The Mono-Economy of Coal or: How to Maintain a Captive Workforce


Photo by Nick Mullins

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.

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The Manipulation of Southern Pride


Stone Mountain, Georgia | Photo by Jim Bowen

When I was a teenager, I went to a meeting of the new Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in my home town. I quickly became caught up in the ideals of the SCV and hoped desperately that I could find a Confederate soldier within my lineage so I could join.
I was not racist thanks to a good upbringing, nor were many of the SCV members in my home town. The head of the chapter made it clear to newcomers that racism would not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form. Despite this fact, we were nevertheless engaged in downplaying the atrocity of slavery to reconcile our past and defend our identity as southerners.
In our shallow minded understandings, we believed the war was about classism and freedom from oppression, arguing that the south was fighting over interpretations of the Constitution regarding states’ rights. By being a part of the SCV, I thought I was honoring the tens of thousands of poor southern farmers who fought to defend their families against “northern aggression.” I repeated statements I’d heard about Lincoln’s own racism, along with other facts contrasting the purely social justice narrative we saw as being taught about the war.

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As Coal Production Ramps Up, Companies Should Pay Their Debts to Mining Communities



Abandoned Company Home – Trammel, Virginia. Photo by Nick Mullins

According to reports from the Energy Information Administration, coal production will be on the rise due to increases in electrical generation from coal fired power plants and coal exports. This means that coal companies, who have come out ahead by shirking their financial responsibilities in bankruptcy court, will be primed to make yet another killing.

For a select group of people living in coal mining regions across the nation, this boom will be a short reprieve from the economic suffering felt during the most recent downturn. But those  “lucky” enough to return to the mines will see that the economic desperation created in the last five years has changed the game. Companies will not be begging for workers as they did in the mid-2000s.  Miners will be competing with each other to get what jobs do come available, and those who are hired will face the constant threat of losing their job to the next desperate miner waiting in line. Coupled with reduced mine safety regulations, a concession given by state legislators to help the industry “create jobs,” coal mining families will be facing some truly dangerous times.

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The Self-Serving Hustle of “Hillbilly Elegy” – Reblog

I’ve had multiple people asking my thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy. Between the article below by R. Mike Burr which I have reblogged here, and another article by Ivy Brashear titled “Why Media Must Stop Misrepresenting Appalachia” there is not much for me to add.

The danger that I see is that Hillbilly Elegy has garnered too much publicity for a remarkably shallow insight into Appalachia’s issues. Not only do I blame the media and public at large for taking this book to heart, I blame Vance for taking on the role of “explainer-in-chief of Appalachian issues.”

Sadly, the literature that does explore the depths of corruption and economic exploitation in the region, problems that have created the intense poverty and all the symptoms you would expect of it, seldom receive the level of media attention necessary to educate the public. If one wants to understand what has happened in Appalachia so as to begin a dialogue about a just transition I would suggest…

Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945  Ron D. Eller

High Mountains Rising  – edited by Richard A. Straw and H. Tyler Blothen

Night Comes to the Cumberlands – Harry M. Caudill


Tropics of Meta


As one of a smallish group of liberal Appalachian ex-pats, I have always considered myself an ambassador for my place of birth. I have tried to respond graciously to less than good-natured jokes about familial relations and general backwardness in the Appalachian region, and highlight the pride I still take in the work ethic and common decency of my family and community.

Lately, every inquiry has been framed around J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: whether I have read it or whether conditions for “my people” are as dire as described in the book. Vance’s memoir might have eventually faded from relevance, as there is little glamour to be found in the cored and denuded hills of the region. Then desperate Appalachians came in out droves to back Donald Trump’s improbable run to the White House.

While it is debatable what profit the Appalachian will reap from a Trump presidency, Vance…

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The Ongoing Fight Against Media’s Misrepresentation of Appalachia


A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Daniel Flatley from Bloomberg News. He was working on a story aimed at understanding why coal miners were not retraining into healthcare careers as the healthcare industry grew in Appalachia. I tried my best to answer his questions and give a broader understanding of miner retraining and economic development issues in the region. Unfortunately, the article was published just as I was heading back home to help with a family emergency. I became aware of it just today.


