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Rank-and-File Rebellions in the Coalfields, 1964-80

As a Charleston Gazette reporter since 1982, Paul J. Nyden has won thirty newspaper awards including: a George Polk Award for business reporting, two first-place Society of Professional Journalists awards, and one first-place Investigative Reporters and Editors award. He taught at the University of Pittsburgh and other colleges from 1972 to 1978, did research for federal agencies from 1979 to 1981, and since 1994, has taught courses in sociology and history at West Virginia University’s Institute of Technology.This paper was originally prepared for a November 11, 2005, conference at the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History at the Mendocino Institute, University of California, Los Angeles.

There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice. Injunctions and guns, like morphia, produce a temporary quiet. Then the pain, agonizing and more severe, comes again. So it is with West Virginia. The strike was broken. But the next year the miners gathered their breath for another struggle. Medieval West Virginia! With its tent colonies on the bleak hills! With its grim men and women! When I get to the other side, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virginia.

Mother Jones

Rank-and-file rebellions began rumbling in the coalfields from Pittsburgh and down the Ohio River after 1964, when dissident miners first challenged incumbents in international and district United Mine Workers (UMW) elections. Concern and anger also seethed through the coalfields of southern West Virginia during those years, particularly over black lung, a painful and often-fatal occupational disease. Doctors Isadore E. Buff and Donald Rasmussen helped spark those rumblings with speeches in union halls, schools, and churches.

A tragic spark ignited the growing resistance. Before dawn, at 5 a.m. on November 20, 1968, a methane and coal dust explosion ripped through Consol No. 9, located between Mannington and Farmington in West Virginia’s northern coalfields. The blast killed seventy-eight miners. People living in Fairmont, ten miles away, felt the tremors. The tragedy captured national attention.

Reactions from political and union leaders were telling and typical. Hulett C. Smith, governor of West Virginia, offered these words of comfort: “We must recognize that this is a hazardous business, and what has occurred here is one of the hazards of being a miner.” Assistant Interior Secretary Jay Cordell was baffled: “The company here has done all in its power to make this a safe mine. Unfortunately, we don’t understand why these things happen, but they do happen.” United Mine Workers President W. A. “Tony” Boyle traveled to Mannington. With the still-smoking mine portal in the background, Boyle announced: “As long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger of explosion….This happens to be one of the better companies as far as cooperation with our union and safety is concerned.”

What a contrast to John L. Lewis, who visited Central Coal’s No. 5 Mine in Centralia, Illinois after an explosion killed 111 miners there on March 19, 1947. With coal dust on his face, preserved in a nationally famous photograph, Lewis said, “Coal is already saturated with the blood of too many men and drenched with the tears of too many surviving widows and orphans.”

The 1969 Black Lung Strike

I. E. Buff, who was a Charleston heart specialist, launched a one-man crusade against coal operators for doing little or nothing to control coal dust inside their mines. Continuous mining machines, introduced in the 1950s, usually increased the density of dust in the air underground. In 1968, Buff told Governor Smith only four coal miners in the history of West Virginia had ever received compensation for getting black lung. In November, Buff participated in a television program about black lung, which fatally afflicted miners, sometimes in their early thirties. Charles Andrews, Provost of Health Sciences at West Virginia University, responded, “Coal dust may add to the difficulty, but cigarette smoking is perhaps the most important factor.” UMW leaders in Charleston and Beckley showed little concern. Buff continued his speaking tour. The Consol No. 9 tragedy propelled his lonely crusade into a national issue. Some county physicians’ groups also criticized Buff. The Cabell County Medical Society proclaimed pneumoconiosis was “a condition compatible with reasonable health.” The Kanawha County Medical Society passed a resolution condemning “the activities of those in the medical profession who have unduly alarmed and have incited a number of those employed in the coal industry without first having presented scientific documentation of their findings.”

On January 26, 1969, thousands of miners, their families, and supporters gathered in the Charleston Civic Auditorium. Miners proposed a new bill to the state legislature to control coal dust and compensate black lung victims. Tony Boyle was invited to the rally. He didn’t show up.

Three days later, R. R. Humphreys, president of UMW District 17 in Charleston, sent a letter to all local unions in his district ordering them not to donate money to the Black Lung Association. Any miner joining the “dual association,” Humphries warned, could be expelled from the union.

