Bette Bono is an All Things That Matter Press author who wrote the novel, The Better Angels. She told me about an essay her father had written about coal mining in the 40s and thought it would be worth sharing.
"Here is my dad's essay. He was probably 18 or 19 when he wrote it. The V-12 program got him out of the mine, gave him an engineering degree (going to Northwestern full time for 2 1/2 years) and a chance for a long and healthy life. He also met my mom at Northwestern. They were married at age 20 in 1946. After his term in the navy was up, he went to work for Underwriters Laboratories and became quite an expert on fire protection engineering. The Society of Fire Protection Engineers has an award named after him. Quite a journey for a kid that grew up in a "company town."
The Coal Mine Question*
by Jack Bono
[*Probably written in late 1943 or 1944. In April 1943, 500,000 miners went on strike.]
It has always been my contention that before anyone can pass judgement on anything, he should have a little knowledge of the situation. It is because of this lack of knowledge that the men who mine the coal of the nation have become the point of much undeserved criticism. People who have never cast eyes on a coal mine have denounced the miners and spoken of them slurringly. In their estimation, the miner holds the position of one step lower than the rodent class in social standing. It is this feeling which the miner has been forced to combat down through the years. Having had a little experience in the coal fields of western Pennsylvania, I am attempting to show a few facts which may have bearing on your future opinions of that gloryless hero, the coal miner.
Examination of the weekly wage scale of the miner proved that he earned an average of $45.00. Now I will show what the majority of the outraged patriots of the country do not know. In order to do this, I will bring to view a few details on the actual mining of the coal. The miner’s place of work is usually 20 feet in length or width and 8 feet high. He loads the coal out in blocks called “cuts” which must be blown out by the use of dynamite. A machine must come into his place and cut a swath six inches high along the bottom of the cut of coal. Three holes, one on either side and one in the center of the cut, must be drilled by the miner; three holes, demanding the constant shoving of an auger against the coal, sapping the strength of the miner, making the final turns an agony of strained muscles. In each side hole were inserted five sticks of powder and in the center hole, six sticks were inserted. The end sticks of powder in each hole contained a cap with extended wires. These wires were attached to the cord which carried an electric current and set off the explosion. After the coal detached itself from the side and roof, falling the six inches cut by the machine, the slate on top of the coal had to be shot down. This demanded five small holes each containing a half stick of powder but also demanding five caps. Since a miner needs to load at least three cuts of coal to earn $45.00 and each stick of powder and cap cost 4 ½ cents and 6 ½ cents respectively the cost amounted to $4.05 on powder and caps alone. Another expenditure was the average of $1.00 weekly taken out for the checkweightman who calculated the weight of each car of coal loaded by the miner. The expense of tools including files, shovels, picks, axes, and other necessities amounted to $2.00 per week. The total occupational deduction, exclusive of the regular deductions suffered by other occupations, amounts to $7.00, leaving the miner’s wage at $38.00. Surely, no one can say that $38.00 is a fair wage for such a worker today.
Another stumbling block in the progress of equality for the miner is the time element. I am reminded of the Kentucky miner who said, a few years back “I would be happy if I could but once see the sun.” Conditions have improved since then but the miner still spends ten hours [a day] of his time in the mine. The man trip which carries a miner to his section took at least one hour and fifteen minutes of travel as an average for the mine at which I had the misfortune to work. Then followed a walk to his particular place of work in the section, a possible wait for the machine to cut his place, time lost while waiting for the shotfire to shoot down his coal, a delay while posts were set and finally loading the coal. Out of all the labor done by him, only the amount of coal loaded determine his wage. The rest of the time was wasted. Was it then too much to ask for “portal to portal” or travel time pay?
In conclusion I might add that no occupation involving the number of men in the coal mining industry is as dangerous to the health and life of a miner. The draft board of our locality emitted the following statistics: Out of all the men rejected for military service, 21% were rejected because of severe asthma and an additional 13 1/3 % were affected by some lung conditions. I scoff at their bewilderment at these figures because I know that it is an impossibility to work in a place of such poor ventilation, with the air polluted with coal dust and rock dust which was used to prevent dampness, and not be affected by this condition. Knowing the dangers of a coal mine, I was not surprised to find the mortality rate to be ¾% or the injury rate to be an amazing 26%. There is a definite term for an injured person. He is defined as a person able to collect compensation insurance which demanded that he be unable to work for a minimum of eight days. It isn’t amazing; just sad.
The miners have received a 16% wage increase but this does not compensate for their hardships. They are human beings and do not have to be subjected to the suffering of the present. The sooner the people of the United States realize that within their very limits they have a class of people deserving the pity, sympathy, understanding, and mainly the help of all. Any person interested in establishing a condition of social equality should realize that he must exert the greatest effort toward aiding the class of people most needy of that aid. The coal miners of the nation and their families certainly fall in that class.