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An added objection, the use of blacks in the coal mines of Washington, 1880-1896

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Title: An added objection, the use of blacks in the coal mines of Washington, 1880-1896
Author: Campbell, Robert A.
Degree Master of Arts - MA
Program History
Copyright Date: 1978
Subject Keywords African Americans -- History; Coal miners -- Washington (State) -- History
Abstract: Although not as important as timber, the coal mining industry did play a significant role in Washington's economic development of the 1880's. But coal mining was not an easy business in which to make a profit. The product itself was medicore; costs were high, and competition was stiff. The leading independent coal company, the Oregon Improvement Company (OIC), suffered from continual financial problems and was hampered by poor management. To reduce costs the OIC emphasized the factor of production that appeared to be easiest to control — labor. Like all Washington coal operators, the OIC officers were opposed to labor organizations, which they believed both increased costs and interferred with a company's right to conduct its business. The nature of coal mining and the structure of mining towns made conflict almost inevitable between a company and its employees. The mine workers quickly learned that organization was not only essential to protect their interests in an irregular and dangerous industry, but also to counteract the overwhelming influence of the company. When Knights of Labor organizers appeared in Washington in the early 1880's, they were enthusiastically received by the mine workers, and local assemblies of the Knights were established throughout Washington's mining regions. A company like the OIC wanted to mine coal efficiently and economically without any interference from employees or labor organizations. In order to inhibit the influence of organized labor the OIC encouraged faction among its employees, with the intent of keeping the workers divided and quarreling among themselves. To the OIC officers it appeared that the workers could be permanently divided along racial lines. Their experience with placing low-paid Chinese workers in the mines had shown them that their white-employees completely accepted the prevailing racial stereotypes. Not only were the mine workers opposed to Chinese in the mines, they became leaders in the movement to expel the Chinese from Washington. Racial animosity and a fear of cheap labor prevented the mine workers from seeing what they had in common as workers with the Chinese. In this sense the Chinese laid the groundwork for the far more successful use of blacks in the mines. The first black mine workers in Washington were imported from the Midwest in 1888 by the Northern Pacific Coal Company. With the use of blacks the company broke a strike led by the Knights. In 1891 the OIC decided to follow the example of the Northern Pacific, and black workers were imported under contract to work in the OIC mines. With cheap black labor the OIC believed it could conduct its business more economically and suppress organized labor by encouraging racial hostility among the workers. The OIC's use of blacks precipitated the complete defeat of union mine workers in Washington. A national tradition of anti-Negro prejudice enhanced by the West's more virulent racism, and the minimal participation of blacks in the developing labor movement, all contributed to their successful use in the Washington mines. Racial animosity and hostility to cheap labor kept the blacks and whites divided. Initiated by the Knights, the retaliatory strike of the white mine workers failed, and mining unions disappeared from Washington for over a decade.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/2429/21047
Series/Report no. UBC Retrospective Theses Digitization Project [http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/retro_theses/]

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