Dr. Rowland Burns, who engineered the Cabell County Medical Society’s resolution about black lung, testified during legislative hearings in February. State Senator Warren McGraw, who came from a coal-mining family in Wyoming County, asked Burns how much coal operators were paying him to testify. To the surprise and amusement of many, Burns replied, “I have not been paid near enough. I can’t tell you exactly what I’ve been paid, but I’ve been paid for my opinion and my time.” The hearings dragged on.

Then, on Tuesday, February 18, a local dispute erupted at Westmoreland Coal’s East Gulf Mine near the little town of Rhodell. As the day shift was about to go underground, one miner dumped water out of his lunch pail. All the miners walked off. Asked why, they said they wanted the legislature to pass the black lung bill. The next day, fourteen nearby mines shut down. By the end of the week, 12,000 men were on strike. The next Monday, dozens of miners arrived in Charleston and jammed galleries inside the State Capitol, carrying signs that said, “No Law. No Coal.” By Tuesday, 30,000 miners were out on strike.

Some blamed “Reds” and “Communists” for inciting the strike. Buff blamed the “sick Legislature” for refusing to act. A legislative committee reported out a very diluted black lung bill on February 26. Two days later, an amended bill—that included a series of changes demanded by the miners—passed the House of Delegates, 94 to 1. The lone dissenter switched his vote.

When the state Senate began debating the bill on March 5, 40,000 of West Virginia’s 43,000 miners were on strike—illegally. The Senate passed a much weaker bill than the House did. Legislative arguments continued. On March 8, the final day of the regular legislative session, both houses approved a bill very much like the original House bill. Miners met the next day in Beckley and pledged not to return to work until Republican Governor Arch Moore signed the bill. Under pressure, Moore signed it on March 12 and miners returned to work. The new law created tough dust control standards and a state fund to compensate miners suffering from pneumoconiosis.

No one could ever explain exactly how the strike began and grew. The strike’s spontaneity was helped by an iron-clad principle of union coal miners never to cross picket lines or go in to work after a fellow miner dumped his water out. Robert Payne, a disabled black miner who was president of the Disabled Miners and Widows, described strike spontaneity during a 1972 interview. “The strike’s the onliest weapon the rank and file has….There wasn’t no one person responsible for what happened in 1969. Everybody was responsible for it. It was all the miners and disabled miners striking to get this Black Lung law passed.” Later that year, Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, a major advance over earlier mine safety laws.

West Virginia’s twenty-three-day Black Lung Strike had three clear results:

  • For the first time in history, the West Virginia Legislature recognized black lung as a compensable disease.
  • The threat of another wildcat strike, a much bigger one that would spread to several states, helped convince Congress to pass a new federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Bill, which became law on December 30.
  • The strike was the key factor convincing long-time UMW leader Jock Yablonski to run against Tony Boyle, the first major challenge to the union hierarchy in forty-three years.

The West Virginia Black Lung strike was the longest political strike in modern U.S. labor history.

‘Jock’—Joseph A. Yablonski

Seven weeks later after the Black Lung Strike ended, Joseph A. Yablonski, a member of the UMW’s International Executive Board from western Pennsylvania, spoke at a Students for a Democratic Society rally at the University of Pittsburgh on May 1. Yablonski still publicly backed Boyle, who became UMW president in 1963, three years after John L. Lewis retired. May Day, Yablonksi said, was “labor’s day to take stock of what is accomplished and what is yet to be accomplished and what is to be done in the interest of society.” After talking about what coal miners and other workers needed, Yablonski paused. Students thought his speech was over.

Then, in his gravelly voice, he added, “There’s one more thing we need to do in this country, and that’s to get the hell out of Vietnam.” Jock praised the militancy of young people in the 1960s. “Nothing was ever achieved in the world without getting militant. Young people in America today, if they are to cope with the wealth that is milking our country, better get militant or they are going to pay a terrible price in the future.”

