“You Load Sixteen Tons, What Do You Get?”: A Little Labor History

I recently had a conversation with someone in which I made a casual reference to the “company store.” “What’s that?” they asked me, and I tried my best to explain.  “You know, like when workers got paid in fake money and could only buy things through the company?  There’s that song Sixteen Tons that mentions it?” And as my friend asked a few more questions about it, I realized that even though I knew that such a thing had existed and got the basic concept, I really didn’t know much about it at all.

Luckily, I work in a library.  I looked up a few books in our catalog and decided to start educating myself a bit on this piece of labor history.  It’s amazing how little I actually know about events that took place practically in our backyard, like the West Virginia Mine wars, in which thousands of miners protested their unfair treatement by the coal companies (which included, but wasn’t limited to, evictions, bribery, and murder!) Like often happens when I find myself learning about something totally new, my reading list just got a lot longer.  Here is a short selection of what I’m currently reading, and a few things that I plan on picking up next:

Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-21: This labor battle was too big to be called a skirmish or protest; both the miners and the coal company’s hired men engaged in full-on warfare.  Miners who joined the union were fired and thrown out of their company-owned homes, miners and company men were murdered, and federal troops had to be called in to end this dispute.  This book is a fascinating history of an event that you probably never heard of.

Mother Jones Speaks: Collected Speeches and Writings: Mother Jones, an Irish immigrant, became the face of the labor movement.  She devoted her life to stirring up workers against unfair business practices and helping to organize unions where they were needed, working well into her eighties.  Politics aside, I find it pretty inspiring to read these speeches by a woman who did all this work in the days before women even had the vote.

The Homestead Strike of 1892: Living in Pittsburgh with an interest in labor history, I’m only surprised it’s taken me this long to start reading about disputes between steel workers and the steel mill owners (most notably, of course, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick).  I live just over the bridge from Homestead, and have always wondered about what it might have been like there when the mills were flourishing.

Matewan: So, this one isn’t a book, but I’m still interested in watching this movie.  Matewan, WV is where a lot of the action took place in the first book I mention on this list, and the plot of the film centers around the miners’ disputes with the coal company and the subsequent violence that ensued.

Labor practices, at least in the United States, have come a long way since workers could be paid in company “money,” forced to work in unsafe conditions, and couldn’t do much about it.  Pittsburgh’s labor history is particularly interesting to me, given that it’s such a huge part of the city’s past.  I feel like this is a topic in which one book leads to the next (gotta love those footnotes!), and I’m looking forward to seeing where my reading takes me next.

-Irene

3 Comments

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3 responses to ““You Load Sixteen Tons, What Do You Get?”: A Little Labor History

  1. Eric

    EXCELLENT EXCELLENT EXCELLENT!!! Great post. Matewan is one of my all time favorite films. Not nearly enough people know about this stuff. Great job!

  2. amy

    Have you read “Out of this Furnace”?

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