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Miners Petition the King of Prussia for Relief from Intolerable Working Conditions in Essen (June 29, 1867)

The law concerning “the supervision of mining and the relations between mine and steel workers by mining authorities” of 1860 was followed by Prussia’s General Mining Law [Allgemeines Berggesetz für die preußische Staaten] of 1865. Both laws gave mine operators greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state and helped remove pre-modern barriers to the development of a vibrant mining industry. At the same time, however, these laws also entailed numerous disadvantages for miners, who were left more susceptible to wage fluctuations, the whims of profit-oriented owners, and sickness, disability, and death. In this petition from 1867, miners in Essen – part of the industrializing Ruhr district – complain about their working conditions. They address their complaint to the king, but this does not prevent their employers from rejecting the petition out of hand. Not long after, Essen miners went on strike – a new form of collective protest that led German employers to speak of strikes as a “cholera” afflicting German industry.

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Essen, 29 June 1867 [ . . . ].

Your Most Serene Highness, Supreme King!

Your Most Gracious King and Lord!

Spurred by ever-greater hardship, the humbly undersigned miners from the district of Essen dare approach Your Majesty’s throne to humbly present the following for Your most gracious consideration:

Since the passage of the law of May 20, 1860, concerning “the supervision of mining and the relations between mine and steel workers by mining authorities” [ . . . ], mine owners and miners have been able to conclude contracts on the basis of free and mutual agreement, and the Royal Mining Authority has no longer participated in the hiring and firing of miners, nor in the determination and payment of shift and piecework wages, with the result being that the determination of working hours and wages by employers’ cooperatives (i.e. the capitalists) takes place entirely at their will. Since that time, they have imposed such an excessive extension of working hours that this work – which was already unhealthy enough to begin with – now leaves many miners unfit for further labor by age 30 to 35; additionally, the entrepreneurs have set our wage so low that we can barely purchase the most dire necessities. The employers view us merely as machines without any will and as instruments whose capacity for work they can exploit to their utmost advantage; Your Majesty will gather from the following particulars just how little the determination of working hours involves “free agreement.”

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