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Miners, managers and one-man drills

“Air. A very small word,” stated the Ideal Power magazine in April, 1910, “but one indicating both destructive and creative beyond comprehension.”

In the case of the Copper Country, it was no so much the air, as the tools it powered. And while not intending to, Ideal Power quite accurately described the effect of air, and the one-man drill, on the men in the Copper Country.

Ever in search of new or advanced technology that would reduce ore production costs, Lake Superior copper mine managers had been aware of lighter pneumatic drills for a decade or more before 1912, when they announced they would switch to using them exclusively in the mines. Mine owners believed these new, lighter, more powerful drills, would create an enormous cost savings.

The Western Federation of Miners, on the other hand, touted the new drills as destructive beyond comprehension. Union organizers clamed a drill that could be operated by one man, rather than the current, larger, heavier, two-man drills, would throw every other miner out of work. Many miners thought that, too. Miners operating the new drills would no longer have a partner to look for him should be injured, or disabled. He would work alone now.

Trammers also hated the one-man drill for the same reason. Many immigrant workers entered the mines as trammers, or unskilled laborers, and subsequently worked their way up to becoming miners, blasting rock loose rather than picking it up and carting it away. The one-man drill would destroy any hope of moving up the ladder.

Mine managers responded to the claims that miners would be displaced. Managers and engineers stated that the new technology would permit companies to now work poorer, lower grade pockets of ore than was feasible previously, and would therefore, actually increase the demand for miners.

Miners, overall, were not in total agreement over the one-man drills. Not many men had used one prior to November 1912, when the companies announced they would be used throughout the mines. Up to that time, companies had experimented with several different types and models. They had conducted time and efficiency studies, as well as cost analysis, in comparison to the two-man drills.

Most miners, who had used the drills, while not feeling safe with them, did make more money using the new drills. At the Calumet and Hecla mines, for example, wages on average increased from $2.83 per shift to $3.34 per shift.

While the argument over drills waged on, other contentious issues were being ignored. Many miners, along with other underground workers, still felt the companies were demanding too much work from them. Additionally, many contract workers believed they were being cheated.

At the beginning of a new contract period, a mining captain took measurements of the area to be mined, and recorded them into a contract book. At the end of the one-month contract, the captain again took measurements, based off the first ones. The difference was in measurements was calculated, converted to cubic fathoms (six feet, by six feet, by six feet), and recorded in the contract book. After the cost of supplies (dynamite, fuse, lamp oil, drill steel, and etcetera) was deducted, the mining teams received their earnings, which were then divided among the team members.

But these were not “company account” men. As contract miners, they were self-employed. Like the mining captain, they knew how to take and record measurements. Based on the pre-agreed contract price, they could calculate their earnings, and from these calculations, could later determine what the cost of supplies had amounted to and how much was deducted from the settlement. They knew if they were being cheated. Unfortunately, if they were, they did not always know by whom. Was the company ordering the captains to cheat the men in order to save labor costs? Was the captain cheating them and pocketing the difference? Or was it just a matter of miscalculations? It was just easier and saved time to blame the company.

“The miners’ wages largely depend upon the efficiency of the man,” the Copper Country Commercial Club quoted an unidentified mine superintendent as saying, “as our work is all on the bonus system and is so arranged that increased efficiency is of mutual benefit to the employer and the employee.”

According to the source, there existed a fixed contract, “which is not cut as the efficiency of the employee’s efficiency increases.”

The significance of this is that while the miners still considered themselves contract workers, managers referred to them as employees. The ways workers and managers viewed each other had changed over the decades, with each eyeing the other with increasing suspicion.

In reality, the men were not being cheated in most instances. They were, however, feeling pushed to produce beyond their physical endurance. If managers would not listen, and the individual had no voice, then they would have to push back collectively. The Western Federation of Miners, although radical, began to look more and more inviting.

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