Back lung among Appalachia’s coal miners has once again made national headlines, and in almost clock-work fashion, many self-righteous individuals took to social media channels to deplore Appalachia’s presidential voting choices. Some of the more common remarks have been, “That’s what they get,” while others attempt to benignly question the region’s intelligence with questions such as, “Why do they vote against their best interests?”
Being from Appalachia, having worked in the dust myself, and having seen the choices my father and many other miners have had to make, I can assure you that the issue is much more complex than over-simplified, stereotypical assumptions about Appalachian people.
Legislation surrounding the issues of black lung, also known clinically as coal workers pneumoconiosis (CWP), has always been reactionary. It wasn’t until it became highly publicized, thanks in part to the United Mine Workers of America, that any attempts were made to remedy the problem. Throughout the late 60s and 70s, respirable dust limits were drafted into new mine safety legislation requiring the strengthening and enforcement of mine ventilation plans and the installation of dust collection systems on mining equipment. Sadly, the regulations were only as effective as the underfunded agencies tasked with enforcing them.
Like many miners of the mid-70s and 80s, my father was fortunate enough to work at one at a large mining complex in Central Appalachia. Such complexes were built to mine large coal seams that would last 20 years or more. Not only was the coal extracted, it was processed on site and loaded directly onto trains for shipment to the northern steel mills or power plants. Most of these large complexes were also union. My father earned a good wage with excellent benefits. His work schedule gave us ample family time, and most importantly—there was a positive safety culture created and protected by union contract.
The union saw to it that safety officers were appointed to each crew. If working conditions became unsafe or unhealthy, miners had the right to stop work until the problems were resolved. Such protection gave miners the right to put safety ahead of production without the fear of company retribution for lost production.
When the coal markets fell in the early 90s, companies began shuttering their union operations first, laying off thousands of union coal miners including my father. More than once my father was forced to work at smaller non-union “truck” mines or “dog-holes” where he’d spend long hours in terrible conditions with substandard equipment, all to keep food on our table. I recall one day that he came home worn down and coughing up black mucus. He looked at me and said, “I’ve eat more dust in two months at this damn mine than I did in 16 years at Beth Energy.”
When coal markets rebounded in the 2000s the coalfields full of desperate families like ours. When companies offered wages higher than union contracts would offer, miners young and old accepted them with little thought to the lack of protection the union once afforded everyone.
Without the union, forty-hour work weeks became fifty and sixty hours as companies began requiring mandatory overtime, often as ten-hour rotating shifts. We were all spending more time in the mine—more time breathing dust. What safety was preached at the beginning of each shift became an afterthought the moment we began work. The company would send out memos warning us about “performance-based layoffs” and section foreman were tasked with recording our production numbers at the end of each shift. Though many of us knew it was a scare tactic, it was enough to push miners with young families to increase their performance, to compete against one another, and to ultimately sacrifice job safety for job security.
It’s a situation that has led hundreds of thousands of miners to risk their lives in the depths of our beautiful mountains, each trying to avoid poverty at the hands of a mono-economic resource curse. It’s led us to ignore the toll it will take on our bodies, to accept that our lungs may become as choked as our father’s, grandfather’s, and great grandfather’s. Over the last 20 years, many miners have had to face the choices of breathing a little more dust while pushing both safety and common sense to the brink—all in the hopes of achieving some small piece of the American Dream within our Appalachian home.
So when lofty idealists, many of whom presume themselves to be well-educated, open-minded critical thinkers, take to social media channels and make comments about people’s political choices, they only show their own ignorant arrogance. The majority of Appalachian’s do not see coal companies as their friend. They know the detriment of the industry to their well-being. They know, that the industry is a necessity in a region that leaves them no economic choice. It is only when Appalachians are spoken down to in this way—when they are assumed to be “voting against their best interests”—that coal companies and their political allies are able to blur the lines between defending our cultural heritage and defending their industry.