How Scrip Coins Enslaved Generations of Workers

At some point in their lives, most people have worked at a job that they felt didn’t pay them what they were worth. What today’s beleaguered workforce doesn’t have to deal with, however, is getting paid in a currency that is worth next to nothing. For many years, coal miners had to put up with exactly that.

Due to their remote locations, coal-mining towns often only had one store for miners to purchase all of their supplies. The store was normally owned by the coal-mining companies, and was known as “the company store.” The company stores had no competition, and could charge what they pleased for their merchandise. Goods were often put on credit, and the money was taken directly out of miners’ paychecks.

In addition to supplying the miners with all of their living supplies, mining companies created their own currency. The currency, known as scrip, could be traded at the company store for goods. The scrip was virtually worthless outside of the company store. Some surrounding businesses would accept it, but at far below face value. So miners had two choices. The first and easiest choice was to buy their groceries, clothing, and other household goods from their nearby employer at extraordinarily high prices. The second and more difficult choice was to travel to a nearby town where the goods were better priced, but the miners’ money wasn’t worth as much.

Aside from scrip being nearly worthless, the jobs were long hours of backbreaking labor. So with families to feed and time a precious commodity, many coal miners were forced to hand over most of their scrip to the company store. Not only did the miners walk away with nearly nothing, they often ended up owing their employers more than they earned.

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