Working on this podcast gave me the opportunity to explore one of my scholarly interests, progressive politics, through an entirely new framework. As a recent transplant to Southwestern VA, I was excited to learn more about the social issues of an industry that has been so important to the region I now call home. During the introduction, I mention that I have a long-standing commitment to upholding workers’ rights. Indeed, it’s in my blood: here’s the Wikipedia page for my great-uncle Joe Tinker, whose work on defending coal miners’ rights in British Parliament during the 1920s is an opening point of my podcast. Unfortunately I couldn’t find much more about him online above and beyond that Wiki — maybe I’ll have to write up some of the stories I’ve heard about him from my mother one day.
Before I began my research, I knew that I’d be approaching Virginia coal mining political history from a pro-union perspective. What I didn’t expect was that the ideological dynamics with which I was already familiar would be challenged. But that’s exactly what happened. It quickly became clear to me that the cultural and socioeconomic features of Appalachia render politics very distinctive here. Positions broadly associated with a liberal/left-leaning outlook are challenged by the day-to-day demands and realities of coal mining life. This is true for miners across the political spectrum, and irrespective of whether they are unionized.The liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republic binary does not suffice to tell the whole story.
Early in the podcast, I discuss John L. Lewis, who was arguably the most important figure in United States coal mining history. President of the United Mine Workers’ Association from 1920-1960 — which was, at its peak membership numbers (roughly 80,000 members) one of the largest unions of all time — Lewis was a fierce agitator known to step on the toes of anyone who would get in his way. This included occasionally coming to grips with members of left-leaning parties. The fact of the matter is that coal mining has to be treated as a unique political case.
A great example of this is environmentalism. No matter how it is extracted, coal is an environmentally destructive source of energy. Mountaintop removal strip mining has raised particular concern in recent years. But the cries of environmentalists who would hope to entirely shut down the coal industry simply cannot be heard by those whose livelihoods rely on coal.
In a part of my interview with Judson Abraham that didn’t make the final cut, he mentions that the Obama administration considered funding programs for re-training coal miners to work in vocations that were not only more environmentally friendly, but more in demand, such as drone piloting. This could be a good option for younger coal workers, but given that it relies on government intervention, it might be hard to advance among a population that is leaning increasingly to the right. Judson also reflected on the fact that Republican politics are much more popular among young people in West Virginia, and indeed the same appears to be true of the state overall. See the following maps: the first is from the 2008 presidential election: blue represents counties that voted for Obama; red, for John McCain. Darker colors indicate stronger numbers. The second map refers to the 2016 presidential election: every single county voted for Trump.
Moreover, it’s not looking like our current presidential administration will move forward with this. The way in which the Trump administration has negotiated the tension between coal mining and environmentalism exemplifies the conflict. Here’s an interesting recent article about this.
This begs the question: where do we go from here? Judson was cautiously optimistic about the future of left-leaning populist politics in Appalachia. After all, this region was very important to union struggles throughout the twentieth century. While the political atmosphere of the 1980s (the Reagan years) changed national perspectives on unions, interest in worker-friendly politics has been stirred up by initiatives like Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders Presidential Campaign. The youth vote in the 2016 election certainly went to the Democrats, and the political future of the United States may look very different from its present.
In terms of employment numbers, the coal mining industry is undoubtedly in decline. But, like Judson, I remain faithful to the idea that a tactful blend of worker-friendly ideals and healthy pragmatism can make life better for the thousands who perform this difficult job every day — and that the vision from which this comes can be spread across all industries. There’s a lot to be said for the Fight for Fifteen and for organizing across employment sectors, life circumstances and demographics to improve life for working class people. In that sense, despite its uniqueness, labor politics in Appalachia is an important part of a global fight.
Some helpful resources:
Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change, edited by Stephen L. Fisher
A Strike like No Other Strike: Law and Resistance during the Pittston Coal Strike of 1989–1990, by Richard Brisbane
“The Bituminous Coal Strike of 1977-1978:” http://wikivisually.com/wiki/Bituminous_Coal_Strike_of_1977-1978
“Coal Miners Strike Against Pittston Company in Virginia, USA, 1989-1990:” http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/coalminers-strike-against-pittston-company-virginia-usa-1989-1990
“Coal and Jobs in the United States:” http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Coal_and_jobs_in_the_United_States
And, of course, my interview with Judson Abraham — conducted on March 10th, 2017.