Shopping for groceries, clothing, and other supplies is another bad experience for the miners. Independents and chains alike take advantage of the region's isolation and price-gouge remorselessly, routinely raising prices on the last day of the month, just in time for the "relief trade" that cones with welfare, Social Security, and pension checks. Prices for lumber and hardware are scandalously higher than those in cities outside the hills. A storekeeper assured me with a confidential wink that a belt buckle he was selling for $3.50 had cost him seventy--five cents--a markup of 366 percent. Quality is often inferior, especially in clothing.
Schools in the hills fail to educate, causing additional distress to parents who resent the mines for themselves and earnestly hope their children can avoid them.
The litter and general trashiness of the coalfields is another demoralizing influence. Pike County, Kentucky, is one of the richest raw-resources counties in the United States and boasts over a hundred millionaires who love "cushy" cars, including Rolls-Royces. But it wastes no money on trash collection and landfills, a circumstance that prompted one of its citizens to remark that the name of the county seat should be changed from Pikeville to "Trashabad." However, it is scarcely worse than scores of similar coal counties in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Ohio.
In addition, these communities of new miners are lashed by recurrent deluges that roar down from hillsides denuded and jumbled by strip-mining. Hundreds of houses and mobile homes have been destroyed by floods in the last three years and every rain is cause for genuine apprehension.
The coal industry ignores the sensibilities of its miners and their families. It is almost unheard of for an employer to take notice of the death in his mine of one of his employees. When I asked one operator about this ingrained callousness, he pondered for a moment, then answered with commendable frankness: "It never occurred to me to go to the funeral of a man killed in my mine, or maybe to send some flowers. I guess, though, that something like that ought to be done."
It is scarcely cause for wonder that in this social, economic, political, and industrial muddle tens of thousands of people have lost their nerve and quietly surrendered. Their disorder, "the eastern Kentucky syndrome," takes its name from one of the Appalachian subregions and, according to psychiatrists, is characterized by chronic dependency and passivity, withdrawal and regression. Hosts of welfare recipients are disabled by the syndrome and its almost perpetual mental depression, at a staggering cost to state and federal treasuries.
The new miners tend to believe that surrender is unnecessary.
It was against this background that the 1974 coal contract agreement expired. For two months before the strike began, representatives of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association and the United Mine Workers had clawed at each other in attempts to agree on a new contract. Three months of haggling came after the strike began, and when a contract was agreed on under severe pressure from President Carter, it was overwhelmingly rejected by rank-and-file members. The Taft-Hartley Act of the 1940s was hauled out and a federal judge in Washington ordered the recalcitrant coal diggers back to work. The old remedies, fashioned at a time when popular respect for the federal government was high, failed to impress the miners. "The slave days are over," said Virginia miner Roger Baker. "Nobody can force us!"