Thoughts on a “Former West Virginia Miner”

A few friends re-posted the article below on Facebook and it spurred my thoughts on a subject near and dear to my heart.

There are some miners who think only of themselves, who take the paychecks and say “I’m a proud coal miner, with a proud heritage,” then spit hatred towards anyone who says anything negative about their beloved coal industry. Of course, I should put much of the last statement in the past tense because that “beloved” coal industry has done exactly what I’ve expected, they’re pulling up stakes and leaving us with nothing—again. But hey, at least they have the common decency to ask for millions of dollars in bonuses for their CEOs while they strip their aging coal miners of their pensions and healthcare benefits. That last sentence was loaded with sarcasm if you couldn’t tell.

Then there are the miners willing to do what’s right regardless of the personal consequences. They are the true coal miners—and sadly they are disappearing.

Many were full of union blood and would stand up for their fellow miners against the company’s greed.  They weren’t perfect, they weren’t sacred angels cast in brilliant white light, but they knew the difference between right and wrong and they did their best to stop profit seekers from harming their fellow Appalachians. They understood there were some things money couldn’t buy, and that big paychecks were never worth the honor and integrity they’d lose to keep them.

By the way. Such honor and integrity only comes from sacrificing to do the right thing for EVERYONE, not just you and your family.

When it comes down to it, I have to wonder about many of the miners who made up this last generation. I have to wonder where there hearts were. Had they handed them over when they put the “Friends of Coal” license plates on their trucks? Had they locked their conscious away in a safety deposit box when they yelled at people, “If you don’t like the coal dust, then MOVE!”

Of course, nothing is ever final. Redemption is still possible.

So…

Which side are you on?

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Former West Virginia Miner: We’ve Been Dumping Those Chemicals In The Water For Decades

Blood on the Mountain

If you haven’t heard about the new documentary Blood on the Mountainthis is a film you need to know about.

No other documentary has taken such a broad view into the political corruption and manipulative nature of the coal industry in its century long exploitation of Appalachia and its people.

This film should be standard viewing for all citizens of our moutnains. Our past is worth knowing as is the truth about our present.

We’ve allowed the coal industry to gloss over their presence in Appalachia as a means to our progress, so much so that even as we witness the daily effects of poverty, of environmental degradation, and the terrible costs to our health, citizens brandish Friends of Coal stickers and license plates in support of their own exploitation.

We have been set against the outside, poised to dismiss anyone who speaks the truth, not based on fact, but based on principals that have been injected into our culture by an extractive industry.

This film strips away the gloss to remind us of the truth.

For more information about screenings and release dates, check out their website www.bloodonthemountain.comFacebook ,  and Twitter.

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Mining, Diesel Particulate Matter, & Cancer

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We didn’t have rail at Alpha Natural Resources’ Paramont Deep Mine 26, even though it was Southwest Virginia’s second largest mine at the time. Entry in and out of the mine was down an 2,500 ft. slope to reach a vertical depth of roughly 400 feet and access to the Lower Banner Seam. I recalled the rumors when DM 26 first opened in the early 2000s. A lot of the older miners kept  talking about how “hot” it was. In mining terms, “hot” means there’s a lot of methane gas thereby increasing the risk of a mine explosion. The rumors were true, and at one point the mine was liberating seven million cubic feet of methane every 24 hours, more when low pressure systems would pass through. None of it was recovered.

Despite the size of the mine, running five continuous miner sections at its peak and producing upwards of two million tons of clean coal per year (with reject running 40-60%), the company preferred to skip out on the costs of a decent rail system and the crews to maintain it. Instead they relied upon a fleet of A.L. Lee Model 255 rubber tired diesel personnel carriers, or mantrips and jeeps as we called them. For carrying in mine supplies they purchased rubber tired diesel “tractors” to pull trailers in and out of the mine and large diesel powered scoops. They even had an underground road grader (that didn’t do much during the summer when the roadways turned to mud).

Personnel-Carriers

New A. L. Lee 255 Personnel Carrier| Image from A. L. Lee Corporation

To make matters worse, we had a split return system with belt air, meaning that some of our “fresh air” intake came up the travel ways, bringing every bit of that exhaust to the sections where we had to work.

It was a lot different than the trolley wire rail systems my dad used Beth Energy’s mining complexes. Men and supplies were taken in and out using nothing but electricity. No exhaust fumes to breath.