On May 30, Jock opened a press conference in Washington, D.C. by quoting John L. Lewis, “When ye be an anvil, lay ye very still. But when ye be a hammer, strike with all thy will.” Announcing his candidacy for UMW president, Yablonski said, “Today is the day I cease being an anvil.” For more than six months, Yablonski waged a campaign that played a critical role in building a movement to democratize the union. But when the votes were counted, he lost 80,577 to 46,073. Boyle stole the election. (Two years later, U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant ordered a new election to be supervised by the U.S. Department of Labor.) At the end of December, Yablonski, his wife, and daughter were murdered in their Washington, Pennsylvania home. The three gunmen later went to prison. So did the man who hired them. His name was Tony Boyle. At Yablonski’s funeral, Miners for Democracy was born.

Rank-and-File Groups

The Black Lung Association (BLA), formed shortly before the Black Lung Strike, allied itself with Miners for Democracy. Charles Brooks, a black miner who worked thirty-two years in Kanawha County mines, was the group’s first president when it was formed in 1968. When Arnold Miller became the association’s president in June 1970, he began publishing The Black Lung Bulletin, with help from other miners and VISTA volunteers. By late 1971, the BLA had nearly twenty chapters in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Many were politically active. All worked to help miners with pneumoconiosis apply for state and federal compensation benefits. Robert Payne, a miner for twenty-seven years before he was badly burned in a 1967 accident, was one of Yablonski’s strongest supporters in southern West Virginia. Payne remembered Yablonski’s words at a Logan rally: “One thing I want you all boys to do is to keep the fight up. Now I’m going to win this election. But it is going to be stolen away from me. And I won’t be able to prove it.”

After Yablonski’s death, Payne helped organize a meeting in Beckley in May 1970, inviting Boyle to meet with disabled miners. Boyle refused to come. Payne’s new group, the Disabled Miners and Widows of Southern West Virginia, called for another wildcat strike in June against coal companies and the UMW for failing to help disabled miners. This strike also involved more than 40,000 miners, after it spread to neighboring coalfields in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Payne believed the June 1970 strike helped keep the miners’ rank-and-file movement alive and growing. In June 1972, Payne predicted Arnold Miller would defeat Boyle in the election for UMW president later that year. Miller did. Payne kept his organization alive after the election. It was always the most militant of the three coalfield reform groups, never giving up its commitment to direct action, protests, and strikes.

Hyden and Buffalo Creek

Two other mine tragedies—an explosion and a flood—increased the drive for coalfield reforms. On December 30, 1970, the first anniversary of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, thirty-eight miners died in an explosion in Hyden, Kentucky. At the instruction of company owners, miners used an illegal fuse to trigger a blast of between 100 and 200 sticks of dynamite. Mining laws prohibited the use of more than ten sticks in any underground detonation. Elburt Osborn, from the U.S. Bureau of Mines, said, “This disaster was not unexpected. We’ve had two good years since Farmington, and I think we can almost expect one of these a year.”

On February 26, 1972, three Pittston Coal Co. slate dams collapsed near the head of Buffalo Hollow in Logan County. At 8 a.m., more than 120 million gallons of black water began surging down the narrow hollow in waves up to thirty feet high. Moving thirty miles an hour, the murky waters demolished most of sixteen mining towns before reaching the Guyandotte River, killing 125 and leaving 4,000 homeless.

An eerily similar tragedy struck the mining town of Aberfan, Wales on October 21, 1966. After days of heavy rains, a slate dump collapsed, rolled down a mountainside and buried Pantglas Junior School, killing 116 boys and girls and twenty-eight adults, five of whom were teachers. The Aberfan tragedy sparked studies of dangerous slate dumps and impoundments in Great Britain and the United States.

But despite warnings from these studies—some specifically citing the Buffalo Hollow dam—coal companies like Pittston did nothing. In the wake of the Buffalo Creek disaster, Pittston Coal vice president Francis J. Palamara said, “We’re investigating the damage which was caused by the flood which we believe, of course, was an act of God.” Palmara said there was nothing wrong with the dams, which were simply “incapable of holding the water God poured into it.” During a citizen’s protest meeting in the Buffalo Grade School in Accoville a month later, one older woman said, “I’ve lived at the top of the hollow for a long time. And I ain’t never seen God up there driving no bulldozer dumping slate on the dam.” Not to be outdone, Governor Arch Moore said, “The only real sad part about it [the news coverage] is that the state of West Virginia took a terrible beating which far overshadowed the beating which the individuals that lost their lives took, and I consider this an even greater tragedy than the accident itself.”

