Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce
Somehow it makes sense that, in the wake of Tuesday’s general election results, one of the bigger pieces of coal news in West Virginia is the filing of a new lawsuit over the 46-year-old Farmington Mine Disaster.
History is a tough thing here in coal country. As the great historian John Alexander Williams has observed, the fact that our history is so painful is probably one reason it’s so poorly understood. But in understanding the election results, it’s important to try to step back and put them in context.
It’s popular among the GOP’s career campaign consultants to describe this election as some huge change in power, in who runs things in West Virginia. It’s the end of more than 80 years of Democratic control, they say over and over.
Of course, even if you want to focus only on the partisan aspects of this, their narrative ignores the three terms that Republican Arch Moore served as governor (at least part of the time, enriching himself in exchange for helping coal operators) and the two terms that Republican Cecil Underwood served as governor (at least part of the time, fighting against the Clinton administration’s version of the “war on coal“).
But to really put this in historical context, you’ve got to go back further than 2004, or even to 2000, when George W. Bush got the state’s electoral votes in the presidential race. It seems to me that one place to start is the United Mine Workers strike against A. T. Massey Coal. That Massey fight to break the union set the stage for the Pittston strike, and for further efforts by the industry to distance itself from the union — and to Massey’s huge growth in the Coal River Valley, to the non-union, mountaintop removal machine it became — and to a long line of mining deaths and disasters. At least so far, no one from Massey has really paid the price for the damage that was done, and the region simply hasn’t recovered.
After emerging from the struggle for unionization in the 1920s, the UMWA became a major progressive voice on so many fronts — not just for better wages and decent health and safety conditions for workers, but for building better families and communities with things like medical centers, and giving those whose labor extracted Southern West Virginia’s huge natural resources their fair share of that wealth. Today, though, the union has a far smaller working membership, and a much larger share of retirees and widows, whose pensions and health-care benefits are under constant threat from the industry’s downturn. The UMWA parrots industry talking points on climate change, while offering no real answers itself to dealing with that global crisis — and not really wanting to engage in efforts to build a more diversified economy to protect coal communities for the day when the coal is eventually gone.
Today’s UMWA has many critics. But those critics often ignore the tough realities facing union President Cecil Roberts, who has to find some way to protect those retirees, and has a solemn duty to represent his declining working membership. Politicians have made it harder and harder on unions to organize, and the industry’s demographics mean that you can’t count on every miner you urge to vote Democratic having a framed photo of John L. Lewis on the wall next to one of FDR or JFK.
The history of all this really has to go back even farther than the Massey strike, though. As John A. Williams observed in his remarkable book, “West Virginia: A History“:
… Most of West Virginia’s hills and mountains overlie deposits of coal. Herein lies another theme of West Virginia history, one in which the sour notes vastly outnumber the sweet. Persons who have studied the impact of coal mining on different societies from Silesia to northern Japan have concluded that coal has been a curse upon the land that yielded it. West Virginia is no exception … In its repetitive cycle of boom and bust, its savage exploitation of men and nature, in its seemingly endless series of disasters, the coal industry has brought grief and hardship to all but a small portion of the people whose lives it touched ..
Photo of the election night party at the Jackson Kelly law firm, via Twitter.
Williams goes on:
There has been, of course, a tiny elite of smaller producers and middlemen who grew rich from coal exploitation although not as rich as the nonresident owners in whose shadow the local elite worked. For those West Virginians who lived at a remove from the industry, its impact has been more ambiguous.
Certainly coal created opportunities that were not there in the agricultural era, but it also created new problems, especially as the owners of the industry have always tried and have usually succeeded in passing off the external or social costs of coal production to the public at large. Moreover, the industry called into being a larger population than West Virginia’s other economic resources can support so that, even after the great migration of postwar years, the position of the state is like that of an addict.
West Virginia is ‘hooked’ on coal, for better or for worse. In the past, it has generally been for the worst.
Professor Williams wisely notes:
… The aesthetic and human values that environmental degradation subverts are difficult to measure. By contrast, the coal industry retains much of its old-time political power in West Virginia, and can readily deploy it to defend immediate and specific economic concerns.
So when you hear the commentary about how this week’s election results are some sort of revolution, changing who has been in charge around here for so many years, ask yourself if what we’ve got isn’t really just more of the same.