Of course, there are standards in place for diesel equipment used in underground coal mining. Maintenance men who work on diesel equipment must receive their “Diesel Certificate” from the state. One of their duties as certified diesel mechanics was to keep the equipment running as clean and efficient as possible to reduce diesel particulate matter in the enclosed air spaces of the mine. I knew the men who worked on all of our diesel equipment and they were stand up guys, but as is the case at many “for profit” businesses, they were over always worked—always overwhelmed. The majority of their time was spent keeping the fleet up and running. It also seemed to be company policy to repair equipment over and over rather than purchase new. Many of our mantrips should have been gotten rid of long ago, especially at a mine that grossed more than $375 million a year when the European met coal market was up  (1.7 million clean tons in 2008 with an avg met coal price of $250 per ton). I could go on and on about their equipment purchasing and the lack of time and resources they gave their maintenance folks to keep things safe, (18 hours of production and 6 hours of maintenance that often included belt up and power moves), but that’s a different story.

Ever day we’d all pile onto a mantrip, breathing in the exhaust as we headed down the travel ways of the mine. Sometimes the going was slow and we’d be keeping pace with the air heading up the travel way—and the exhaust. Even if we did outrun it, we all still breathe it once it caught up to us on the section. It was just more diluted.

On cold days it could be even worse. On occasion I found myself to be the unlucky one riding on the back end near the exhaust. By the time we got to the sections, my eyes and throat would be burning from the blue smoke-partially burned exhaust. Needless to say, it wasn’t good for us.

What was Alpha Natural Resources slogan again? “Running Right?”

A few years ago I wrote the article for The Appalachian Voice titled “A Coal Miner’s Health: Short Term Gains, Long Term Losses” and in it I mentioned a quote I got from the folks at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that’s part of the Center for Disease Control.

While the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and  state mining agencies have put various laws regarding diesel equipment in place, miners are left to wonder if it will be enough. “NIOSH cannot definitely determine that current diesel regulations will result in the elimination of all diesel health concerns,” stated Ed Blosser, Public Affairs Officer for NIOSH. “The reason for this uncertainty is that there is still incomplete information concerning the level of exposure to diesel emissions that may cause health effects.”

I can tell Mr. Blosser that the level of exposures are high, and even NIOSH has published that miners can be exposed to 100 times the amount of any other occupation involving diesel equipment.

The website also states there is a “possibility” that diesel particulate matter (DPM) is carcinogenic, i.e. cancer causing.

I keep wondering why we miners were so complicit with it. I guess we were just happy to have a high paying job. I’d say the ones who still have jobs after all the layoffs are even that much happier, and willing to overlook such problems.

In West Virginia, they’re even willing to vote in coal politicians who strip down diesel regulations and hand over the keys of maintaining them to a singular person rather than a committee of folks from both the industry and the unions representing miners safety.

I suppose black lung wasn’t bad enough by itself.

The Problem with Environmentalism in Appalachia

June 2009 Hundreds of people on both sides of the mountaintop removal issue gather along W.Va. 3outside Massey Energy’s Goals Coal Co. processing and shipping plant. Gazette photo by Chris Dorst.

I tend get flak from both sides of the argument surrounding coal. Environmentalists distance themselves from me because I am often critical of them, and some even hate me these days. Pro-coal folks tend to dislike me for my stance against coal companies. It only goes to show that telling the truth has never been popular, or easy.

So let’s get to it.

Coal mining families are not very receptive to environmentalists—and that’s putting it lightly. Why should they be? In what way have environmentalists approached coal mining families over the past two decades? In what way have environmentalists presented themselves to the public?

Though most environmentalists have their hearts in the right place when it comes to helping other people, I’m afraid they’ve done a poor job of translating it to the public. So when the knee jerk reaction of coal miners and their families is to identify environmentalists as “out of touch,” I am not entirely surprised.

Decades of outside media infiltration has portrayed our people (Appalachians) in a negative way. The “War on Poverty” brought thousands of people from outside the mountains to tell us how to live (like we were to stupid or something). Let’s not forget that the first outsiders to come into the mountains were the land agents and coal companies who would lie, cheat, and steal to take our lands and mineral rights, and would then force us into a mono-economy making us dependent on mining coal to survive. Appalachian people have had enough of outsiders and for good reasons. That being said, I am very skeptical of many outsiders myself, and will gladly tell anyone who even remotely appears to be looking down their nose at us to go &#*^ themselves, no matter how “well intentioned” they think they are. But I digress.

