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3 l l l Breaking Barriers Polish Entry into the Mines the majority of poles who migrated to the Ruhr and northeastern Pennsylvania were young males in their teens and twenties. These men had little prior exposure to mining, but they were attracted to the industry because barriers to employment were low, the occupational structure was flat, and wages and hours were better than those of many other forms of employment . As Jósef Lipinski, a Polish migrant living in Scranton, wrote in a letter home: “A man does not have to work as hard as he did in the old country; and he can live better and earn more money here. . . . I work in a coal mine . . . deep. I work very deep underground—several hundred łokieć [elbow lengths, i.e., feet] from seven in the morning until two, and sometimes three in the afternoon. I earn two dollars and ten cents.”1 Lipinski’s emphasis on depth reflects the odd feeling a new mine worker had in working in claustrophobic, near pitch-black darkness, where the work was dangerous and backbreaking . Conditions alternated from stiflingly hot to bone-chillingly cold. Damp and rats were ubiquitous, though the latter were welcome because they acted as an early warning system in cases of danger. Dangers from falling rock, misfired charges, and methane gas were everywhere. Poles above ground fared little better. Workers on the coal breaker were strictly supervised, and the workday was three to four hours longer than that of underground workers . Corporal punishment was common. Many endured this harsh, autocratic regimen because of their dream of returning to Poland with sufficient earnings to purchase farmland. As one migrant to Scranton claimed, “There was the same intention . . . [get] the money and . . . go home.”2 Others sacrificed themselves in order to build a new life in northeastern Pennsylvania or the Ruhr. Although reasons for migration varied, the initial workplace challenges facing Poles in each region were similar. Polish Entry into the Mines l 55 The Growth of a Polish Workforce In the Ruhr and northeastern Pennsylvania, the attitude of native workers toward Poles during the 1870s and early 1880s is best characterized as indifferent . Although instances of open hostility can be found, the limited size of Polish communities and their settlement in isolated areas meant that the overall Polish presence drew limited attention.3 If acknowledged, the emerging Polish influx was more often than not welcomed because of the economic benefits their labor provided. Employers cautioned that Poles had a predilection for “schnapps” that could make them “wild and uncontrollable,” but they also characterized these workers as “energetic, willing, . . . flexible,” and possessing superior physical strength. For native miners, the unskilled Polish workers were not yet a significant threat to their position within the labor market, and as independent contractors, they used Polish labor to their advantage. In northeastern Pennsylvania, the Pottsville Republican reported that “instead of employing laborers at the regular wage . . . miners would employ a big Slav or Hun cheaply, increasing his own pay check quite an amount. His boasting of the ‘snap’ caused others to do the same.”4 Poles were not ones to play fools gladly, and the early perception by natives that these newcomers were naive, tractable, and exploitable employees was soon refuted by Polish actions to gain greater equality in the workplace. By the late 1880s, Poles were a growing and increasingly militant force to be reckoned with in the coalfields, as can be seen by Polish willingness to participate in strikes. From September 1887 to March 1888, the majority of Poles in northeastern Pennsylvania joined in a strike by 32,000 mine workers in the Schuylkill and Lehigh fields. This show of support for the strike caught many by surprise because they expected Poles to act as strikebreakers. The Freeland Progress incredulously reported that “one of the most significant features of this strike is the fact that the Poles and Hunks, heretofore a class on which the English speaking workmen could not depend on to stand by them in a strike, are entering this one with as much determination as any other class.”5 In May 1889, a major strike broke out in the Ruhr. Among the 80,000 workers who supported the strike were “thousands of Poles in Westphalia,” who, as Bismarck claimed in a speech before the German parliament, “posed a danger to the maintenance of civil order.” Bismarck’s concerns were exaggerated. In fact, officials from districts where Polish settlement was high...


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