Before Moore left office in January 1977, he settled a state lawsuit against Pittston Coal for $1 million, far less than the damage company negligence cost the state in reclamation and rebuilding expenses. Moore was accused of taking bribes from coal companies during his first two terms as governor between 1969 and 1977, but was never formally charged. In 1984, Moore ran for re-election as governor and won. On May 8, 1990, Moore pleaded guilty to five federal felony counts of extortion, tax fraud, mail fraud, and obstruction of justice. Shortly after finishing his third term, on August 7, 1990, Moore began serving a two-year term at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, where he helped prepare food for fellow inmates.

Beckley coal operator H. Paul Kizer played a major role in those indictments. Kizer told federal authorities he paid more than $723,000 in extortion money to Moore in 1985 and 1989 to receive black lung refunds and to qualify for lucrative “super tax credits.”

The 1972 United Mine Workers Election

In 1970, Lou Antal headed the first Miners For Democracy (MFD) ticket. He ran for president of District 5, which included coal counties near Pittsburgh. All the top three MFD candidates won. But pro-Boyle election officials tossed out ballots from three of the district’s largest locals and counted illegal absentee ballots. Rank-and-file miners challenged the results of both the 1969 International and 1970 District 5 elections in federal court. In May 1972, three federal court rulings threw out the results of both those elections, ordering new ones. The rulings also ordered elections to be held in seven other UMW districts.

Later that month, 463 delegates from coal towns from Alabama to Nova Scotia gathered at Wheeling College (now Wheeling-Jesuit College). Miners for Democracy, the Black Lung Association, and the Disabled Miners and Widows met to choose candidates and to write an election platform. There was still back-room dealing. On Saturday night, “pragmatism” convinced many that one principle in choosing the top MFD candidate should be, “No hunkies, no blacks.” Antal, who had already run twice for District 5 president, quipped, “With this kind of an attitude, the only man truly eligible to run for UMW president would be a Native American Indian.” Payne was also disturbed, but said, “During the campaign, I’ve been trying to get this thing [“No hunkies, no blacks”] squashed down….But we want to get rid of Tony Boyle for good this time.” On Sunday, the MFD convention nominated Arnold Miller, a disabled miner from Cabin Creek, near Charleston, West Virginia. Mike Trbovich from western Pennsylvania, whose father was born in Serbia, was nominated for vice president. Harry Patrick, from northern West Virginia, was nominated for secretary-treasurer,

The MFD platform reflected Yablonski’s platform that identified mine safety as the “foremost issue.” The platform also demanded: an overhaul of the union administration, democratic elections in all districts, moving the union headquarters back to the coalfields, a new contract increasing pensions and health benefits, and a six-hour work day. In December 1972, Miller beat Boyle 70,337 to 56,334, winning 55.5 percent of the vote. For the first time in the union’s eighty-three-year history, a slate of rank-and-file candidates won. Miller’s victory was followed by MFD victories in most district elections held in 1973.

Arnold Miller: A Disappointment

After Arnold Miller won election in December 1972, many UMW members no longer saw a need for independent rank-and-file groups. Miners for Democracy disbanded. The Disabled Miners and Widows met sporadically. Only the Black Lung Association remained active. In 1974, when Miller began negotiating a new contract, he worked behind the scenes, just like Boyle. A new contract was approved in December, but 44 percent of the miners voted against it.

Distrust of Miller spread and a new wave of wildcat strikes protested company safety policies. In the summer of 1975, one strike involved 80,000 miners. The next summer, 120,000 miners walked off their jobs—nearly every union miner east of the Mississippi River. Smaller wildcat strikes, often shutting down just one mine, were common occurrences everywhere.

Miller won re-election in June 1977 with just 39.8 percent of the vote. UMW Secretary-Treasurer Harry Patrick, backed by younger and more militant miners, got 24.9 percent. Lee Roy Patterson, a Boyle supporter from western Kentucky, received 35.3 percent.

