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Social Science History 26.1 (2002) 1-32

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Industrial Structure, Union Strategy, and Strike Activity in American Bituminous Coal Mining, 1881–1894

Jörg Rössel


The goal of this article is to describe and explain the specific strike pattern of American bituminous coal miners in the last part of the nineteenth century (between 1881 and 1894). The central thesis is that the evolution of strike patterns in bituminous coal mining differed substantially from the development of strike patterns in other industries during this period. According to scholars like Gerald Friedman (1988) and Kim Voss (1993), the evolution of the American labor movement until 1886 was strongly determined by the Knights [End Page 1] of Labor's strategy of inclusive unionism, which sought to increase worker power through solidarity and broad-based strikes. As this strategy proved unsuccessful—especially in 1886—American labor unions later conducted a different type of walkout: planned, small strikes of strategically located, skilled workers, which were more successful. I will show that in contrast to these developments, bituminous coal miners' strikes evolved in a different direction: they grew larger over the whole period covered and were based on the union strategy of broad-based solidarity between miners in different establishments and regions. In one respect, however, the development of strikes in bituminous coal mining resembled the overall picture in other industries. After 1886 coal miners tended to rely on their own fighting power and avoided striking in alliance with other mine workers. Furthermore, the miners' union attempts were important in establishing supraregional institutions of arbitration and conciliation in the bituminous coal mining industry, thus avoiding the reliance on costly strikes as a bargaining mechanism.

The sections "Industrial Structure and Operators' Strategies" and "Union History and Union Strategies" describe the industrial structure of bituminous coal mining and of the coal miners' unions to introduce the conditions that caused the specific development of strikes in this industry. The structure and evolution of these industrial conflicts are discussed in "Structure of Bituminous Coal Miners' Strikes," and the fact that the strategy of calling larger strikes proved to be successful in the coal mining industry is argued on the basis of a logit regression in "Determinants of Strike Outcomes." The effects of the development of institutions of arbitration and conciliation on strike patterns in bituminous coal mining are stressed in "Establishment of a Bargaining System and Its Effect on Strikes," where it is demonstrated that institutionalization significantly lowered the extent of strike mobilization and the duration of labor conflicts.

The database used for the quantitative and statistical analysis is the U.S. commissioner of labor's (1888, 1896) data on strikes and lockouts, which contain a wide array of information on nearly every strike that occurred in the United States between 1 January 1881 and 30 June 1894. For example, data are included on strike demands, union involvement, the duration and results of the strikes, the number of workers participating, and the number of establishments involved. From this database I have selected the data on strikes in bituminous coal mining. [End Page 2]

The data on strikes in American coal mining were analyzed 20 years ago by Jon Amsden and Stephen Brier (Amsden and Brier 1977), 1 who found "a consistent relationship between the growth and impact of trade unionism among the American mine workers between 1881 and 1894 and the pattern of strikes in the coal industry during the same period" (615). They were able to show that union-called strikes generated higher solidarity and were both of longer duration and larger than non-union strikes, thus supporting the central thesis of this article. Furthermore, they found that miners increasingly engaged in strikes over the reordering of productive relations in mining.

In contrast to Amsden and Brier, I support the thesis of the central role of the coal miners' unions in strike mobilization with statistical analyses; moreover, I add a regional perspective to the description. In regard to strike demands, I argue that job control and personal issue strikes, which Amsden...


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