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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Between the 1880s and 1950s, miners were involved in a series of conflicts with management, and with established order generally. The struggle was rooted in the differing interests and traditions of miners and owners. While owners sought to minimize labour costs, workers endeavoured to shape the workplace in their own interests, and to maximize their incomes. Miners expressed their positions in terms of union organization and strike action, in the process of which a strong strain of radical ideology emerged. In the repeated struggles, the state also played a key role, intervening to discourage disruptions in production because of the economic importance of the industry. State officials usually favoured compromise, but, on some occasions, revealed a preference for the position of management.1

Pamphlet: Agreement between The Lethbridge Collieries Limited and Their EmployeesThe conflict was nurtured by conditions in coal mining that made miners particularly independent and confrontational in relation to management. In the first place, they worked in an underground world of widely dispersed rooms, where they experienced considerable freedom, and managerial control could not easily be exercised. This freedom was heightened, in the case of the skilled miners, working at the coal face, because, unlike the other men at the site, who were paid by the hour, they had individual contracts with the owners and were paid by the amount of coal mined, measured by tonnage or cubic yardage. The skilled miners were not, strictly-speaking, employees of the company and had the right to set many of their own conditions of work, particularly in the early years of the industry. Moreover, this situation, which had existed traditionally in coal mines in Europe as well as America, had bred a culture of pride and solidarity, with which many of the immigrants were already familiar in their homelands before their employment in the coal mines of the Canadian West.2

In the region, the history of the miners' struggles for better wages and working conditions breaks down into three stages. In the first period, prior to the First World War, unions made their appearance, and managed considerable gains, especially after 1898 in the Crowsnest Pass, where the largest mines were based. Miners and entrepreneurs were willing to compromise because of the relatively precarious economic state of the industry. In the second stage, the relatively short period until 1920-workers achieved their greatest monetary success, and their growing radicalism resulted in a brief, but dramatic, challenge to the dominance of capitalism. In the longer period that followed-until 1945-miners were forced on the defensive, the solidarity of the union movement was shaken, and, for a time, some of the previous monetary gains were lost. The influence of the miners waned in the 1950s as the industry collapsed.

William N.T. Wylie, "Coal-Mining Landscapes: Commemorating Coal Mining in Alberta and Southeastern British Columbia," a report prepared for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Parks Canada Agency, 2001.

See Also: The Coal Industry—Overview, Rapid Expansion, Domestic and Steam Coalfields, 1914-1947: The Struggling Industry, Collapse and Rebirth, Settlement of the West, Issues and Challenges—Overview, Entrepreneurship, Technology, Underground Techniques, Surface Technology, Surface Mining, Social Impacts, Unions, 1882-1913: Unionization and Early Gains, 1914-1920: Revolutionary Movement, 1921-1950s: Labour Unrest and Setbacks, Mining Companies, People of the Coal Mines, The Middle Class, Miners and Local Government, Politics and Economics , Environmental Impacts, Health and Safety—Overview, The State and Labour Relations, The State and Development after 1918.

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