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The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Dublin, Thomas
Licht, Walter
Reviewer(s):Boal, William

Published by EH.NET (April 2006)

Thomas Dublin and Walter Licht, The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005. viii + 277 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8014-3469-6; $25 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8014-8473-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William Boal, College of Business and Public Administration, Drake University.

Perhaps no economic issue generates more public anxiety today than economic dislocation, as whole industries and regions are threatened by technical change, international trade, or sometimes natural or environmental disaster. The decline of a large industry is often frightening and difficult for participants and even policymakers to understand. To cope, we badly need the perspective of history. What happens to a region when its principal industry dies? What happens to individual workers and their families?

This wonderful book answers these questions with a case history of the anthracite coal industry. Anthracite is “hard” coal, formed under greater heat and pressure than bituminous or “soft” coal. Anthracite gives off less smoke when it burns than most bituminous coals, making it better for use in urban areas. Anthracite coal fields in the United States are geographically compact, confined largely to three counties of northeastern Pennsylvania. A century ago, when transport costs were high and alternative fuels scarce, anthracite was the preferred fuel for home heating throughout the northeast U.S. The book begins with the early discovery and development of anthracite coal in the eighteenth century, continues through the coal boom of the early twentieth century when the industry employed about 180,000 workers, and ends with the death of the industry in the late twentieth century. As the title suggests, most of the book is devoted to the industry’s gradual decline, which began after World War I. The fundamental causes of that decline are well-known: falling prices of competing fuels and difficulties in mechanization due to adverse geological conditions. This book tells the story of how coal companies, the union, governments, and especially individual workers and their families responded to that decline.

Historians Thomas Dublin and Walter Licht, of Binghamton University (State University of New York) and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively, present the story from many perspectives, drawing on an impressive range of sources. In addition to the usual newspapers, secondary sources, and prior research, the authors dig into coal company personnel records, government investigative reports, and files of the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company’s Industrial Development Department. Census data are used to measure broad trends. Over one hundred personal interviews and a survey of residents and former residents tell us how those trends were experienced by miners, their spouses, and their children. The authors’ main thesis is that institutions — coal companies, the union, and governments — failed to help the people of the anthracite region when the coal industry collapsed. Yet miners and their families were surprisingly resilient and resourceful, pulling through against the odds and sometimes at great cost.

The first chapter describes the beginnings of the anthracite industry. Hilly northeastern Pennsylvania was sparsely populated until coal was discovered sometime in the eighteenth century. Commercial production of coal required simultaneous development of transportation — first canals and then railroads. The late nineteenth century in the anthracite region saw increasing concentration in anthracite railroads and coal, and increasing vertical integration between the industries. Immigrants were recruited to work the mines. As in bituminous coal, many early mineworkers were from England, Wales and Ireland, but they were gradually replaced by immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe and from Italy. Mining was, of course, extremely dangerous, but beginning in 1889, Pennsylvania law required miners (workers at the coal face) to pass a safety examination and have two years’ prior experience as mine laborers — a law that probably enhanced safety and incidentally made it more difficult for coal operators to replace strikers. Most mineworkers were paid on piece — since about 1869, on a sliding scale tied to coal prices — but work was unsteady. Children and wives supplemented mineworkers’ incomes by working in silk mills. Unions had little influence until a surprisingly successful strike called by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1900. The strike won higher wages for mineworkers and elimination of the sliding scale.

The second chapter describes the era of prosperity from 1900 to 1920, and the subsequent labor conflict of the 1920s. Improving coal demand through the First World War supported slightly increased wages and much increased working time. Child labor declined because of new legislation and rising earnings of parents. Ethnically-based churches and lodges provided support to families when workers were killed or injured on the job. The fortunes of the anthracite industry began to turn in the 1920s as demand for coal declined. Frequent long labor strikes focused national attention on coal and resulted in appointment of official commissions of investigation and arbitration, but the authors criticize federal officials for their slow and reluctant responses. The authors also criticize the anthracite coal operators for refusing to recognize the union and grant the dues checkoff, arguing that recognition would have reduced the frequency and duration of strikes (obviously the anthracite operators had a different opinion). Interestingly, the authors do not question the wisdom of the union’s rigid wage policy in the face of falling coal prices and consumer prices in the 1920s.