After the election, Miller drifted further away from rank-and-file unionism. In November, he proposed expelling all “Communists” from the UMW and deporting them from the country. When Miller began negotiating a new labor contract in 1978, the union’s thirty-nine-member Bargaining Council voted down his first draft on February 12. A second proposed contract went to UMW members for a vote. They rejected it on March 6. President Jimmy Carter then invoked anti-strike provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. But after miners routinely ignored Carter’s Taft-Hartley sanctions, a federal judge withdrew them one week later. The miners approved a third version of the contract, with 57 percent of the vote. The new version eliminated proposed repressive workplace disciplinary measures, increased wages slightly, increased pension benefits significantly, but reduced health benefits.

New York Times reporter Ben A. Franklin summarized the bitter 110-day strike:

Looming through the gritty Appalachian mist was one stirring fact. Although its leadership and its reputation and its treasury have been ruined, the rank and file of the United Mine Workers have emerged as unexpectedly, stubbornly, even heroically strong men and women. They overcame their own inept hierarchy and, to an extent that Mr. Miller obviously never believed possible, humbled the operators.

During the strike, union, church, community, and professional leaders set up Miners Support Committees in cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, and New York. In Beckley, West Virginia, several doctors and health care professionals set up a free clinic to donate services to striking miners. Miller openly discouraged the formation of these committees and blocked the distribution of strike relief funds until the miners returned to work. Ill from black lung, Miller retired in November 1979 and died, at sixty-two, in July 1985.

Growing Assaults on Union Miners After 1980

McDowell County epitomizes the history of West Virginia’s coalfields over the last thirty-five years. McDowell has produced more coal than any West Virginia county and at one time it was the nation’s leading coal-producing county. In 1970, coal mines generated 68.3 percent of all jobs and 78.9 percent of all wages there. McDowell County had the highest percentage of black miners in the Central Appalachian coalfields, many of them sons of miners who migrated from Alabama. Today, only a handful of black miners have jobs anywhere in West Virginia. McDowell was home to many model coal towns, like Gary, built by U.S. Steel. Welch, the county seat, was a bustling center. Stores, restaurants, and movie theaters packed Main Street.

Today, McDowell is the state’s thirteenth largest coal-producing county. Main Street is desolate. Hardly any black miners have jobs. Movie theaters are gone. Stores are boarded up. Office buildings are closed. A couple of restaurants still serve lunch, near the steep McDowell County Courthouse steps where Baldwin-Felts gunmen shot Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers in January 1921. (Hatfield and Chambers, police officers in Matewan, Mingo County, encouraged striking miners in 1920 to arm themselves to stop company Baldwin-Felts guards from evicting them. In the fight that ensued, seven guards and four local residents died. The deaths of Hatfield and Chambers sparked the famous 1921 Armed March on Blair Mountain, the largest armed labor protest in U.S. labor history.) By 1980, coal employment began to decline throughout West Virginia, but coal production continued to increase.

A. T. Massey’s Anti-Union Crusade

In the early 1980s, A. T. Massey Coal began a major crusade to keep the UMW out of new mines and bust the union at existing operations. The battle continues today at the Cannelton mining complex near Charleston, a mining operation that opened in 1871 near Smithers. Massey Energy, the new name of the company based in Richmond, Virginia, bought Cannelton after a Kentucky bankruptcy judge nullified a UMW contract signed by Horizon Natural Resources, the bankrupt company. His August 2004 ruling terminated all health care benefits the union contract promised miners and their spouses for the rest of their lives. Massey is now reopening the mining complex with non-union workers, the latest of its anti-union drives.

Massey began concentrating its coal acquisitions and operations in southern West Virginia twenty-five years ago, where low-sulfur coal reserves help electric-power plants comply with Clean Air Act standards. Massey’s first major battle came in 1981, when the UMW tried to organize the new Elk Run mining complex in Boone County. This strike signaled a turning point in half a century of union strength in the Central Appalachian coalfields. Massey kept the UMW out of Elk Run after a long and bitter organizing effort that included the arrests of dozens of miners including Cecil Roberts, now the union’s president. The second major battle came when the UMW called a “selective strike” on October 1, 1984, against several Massey subsidiaries in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Unlike Elk Run, these mines were already operating with union workers. In 1984, Massey refused to sign a new union contract at subsidiaries including: Rawl Coal Sales, Rocky Hollow Coal Co., and Sprouse Creek Processing. (Today, Massey Energy is the largest coal producer in West Virginia and the fourth largest coal company in the country. Just 170 of the company’s more than 5,500 employees are UMW members, most of whom work in coal preparation plants.)

