There has been no drought of media attention about coal, coal miners, and Appalachia over the past year. I myself have fielded more than a dozen calls from media outlets wanting to know more about the region, each looking for new angles or “ins” with coal mines and coal miners. Though a few have done a decent job contextualizing Appalachia’s deeper issues, many still manage to skip over some very important details about our situation—and that’s a problem. It’s this lack of depth that allows authors like J.D. Vance, and his book Hillbilly Elegy to reach national best seller status and thereby define our existence among an international audience.
So here is something for everyone to consider—the forces that control Appalachia’s economy also seek to maintain a captive workforce aimed at exploiting miners and their families.
Coal Company Towns: Take II
Those who have taken time to understand the history of Appalachia are familiar with the days of the company towns. Companies purchased mineral rights and nearby lands to invest in building entire towns including worker housing, stores, churches, doctors offices, and even law enforcement and mercenary forces—all owned by the coal company. Companies also paid their workers in company scrip, money that was only accepted at company owned stores and facilities.
Many people likened working in coal camps to serfdom. For immigrants recruited at entry ports in the Northeast, their work in the coal mines resembled indentured servitude as they paid back the company for their train ride, their first month’s rent, and all tools necessary to mine the company’s coal. In some places, peonism took form as companies used prison labor to mine coal. This was the case in Coal Creek, a small mining town in eastern Tennessee and Birmingham, Alabama.
These were terrible times and mining families actively fought and died to escape the control imposed upon them by coal companies. The Coal Creek, Cabin Creek, and Harlan County Wars, the Matewan Massacre, The Battle of Blair Mountain, and other labor battles are grim reminders of those struggles. Better times didn’t reach Appalachia until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that eliminated company scrip among other things. With more and more miners unionizing, people living in and around mining communities were slowly beginning to enjoy basic human rights.
But to think that the coal industry gave up their desire for cheap, expendable labor, is outright stupidity. We need only to examine the reactionary nature of mine safety regulations in our country or the consistent union-busting efforts undertaken by companies that eventually broke the United Mine Workers in a majority of Appalachian communities.
And as far as the company towns are concerned, today we call them the Chambers of Commerce.
While coal companies did profit from the sales in their stores and from the rent paid by families for housing, it was their ability to maintain a captive workforce of people whose survival was dependent upon coal mining, that most benefited their bottom lines.
Today, the company towns have just been expanded, allowing more business interests to profit from coal mining families.
Loans, Loans, Loans
One means of ensuring a captive workforce is debt. I remember when the superintendent of our mine called everyone in that had been hired within the last month. “Did you boys get your first paychecks? How’d you like them?” he asked.
“It’s the best pay I ever had,” one of the guys said with other mumbles of agreement.
“Right then,” he said, “Now you boys can go out and afford [payments on] better homes and new trucks.” Someone behind me said under his breath, “And that way they’ll know we’ll be here every day.”
In local mining communities, having a paycheck from a coal company is just as good as being employed in the company owned towns of years past. Automotive dealerships, local banks, and mortgage companies all offer lines of credit to coal miners. Even during the massive layoffs that came in 2013, one auto dealership advertised, “If you lose your job within two years of buying one of our vehicles, we’ll take it back without any damage to your credit.” Banks were less forgiving.
For years Farmers and Miner’s bank advertised on billboards with images of motorcycles, boats, homes, and vacations, asking passersby if they “Need a loan?” In 2013 when the layoffs came, many were replaced with images of casually dressed bankers shaking the hands of farmers with statements along the lines of “Your friend in the community.” Bullshit.
With mining jobs on the decline, the real estate market plummeted, trapping many families in the region who were unable to sell their homes. Others foreclosed, handing over yet more land and mineral rights to outside companies while they themselves were put into a new level of poverty. Smart, no?
By ensuring no job alternatives exist that offer a living wage within coal mining areas, families with generational ties to the land, or those who are financially incapable of moving away, must do what they can to survive. This was what led myself, my father, and my grandfather to work in the mines. When moving away wasn’t an option financially, we wanted to remain close to home, to raise our children in the same valley that our ancestors settled nearly two hundred years ago. Without enough land to farm and few if any good paying jobs outside of the mining industry, we had little choice for a profession.
This leads to an important point, one shared among a majority of coal miners. If there were jobs that offered similar wages without the dangers and long-term health issues of mining underground, miners would jump on them in a heart beat. That’s why the few well-paying careers that do exist, such as working for railroads or local utilities, remain highly competed for.
This is why I wasn’t at all surprised to see that during the 2000s, half of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority’s board of directors were high-ranking officials in the local coal industry. Some may argue that this agency and other government agencies aren’t fully to blame, citing topographical issues and infrastructural problems affecting economic development in central Appalachia. But then again, our topography isn’t much different than say, the Poconos, the Catskills, the Blueridge, or the Alleghenies.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure this one out. The problem with economic development in central Appalachia lies within the extreme wealth of coal that exists here, and the corrupted power of all those who benefit from it and the cheap labor used to extract it.
Finally, education, or the lack thereof, is yet another means of maintaining a captive workforce in coal mining regions. The theory of trickle-down economics, combined with outside land ownership of our region by corporations, means that local property taxes are kept low so companies can theoretically provide jobs. Without revenue, local school systems fight to maintain facilities and teachers. Local schools are shut down and consolidated, class sizes are increased, and teacher’s wages and benefits continue to suffer. The results are students with reduced chances of escaping poverty, the region, and a life working in the mines. It’s a win-win for the companies: low taxes and a captive workforce. And if this isn’t enough to make you angry…
Coal companies, through organizations like Coal Education Development and Resources of Southern West Virginia (CEDARS), teach kids in public schools about the benefits of coal while re-writing our history. For instance, they state that “Today many decry conditions in the ‘coal camps,’ but miners and their families fared as well as most working-class Americans, and better than those unfortunate souls who labored in urban sweatshops or as rural sharecroppers.” I suppose they just happened to miss how mothers, whose husbands were killed in the mines, were forced to sell their bodies to coal company officials to feed their families in a system called “Esau.”
While coal corporations can never return to the days of coal company towns, they still have Appalachians right where they want them. They have their pick of miners desperate to go back to work to support their families, to receive medical benefits, and to save their homes. They have families willing to do anything, willing to vote for anyone to alleviate their suffering—all while being convinced by company public relations that their suffering came at the hands of liberals and a war on coal.
Sadly, I’m hearing more and more stories of miners working 12 hours a day for weeks on end, earning less pay and receiving fewer benefits. It all spells misery for coal mining families who are held as economic prisoners within their mountain homes.
A few cold hearted individuals might say they deserve what they get. J.D. Vance would have them pull up their bootstraps, go into the Marine Corp, and then apply to Yale Law School. I’d hope that after reading this article, these people would understand the powerful, and often terrible forces that have been at work in Appalachia for over a century.
These are the problems that I try to explain to journalists and people who are looking down upon us. I’ve written and re-written about these issues. There is no lack of evidence to support my claims, nor is there a lack of common sense to explain it. Though I grow tired of repeating myself, we need these truths to be put out in front of all other media regarding our mountain home, coal, and especially Donald Trump. I will keep going as long as I can, but I can’t do it alone. Spread the word, share the truth.