By the time I started my coal mining “career” in 2007, the union was all but gone in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia. I had been raised union and knew the benefits that came with it, but in its absence, I ended up joining thousands of other young men naive enough to believe we didn’t need a union. It didn’t take long to realize how much control the coal companies had regained over all of our lives.
At one time, it seemed as though there were more union miners than non-union in central Appalachia. Throughout the mid-1970s and 80s, dozens of large union mining complexes (mines with attached coal preparation facilities and rail service) were operating in the region. These complexes employed thousands of men, and many women.
As I understood it, life was good for those who worked at the complexes. Miners made a union wage, had union benefits including guaranteed days off, voluntary overtime, excellent retirement and healthcare benefits, and worker’s rights that enhanced the safety culture at the mine. The sheer size of the complexes also gave the miner’s many amenities not found at smaller truck mines, including large “clean” and “dirty” locker rooms with heated floors, showering facilities, and even paved parking lots. But they weren’t to last. The seams that supported larger facilities were rapidly depleted as more mechanized forms of mining, such as long wall systems, were being implemented.
And then the coal markets busted.
Beginning in the late 80s, coal corporations, doing as they do, shut down a majority of their mines and a few filed for bankruptcy. The union mines, with the more “costly” labor overhead, were the first to go. Thousands of union miners, including my father, were laid off. The companies kept smaller operations running, often leasing out their harder to mine reserves to smaller private outfits. These “dog holes” became havens for the “scabs” who worked during the labor strikes. Union miners, who stayed in the region, (again, like my father) often reached a point of desperation and would go to work in those same mines, sacrificing safety, benefits, and job security to provide for their families.
By the time coal markets rebounded ten years later, all of the original companies had been restructured, re-organized, purchased by new companies, and renamed into smaller subsidiaries and LLCs. New mines with new names were almost always opened non-union.
With such a low presence, memories of the union were lost to younger miners when the industry ramped up their production, and for reasons unknown, the United Mine Workers put minimal effort into organizing new miners. In our area of southwestern Virginia, the United Mine Workers had full time organizers on the payroll at the Castlewood, Virginia office, but they were hardly seen or heard from unless the head office in Arlington mandated it, and even that was rare.
The companies had also done their homework. Following nearly a hundred years of labor resistance, they had learned just how far they could push coal miners before they would fight back. They learned how to manipulate the culture through organizations like Friends of Coal, and how to distract everyone with the threat of environmentalists and liberal politicians. All of it led to the most insidious outcome yet, a population of young miners who honestly felt as if the companies cared about them, their families, and their safety.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The mine where I worked touted safety programs and reward systems, but those programs were a façade in front of the more important push for production. As a certified mine electrical repairman, it was my responsibility—by state and federal law—to inspect and ensure the safe and proper operation of the underground mining equipment. Underground mining machinery is very dangerous, energized by three phase power systems ranging from 480 to 996 volts with long electrical trailing cables constantly being dragged through the mine entries. The machines had tremendous weight and power with hydraulic and mechanical systems to operate and move them in confined spaces. And many of them had to be permissible, i.e. incapable of causing an explosion if we were inundated with an explosive methane-air mixture during the mining process. As a certified mine electrical repairman, the charge of the machines and the lives of people who operated them, were literally put into your hands and it didn’t end there. In some cases, everyone’s employment with the company was in your hands as well.
Shutting down a piece of equipment because something is unsafe means a loss of production and would quickly gain you the resentment of your crew and mine management. The crew couldn’t help it. Each individual’s production numbers were being monitored by management. At the end of every shift the section foremen would ask: how many roof bolts each bolting crew put up, how many cars of coal did the shuttle car operators get, how many cuts did the miner man get and how many miner bits did they use. If something broke down and numbers suffered, the miners were often blamed. If the maintenance man shut it down, that’s his fault, but management would still look at the miners to wonder why it was damaged to the point of being unsafe. You can imagine how many people cut each other’s throats because of it. That’s not “running right” as Alpha Natural Resources states in their public relations campaigns. Giving maintenance men only 6 hours a night to do maintenance on those machines isn’t “running right”either.
The union gave miners safety rights that were denied at non-union mines. Miner’s had the right to say, “I’m not going to work until everything is made safe,” be it the mining conditions or the equipment. Production was kept at a safe level. There was never the worry about losing your job if your crew didn’t make the company’s unsafe production numbers. Everything was negotiated.
In a non-union mine, like the one I worked in, you had no such protection. If you refused to work in unsafe conditions, or called attention to a safety issue that required losses in production to correct, the company moved you around and gave you terrible work schedules doing the worst jobs in the mine. If you didn’t quit and kept making “trouble,” they’d eventually find some reason to fire you, or at minimum, you’d be at the top of the lay off roster.
There were some who did what they could for non-union miners, lawyers like Tony Oppegard and Bruce Stanley, men who have spent their lives defending unfairly discharged miners, and fighting to get compensation for the families of fallen miners. But the size and political influence of the coal industry is staggering. Small battles could be won, but without the union and it’s ability to stop coal production and force companies to the negotiating tables, there was never a hope to win the war.
I hope that by now you are thinking more broadly, and realizing that these labor rights issues are not limited to just coal mining. They affect all labor, but tend to be more poignant due the extreme dangers inherent in coal mining. Again, that’s why I’m pushing the new film Blood on the Mountain which explains all of this in a better way than I can on a blog. But I digress.
Without the union everything has suffered. Safety, benefits, worker compensation, hours, everything—even our community bonds and our common sense when it comes to electing politicians. The results have been clear. Hundreds of mining fatalities have occurred since 1990, and thousands more miners have been permanently disabled by injuries sustained in the mines. Disasters that include Southmountain No. 3, Darby, Sago, Aracoma, and Upper Big Branch, are only the most publicized and realized. And today, younger miners are contending with a surge in black lung and silicosis.
Lest I also mention that those who did work in union mines are now facing the loss of their pensions and healthcare.
The loss of our labor unions is only the symptom of a greater problem. It speaks to a economic culture fashioned by corporate interests, capable of turning us against one another in a society that judges us by our income, the size of our home, our cars, and the clothes we wear. We buy into a form of happiness that is directly attached to a price tag and somebody’s profit, only feeling good if we can purchase all the things advertisers tell us we want and need. If we weren’t so dependent on that system for happiness, if we took care of each other as a community, we could figure out a better way that didn’t leave us so emotionally poor—even when we do have high paying jobs. That was perhaps the best thing the union ever did for us. It kept us together and it kept us caring about one another.