Donald L. Blankenship, a young company accountant in 1984, played a major role in leading strikebreaking efforts in 1984–85 when E. Morgan Massey still headed the company. In early 1985, scores of miners were arrested. Tensions increased in late May when a sniper killed a truck driver hauling coal for non-union Massey operations in eastern Kentucky. Massey used barbed wire, German shepherd dogs, armed guards, and video cameras to intimidate miners from entering company property during protests. The fifteen-month strike, the longest authorized strike in UMW history, ended in December 1985. Some union miners began working alongside strikebreakers hired by Massey. But Massey fired UMW strike leaders and refused to sign new union contracts.

Richard Trumka, who became UMW president in 1982, coordinated the 1984–85 strike, focusing on legal efforts, not direct action. Trumka, now secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, opposed mass demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins to block roads near Massey mining operations. The UMW lost.

The 1989 Pittston Strike Brings Victory

Things turned out different in 1989, when Pittston Coal tried to eliminate the union from its Central Appalachian mines. Pittston wanted to force miners to work weekend shifts, change work rules, subcontract work to nonunion companies, and cancel health benefits. On April 5, 1989, 1,200 miners in Virginia and 500 in West Virginia walked out on strike. (In a very unusual move, Massey allowed Pittston to send its strikebreakers to work weekend shifts at Massey’s Elk Run mining complex, helping Pittston fill its coal contracts.)

But this time, the union ran things differently. Led by former-UMW organizer Eddie Burke and then-UMW vice president Cecil Roberts, massive demonstrations blocked roads near Pittston mines. One march involved 20,000 union, religious, and community leaders in southwestern Virginia. The Pittston strike climaxed in mid-September. Union miners took over the Moss No. 3 Preparation Plant in Russell County, Virginia and shut down coal production for a week.

The union won a new contract. It was not perfect. “But the terms of the agreement were vastly more favorable to the union than anyone dreamed would be possible when Pittston first set out to break the union, to drop all health care obligations to retirees, and to bust up the BCOA [Bituminous Coal Operators Association],” wrote Jim Sessions, a strike leader (Stephen L. Fisher, ed., Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change [1993], 222). Pittston executives admitted they were caught off guard by the ability of the union to organize massive and peaceful resistance.

Coal Field Changes in the 1990s

During the 1990s, the coal industry and coal town life continued changing. First, the increasing number of mountaintop removal mines hurt union organizing efforts. Surface miners are more like construction workers than underground miners, tending to be less militant. In 2004, nearly 37 percent of the 151.7 million tons mined in West Virginia came from mountaintop removal and other surface operations. Mountaintop removal mines typically level mountains and remove up to a dozen coal seams. These operations drove wedges between the union and local residents angered by the total destruction of nearby mountains. They also caused conflicts between the union and environmentalists.

Second, steel companies began selling their captive mines throughout Central Appalachia. Historically, steel companies were the industry’s best employers. They built the nicest towns. They had the best safety records. They hired more black miners. When steel companies—faced with economic difficulties of their own from cheap foreign steel imports—sold mines and high-quality metallurgical coal reserves, Massey stepped in to buy them. Today, Massey owns more than 75 percent of all U.S. metallurgical coal reserves.

Third, classic coal company towns continued disappearing as employment declined and people moved. In the early 1900s, people traveling to coal towns had to ride railroad trains. Early coal companies built their own towns, since most areas with major coal reserves were basically uninhabited. By the 1950s, most people owned cars and drove on the growing public highway system in Central Appalachia. But classic coal towns still existed, and thrived. In earlier years, coal companies reigned supreme in company towns. They owned all the homes. They owned company stores and paid miners in company-issued scrip to make purchases. They owned the schools, the churches, and the meeting halls.

U.S. Steel, Bethlehem Steel, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, Eastern Associated Coal, Pittston Coal, and Consolidation Coal built scores of mining towns in Appalachia over the years. Massey Energy and Arch Coal never built coal towns. Between the 1920s and 1950s, nearly every industrial town throughout Appalachia and the Deep South had a baseball team—towns from the chemical cities lining the Kanawha Valley to coal towns scattered throughout West Virginia’s mountains, down to the tobacco and textile mill towns in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas. Coal operators and factory owners often gave special vacation and traveling privileges to their best baseball players during those summers. Coal companies could evict striking miners from their homes, and often did. But company towns also created social ties between miners and mining families. Residents of company towns knew each other and felt a real solidarity.

