Ernest Arthur Laney (1889-1958) was my father’s paternal grandfather. He was a miner in the lead and zinc mines that at one time dotted the landscapes of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
One generation further removed on my father’s maternal side, his great grandfather, David Williamson (1846-1908) was also a miner. David Williamson, along with numerous brothers and sons, had been coal miners in Scotland before immigrating to this country. They worked in these same mines and, as recent immigrants, they were probably particularly desperate for this work and qualified to do little else.
While the working conditions and health hazards of this particular segment of workers has not gotten as much attention as has the plight of coal workers, those who mined ore were no less vulnerable to exploitation by their employers.
Eagle-Picher Mining and Smelting Company was a conglomerate that owned many of the mines in the tri-state area. My great grandfather Laney worked for this company. At least one of his assignments was to a mine near Picher, Oklahoma.
While those who worked in lead and zinc mines did not suffer the effects of Black Lung disease, there were inherent dangers in their work environment nonetheless.
My father remembers as a child playing, climbing up and sliding down the huge piles of “chat”—the detritus brought up with the ore. The toxins contained in these erstwhile playgrounds of by-product had yet to be discovered.
Eventually, Picher was declared a Superfund site, and the town in which my father was born is no longer in existence. My father and I shared a heart-breaking documentary that details the environmental destruction wreaked by the tri-state mining industry upon Picher and the subsequent abandonment and condemnation of this once vital community. The film is entitled The Creek Runs Red, and I highly recommend it.
As members of a collective bargaining unit, my great grandfather and fellow Eagle-Picher miners had the backing of a labor union in combating such environmental work hazards and in negotiating for better pay on their behalf. Eagle-Picher miners were members of Local 861 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (which later merged with United Steel Workers of America.)
I am proud to have recently discovered, through researching newspapers of the time, that my great grandfather was personally involved in negotiations on behalf of those Eagle-Picher miners, successfully securing a new collective bargaining agreement in 1946.
Joplin Globe – April 21, 1946
On this Labor Day, as a member of American Federation of Musicians Local 802, I am very proud of the history of organized labor in my industry, in my orchestra, in our country, and in my own family.