For the longest time, unions helped us remind ourselves that coal companies were the outsiders, but when the unions were busted, the industry seized the opportunity to re-image themselves as part of our communities. Through industry public relations organizations, we were told that Appalachia was “coal” (see Bell & York, 2010) and that any threat against coal was a threat to our pride and heritage. They have even pointed to environmentalists as the new outside threat. Since the coal industry has the money to promote their message (see Friends of Coal), and they have the coal miner’s ear at work and through paychecks, they can paint a picture of environmentalists as being “out of touch tree hugging idiots” who support the “War on coal.” Many environmentalists have played right into this portrayal, sometimes so perfectly that I’ve wondered if it was intentional. Let me repeat that last statement. Many environmentalists have played right into the negative stereotypes, sometimes so perfectly that I’ve wondered if it was intentional. If the coal companies infiltrated the unions, you know they infiltrated the environmental movement.

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Music group Rising Appalachia – Sound surprisingly similar to the “Appalachia Rising”  movement?

But why would the coal industry do such a thing? If they could get environmentalists to keep portraying the negative stereotypes people know them for, environmentalist’s credibility within local communities would be permanently damaged. People would not listen to environmentalists who tell them about the health impacts caused by mining. Even if they did, most people would never join a bunch of “tree huggers” to solve the problem (see Bashir, Lockwood, Chasteen, Nadolny, & Noyes, 2013). It is no different than when coal companies placed people inside the unions to push violence. And if you don’t think the industry is that conniving, just read up on your history. Remember that Don Blackenship was caught red handed influencing the State Supreme Court (see Schnayerson, 2008), every coal company payout to citizens impacted by mining comes with a gag order, and let’s not forget how they even have an organization to develop school programs that teach children how great coal is. It’s all about image; make the coal companies look good and make the enemies of coal look bad—anyway you can. But I digress…again.

I think everyone has seen the pro-coal/anti-environmentalist bumper stickers, “Save a Surface Miner, Shoot a Tree hugger,” “Coal Keeps the Lights On,” “Don’t like Coal, Don’t Use Electricity,” “Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark” and “I love mountains, the coal underneath them pays my bills” just to name a few. I’ve personally been in safety talks where mine management tongue lashed environmentalists. I overheard the conversations held among miners doing the same and coal mining families show up at environmental protests as the opposition.

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I eventually had to ask myself, “How in God’s name can so many environmentalists not realize they are doing more to polarize the situation than to help it?”

At the end of the day, I had to realize that perhaps many environmental organizations are just as “out of touch” as Appalachian people think them to be. They kept repeating the same courses of action over and over, they continued acting in ways that conflicted with local culture, and they kept shoving their message down everyone’s throat in the way they wanted it to be given (protests, civil disobedience, all with some participants forcing a counter cultural attitude through their appearance). I’ve even heard some environmentalists say, “I’m fed up with talking to pro-coal people. They won’t LISTEN.” I’m sorry to tell them that 60% or more of people in Central Appalachia are pro-coal because their entire economy depends upon it.

Rather than realizing their approach needs to be changed, rather than understanding that they need to come down off of their lofty moral high ground and start talking to the people on their own terms, environmental organizations have become the uppity outsiders that Appalachians have distrusted and even despised for generations.

Admittedly, a few environmental organizations have understood this problem. Their solution was to use a few local citizens to make themselves appear to be “grassroots.” Sorry folks, “grassroots” means organizations in which the majority of people come from the community and that it is not controlled by outsiders who think they know what’s best. If the demographics of Appalachia show that most people in communities are tied to coal, then a true grassroots organization would have mostly people who are tied to coal in it.

So where do I stand in all this? Well, I’m dang sure not a friend of the coal industry if that’s what you’re thinking. I know my history, and I know they’ve raped us all, taking billions of dollars of coal from our mountains and leaving us with the mess: high poverty rates, black lung, broken backs, drug abuse, water contamination, underfunded schools, and billions of gallons of coal slurry in impoundments all throughout Appalachia. So don’t count me as being pro-coal by any stretch of the imagination.