Fourth, increasing geographical mobility helped companies like Massey push the gradual decline of coal towns a step further. Declining employment made it harder to find mining jobs. So did the increasing number of people available to work at any given mine, since they could drive 100 miles or more to go to work every day. By 1980, companies could afford to fire local union workers, in part because they could attract replacements so easily. Geographic dispersal also discouraged social interaction. After an eight-hour shift, miners rarely join their fellow workers for a quick beer at a local bar on their way home.

Fifth, the character of the coalfields also changed as some major companies began hiring “contract mine operators” to operate mines on land those major companies owned or controlled. A. T. Massey and Island Creek Coal led this trend, hiring 750 contract mine operators between 1977 and 1993. Massey used nearly 500 contractors, including 247 in West Virginia and 176 in Kentucky. Island Creek used at least 250 contractors, including 177 in West Virginia and 84 in Kentucky.

Most of these contract operators disappeared or went bankrupt by the end of 1993, typically owing millions of dollars in wages and benefits, unpaid Workers’ Compensation Fund premiums, and a variety of federal and state taxes. Between 1980 and 1993, Massey and Island Creek produced the majority of their coal from mines they operated directly. But the majority of fatalities occurred in small mines operated by contractors. During those years, 38 miners died in mines affiliated with Massey or Island Creek in West Virginia. Of those, twenty-seven died in contract mines. In Kentucky, thirty-two miners died in mines producing coal for Massey or Island Creek, twenty-three of them in contract mines.

Production also shifted to Wyoming’s nonunion coalfields during these years. In 2003, the nation produced nearly 1.1 billion tons of coal. The top three states were Wyoming with 376.3 million tons (35 percent of the total); West Virginia, 145.9 million tons; and Kentucky, 112.7 million tons.

In 1969, when the Black Lung Strike erupted, 41,941 miners produced 139.3 million tons of coal. About 95 percent of West Virginia’s miners were union. In 2003, the state had 17,014 miners, who produced 145.9 million tons of coal. Perhaps one-third were union members.

The Personal Impact of Tragedy

Under constant pressure from large companies to produce more coal for less money, many coal contractors took shortcuts. The day before his fifth birthday, Eddie turned the pages of his little scrapbook, looking at pictures of the father he never knew: his dad cradling him the day he was born in a Logan hospital and his dad holding him at home when he was an infant. Eddie Walter Bailey Sr., his father, died on March 8, 1990, the day he turned thirty. Little Eddie was fifteen months old. At 8:25 that morning, just after the day shift began, Bailey’s “head was crushed like a grape between the canopy [of a mine shuttle car] and a roof bolt,’’ the legal papers said. Bleeding from his mouth and nose, Bailey reached the surface, where he stopped breathing.

“Eddie never had a daddy to love him. Nothing but pictures,” said Bailey’s widow, Beulah. “All my baby has is pictures.” Eddie Walter Bailey Sr. worked at Brandy No. 3, a small contract operation mine near Holden operated by Carey Cline for Island Creek. Bailey ran a shuttle buggy, a machine twenty-eight-feet long that hauled coal from the continuous miner to a conveyor belt that hauled it outside. Cline altered that shuttle buggy, designed for mines with higher seams, so it could fit into his mine because it could haul more coal than smaller models designed for smaller mines like Brandy No. 3. Cline’s mechanics sheared six inches off posts that supported the steel canopy over the operator’s head, then welded the canopy back.

Lowering the canopy left a space just four inches high for Bailey to see while driving his shuttle buggy. Cramped inside the operator’s compartment that morning, Bailey stuck his head outside to see where he was going. When he did, Bailey’s head struck a block of wood bolted into the mine roof. Bailey probably knew he was in danger. But miners, especially those working in small contract mines, take chances. “The fear of losing your job is sometimes greater than the fear of losing your life,”’ said Stephen Webber, then director of the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training.

