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Issue #1703      September 23, 2015

Culture & Life

No union mines left in Kentucky

Underground coal mining is dirty, hard and dangerous work. Apart from accidents, miners are liable to lung damage from coal dust. In South Africa, England, Australia, the US and many other countries, miners have fought often vicious battles to improve their pay and conditions. In few places were those battles harder than in the US.

As Dylan Lovan said in an article for Associated Press on September 5: “Kentucky coal miners bled and died to unionise. Their workplaces became war zones, and gun battles once punctuated union protests. In past decades, organisers have been beaten, stabbed and shot while seeking better pay and safer conditions deep underground.”

Despite the obvious drama inherent in these battles to unionise, they are not considered appropriate subjects for US films and TV. The independent movie Matewan was a notable exception, as was the documentary feature Harlan County USA. But, considering Hollywood’s partiality for guns and killings, it is obviously not the violence that inhibits producers from taking up this subject. Clearly, the subject’s class position is the key.

Employers have worked assiduously for decades to not only combat but to destroy workers’ class consciousness, belittling class as an “outdated” concept, and playing down the role of unions in raising living and working standards. This relentless propaganda campaign has been very successful in reducing union membership, in the US as here in Australia.

Just recently, despite the state’s heroic industrial history, the last union mine in Kentucky has shut down. For the first time in about a century, in the state that was home to the gun battles of “Bloody Harlan,” not a single working miner belongs to a union.

Retired miners who suffered through the long and bloody struggles in the Kentucky coal fields point out that “A lot of young miners right now who don’t know what the union stands for are only getting good wages and benefits because of the sacrifices that we made.” It is only thanks to the struggles waged by the union that today’s miners enjoy higher wages and safer mines, but as memories fade, in recent decades employers, politicians and their media mates have been able persuade workers at non-union mines to not organise.

In an example of astonishingly twisted logic, the mine owners argue that the union’s very success has been the cause of its own decline! Says a smug Bill Bissett, president of industry group the Kentucky Coal Association, “I just don’t think there’s that level of discontent between the company and working coal miners, which I think is a very good thing”. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

Dylan Lovan puts it another way: ”Hard-fought gains are taken for granted by younger workers who earn high wages now.” He recalls the deadly organising battles of the 1920s and ‘30s, many in Harlan County.

“Organising battles raged in Appalachia throughout the last century, most notably the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, where thousands of striking miners fought a shooting war with law enforcement and replacement workers [scabs], ending in dozens of deaths. One year earlier, 10 people had died in Matewan, West Virginia, in a skirmish over eviction notices served to miners who had joined the union.

“In Harlan County, Kentucky, the 1931 Battle of Evarts ended in four deaths. ... One ambush shooting in 1937 ended with the death of union organiser Marshall Musick’s 14-year-old son, Bennett, when ‘a shower of bullets tore through the walls of the house’, according to union leader George Titler’s book, Hell in Harlan.”

More recently, “I had my house shot up during [the long strike against the AT Massey Coal Company in Pike County in 1984 and 1985],” said Charles Dixon, the United Mine Workers local president at the time. “I was just laying in bed and next thing you know you hear a big AR-15 [machine gun] unloading on it.”

“When the coal industry rebounds to the extent that it does, and non-union operators take a look around and see that there’s no union competition, and they’ll see that they can begin to cut wages, they can begin to cut benefits, they can begin to cut corners on safety, they’ll do that,” said Phil Smith, a national spokesman for the miner’s union.

Smith pointed to the record of former Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship, who closed union mines in the 1980s and now faces criminal conspiracy charges over a deadly explosion in 2010 at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 workers.

“More vigorous federal enforcement and the closing of older Appalachian mines in a turbulent coal market have also contributed to declining injuries and deaths,” says Lovan.

Union miners at the Highland mine, the last working union mine in Kentucky, were making about $24 an hour and working four 10-hour shifts a week. “Workers at non-union mines typically work long shifts six days a week, and benefits vary from mine to mine.” Former Highland miners who have found jobs at smaller non-union mines have had to take a hefty pay cut.

Ironically, enforcement of environmental regulations on high-sulphur coal essentially halted mining in western Kentucky in the 1990s, leading to mine shutdowns that in turn led to the loss of about 20,000 union members in two years. In neighbouring West Virginia, which wasn’t affected by the same environmental regulations the union still has more than 30,000 members.

As a young man Kenny Johnson took part in the Brookside strike in the 1970s over safety and union recognition. Johnson was arrested on the picket line.

Returning to the scene of his arrest four decades ago, Johnson looked past a small bridge that leads to a mining operation. Coal is still being mined there today, just not by union miners.

“I realised that day that it was very serious and that people would fight you, even to the point of having you put in jail for standing up for some of the ideals that coal miners hold dear,” he said.

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