Let me start by saying that I am beyond angry with the title of the article and the image Bloomberg chose. The photo was a quick snapshot, catching two coal workers off guard with the intent of portraying them as senseless animals being enticed with a treat. Is it any wonder that we are upset with urban elitism and the so called “left” media? As I stated in my Yes! Magazine article, stereotyping Appalachians (in this case as being unintelligent) feeds directly into the divisive rhetoric spread by conservative politicians and coal industry associations. It is often so brazen, I honestly wonder if this isn’t the intent.

In terms of my quotes, I did NOT infer that people were actively avoiding retraining or other careers because of gender stereotypes and gender roles within the region. My quote, like the photo, was a snippet of a conversation that lasted 15 minutes. The issue is complex and leaves a great deal of room for speculation.

There is a lot of pride and heritage in coal mining, but very few coal miners would stick with a career in the mines if job alternatives with similar wages and benefits were available in the region.

When it comes to why miners weren’t jumping at job opportunities created by the health care industry, I did state that miners who were already involved in local emergency medical services and rescue squads could easily transition into such work, but there are many miners who would not consider it. This was not to say that they are incapable of the job, or that they have been institutionalized by the coal industry. I tried to explain that it would be a different environment to work in, and many would not pursue it for the same reason a large portion of our population does not pursue jobs in the healthcare industry. It takes a specific type of person to engage in the duties fulfilled by nurses and surgical staff.

I did speculate that many miners were holding out hope for Trump bringing back coal jobs and that many do not participate in retraining because of the lack of jobs available as they exit retraining. I also mentioned that some may fear that companies would not hire them if officials believed they were pursuing career alternatives. The coal industry has a very captive workforce at the moment, and they are seeking only the most dedicated miners to exploit.

This article is just more media misrepresentation of Appalachia not unlike what Ivy Brashear spoke to in her article “Why Media Must Stop Misrepresenting Appalachia.” Speaking of which, stay tuned as I will be addressing Hillbilly Elegy in the near future.

The Real Presidential “Delegation”



Disclaimer: This isn’t a left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, democrat vs. republican debate. Just keep reading.

We all know the stereotype, the clueless boss who has no idea how to do a damn thing.  You go to them with a problem and they instantly point you in a different direction, bumbling along like you just hit them between the eyes with sledge hammer (stop visualizing it as much as you want it to happen and let’s get back to the point). Their lack of understanding of your job, and that of the people you work with, makes working for them a nightmare. Day after day you sit around wondering just how in the hell they get to be in such positions.

So how do they? One word—delegation.

Not in the sense of “a body of delegates or representatives,” but in the sense of delegating a task, i.e. “giving” the work to someone else to do.

In other words, if someone isn’t smart enough to do a job, but they know how to hire and exploit someone who does, they can still get the job done. The best part? If the person they delegate the job to does well, they get the credit for being a good “delegator.” If that person fails to do a good job, the boss can blame it on the underling and either reprimand or fire them. It is an acceptable safety valve for self-serving businessmen and women who are then only accountable for high turnover rates and/or missed deadlines.  This is what the corporate ladder is built upon and it is awash in blood from mid-management to Vice Presidents, CEOs, and now, the President of the United States.

All politics aside, what we are witnessing in the White House is a man who was born at the top of the corporate ladder and enjoys playing King of the Hill (no pun intended). He is not a good leader and cannot handle the role of president of these United States. Let’s face it, he was never elected based upon his credentials for doing an enormously important job—he won a popularity contest.

Watching the drama at the White House, it’s not difficult to see Trump as a clueless boss who believes he can get the job done if he simply selects and commands the right people to do his job for him. What is scary is that unlike a business where the most damage he could do is send it into bankruptcy and sail out with a golden parachute, he is instead toying with an entire nation that also happens to be a world power. Incompetence at this level comes at the cost of millions of people’s well-being.

