Telling my family's stories
Spring Valley, Illinois became a famous example of the post-Civil War collapse of living conditions for workers and of the extreme abuse of power that the wealthy capitalists were capable of. A very nice summary is written up in the book Colliers across the Sea: a comparative study of class formation in Scotland and America, 1830-1924 by John Laslett. I’ll summarize his description here.
At the end of 1888, the Spring Valley Coal Company, owned by several of the Coal Barons of that era, suddenly shut down 2 of its four shafts in Spring Valley without warning or explanation, putting about a thousand men out of work. The workers in the other two shafts voluntarily split their work with these men to try to keep them in work. This only lasted until April 1889, however, when SVCC shut down their shafts as well, putting the entire male workforce of the town out of work. No explanation was offered.
After a few weeks of no work, the already impoverished mining families of the area had used up all their savings, and things became desperate. Wagons were sent out to surrounding towns to beg for food from farmers, and some children died of malnutrition. 1,500 miners left town to try to find work in other mine fields.
By September of 1889, the misery was attracting major national attention, and a famous muckracking journalist named Henry Demarest Lloyd bullied the SVCC into admitting why it had locked the mines down. It was very simple: They hoped, by locking the workers out, to force them to accept lower wages. The mine was already profitable, generating about $12,000/month in pure profit, but the capitalists thought they could squeeze more out of the mine by forcing the workers to lower their wages. Hence, they had starved and destroyed a town out of greed in excess of their already stunning greed (thanks to the brutal working conditions and miserable wages, being a coal miner in Illinois in 1890 was not exactly a ticket to fame and fortune). Lloyd published a famous open letter to the SVCC called A Strike of Millionaires against Miners.
Unashamed of being publicly outed, the SVCC made an offer to the miners: they could return to work at a rate of 75cents per ton – 15cents lower than their previous wage. It was even worse than it sounded, however; the new ‘offer’ included more vicious provisions about how the coal was delivered, ensuring that their wages would effectively be cut even lower.
The miners rejected this offer, but they had almost no bargaining position since they were destitute, highly impoverished, and without any bargaining position. By November of 1889, they had capitulated, and returned to work at lower wages, and in much worse financial conditions.
Things got worse by 1894, when more miners were losing their jobs and being replaced by cheaper, foreign labor. A national coal strike was called, but again it had very weak results. There was a great deal of ethnic unrest in Spring Valley and surrounding coal mining towns, with people being killed, trains being derailed, and the US bringing in the military to put down protests. It seems, from what I gather, that Poles were used as strike breakers against the other ethnic groups, in a common tactic used since the beginning of the industrial ‘revolution.’