I’m also not an idiot. I know any change from a coal based mono-economy is going to be long and painful. As I mentioned before, the economy is utterly dependent upon coal, and I can’t help but blame the coal companies, their politicians, and their supporters for keeping it that way. Worst of all, coal won’t last forever. That’s the cold hard truth. The companies are merely scraping up what’s left; picking through the bones. Everyone should know this by now.

Change will only come when the people living in Appalachia pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make it happen themselves. It will only come when everyone wants change for their children and works towards change. It will have to include electing politicians not easily bought out by coal, and then actually getting out and working with them to force the region into a new era of sustainability. How that will look, no one knows, but folks have to start somewhere.

When it comes to the environment, I don’t believe in letting a bunch of “better than thou” people in distant cities tear our mountains all to hell so they can have cheap energy and live fancier lifestyles. I love being in the woods—what’s left of them at least. I think most people back home do as well. No matter which “side” folks are on, they have to start admitting that the coal industry has done more damage to the land than anyone would like to admit. I think folks need to realize that replacing woodlands, natural springs, and clear streams with acidic mine drainage, runoff from coal slurry impoundments, and strip mines, may actually have something to do with the higher cancer rates we’re seeing. Yes, yes, it also has to do with poor access to healthcare, poor food choices, smoking, drug abuse, and all the like…but most of those issues are directly related to poverty which is caused by a mono-economy built by the coal industry. Coal is still the problem.

At this point, even though the environmentalists are on the side of positive change, I just can’t trust them when it comes to convincing people that change must come. They’ve burned too many bridges. That’s why many organizations working in economic and community development won’t go anywhere near the subject. That’s why I stray from it as well on this blog. It’s sad too. I have many friends that are environmentalists and I know for a fact they have their hearts in the absolute right place (or else I wouldn’t be friends with them). Hundreds banded together to bring water to people in need during the Charleston, WV water crisis, and not just the city dwellers. Many jump at the chance to help people, be it digging mud out of basements after flooding, raising money to help people who’ve lost everything, to working in people’s gardens, and so much more. Many of them I am proud to call my dearest friends and I believe they are more selfless than most Appalachians I know.

But the truths are there, environmentalist organizations have little to no credibility and they won’t have until they can take a long hard look in the mirror and see how they’ve portrayed themselves to coal mining families. I’d hope to, that coal mining families will read this and realize that all environmentalists aren’t bad people by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps coal mining families could open their hearts, show a little forgiveness, and realize what the real problem is—coal operators.


Bashir, N. Y., Lockwood, P., Chasteen, A. L., Nadolny, D., & Noyes, I. (2013). The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence: The ironic impact of activists. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(7), 614–626. http://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.1983

Bell, S. E., & York, R. (2010). Community Economic Identity: The Coal Industry and Ideology Construction in West Virginia. Rural Sociology, 75(1), 111–143.

Schnayerson, M. (2008). Coal River. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Christmas at the Mines

Power Center

Right after Thanksgiving everyone at the mines would start getting into the Christmas spirit. Even though we knew it was a month away we couldn’t wait for the days off to spend with our families. Some of us would bring in ornaments to hang on our equipment and on some sections a cheap set of Christmas lights would be hung around the power center. It seemed like all we’d ever talk about was giving our kids a good Christmas and those who were lucky enough to still have a few vacation days bragged about how they were going to use them to extend their vacation.

During the week just before Christmas the company would put together a huge dinner for each shift coming out of the mines. While we ate, the mine foreman would hand out “gifts” smeared with the company logo. Every year we’d get the same things, a belt buckle, a baseball cap—some years a flashlight if we were lucky. They also would give us a frozen turkey or ham to take home until they figured it was cheaper and easier to hand out $25 Wal-Mart gift cards. With all the catered food and cheap gifts we received, I still felt the best gift they gave us was when they’d turn a blind eye to the underground dinners we’d have as a crew.

The days of coal crews shutting down to eat dinner together are long gone at most mines. Now each man takes lunch when he gets the chance. For the continuous miner operators and buggy men who kept the coal running, the boss or someone else would relieve them just long enough to get a quick bite. In today’s mines production doesn’t stop unless something breaks down.

