says. “As long as you’re working and producing you’re an asset. But now when you get something wrong with you, you become a liability. And they’ll find a way to get rid of you.”

Another 39-year old miner from Elkhorn Creek, Kentucky, was waiting on his first black lung compensation check so he could buy his kids some Christmas gifts. He claimed he had no regrets for sacrificing his life, and put it this way,

“The mining game is a numbers game,” [Mackie]  Branham says. “If you don’t produce coal, they’ll put somebody else in your spot that can. If I’ve got another man on the other side of the mines, he’s cutting more coal than me, it’s not going to look good on me. I just thought about my family to be honest with you.”

Placing this in historical context is important. Rank and file miners and their communities waged a massive militant campaign that led to the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and recognition of black lung as a claim.This was the same insurgency that revived Mother Jones’ memory.

But the mindset that miners accept the risk continued to influence policymakers.

Even vaunted human-rights champion Jimmy Carter in the 1970s had not rejected the social-Darwinist principles that were handed down from the 19th century. He opposed high compensation for black lung, a hint at the neoliberalism to come. Didn’t miners accept the dangers of the job, he casually commented, weren’t they aware that they might contract the deadly disease? Facing the first oil crisis and an injunction to make coal profitable, he sided with the industry against the insurgent miners’ movement.

Rank and file miners responded to his alliance with the industry by launching a 111 day strike of 1977-1978, the kind we haven’t seen since.  That’s the other “sixties” movement people have forgotten, the last working class rebellion through the unions, in opposition to top leadership. Carter tried to force them back to work by invoking Taft-Hartley, but he couldn’t do it. It was a great victory that produced the hope of insurgency on the scale not seen since Mother Jones’ era.

But Carter’s perspective prevails today:  miners with black lung, from which they will suffer immensely and die, receive $644 for themselves, up to a maximum of $1285 month if they have 3 or more dependents.

Pres. Obama probably wouldn’t be so crass as to openly make a similar statement to Carter’s today, but these death-for-coal kinds of calculations were at work in his administration’s agreement to allow looser dust standards than recommended by NIOSH scientists who have been warning since the 1990s of black lung increases. The high standards would have put the US coal industry on par with Australia, where few miners die from black lung.

Meanwhile, coal continues to get massive amounts of state and federal subsidies. Collectivism works for the coal industry, but collective action is met by brutal force when workers attempt it. The Black Lung Disability Trust fund is massively underfunded but golden parachutes and bankruptcies that mask the death calculations with their dummy companies set up to avoid compensation to miners.

Of course, we know that Mother Jones would have argued that the problem was that the needs of the industry are prevailing above the needs of the earth and its people. For her and radicals of her generation, thinking of natural resources as belonging to the public was the great collective objection to the plunder for private gain.

From this radical core, brilliant ideas of worker cooperatives, shorter hours, people above profits, turning prisons into sanctuaries all flowed naturally.

“They call us dreamers, and dreamers we are,” she said. “But our dreams are to be the salvation of your children and the preservation of liberty in the days that are to come.”

The loss of that radical core has brought us to accepting a lump of coal as the best we can do. The loss of the radical part of the labor movement has allowed the exchange of lives for profit to continue.


Rosemary Fuerer is the lead historian for the Mother Jones Museum and Heritage Trail Project and teaches labor history at Northern Illinois University.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.