American Serfdom

The recent coal strike didn't settle everything. Miners feel that a generation of social progress has passed them by; they feel betrayed by everyone from the White House to their own union. If the nation is truly to depend on coal, the author argues, it must listen more closely to the men in the mines.

On December 6, 1977, the 1974 Bituminous Coal Contract expired and, true to a "no contract, no work" tradition enunciated by John L. Lewis nearly fifty years ago, members of the United Mine Workers of America left their jobs. Steel and utility companies had laid in enormous stocks of the fuel and their spokesmen, as well as those at the White House, hastened to assure the public that the work stoppage was expected to have "little impact." After all, the 160,000-member union was a pale shadow of the industrial giant of 480,000 once ruled by the legendary Lewis, and half the country's coal now comes from nonunion operations. The President would maintain a lofty hands-off attitude, stockpiles would tide consumers past a few weeks of collective bargaining, then the men in their ghastly Appalachian hollows and in trailer towns strewn from Pennsylvania to Utah would go quietly back to work. The energy debate would drone on in Washington and all would be well.

Forces long at work combined to ruin this optimistic scenario. The President, coal state governors, the news media, coal operators, the tens of millions of electricity-dependent people ambled blithely into an industrial bear trap of awesome dimensions. Innumerable warning signals had been ignored for years-warnings of deep discontent among miners and their families.

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Last year 2.5 million man-days of work were lost -- principally in the Appalachian field -- to spontaneous "wildcat" strikes at the local level. These strikes, unsanctioned and vigorously opposed by the UMW's national leadership represented ten times the strike rate in other industries.

The slow and cumbersome grievance arbitration procedures mandated by the National Labor Relations Act and the union's contract with the operators have come to be viewed by the miners as a device to delay justice and to compel men to work against their will. By the spring of 1977 the "right to strike" over local matters was an issue on which the operators were not inclined to yield. They took the understandable position that industrial discipline requires workmen to labor on all days contracted for while disputes are settled by arbitration under the established processes. With this, however, they combined an antediluvian attitude toward their workhands that would have been perfectly in accord with that of the overseers who constructed Cheops's pyramid. The wildcat strikes lasted ten weeks, cost the average miner about $3000, hit the affected corporations for millions in lost earnings, humiliated the union leadership, and failed to enhance the reputation of the federal judge who issued an injunction against the West Virginia participants. When he suggested that if the miners returned to work the fines and civil penalties he-had levied against their organization would be suspended, the rebels ignored him. One gnarled veteran of many roof-falls other hard knocks dismissed His Honor with, "We didn't pay no attention to that old judge when he was makin' orders and we shore as hell ain't going to pay no attention to him now, when he is 'makin' suggestions!"

Between reflective puffs on his pipe, Energy Secretary James Schlesinger has called coal America's "black hope." To a nation with a trade deficit approaching $3 billion a month owing to its colossal oil imports, the expression is apt. But there are many problems.

Labor relations in the hills have been bloody and brutish since the first coal was "lifted" from the ground in Pennsylvania. The early minemasters were generally Scots or Welshmen who sought to apply in America the same autocratic methods they had enforced with noose and bayonet in Great Britain. In the New World coal diggers expected a little more and. fought back, sometimes with arson and assassination. In Pennsylvania in 1877, twenty members of an Irish secret society, the "Molly Maguires," went to the scaffold when miners from the "old sod" were checkmated in a covert war against parsimonious and ruthless mine owners.

Trouble in the coalfields is endemic and perpetual, like the "war" in Ulster and the timeless turbulence between Arabs and Jews. Coal operators will not treat their employees as human beings, government will not compel them to do so, and the workmen will not always accept the status of industrial serfs. They rebel often, and each time they do so the nation views with alarm and points with indignation.

At the same time, the industry has been dogged by an appalling lack of safety in its operations, leading to major disasters over more than a century. And the carnage continues. In 1971 the death rate in U.S. deep mines was six times as high as in Holland. In 1977 the death toll was 142, and the death rate in U.S. strip mines was twice as high as that the Dutch sustained in their vast operations under the floor of the North Sea. In 1976 the number of man-days lost owing to acci-dental injuries sustained in all major U.S. industries per million man-hours worked amounted to 10.9. In the coal industry the rate was 33.8. Since 1906 more than 92,000 men have died in the mines and at least 1,660,000 have been disabled.