That’s what made the underground dinners so special. During the last week leading up to Christmas, most crews would have an underground potluck. Everyone would bring in their dishes from home, pile them in the back of the man trip, and haul them underground. Once on the section, someone would take all the food to the power center.

For those who aren’t familiar with mining terms, a power center is huge rectangular box about 10 feet across, 20 feet long, and 3 feet high. It houses the electrical transformers and the power connections for all of the section’s electrical equipment. The metal lids over the transformers get scorching hot, making it the best place to heat food underground, especially an entire Christmas dinner.

Since the law states that all power centers must be located in the fresh air entry, the smell of hot food would spread all the way across to section.  The wait for lunchtime was always unbearable. Finally, four or five hours into the shift, the boss would shut the section down and everyone would pile up on the man trip. Someone would say grace and then we’d dig in. Afterwards the boss would hand out gifts to each of us and then we’d shoot the breeze or sleep for a half hour. When it came time to go back to work, it was everything we could do to roust ourselves out of our food commas. Fortunately the boss felt the same way and would give us a bit of slack.

Some of the best times I had working in the mines was during the holiday season. If there is anything I could ever miss about mining coal, it would be working the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Merry Christmas everyone.

* Update: I wrote this post because it symbolizes one of the few good things to come out of the mines….that sense of family and community we once held among ourselves.

It’s a true shame that we’ve let the companies get rid of it. They got rid of our time in the dinner hole, and as one commenter mentioned below, they’ve gotten rid of the underground Christmas dinners.

Companies want everyone to be a “Friend of Coal” but they don’t want miners to become friends, to care for each other like family.

Over the years they’ve taken away weekends where miners could get their families together. They rotated shifts, added mandatory overtime, run 10 hour shifts so no one could get enough sleep, let alone leave the house much during the work week and spend time with friends and family.

If things were like they used to be, and people were given time to develop those deep bonds and care for one another, no one would let their friends be laid off right before Christmas while CEOs got multi-million dollar retention bonuses. They wouldn’t let the operators take away retirees benefits. They’d shut everything down and make the company pay dearly for it, they’d make sure their friends got one hell of a severance package.

If the companies have millions to spend on a few “top” men, they’ve got millions to spend on the miners and their families who’ve sacrificed their time and health to make them rich.

 

If Coal Companies Had to Show What They Pay Miners For

Coal Miners Paycheck


There are many jobs out there that require the same skill levels in machine operation as coal mining. What makes coal mining different is the danger and long term health issues posed to coal miners.

In other words, if coal companies paid miners the same rates people get for working in above ground factories, no one would work in the mines. There has to be some incentive to work there—some extra compensation for the sacrifices to lure people in. 

Add to this the economic desperation often found in areas dominated by a coal mono-economy and you have the perfect mixture for the exploitation of a workforce. But why end there?

Surface mining may not be quite as dangerous and demanding on the body as undergroundhence the reason companies pay surface miners lessbut what damage isn’t being done to the miners themselves is being carried over to entire communities. Flooding from changed hydrology, silica dust wafting down during dry conditions and blasting, loss of fresh water sources through the destruction of mountain aquifers and covering of streams, and the contamination of water from hydraulic fluids, oil changes made by rushed heavy equipment mechanics,  and the minerals and heavy metals that are more easily soluble (picked up by water) once crushed into dust.

We also can’t forget the issues of diesel exhaust from equipment and coal trucks that has been linked to lung cancer, coal dust along haul routes, and the slurry impoundments containing billions of gallons of coal fines and chemicals that fill countless hollows behind company made dams.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Appalachian people who live in the coalfields aren’t paid for these sacrifices like underground miners are.

That’s why when I hear political candidates scoff at “placing debts on future generations,” I get a little irritated. They are typically the same ones who aren’t counting the debts to our children left in the form of poor healththe “externalized” costs that no one likes to admit.

These points have been made by many folks aside from myself for a long time. The reason they have to be repeated is truly sad.

 

Obama Has Killed Coal

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I keep seeing people pointing fingers at Obama and the EPA for the woes of the Appalachian Coal Miner, so let’s think about it…

How hard would it be to believe that the power companies, the natural gas (oil) companies, and the coal companies sat down over a nice steak dinner to discuss our nations energy future?

Perhaps they worked things out like this….

