"As recently as the 1980s, plenty of coalfield residents thought Big Coal was the problem. But these days, in . . . Central Appalachia — southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky and eastern Tennessee — coal mining is overwhelmingly popular, despite well-documented risks to workers’ health and community safety," reports Gabriel Schwartzman of In These Times
, a liberal, labor-oriented managzine. (Photo by Schwartzman: Supervisory miner gets coffee before work)
Schwartzman spent this summer in the region trying to determine why the previous Democratic and union stronghold has turned so sharply to the right, and doesn't mince words in presenting his conclusion: "At $108,000 a year, nothing in Appalachia compares to miners' wages," he writes. Those wage increases are linked to increased mechanization and smaller workforces, and have changed the political and financial nature of that workforce, he reports. One miner in Pike County, Kentucky, told him he would lose everything if "coal was shut down" because no job in the region could pay him as much.
The union battles for higher wages, better safety and benefits of 30 years ago were largely lost, ultimately ending with the United Mine Workers of America
abandoning strikes, Schwartzman writes. Companies raised wages without unions, but cut many jobs with increased mechanization. A major unionized company in the region, Patriot Coal
, is now bankrupt and unable to pay miners' pensions.
Miners with jobs told Schwartzman the non-union life is good. "We are scabs. We're proud to be scabs," one surface miner at Camp Branch mine in West Virginia told him. They are loyal to their companies, and that loyalty extends to families, friends and businesses supported by coal miners, Schwartzman reports. But an Energy Information Administration
forecast of a 58 percent decline in Central Appalachian coal production by 2035 is reason for many to worry. Though the current decline is being caused mainly by competition from cheap natural gas and the decreased viability of Appalachian coal, miners tend to believe increased environmental regulation is the cause.
Schwartzman reports intimidation and threats received by those who advocate for safer mining practices or oppose mountaintop-removal mining. "Social media is used as a mobilizing tool against 'tree huggers,'" Schwartzman reports. "Aside from calling rallies and protests, post like this August 6 one appear regularly on Citizens for Coal
's Facebook page: 'Just saw a post saying tree hugger in Gilbert eating at Wallys restaurant.'"
Many miners expressed to Schwartzman the need to vote out President Obama, even though his administration increased mine safety inspections, probably reducing miner injuries; increased health care for black-lung victims, and increased investments in clean-coal technology. Schwartzman writes that coal companies stir up anti-Obama rhetoric, but the Christian right and the National Rifle Association
also play a role. "Those forces play upon values of autonomy and independence that run deep here," Schwartzman writes. "For 150 years, these values have helped Appalachians survive outsiders exploiting their mountain resources. Now those values have become aligned with out-of-state coal companies against environmentalists and liberals." (Read more
Neither party has supported policies that will help the coal miner, Betty Dotson-Lewis writes
for the Daily Yonder