The episode at Oven Fork, Kentucky, in 1976 involved two methane explosions two days apart. The source of ignition can only be guessed at, but the evidence points to a spark-producing brake compressor on an electric mine locomotive that was manufactured in -1916. J. B. Holbrook, who died in the second explosion, was a machine repairman with absolutely no experience as an underground miner. Notwithstanding his ignorance of mining, the Blue Diamond Coal Company sent him and twelve others (three of them federal safety officials of the Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration) to shore up the sagging roof in an area devastated by an unexplained blast forty-eight hours earlier. All but two of this party of "roof bolters" were promptly cremated by a second gigantic detonation of accumulated gas.

At Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, in 1972, a vast lake formed on top of a mountain-high mound of mine refuse. It rained, the refuse collapsed, the water swept through a dozen tiny towns killing 125 people. Pittston Coal Company explained that this calamity was actually an act of God. Soon after this expression of familiarity with the divine will, Pittston's management 'comforted stockholders by assuring them that the incident was not expected to have any seriously adverse effect on the corporation's earnings.

The United States is, in many respects, a reborn nation that has discarded oppressive practices and attitudes inherited from the frontier and our primitive industrial beginnings. Child labor is outlawed, workmen are protected by compensation laws when injured on the job, and New Deal laws provide unemployment insurance and the right to form unions and bargain collectively. The company-hired "gun thugs" have disappeared from mining and mill towns. ERISA (the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974) guarantees corporate pension funds which, with a Social Security system of dubious solvency, provide financial support to workmen in their old age. Such benefits are now taken for granted, though there are men in the coal shafts who remember when most of them were undreamed of.

Of much more immediate social impact has been the revolution of ideals that came with the 1960s. American society has become vastly more democratic. White people have stopped lynching black people. In schools immigrant children are taught in their native tongues. Equal employment opportunities have been legislated. Segregation, as a matter of law, has vanished. Employers cannot discriminate against women because of their sex. The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was approved by the Congress and sent to the states for their consideration. For all practical purposes public assistance is now provided to all who demand it. "Wealth transfer payments" the new euphemism for "poor relief'-annually transfer billions from the middle class to the "disadvantaged." Living standards have risen spectacularly, as have expectations for income, vacations, good health, and more freedom.

There have been major changes in the Appalachian coalfields, too, since Lyndon Johnson proclaimed the Great Society, but to a much lesser extent than in the rest of America and against tremendous opposition from industry.

The Appalachian coalfields are immense, em-bracing western Pennsylvania, western Maryland, western Virginia, about 80 percent of West Virginia, a broad slice of Tennessee, northern Alabama, and a dozen counties in eastern Kentucky. The region has simmered with repressed frustrations for a long time, but in the last few years the pressure has built to a full head of steam. In vague, often uncomprehending ways, multitudes of miners and their wives have been groping toward participation in the new freedoms unloosed by the turbulent 1960s. Increasingly they realize that they are straitjacketed by ancient regional institutions. They feel betrayed by Congress, White House, statehouse, courthouse, the companies, and their own union. In part their sense of betrayal is a national phenomenon, but only to a limited degree. Their situation is without parallel elsewhere in the nation, and its intensity is heightened by their environment. In a very real sense it is a reflection of their growing outrage against the "Appalachian paradox."

The paradox was starkly delineated by federal studies and the news media in the mid-sixties when poverty was in vogue as a Washington cause célébre. It was found, on the one hand, that Appalachia, a region the size of Great Britain, was shockingly poor in social terms. There were glaring deficits in education, public transportation, housing, jobs, income, life expectancy, water quality, and other amenities. The quality of life was low. Unemployment was high. Tens of thousands of men suffered from coal worker's pneumoconiosis. Psychological depression was commonplace. Stripmining of coal on the hillsides had devastated the forests and choked the streams with silt from the hideous spoil banks. State laws were weak and poorly enforced at all levels. Leadership in public office was almost nil. Streams were befouled with every conceivable form of trash and garbage, and reeked with raw sewage. Nearly a fifth of the people were, for all practical purposes, illiterate. In short, the place was a gigantic sprawling slum from which the country expected somehow to derive most of its coal. Nor has this aspect of the paradox undergone significant improvement in the intervening years.

