The most common complaint of the miners, however, concerned their pay, and the total control which the companies had over their financial well-being. Most mining towns were "company towns." The coal company owned the land. They built, rented, or sold the houses to their workers. If the miners quit work or went on strike, the company could evict them from their homes. They often forced workers to buy at "company stores," where credit might be more readily available, but prices were higher. Companies sometimes paid in "scrip," which was taken in trade only at the company store. At times, men who refused to buy from the company store were dismissed. Miners were usually paid monthly in the early days, with the company holding two weeks' back pay. Thus, miners who quit often lost two weeks' pay. Miners also had the expense of getting their tools sharpened, and they had to buy oil for their lamps which provided the only light underground.
Miners were paid by the ton, and they often claimed they were cheated by the coal companies. The operators could easily cheat the men by saying that too many rocks and particles of clay had been put in the mine cars. Prior to 1898, the coal was dumped over screens which separated the coal into large and small lumps. Miners were paid for the larger pieces that remained above the screen. The coal companies sold the small chunks too, but these apparently were mined free.
The weather and business conditions in general, also affected the miners' paycheck. Most miners were unemployed during summer months, when the demand for heat decreased. If factories cut back or closed during a depression, even less coal was needed; so again miners were out of work. Annual income was seriously reduced by this seasonal unemployment, which seems to have been the most constant problem for the miners over the years
To correct these abuses, the miners formed unions
In 1890, the United Mine Workers of America was formed. It was created out of the various local unions then existing in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana. A number of local miners were active in the formation of the national union. The UMW was the nation's earliest and most successful industrial union, and it was the nation's largest union for several decades following 1900. An industrial union protects those who produce a certain product, regardless of what part they play in producing it--miners, auto workers are examples. A craft union represents workers who have a certain skill or trade--carpenter, electrician, musician. From 1899 to 1908, the UMW president was John Mitchell, who was born in Braidwood on February 4, 1870. He entered the mines as a trapper boy at twelve, and joined a union when he was only fifteen. In 1902, he was called to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt to help mediate a strike of Pennsylvania miners.
The miners used many tactics to achieve their goals. Since they composed the large majority of the populace in some areas, they could elect candidates who were sympathetic to their cause.
The most successful weapon of the miners was the strike, in which all miners quit work and refused to return until their demands were met.
Harlan County, USA is a 1976 documentary film covering the efforts of 180 coal miners on strike against the Duke Power Company in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973.This film illustrates how strikes affected the miners and the companies they worked for.
From coal towns came important labor leaders, among them John Mitchell and John L. Lewis. Both became presidents of the United Mine Workers of America. Although born in Iowa, Lewis spent several years mining coal in Panama, Illinois.
As head of the nation's most powerful industrial union, Lewis founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1936. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) had refused to undertake an organizing campaign within the mass production industries. In concert with several sympathetic unions, Lewis and the UMWA went ahead with great success despite being expelled from the AFL. However, the two groups merged in 1954, becoming the AFL-CIO as we know it today.