It’s important to note that not all delegators are complete jerks. There are many who delegate jobs and tasks knowing and appreciating the people who work with them. They realize their shortcomings and strive to learn more about each job they don’t know how to do.  They listen and appreciate, they forgive and support, and they are always putting other people ahead of themselves. They work to be effective leaders, not just bosses, and they earn the respect of everyone they work with. Unfortunately, in a culture built upon an economy that rewards competition and better quarterly statements, these leaders are few and far between.

You are now entering free-market capitalism, please check your conscience at the gate.

Today, more than ever, we need a benevolent leader, not a self-absorbed, power craving, wealthy business mogul. We need to stand up as a nation—as his boss—and scream in unison, “YOU’RE FIRED!!!!!”

Maintenance, safety, and the drive for production

Power Center

I just read an article about Daniel L. Couch Jr., a mine maintenance chief who pleaded guilty to falsifying safety documents. Before people go throwing him under the bus, it’s important to understand a few things about mine maintenance, safety, and the push for production.

Certified mine electricians don’t just repair electrical equipment and perform maintenance, they are also required to inspect electrical equipment to ensure operational safety, electrical safety, and permissibility (the ability to operate in a methane-air mixture without igniting said methane and causing an explosion). It Continue reading

Against Our Own Best Interest: Why Working People Shouldn’t Elect Businessmen Into Office



Donald J. Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

In my experiences, I’ve run across many people who believe business executives are a good choice to be our lawmakers. Many of these same people also complain about the poor treatment of employees and off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, decisions that are often made by business executives.  So why exactly do people elect them into public office?

After getting into a variety of debates, I’ve found many people’s logic can be summed up in this statement, “Business leaders are smart people and hard workers who know how to make the right decisions to build companies from the ground up. They are good employers and will use their expertise to fix our government and provide more and better jobs.” If these were the businessmen and women that actually made it into office, I might consider the notion, but this is rarely the case.

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Searching for Justice in Appalachia: Part II

Big Rock, VA Photo byNick Mullins

In my original post, I skirted along the edges of some personal beliefs that I often spare my readership, beliefs that I must admit, cause me to doubt myself and this work. As I mentioned in my first post, one of the downsides to being a justice advocate is realizing just how bleak the situation can be. I get up every morning, wondering if we can ever truly achieve justice.

Just to recap, coal companies have billions in assets, lawyers on retainer, political campaign contributions, and they own the majority of our resources in Appalachia. Coal companies use the money they make from our resources to hire marketing firms, pay for advertising time on TV networks, and print thousands upon thousands of Friends of Coal stickers to convince us they are benefiting our communities. For many of us, it’s a struggle just to pay our bills and buy food, let alone stand up against it. Continue reading

The Love of a Coal Mining Father

Randy Supplies

Like many fathers living in central Appalachia, my dad didn’t have a lot of choices after he graduated high school. He couldn’t bare the thought of leaving his mountain home and all the family and places he’d always known. So he did what he could, going to work in the mines—risking his life and sacrificing his health to provide for his family.

There were times he loved his job, especially when he was working with a good crew in one of the safer union mines. But when the companies shut down all their union operations, he sacrificed more than he ever should have had to. After the South Mountain disaster that happened just down the road from where he was working, there were many nights I’d lay awake, waiting to hear his truck come up the driveway, worried he’d not come home again.

Today, I’d give anything for him to have his health back. I’d give anything for him to be able to take his grand-kids on long hikes in the woods, to take them squirrel hunting, or across the ridge to find morels in the spring.

The people who made their money off the coal our dad’s mined, didn’t deserve to take the best part of their lives and health.

Here’s to all the coal mining fathers out there, to your strength and kindness, to your love and sacrifices. I hope that one day no father will have to give up so much just to earn a decent living for their families.