Voices from the coalfields: How miners' families understand the crisis of coal

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Millions of Americans have had to make major adjustments in their strategies for living because whole industries have gone into long-term decline. One of the most rapid declines has been in metallurgical coalmining. With the dismantling of the American steel industry and the increasing competition on the international market, demand and price have plummeted, followed by massive layoffs. Since miners, by achieving living wages, safer working conditions, pensions, and better health care for their families and communities, have inspired the efforts of others, the destruction of their gains is doubly tragic. The miners' world has been changing drastically in the past decade. Since the long 1978 contract strike, the industry has lost domestic and export markets and the price of coal has declined. Coal companies have sought to defend profits in various ways. They have introduced mechanization, pushed for deregulation of mine safety and environmental protection, subleased their coal properties to small operators, introduced production bonuses and threatened layoffs to induce miners to work faster (productivity has doubled since 1977), and fought to deunionize their work force. United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) membership has fallen from 160,000 in 1978 to slightly more than 70,000 today. The coalmine labor force nationwide has shrunk from approximately 250,000 in 1978 to 150,000. In these and other ways, coal companies are coercing mining families and communities to subsidize their profits in the name of making the industry competitive. A sizable portion of the job loss has been in the metallurgical coalfields of southern West Virginia and western Virginia. The union work force in that area has shrunk from approximately 58,000 in 1980 to 17,200 in 1987. This is where my wife Ruth and I talked to thirty-five working miners, twenty-five laid-off or retired miners, and thirty of their spouses between July 1986 and July 1987. Employment here has been particularly hard hit, shrinking by 83 percent in the past decade.' In this chapter miners and miners' wives talk about how they live this crisis, how they understand it, and what responses they are making and thinking about for the future. To put their responses in perspective, it is essential to remember the historical context of Appalachian coalminers. In each generation there has been a major structural reduction in coal employment as well as minor layoffs with the normal business cycle. During the 1930s, the world depression, combined with the early stage of mechanization, led to layoffs and short weeks. Sectors of the coal work force, including disproportionate numbers of black and immigrant miners, left the coalfields even though there was little work elsewhere. Then during the 1950s and I960s , while the rest of the economy was booming, two-thirds of the coalmining labor force was displaced by the next wave of mechanization. They migrated for the most part to the industrial cities of the Midwest. Now displaced miners find few opportunities for well-paid unionized employment in sectors where their skills are relevant. The crises that confronted current miners' parents and grandparents have provided both relevant and misleading lessons for the present generation. Also important are the events of the decade immediately preceding the present decline. In the 1970s, rising oil prices and electricity consumption led to a short-lived coal boom, which attracted a new generation of miners to the high-paying jobs with health insurance and pensions included. The Applachian coalfields in the 1970s also experienced one of the most militant rankand- file mobilizations in the postwar American labor movement. Since the late 1960s, rank-and-file miners, miners' wives, pensioners, and widows have organized to get black-lung compensation and new, tougher mining health and safety laws, to depose an undemocratic union president, and to democratize the miners' union. At their union conventions in 1973 and 1976 they adopted negotiating demands, including the right to strike during the life of a contract and the improvement of community services in the coal towns. In the four years before 1978, rank-and-file miners, in opposition to their union leadership, participated in a wave of wildcat strikes, a number of which extended across the entire eastern coalfields. In the first eight months of 1977 the worker-days lost to strikes were 10.33 percent of available work days, compared with the 0.17 percent average for all industries:" more than sixty times the average rate! In 1977-1978 miners conducted a Ill-day strike in which they tried to protect their union-controlled comprehensive health coverage, their right to strike, and workplace rights. They were eventually forced to settle for a contract in which they lost the right to strike, the union's own health plan, and their attempt to equalize pensions. The contrast between the prosperous and militant 1970s and the current coal depression significantly affects the understandings and responses of coal families. Since I conducted interviews of miners during the 1978 strike, I am able to trace the shifts in their understandings that the present crisis has wrought. Copyright © 1990 by Temple University.

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Communities in Economic Crisis: Appalachia and the South

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