In the midst of poverty, disorder, and disease, the studies revealed an entirely different Appalachia of wealth, swagger, and well-being. Two of the region's corporations, the Penn-Virginia Company and Kentucky River Coal Corporation, are the nation's most profitable on a percentage basis, clearing about 61 percent of gross receipts as net profit after taxes. Immense steel, oil, and utility companies rack up tremendous profits on their coal and timber operations.

Hand in hand with mammoth profits go trifling taxes. In Kentucky, for example, the state's retail sales tax law specifically exempts practically everything used in the process of mining. A miner must pay a sales tax on the pickup truck that conveys him to the mine, but the company doesn't pay a sales tax on the half-million-dollar dragline he operates. Levies on coal lands amounted to about 23 per acre per year ten years ago and are scarcely more than double that today. Consequently local governments are beggared, subsisting on state funds for support of their schools, federal revenue-sharing grants, and similar handouts. Despite its vaunted millionaires, Pike County, Kentucky-the state's largest producer-pays a mere 18 percent of the cost of operating its schools.

This was the paradox to which Lyndon Johnson referred in a speech at the University of Kentucky: a rich land and a poor people. He might well have referred to rich corporations as a part of the equation, but he did not.

Nor did the profit-making detected in the 1960s abate. Coal made a spectacular comeback from the depression of the 1950s, a more severe depression than the collapse of the 1930s. Four million people-the more alert, bright, and ambitious-fled the region in a stupendous emigration, but the reorganized industry thrived. Its new prosperity was based on demand by numerous new power plants for steam coal and by the appetite of U.S. and Japanese steel companies for metallurgical coal. In its June 1976 edition, Forbes magazine reported that the Blue Diamond Coal Company, the closely held corporation whose mine at Oven Fork, Kentucky, had blown up with such deadly effect, had increased its liquid assets by $56.4 million in the twelve months ending on June 30, 1975. The company was so prosperous that it had begun buying up a controlling interest in McLouth Steel.

In 1970 this paradox took a new turn. The Vietnam War was winding down and veterans began coming home. Most of them left the hills for jobs in the cities, but jobs there were declining. Those with high school diplomas could seek a college degree with the aid of the GI Bill and many did so. When they had gotten their degrees in education or the arts and sciences they went job-seeking again-only to find the market for their skills surfeited. Disillusioned and vexed, they began turning to the mines and to the hated work of their fathers and grandfathers. Despite their hours of study, they wound up tied to machines miles underground or on the bulldozers scraping the tops off mountains. Meade Arbie's The Long Tunnel is a superb account of the adjustments hundreds of the new breed of miners have had to make to the dismal scut work that circumstances have thrust upon them.

The average age of coal miners has been falling rapidly for more than a decade, a process accelerated by a 1974 contract provision that allows retirement on pension at fifty-five. In 1964 the median age was forty-eight; in 1978 it is thirty-one. Educational levels have risen sharply, as illustrated by a state-sponsored class in mine safety that began at Hazard, Kentucky, early in 1978. One man had a third-grade education, not far below the average long common among coal diggers. But at the other end of the scale was a master's degree, and in between were high school diplomas and bachelor's degrees.

Perhaps more important than increased years of formal schooling is broadened experience. The old breed of miners were of native hill stock or immigrants from Italy and the Balkans. In their estimation mining was pretty good work when the pay was decent. They were laborers by upbringing and had little hope of rising above that status. The newcomers, by contrast, are in the mines of necessity, and expect that someday they can live by some other means. They have seen other parts of the country, have sat in classrooms listening to lectures on history, the sciences, and arts, and, as likely as not, have thrashed around in the jungles of Southeast Asia for a year. They have not yet steeped themselves in the fatalism so common to their calling. And they have absolutely no illusions.

