Did miners really owe their souls to the company store? Did they receive lower pay than in other jobs, despite the constant danger they faced? Was the quality of life in mining towns uniformly dismal? Soft Coal, Hard Choices answers these and other questions. The book contradicts many myths using evidence ranging from company records to oral histories to statistics collected by state and federal governments. While most studies of labor in the coal industry focus on union struggles, Fishback discloses the beneficial impact of competition among employers for labor. He further examines the impact of legal environment and the development of institutions like company towns. Careful analysis using economic theory and statistics reveals numerous insights about the welfare of coal miners in the early 1900s. Unions helped miners obtain higher wages, but so did competition among employers. Employers were unable to exploit local and housing monopolies because the miners had the option of moving from town to town. Workers choosing between mining and other jobs faced a hard choice between similar alternatives. High hourly earnings and freedom from close supervision in mining helped compensate miners for accepting more risk of accidents and layoffs. The combination of narrative and analysis in Soft Coal, Hard Choices will interest historians, economists, and the general reader alike.