Coalfield Politics Today

Coal operators have always been involved in politics, trying to elect sympathetic state and federal officials. In 2004, Massey President Donald L. Blankenship took coal’s political involvement to a new level. For years, Blankenship, like many operators, contributed thousands of dollars to pro-industry candidates. But in 2004, Blankenship spent more than $3.1 million of his own money to defeat pro-labor Supreme Court Judge Warren McGraw. McGraw’s defeat is already making it more difficult for plaintiffs to win favorable rulings from the five-member court. In November 2006, things turned out very differently. In West Virginia House of Delegates elections, Blankenship spent $3.7 million of his own money buying television, radio, and mail ads attacking Democratic candidates and backing Republicans—nearly as much as all election committees for all House candidates put together spent. But on election day, just one of the forty-two Democrats Blankenship targeted lost and Democrats increased their majority from sixty-eight to seventy-two in the hundred-member House.

In addition to broad political issues, Blankenship had one personal compelling reason to defeat McGraw. Hugh Caperton, owner of Harman Mining, sold high-quality metallurgical coal from his mines in Grundy, Virginia, to steel mills operated by LTV Corp., through United Coal in Boone County. After Massey bought United in 1997, Blankenship took over Harman’s ten-year coal supply contract and bankrupted Harman.

Caperton sued Massey in Virginia and won $6 million. Caperton then sued Massey in West Virginia and won $50 million, almost all of it in compensatory damages, in an August 2002 Boone County verdict. With interest, that verdict is now worth more than $70 million. Massey’s appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court will probably be decided in 2007.

Blankenship’s contributions to the 2004 Supreme Court race included:

  • $2.5 million of the $3.5 million raised by a group he set up called “And For The Sake of the Kids”—the largest 527 group in any state Supreme Court race in the country. The group’s negative television ads used questionable information to attack McGraw for being “soft” on sex and drug offenders.
  • $515,708 to buy radio, newspaper, and television ads supporting Brent Benjamin, the Republican who defeated McGraw.
  • $100,000 to Citizens for Quality Health Care, another 527 political organization attacking McGraw.
  • About $50,000 to “West Virginia Wants to Know,” a group that ran ads against McGraw and his brother, Attorney General Darrell McGraw.

Robert Rupp, a political scientist at West Virginia Wesleyan College, believes the ongoing population shift out of the overwhelmingly Democratic coalfields, and the demise of local businesses, both help Republicans. “Wal-Marts have taken over the state. Big is better. We have gone from retail [the local hardware store] to wholesale [Wal-Mart]. Television ads are wholesale politics,” Rupp said. “The old age of retail politics is gone….Now you can beat somebody [Warren McGraw] with nobody [Brent Benjamin].”

A Third World

Ronald D. Eller compared Appalachia’s mountain counties to third world nations in his 1982 book, Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880–1930. “Without local or regional markets, the economic structure of the mountains was solely dependent upon exterior demand….This condition of growth without development placed the mountains in a highly vulnerable relationship to the larger market system….Despite the vast natural wealth within its borders, the southern mountains remained comparatively poor—not because it was backward, but because its wealth enriched the modernizing centers in other parts of the country” (Eller, 229).

In 1884, the West Virginia Tax Commission published a remarkable study warning West Virginians their state would soon “be despoiled of her wealth” in coal, oil, natural gas, and timber. “The question is whether this vast wealth shall belong to persons who live here and who are permanently identified with the future of West Virginia, or whether it shall pass into the hands of persons who do not live here and who care nothing for our State except to pocket the treasures which lie buried in our hills.”

In 1974, I closed my doctoral dissertation: “Today, thousands of railroad cars leave the mountains every day, overflowing with coal. When they return, they are empty. The people of Appalachia have nothing to say about how that coal is used, nor about who reaps the harvest of riches from their mines.” Today, in 2007, all these statements remain true.

Related Materials by Paul J. Nyden

The Sunday Gazette-Mail and The Charleston Gazette between November 7 and December 26, 1993; Miners for Democracy: Struggle in the Coal Fields. PhD Dissertation: Columbia University, 1974; “Coal Town Baseball,” Goldenseal: West Virginia Traditional Life 6, 4 (October–December 1980), 31–42; and “Rank-and-File Organizations and the United Mine Workers of America,” Insurgent Sociologist 8, 2 and 3 (Fall 1978): 25–39.

2007, Volume 58, Issue 10 (March)
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