The third chapter, which describes anthracite mineworkers’ response to the Great Depression, is especially interesting to an economist. The authors contrast the failure of coal operators, the union, and government to respond to the crisis, with the determined responses of ordinary mineworkers supported by their communities. Three responses by mineworkers are emphasized. The first response was a campaign for equalization of work. As coal prices fell, coal companies selectively shut down less productive mines, leaving some workers with no work at all, while others were unaffected. The destitution of unemployed mineworkers prompted local citizens to campaign for rotation of work among mines. After a spontaneous strike, the major coal operator in the Panther Valley section agreed to a rotating schedule for its five mines. However, equalization campaigns in other sections of anthracite region were unsuccessful. The second response was a revolt within the UMWA, prompted by initial lack of union support for equalization campaigns. Suppression of dissent within the UMWA drove dissidents briefly to form a dual union, the United Anthracite Miners of Pennsylvania, from 1932 to 1935. The third response was “coal bootlegging,” illegal and surreptitious working of closed coal mines by unemployed miners. Operators whose land was mined illegally were unable to shut down the bootleggers because of popular sympathy for unemployed miners. To the authors, these three represent effective individual and community responses to an economic crisis, in the face of which institutions seemed powerless. To an economist, however, these responses represent more. They suggest a struggle of unemployed “outsiders'” against employed “insiders” at a time when wages were too high to clear the labor market. The profitability and popularity of coal bootlegging in particular suggests that formal employment could have been increased substantially if union wages had been reduced. One wonders whether the anthracite region would have better withstood the Great Depression had the sliding-scale wage system not been eliminated three decades earlier by the UMWA.

The fourth chapter describes the final collapse of the anthracite industry. The Second World War temporarily increased the demand for coal and decreased the supply of labor as mineworkers were drafted into the armed forces or took advantage of new job opportunities in defense industries outside the region. Employment in coal continued to fall during the war, but output increased and working time for remaining mineworkers rose. After the war, demand for anthracite fell sharply, as did productivity as veterans were given their jobs back. Financial pressures on coal companies became intense and they began to close. Employment in anthracite fell to 17,000 by 1961 and to 2,000 by 1974. Describing the histories of three coal companies in detail, the authors argue that “financial machinations” such as leasing, bankruptcy, and buyouts accelerated anthracite’s decline, yet it seems clear that coal mines would have been forced to close with or without financial reorganization. Selective leasing of the most productive mines, in particular, seems like a predictable response to falling coal prices and “equalization of work” rules, which were by now written into union contracts. Amidst anthracite’s general decline, the creation of the Anthracite Health and Welfare Fund seemed at first a heartening success. The UMWA in the late 1940s got the coal operators to agree to this fund, financed through per-ton royalties on coal output, to pay death benefits and pensions for miners. Unfortunately, as coal output fell in the 1950s and 1960s, royalty payments declined and the Fund was forced to cut benefits sharply. The authors fault the union for diverting Fund assets into a UMWA-owned bank paying low interest, but surely the Fund’s main problem was the decline of coal output subject to royalties. A more genuine success resulted from a campaign by mineworkers and community activists (curiously without union support) for state and federal aid to black lung victims, enacted in 1965 and 1969 respectively. Though the union was not responsible for all the mineworkers’ problems, there is no question that autocratic rule and corruption in the UMWA did as much harm to anthracite workers as it did to bituminous mineworkers during this period.

The fifth chapter describes the efforts of communities in the anthracite region to attract new industry to replace anthracite, with mixed success. The authors focus on relatively successful efforts by the cities of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Hazleton. All three cities solicited contributions from private citizens — including working-class people — to develop new plant sites and subsidize relocation of employers. The state government, through its Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority (PIDA), also helped attract new industry, but according to the state’s own evaluation, PIDA funds tended to go to counties that were already well-developed. Pennsylvania Power & Light, the region’s electric utility, also helped recruit new industry, and kept records which the authors exploit for this book. It is unclear how effective these redevelopment efforts were. On the positive side, PP&L records show that incoming firms receiving assistance were larger and survived longer than incoming firms not receiving assistance. On the negative side, most incoming firms paid low wages and some left as soon as their tax breaks expired. Working-class people interviewed by the authors expressed resentment at the sacrifices they were asked to make to attract these firms. In any case, the anthracite region “bottomed out” in employment in 1960. Employment since then has grown, mostly in services. Employment in manufacturing, the target sector of these early redevelopment efforts, has ironically continued to decline.