The coal industry knows there’s not that much coal left, but they can still get to it and make a hell of a profit if they can do it cheaply, but there’s a catch—they have to surface mine it and tear up hell to do it (mountain top removal). The natural gas companies know they have a product that is cleaner than coal and the power companies know they can build cheaper plants, but they don’t want to leave their long time buddies with the coal industry hanging either. I should also add that they are all investing in each others stock.

So let’s devise a plan. Natural gas can get by  as a “clean” energy alternative or “bridge” fuel. In the mean time, they can allow their politician buddies to garner a few votes by enacting new regulations which doesn’t affect natural gas as badly, makes them look good with the “treehuggers” and puts a squeeze on coal markets. The benefit to the coal industry is it makes it look like there is a “War on Coal” which does two things. Not only does it get the democratic vote with people thinking they’re helping fight MTR and climate change, but it also gets all the republican voters to fight against regulations and vote in candidates who they think will help them keep their jobs.

On the surface (no pun intended) it appears like a big struggle, the “liberal” politicians hold up 36 surface mining permits letting the “treehuggers” feel like their winning, but it also gets all the working people in Appalachia to ignore the “treehugger’s” information on climate change and cancer rates, and to even go a step further and fight for de-regulation that paves the way for the coal companies to tear up hell without any consequence.

At the same time all the working people are so damn job scared they are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their jobs. This would mean working mandatory overtime and being forced into taking short cuts for fear of getting fired if they don’t meet production (Upper Big Branch). The coal companies can even get by with filing bankruptcy and jerking all the benefits from their pensioners while everyone points all their blind hatred towards the EPA and the president. Coal mining families continue to vote in the conservatives who have everyone thinking they’re for the working people, but in truth they are cutting the working man’s throat by blocking safety regulations (giving miners the right to shut a section down if it’s unsafe to operate) and labor rights laws (that could put an end to mandatory overtime and cause them to have to hire more miners). The “War on Coal” also focuses everyone’s hatred away from where it should be.

Everyone should be focusing their hatred on all the coal companies and politicians who have manipulated them into believing coal is all there is and ever will be, while not lifting one single finger to build up local infrastructure and bring in job alternatives. Billions of dollars of coal have left Appalachia in just the last decade and not a damn thing has been done to bring in job alternatives or build up our roads, or our towns, or our education systems. Instead, they give everyone “Friends of Coal” stickers and go into the public schools to teach our kids about their version of coal in Appalachia without all the bloody union struggles and company hired mercenaries killing the families of coal miners trying to fight for a living wage.

They want people poor and desperate enough to fight for the high wages of a mining job and who aren’t afraid to cut their neighbors throat to keep it, whether it’s in the superintendent’s office or running equipment and destroying some poor person’s backyard.

And it looks like the companies and politicians have done a hell of a job at it because people aren’t thinking about the bigger picture. They just want to blame the EPA and Obama.

That’s business my friends. Each company get’s what they want. The coal companies walk away with everything and have all their earnings invested in natural gas, the natural gas industry makes bank, and the politicians—on both sides—get all the perks and votes they can handle.

Just imagine if one day we all woke up and realized we didn’t have to go in debt and work full time jobs for companies that treat us like crap, that we can still grow our own food and live simpler, happier lives with plenty of time to spend with friends and family, raising our children the right way—to be good to each other, to give freely, and that happiness doesn’t come attached to a dollar bill dangling from a coal company’s fishing pole….

The Modern Day Company Town

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Dante, Virginia – Photo by Rustina Mullins

Most Appalachians raised in coal country can easily describe what a “company town” is. They are littered throughout Appalachia, rows of identically built houses with a few larger homes built on the hillsides for the shift foremen and superintendents. Company towns existed during a time in our history when the coal companies ruled our lives. They paid our grandfathers in company scrip rather than U.S. dollars—building a system in which they could make money on both our family’s labors and their dependency on food and shelter. It was a life of misery for our people; long hours spent working at the mine with the threat of eviction from company owned housing held constantly over their heads. There was no place to go with only company money in their pockets.

We know to, that our people fought back, forming unions to end the abusive economic serfdom imposed upon them. Thanks to the strong will of our ancestors, the era of company owned towns ended—or so we think.

Today, small businesses are on the decline, leading to increased employment at large corporations. Wages earned are then spent at  grocery store chains and housing that often involves a 30 year debt sentence to national and multi-national banks.