It is to this new breed of miners that the locals are turning for leadership. They are vocal, indignant, and persuasive, carrying much more weight in union discussions than the old leaders they are displacing. The older leaders were likely to be fundamentalist Baptist preachers, of a kind that abounds in the Appalachians, who are as hidebound as the operators. Whereas the preachers nearly always counseled acceptance of company decrees and cooperation with the bosses, their successors question and rebel. They most assuredly do not stand in awe of the "boss man" or of the bediamonded mine owners in their vicuña overcoats and lizard-skin shoes.

The average pay of a miner under the expired contract was approximately $8.11 per hour, a goodly $64.88 for eight hours "portal to portal." However, this is less than the pay of steel and automobile workers and far below the earnings of plumbers. Steel and automobile workers and plumbers do not have to penetrate miles into man-made tunnels, inhale clouds of coal dust and methane, or spend hours crawling on kneepads beneath "low top." Some 15,000 of the union's 160,000 members earn their living in seams no more than a yard thick, and the physical and psychological toll can be shattering.

While the industry has been busily hiring new men (and a few dozen women), it has ignored the simple fact that these people must have a place to live. Thousands of the shacks that characterized the region thirty years ago have fallen down or burned, and few new houses have been built except for the elaborate homes of newly rich mine owners, merchants, bankers, lawyers, and doctors. The miners can rarely finance a house and are usually driven to mobile homes. These flimsy, ill-constructed rectangles are set up wherever tiny plots of land are available, generally along the banks of the odious and silt-choked creeks. The usual monthly "land rent" for such dwellings is thirty-five or forty dollars. A landlord may have fifteen or twenty mobile homes clustered on a stretch of bottom land no larger than a couple of lots in an upper-class suburban neighborhood. The sewage disposal system invariably relies on grossly overloaded septic tanks and the filth winds up in the nearest stream.

The coal companies own almost all the unoccupied land in such counties as Logan and Mingo in West Virginia and in neighboring territories in eastern Kentucky. In the central Appalachians Ford Motor Company owns 50,000 acres, Chessie Systems owns 271,000 acres, and Norfolk & Western Company another 448,871 acres. Kentucky River Coal Company owns 80,000 acres in fee simple and Penn-Virginia another 110,000 acres. The steel companies hold hundreds of thousands of acres. The combined holdings of the corporations in the Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia coalfields exceeds four million acres, most of which are vacant and unused. Perhaps a fourth of this land now consists of desolate stripped-out spoil banks and "auger flats." Yet none of this corporate real estate is available for miners and their families. The companies own about 85 percent of the land in the coal counties and they simply will not sell at any price or for any purpose. None of the vast profits triggered by the energy crisis are being invested in homes for the men who dig the coal. The industry proclaims that "Coal is our Ace in the Hole," while it consigns its workmen to shacks and house trailers.

Mobile home living is crowded living. A man, his wife, and a couple of children, and sometimes an elderly dependent, are jammed into an area only slightly larger than a spacious living room. The walls are thin, the ceiling is low, the rooms are tiny. There is scant privacy and every sound is magnified. Hours spent there are stupefyingly dull. Television and a six-pack of beer help a little but cannot obliterate the nagging boredom. And, in most cases, if one looks out the tiny window one sees only a few feet away other boxes like one's own, plus cars, pickup trucks, broken toys, and trash cans. Working days in the cramped cab of a coal truck, in the narrow tunnel of a coal mine, or on a deafening bulldozer, and spending nights and weekends in crowded boxlike houses, is a nerve-shattering routine. It makes for poor morale and much resentment. However, it is a routine that the coal operators and politicians have deemed perfectly satisfactory for coal miners.

The wives are frustrated by this confinement. Family brawls are frequent and the divorce rate is appalling. In one coal county the number of divorces exceeded the number of marriages several years in a row. School homework is poorly done because of the distractions, of television and radio, and it is not uncommon to encounter a sixth grader who has yet to learn the letters of the alphabet.

These clusters of mobile homes are the new "coal camps," successors to the rows of company housing constructed for earlier generations of workmen. Those towns ranged from the abominable to quite good, but the new communities vary scarcely at all. The shelters are too small, are designed to wear out within a decade, are expensive, and serve effectively to keep the purchaser deep in debt. A $9000 mobile home will cost about $18,000 after payment of interest and carrying charges. They amount to little more than vast portable slums.