The sixth chapter, based mostly on interviews, chronicles the responses of mineworkers who lost their jobs when anthracite collapsed in the late 1940s and 1950s, and of their wives. Individuals’ stories are told with sympathy and sensitivity. Some former mineworkers found jobs outside the region, mostly in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area, and eventually moved their families (the authors call them “migrants”). Some former mineworkers commuted weekly to jobs outside the region, at least for a while (“commuters”). And some stayed in the anthracite region (“persisters”). Of the three groups, migrants eventually enjoyed the highest standard of living. Commuters endured grueling travel or weekly separation from their families, and many eventually moved their families closer to their jobs or found work closer to home. Persisters fared the worst economically, often suffering long-term unemployment, but kept their old social ties intact. Among all groups, wives generally continued to work, although non-mining jobs in the region did not pay well. As might be expected, mineworkers who were disabled — for example, by black lung disease — or who were eligible for retirement had little incentive to move, and most chose to be persisters.

The seventh and most optimistic chapter describes the lives of children of mineworkers who lost their jobs in the late 1940s and 1950s. This chapter is based mostly on interviews and a mail survey of high school graduates from the Panther Valley section. On average, these children fared much better economically than their parents. With the encouragement of their parents, nearly all of these children completed high school and a substantial number went on to college or nursing school. Although their parents could offer only limited financial support for higher education, a substantial number of children served in the military and thereafter enjoyed support from the GI Bill. After finishing their education, again with the encouragement of their parents, many children left the anthracite region permanently for opportunities elsewhere. It is noteworthy that the most mobile and successful members of the younger generation were those with post-high school education.

The final chapter summarizes the current condition of the anthracite region. In a number of respects, the region still bears the scars of the coal industry. Abandoned coal mines remain as eyesores and environmental hazards. Declining population has left empty houses, boarded-up storefronts, and even abandoned towns. Landfills and prisons have appeared throughout the region, welcomed by communities desperate for employment. The picture is not pretty. Nevertheless, unemployment has receded in recent decades as younger workers have left the region and older workers have retired.

The book’s great strength is description, as the above summary only begins to suggest. The authors show us the decline of anthracite from many perspectives: employment and population statistics, national politics, labor struggles, intra-union conflict, community activism, and especially the struggles of individual mineworkers and their families. The description is thorough, nuanced, and careful, yet highly readable. The text is even supplemented with almost fifty photographs.

The book is weaker on causal analysis and prescription. The appendix tables include production and detailed demographics, but not coal prices or wage rates. Of all the “forces” that the authors identify as driving the rise and fall of anthracite, market forces are viewed as secondary. The authors criticize coal companies, the UMWA, and state and federal governments for doing too little to halt the decline of the coal industry or to help the region diversify by attracting new industry, but their arguments are not always convincing.

Should coal companies have kept operating at a loss? Such a proposal is obviously unrealistic for the long term.

Should the UMWA have fought more aggressively to keep the mines open? The authors point to European countries where mineworkers’ unions were able to negotiate much better terms. But those countries nationalized their coal industries after the Second World War so their mineworkers were effectively government employees. Public-sector workers can use the ballot box to pressure their employers into subsidizing their workplaces. By contrast, private-sector unions in declining industries have little leverage. Strikes only accelerate a private-sector industry’s decline, as this book shows. While there is no excuse for union corruption and autocracy, it is not likely the UMWA could have kept mines open much longer except possibly by making wage concessions.

Should governments have done more to prop up employment in anthracite coal? Romance and nostalgia aside, coal mining is still a dangerous and frequently disabling occupation. It seems wrong-headed to send workers down into mines for coal that is not needed. Moreover, subsidizing coal mines could have been quite costly.

Should governments have done more to recruit new industry to the anthracite region? Perhaps. Yet the authors’ evidence, while not definitive, does suggest that such efforts did not usually bring a high return. The region was settled in the nineteenth century mostly for its coal, and had little else to offer new industry except an extensive railroad network, a large unemployed workforce, and a colorful past.

Should governments have prepared workers for economic dislocation through job retraining or higher-education subsidies? Here, the authors’ own evidence is much more favorable. Mineworkers themselves encouraged their children to get more education and those children that did so found economic security their parents lacked. But these children also left the region, in many cases. One senses that affection for place — so evident throughout this lovely book — has partially blinded the authors to the obvious value of education and out-migration for relieving hardship in a region dependent on a dying industry.

William M. Boal is Associate Professor of Economics at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. He is currently working on an econometric study of the effects of unionism on accidents in U.S. coal mining (including anthracite) in the early twentieth century.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII