May Day 1916 – When anthracite mineworkers earned the 8 hour workday

On May 1, 1916, the anthracite mineworkers of Pennsylvania finally earned the 8-hour workday. They had been striving unsuccessfully for that goal for decades.

Front Page - May Day
The Pottsville Republican on May 1, 1916.

In fact, exactly 40 years earlier, on May 1, 1886, workers walked off the job on the first “May Day” or International Workers Day as a protest in search of the 8-hour day. May Day later came to be celebrated internationally, and gained a reputation in the United States in the 20th century as a date associated with Soviet communism and deliberately shunned.

But in May 1916, the date was celebrated by the thousands of mineworkers who gained new rights in an agreement pounded out between coal operators and the United Mineworkers of America. The union came to the table that spring with the following demands:

No. 1. The cost of living and the cost of production are ever changing. Contracts for more than two years are unfair to all concerned.

No one can justify the making of individual contracts – which in effect would violate the spirit of the general contract between miners and operators. There can be no motive for such agreements – except the desire to take advantage of the necessities of the individual miner.

No. 2. Wages that were below normal increased 5 1/2 percent in 12 year. For 40 percent. Surely this constitutes a basis for an even greater demand than that which is made.

No. 3. A workday of more than 8 hours is Unamerican. From bed to work and work to bed belongs to an age that has long passed.

Anthracite miners are paid by the hour. The reduction of the workday from 9 to 8 hours will therefore not increase mining costs.

No. 4. Complete recognition of the union will eliminate local strikes, promote peace, create the basic organic force necessary for the speedy settlement of disputes and work generally for the mutual welfare of all concerned.

No. 5. The present system of adjusting differences growing out of contract provisions between miners and operators is “antiquated.” The need for a more simplified and speedy arrangement imperative.

No. 6. The “contract” system in mining is the same as the “sweat shop” system in manufacturing. In both cases the evil results from the ability of the contractor to exploit his helpers. Uncurbed the system decreases both the earnings and opportunities of the vast majority of efficient and willing workers and concentrates in the hands of the few a part of the earnings of the many.

No. 7. A fair profit.

No. 8. At present coal is paid for by the car, which may hold anywhere from 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 tons, and whose capacity is always a matter of guesswork. The present system of paying only for clean coal is unjust, as it makes the miner the victim of chance “faults” in the veins, and is nequitabe in that it promotes favoritism in the assignment of working places.

No. 9. Machine mining in the anthracite is not extensive – but gives promise of growth. The miners want a just scale for machine work.

No. 10. Miners and operators constitute the contracting parties for the purpose of mining coal. It is absurd to refer differences arising from this contractional [sic] relationship to parties other than their representatives.

Ultimately, these were the terms of the agreement that were created:

The terms and provisions of the award of the Anthracite Strike Commission and any subsequent agreement made in modification thereof and supplemental thereto, are hereby continued for a further period of four years ending March 31, 1920, except in the following particulars, to-wit:

(a). The contract rates at each colliery shall be increased seven (7) percent, over and above the contract rates at each colliery, effected in April, 1912, as established by the agreement of May 20, 1912.

(b) The working day established by the Anthracite Strike Commission shall be changed from nine (9) hours to eight (8) hours. All employees paid by the day or hour, and coming within the classification of company men, except as hereinafter more specifically provided, shall be paid for a day of eight (8) hours the rate established under the agreement of May 20, 1912, for a day of nine (9) hours, subject to an increase of three (3) per cent increase.

(c) All company men working on the basis of an eight-hour day previous to April 1, 1916, shall receive an increase of seven (7) per cent over the daily or hour rates established for their respective occupation over the agreement of May 20. 1916, except that hoisting engineers who were granted an eight-hour day in March, 1912, shall receive an increase of three full shifts were substituted for two shifts in March, 1912, the rate of the three hoisting engineers shall be the same and the shifts shall alternate in the manner customary where continual employment is required.

(d) All hoisting engineers working on a nine-hour basis prior to April 1, 1916, and whose duties require that they should continue to work nine, (9) hours per day, shall receive an increase of seven (7) per cent over and above the nine-hour rate established by the agreement of May 20, 1912.

(e) All company men working on a daily basis in excess of (9) hours per day or a monthly basis prior to April 1, 1916, shall continue to work on said basis and their wage, whether paid hourly, daily, or monthly shall be increased seven (7) per cent over and above the rates established for their respective occupation by the agreement of May 20, 1912.

Second: Conditions having arisen in a portion of the anthracite region necessitating the use of machines the right of the operations to use such machines shall be unquestioned and the methods employed shall be at the option of the operator. Where work is done by mining machines the following shall govern as the basis of payment to the several classes of labor employed in the undercutting, mining and loading of coal.

A – When machine mining is done on a day basis, the rates paid shall not be less than the established colliery machine rates paid to the several classes of labor employed April 1, 1916; provided 1: 1 in no case shall the rate for machine miner be less than $3.23 a day; for machine runner, $2.70 per day; for machine miner’s laborer, $2.34 per day; and for machine runner’s helper, $2.34 per day. It being understood that these rates are agreed to as covering a new requirements and are applicable only to machine mining, subject, nevertheless, to three (3) per cent, advance under the terms of this agreement.

B -Where machine mining contracts cover the mining of a vein or section of a vein not heretofore mined, the contract rates shall be such as to enable the men employed in mining work to earn on an average of all employed in each occupation a daily wage not less than the rate established for said occupation in paragraph (a), where mining machines replace contract miners cutting coal from the solid, the average daily earnings of the contract machine miners shall not be less than the average normal earnings of such contract miners in the territory where the mining machines are introduced and where the same vein conditions exist; provided that where the average normal earnings of the contract miners are shown to be less than the day rate established in paragraph (a) the machine contract rates shall be so adjusted as to enable the machine miner on average to earn a daily wage of not less than the day rate established in paragraph (a).

– The operator shall be assured of the full co-operation of the machine miner in the development and maintenance of efficient operation and the day’s earnings shall be based on a workday of eight (8) hours at the face, as now provided in section (3) hereof.  

Eight Hour Day.

Third: An eight-hour day means eight (8) hours of actual work for all classes of labor, at the usual working place, exclusive of noontime, for six (6) days per week, if the operator desires to work his machines to that extent, excepting only legal holidays. The time required in going to and coming from the place of employment in or about the mine shall not include any part of the day’s labor. Driver shall take their mules from the stables to the usual working place before starting time and shall return them to the, stables after quitting time.

Compensation for such services being included in the day rates established for this class of labor. If, because of breakdown, repairs or the requirements of transportation, or other causes essential to efficient operation, it is found necessary to extend the normal workday of any employee, or any class of employee, the operator may do so, at his option, paying for overtime a proportionate rate per hour as determined from the rates established under section (I) hereof.

Fourth: All grievances referred to the board of conciliation be heard and a decision rendered within 60 days from the date of reference to the board; provided that said, period may be extended for such time as may be mutually agreed upon by the operators representative and the mine workers representative in the district in which said grievance originates. If no decision is reached within 60 days after reference, or within the extension period thereafter, the board shall submit the case forthwith to the umpire for final decision as provided in the award of the Anthracite coal strike commission.

Fifth: The present prices of powder and Miners’ supplies as established at the several collieries in the region shall be continued without change through the term of this agreement.

Sixth: Under paragraph (d) of the agreement of May 20, 1912, the duty of the grievance committee shall be confined solely to the adjustment of disputes in cases where the foreman and employees have been unable to agree and in the discharge of this duty they shall strictly comply with the provisions of said paragraph.

Under paragraph (f) of the agreement of May 20, 1912, the grievance committee is given the sole authority of joining with the company officials in recording the rate existent April 1, 1912, as well as the rates established under the agreement of May 20. 1912.

Seventh: The hoard of conciliation is empowered to hear complaints relating to day rates appearing on colliery sheets as effective April 1, 1912, but which may be claimed to be obsolete that are shown to be obsolete, order such rates erased. The board of conciliation can, at its discretion, where the rate shown to be obsolete shall order such rates erased.

Eighth: Neither party to this agreement shall initiate or encourage legislation that would in any manner effect the obligations of this contract or impair any of its provisions.

Coal Miners at Work (1)
Miners at work.

The Pottsville Republican summarized the events and their importance to the mineworkers brilliantly:

Looking back over the past decades to the time of John Siney, [the miners] have confronting them what is almost the realization of their dreams, the eight hour day and other important concessions.

The eight hour day has been the goal of the men since the infancy of the union and, coupled with a three to seven percent increase in wages, is something scarcely thought possible a year ago.

May Day had never really been celebrated in the Coal Region, but May 1, 1916 became a date remembered as the time that the “Unamerican” days of working 9-12 hours were over.

8hoursday_banner_1856.jpg
Banner for an 8 hour day from Australia, 1856 (Wikimedia Commons)

Featured Image: Miners exiting the Pennsylvania Coal Company’s #6 Shaft in South Pittston, Pennsylvania in January 1911 (Library of Congress)


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