For giving up his schooling and the chance of an improved future by going down in the mines to help his family make ends meet, a ‘boy’ made the handsome sum of $1.48 1/2 cents per day.
Readers who’ve followed many of my columns over the years might think that Vancouver Island’s coal mining was a litany of death and destruction.
That, of course, wasn’t the case. There wouldn’t have been a coal industry if miners hadn’t succeeded — and survived — shipping millions and millions of tons of the black diamond over the course of 90 years.
Obviously, they did more mining than having to deal with disaster. It was a wet, dirty, dangerous job for poor pay and, too often, little respect or regard from their employers. But, again, obviously, most of the thousands of miners survived and, to some degree, prospered.
As is also a matter of record, our coal mines were bedevilled by labour strife, including the two-year Great Strike that only ended with the start of the First World War. Time and again, colliery workers had to down tools for better wages, better and safer working conditions, often at the risk of not only losing the jobs they held, but the further threat of being blacklisted from the other Island collieries.
Which makes it interesting to see just what was expected of the men who risked their lives underground, and what was expected of the company. A great example is provided by a three-year contract Canadian Western Fuels Co. signed on Oct. 1, 1919 with its employees in the Number One Reserve and Harewood mines.
For starters, there were signing bonuses, beginning at 50 cents per day and increasing to $1.50 per day by contract’s end: “It being mutually understood by the Company and its employees that the bonuses…were granted to cover the cost of living, and that the said bonuses shall continue in effect until the cost of living shall be reduced in like amounts.”
The company also agreed to provide no-cost transportation (by train to the Reserve and Harewood mines, by ferry to the Protection Island shaft, an extension of the Esplanade No. 1 Mine). The next item addressed involves ‘dockage’—the amount of pay that a miner would be docked for shipping ‘refuse matter’ (inferior coal and rock waste) to the surface. Up to and including 50 pounds in one day was penalized by ‘double dockage.’ The actual amount in question is not specified in the contract but likely means that he’d be charged double the rate per pound for what he’d have received for coal.
A miner who met the quality standard was guaranteed a minimum daily scale of $4.25. (Should he be assigned duties topside he’d receive the same rate of pay.)
Above this set rate he’d earn 40.5 cents per ton for coal extracted in an upper seam, 47.5 cents per ton for that from a lower (more inaccessible) seam. If he had to help lay mine railway, he’d receive an additional 6.75 cents per ton for the first 50 feet of track, 13.5 cents per ton thereafter.
Concessions for his having to bore through fallow stretches of rock ranged from $1.35-$6.40 per yard, depending upon the thickness of the waste material. (If this had to be shipped to the surface for disposal, it didn’t count against him as dockage.) For installing stringers (props) he also received an allowance based upon the length of the timbers involved.
To represent the miners, a five-man Agreement Committee (three elected from the larger No. 1 Mine, one each from the Reserve and Protection shafts) would meet with management on a monthly basis, more frequently should it be required, “it being distinctively understood that there shall be no stoppage of work by employees, individually or collectively, pending the hearing of and adjustment of any dispute or grievance” during the term of the contract.
Production wasn’t to be interrupted by fatal accidents, either: “…The regular operation of the mine in which the accident occurred shall not be suspended during the day of the funeral of the deceased party, but any employee wishing to absent himself from work for the purpose of attending the funeral shall have the privilege of doing so…”
It would seem a reasonable assumption, all other factors of the industry considered, that a miner attending a workmate’s funeral would forfeit his day’s pay. He and every other man on the night, morning and afternoon shifts of the day of the service also would have to give 50 cents each (25 cents for ‘boys’) from his pay cheque for the Joint Fund which was distributed thusly:
1. In the event of the deceased leaving a widow with or without a child or children, the said Fund is to be paid to the widow.
2. In the event of the deceased leaving no widow, but a child or children under the age of 16 years the said Fund to be paid to the official guardian for the benefit of the said child or children.
3. In the event of the deceased leaving neither widow nor children under the age of 16 years the said Fund to be paid to the mother (if any) of the deceased.
4. In the event of the deceased leaving neither widow nor children under the age of 16 years, nor mother, the Fund to be paid to the father (if any) of the deceased.
5. In the event of the deceased leaving neither widow nor children under the age of 16 years, mother or father, the said fund to be paid to the Medical Relief and Accident Fund of the Underground Employees.
(It should be noted that fathers, sons and brother often worked alongside each other and were subject to being killed in the same accident, with a resulting effect on the issuing of death benefits. When we consider, too, that a single accident often claimed several, even numerous lives, the levy of 50 cents per victim could take a big bite out of surviving miners’ pay cheques.)
These conditions were exclusive of the Workmen’s Compensation Act and the company’s contractual obligations to the medical and accident funds.
An employee’s cost of coal in the 1919 contract, FOB the No. 1 Mine Coal Chute, was $4 per ton (effectively a day’s pay). An employee, defined as “any married man keeping house or any single man who is in support of his parents or brothers or sisters,” was allowed one ton per month at that rate unless “covered by special order from the general superintendent”.
Just how much did a miner earn, a century ago? He received a daily wage and he was paid by the ton — less any waste materials he inadvertently sent to the surface. Too much ‘dockage’ and he was fired. Monetary allowances were given for working conditions such as whether he was working an upper or lower seam, whether he had to help lay track and to shore up the ever-extending workings.
At the top of the pay scale were the fire boss and machine shop foreman, at $4.99 per day, first-class machinists, shotlighters, facemen and first-class drillers, $4.92, followed by the driver boss, $4.38, bratticemen, timbermen and rope inspector, $4.25, and top-scale pipemen, $4.18. Lower on the ladder of skilled labour, at $3.71 per day, were timbermen and tracklayer helpers, roadmen, pushers, elevator engineers, winch drivers, cagers, loaders, machine runners and helpers, muckers, cagers and labourers.
‘Boys’ — their official designation — were legally employed above and below ground. Their youthful inexperience is reflected by their pay scales although a boy who started as a driver’s assistant at $2.18 daily could work himself up to driver and $3.24 daily.
The lowest of the low — what today’s corporate euphemists would term entry-level jobs — and the equivalent of an office boy, was the door boy. For giving up his schooling and the chance of an improved future, for going down in the mines with his father, his brothers, his uncles to help his family make ends meet (perhaps because his father had been killed or maimed), for risking his life alongside his adult fellow workers, that ‘boy’ made the handsome sum of $1.48 1/2 cents per day.
At least, that’s what he made after Oct. 1, 1919, working for Canadian Western Fuel Co.