Right now in the U.S.  10% of the population owns 76% of the nation’s net worth. If we were to think about that in terms of an old company town with 1,000 people, 100 people would own 76% of the town, leaving 900 people to split up the remaining 24%. A few of those 100 would own the most, with the remainder going to the managers and their families covering the different aspects of the town, from the mining operation, to the company power station, the store, the bank, and even the pharmacy and doctors’ offices.

It’s not to difficult to see that same system existing on a larger scale within our national economy. Even the wage inequalities based on race and gender would translate.

While it is true that we have more job choices and we can take the money we earn and spend it at a multitude of different stores in different places, if we trace the flow of money, it still ends up in the pockets of just a few rich owners. The company town has simply become larger, encompassing an entire nation, fragmenting into multiple names and subsidiaries to give people the illusion of choice.

retail-brand-ownershipFrom the workers perspective, we are still living in a company town, trading our labor for money that we must then use to purchase our family’s basic necessities. If we’ve not played the game right, we can be evicted and our families put out on the streets should we lose our jobs.

It would appear as though the rich and powerful of this nation have succeeded in turning the economy into their own perfect system, one in which they make money off of our labors and then make money off of our purchases. They even have us chasing the illusion of happiness fed to us through non-stop advertising, warping our understanding of self-worth to benefit their profits.

There is a way out, but it isn’t easy.

It starts with realizing the problem and then finding ways to eliminate our debts and procure multiple sources of income. In other words, we shouldn’t be placing all of our eggs in one basket that’s owned by someone else.

Debt elimination comes largely from scaling down our materialistic lifestyles. Ask yourself, how big does my house really have to be? How much does my truck have to look like one in a magazine or how fast does my car have to go? Do I really think people actually admire me more for the things I have and the clothes I wear? (If the answer to that last question is yes, start hanging out with better people)

We used to admire people for their willingness to go without, especially when it was for the purpose of giving to others. It was called selflessness. But living simply and giving to others interrupts the system; it eliminates someone’s ability to make a profit.

There are multitudes of books and articles on how we can switch to a better life, how we can fight against the “coal operators” for our freedom. We need to start thinking in terms of supplying our needs without a dependency on “company scrip.” Income doesn’t have to be pieces of paper or numbers in a bank. It can be the things we need, such as food.  People can grow a garden, preserve, and exchange food. People can develop relationships with their neighbors to lend and borrow tools or barter what they have for things they want or need. We can build our own homes and help others build their homes without mortgages, homes that are much more efficient and require less electricity to heat and cool. We can find our own sources of water, such as putting in cisterns or drilling wells. And the list goes on…

But the first thing we have to do is break free from this understanding of life that’s been constructed for us, the illusion that we are better people because we earn more money and can buy more stuff. We must realize we are all living in a company town and we continue to owe our souls to the company store.

Hard Times? Better Times

Our forefathers were able to weather the bad times with the coal industry–and even fight back when the companies mistreated miners and retirees. Our people knew how to take care of themselves and each other. They knew how to go without and how to give. I’m not going to romanticize and say they were always happier back then, that times didn’t get a lot tougher than we could possibly imagine, but I believe they knew more what true happiness was than we do today. And they damn sure knew the difference between right and wrong.

Sadly, today, the skills and values that set Appalachian people apart as some of the best folks this nation has ever known, is nearly gone.

Today there are pro-company idiots who think the sun rises and sets with the coal companies, who don’t have half a brain except to cut other people’s throats in the superintendents office in order to get ahead. There are many young miners who’ve followed in their footsteps and taken to buying things they don’t need and “looking out for #1.”

These kinds of miners want to pride themselves in being “hard workers” and want people to admire them for their “sacrifices,” but in truth, they could never hold a light to the older generations–the TRUE APPALACHIAN coal miners. I suppose it’s always easier to suck up to the company and work their health away away than it is to do the right thing, to live the right way. In many ways, I think a lot of them are getting what they deserve, these scabs of days gone by who cursed the unions and looked down their noses at the decent people of Appalachia. It’s only to bad that their children and families are going to have to suffer as a result. Some of life’s best lessons are learned the hard way.

Perhaps cutting the company umbilical cord is the only way for people to realize what is truly important in life, to see the truth of the industry, and to build a better future for their children.