- Anthracite Labor Wars: Tenancy, Italians, and Organized Crime in the Northern Coalfield of Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1897–1959by Robert P. Wolensky and William A. Hastie Sr.
Readers familiar with history of Pennsylvania anthracite coal mining in the twentieth century know of the Knox Mine disaster in 1959, when managers directed workers to illegally mine coal under the Susquehanna River, resulting in the flooding many Wyoming Valley shafts and galleries, and killing twelve people. The Knox Coal Company was the leaseholder of the River Slope mine from the Pennsylvania Coal Company and was but one of many lessees in an evolving corporate reorganization of access to mineral rights in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. A compelling argument made in Robert Wolensky et al.’s earlier book, The Knox Mine Disaster, January 22, 1959(1999) (reviewed in Pennsylvania History69, no. 3 [Summer 2002]: 458–59) was that the leasing system encouraged illegal mining in the quest for profits and in corruption among company officials and union leaders. In many ways, Anthracite Labor Warstakes as its start this devastating “end” of mining in the northern field. This book’s purpose is to trace the origins of the pernicious system of leasing and subcontracting—when the owners of mineral rights got out of the mining business—and to trace the intricate, if not endemic, “culture of corruption” that these forms of tenancy spawned. In addition, this study reveals mineworkers’ active—often violent, though ultimately futile—resistance to tenancy. For scholars of the region the study is a deep dive; and for researchers of other coal regions in the state and elsewhere, it will serve as the definitive source for comparative industrial and labor histories.
Robert P. Wolensky, professor of sociology emeritus at University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, joins with William A. Hastie Sr., a former mineworker (he was on-site at Knox in 1959) and local historian of Pittston, [End Page 540]to contribute an extensively researched history of mining and a history of mineworkers in the northern anthracite field as shaped by an evolving system of tenancy. Early chapters define two types of tenancy: the first was subcontracting in which a coal-owning company granted an individual miner a contract to mine coal or do development work in a mine; and the second was leasing, which was the practice of a coal-owning company to let a section of a mine, or an entire colliery, to an independent coal company. Whereas subcontracting dated back to the 1890s and continued in the twentieth century, the system of leasing came to dominate after 1935. These chapters supply a descriptive industrial history of mining around Wilkes-Barre, Pittston, and Scranton, and important business histories—and corporate restructurings—of the Erie Railroad’s subsidiaries, the Pennsylvania Coal Company (PaCC) and the Hillside Coal & Iron Company (HC&I). Both companies benefited by demanding of their subcontractors and leaseholders more tonnage for less cost, and thus the contract miners and incorporated leaseholders became the drivers of labor’s exploitations.
The four middle chapters of the book describe the thirty-year war (1905–39) workers fought over subcontracting, leasing, and many other grievances at the Erie Coal companies. The labor actions were not just against management but against the United Mine Workers and the union’s inability to rid the region of subcontracting. There were wildcat strikes in 1905, a widespread, general shutdown in 1910 involving 12,000 employees (from all ten PaCC collieries and three out of four HC&I collieries), and the 1916 Industrial Workers of the World–led strike that begin an alternative understanding of labor protest in the northern field. According to the authors, “The area’s militant tradition [comprised] a series of labor movements undertaken against powerful forces by workers who were unwaveringly set on pursuing their own vision of the just workplace and community” (xiv). Further, Wolensky and Hastie cast special light on the Italian immigrants employed by the Erie companies who were...