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!"

In retrospect these rank-and-file miners-most of whom will probably be killed or ravaged by the pits during their working years-appear heroic. They refused to be awed, frightened, impressed, or fooled by big business, big government, or public opinion. They defied all of them -and their own bargaining representatives as well-in a 110-day struggle. The stakes were extremely high and they won at least a small measure of justice for themselves. Eventually they must win much more, and win it from governments and an industry which has treated them like mangy alley cats for at least five generations.

The operators were willing to grant substantial pay raises' ($2.40 an hour over the three years of the contract's life), but miners have learned that state and federal income taxes gobble up wages. They wanted not only the proffered raises but also cost-of-living increases. An older generation of miners would never have thought of this consideration. They wanted the pensions paid to various classes of retirees made equal. Their hackles rose when the proposed contract sought to eliminate the revered health and retirement funds acquired for them more than three decades ago by "John L." When the BCOA rejected the cost-of-living increases, sought to turn its medical and retirement obligations over to insurance companies and to require the men to 'pay a portion of their own medical costs, and ruled that all local grievances should be submitted to arbitration, the truculent members said "no" at the rate of two to one. Most devastating of all, the contract would have left UMW members glaringly worse off than most miners in nonunion operations and would have ended all hope of bringing the unorganized workers back to the "brotherhood." Chagrined members rightly characterized the agreement as a "joke."

But in the end the industry got its way on most major issues. An exception was the BCOA's demand for increased output that could, under certain circumstances, have required seven days' work per week! Only the spiritual heirs of the old-time Scottish minemasters (who sometimes required their minions to wear iron collars as a badge of lifelong servitude to the pit) could have asked this in the year 1978.

Arnold Miller, a working miner from Cabin Creek, West Virginia, was elected president of the United Mine Workers in 1972. He took over a union rank with corruption, murder, and dictatorship. He cleaned it up, stopped the killing, and granted the membership autonomy and democracy. In doing so he broke with the philosophy of John L. Lewis, who warned many times that in the coalfields autonomy and democracy spell division and anarchy.

The once mighty United Mine Workers is on the brink of dissolution. Miners have lost their fabled solidarity and are divided deeply and perhaps hopelessly along many lines. Half have left the union altogether and now work without a contract or on terms negoti-ated locally. Workmen in the gigantic strip mines of the Great Plains object to a pension system that supports swarms of worn-out old men in the eastern field who retired long before the western operations got under way. Older miners focus their concern on retirement benefits and pray that the funds can be preserved through their retirement years. Young men doubt that any retirement system-including Social Security-will be around for their benefit a quarter of a century from now, and demand costly fringe benefits, including total-care medical service, for the present. Nonunion production continues to rise in old and new fields, shrinking the UMW toward insignificance.

Nearly every adult in the area owns arms. For several years hardware stores have done a huge business in semi-automatic carbines, high-powered rifles, repeating shotguns, .45 caliber automatic pistols, and, most favored of all, magnum revolvers. The forested hillsides and narrow valleys are a superb setting for guerrilla warfare-a kind of deadly struggle against one another, or, if it comes to that, against state policemen. The possibility of a modern version of the "Matewan Massacre" is very real.

The unhappy Miller is blamed for all the misfortunes that beset his members. His principal fault probably lies in his truthfulness. He kept his word and made his union democratic. His membership, in their frustration and bitterness, may turn democracy into anarchy.

The miners are at war with their own leadership and with the United States. But their wrath should be directed against the coal industry and the federal and state officials who serve it so slavishly. Miners and their wives and families deserve a chance for a decent life: decent housing on adequate lots, sewerage and pure-water connections, trash collection and disposal, clean streams, an end of industry-caused floods, modern shopping facilities and fair prices, good schools, safe working places, sound medical services, pure-water recreational lakes, art displays, adult education programs, diversification of industry so wives too can have a chance at employment. Without a doubt miners should receive the highest wages paid by American industry. More important, they should be treated decently in both life and death.

Mother Jones once declared, "There is no peace in the coalfields because there is no justice!" Unless a reasonable measure of justice and peace are assured for this region, Schlesinger's "black hope" may be remembered as simply one more bureaucratic dream.