“Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields”

Appalachia, a vast region along the spine of that mountain chain, runs from New York to Alabama and contains rich deposits of coal. That combustible rock has long been exploited for profit by major corporations that have purchased the land or mining rights, or both, to do so. Indeed, to this day, a major share of coal-rich land in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and far southwestern Virginia is owned by corporations headquartered elsewhere, whose executives do not live in the region in which their companies mine. Absentee ownership of large portions of its land areas is but one attribute of this region. Another is its relative remoteness, despite its proximity to major eastern U.S. population centers. This characteristic arises from its rugged topography and relatively poor infrastructure. Most coal mining towns in the region are not located near interstates and, generally speaking, one must want to visit them to find them. Likewise, most coal-dependent communities have witnessed decades of economic decline as mining has become more mechanized, its form has changed from underground to surface, requiring fewer employees, and demand for Appalachian coal from industry in Europe and Asia and American power plants has declined. Still another significant distinctive feature of these communities is their nearly complete dependence on coal for their economic vitality and the livelihoods of their residents. Finally, the people residing in these towns have long been characteristically hard-working and fiercely attached to the places in which many of their families have lived for generations.

I share these facts to paint a broad picture of the region, which is far more complex than this capsule portrait suggests. But I want most to establish that the coal industry and related employment have been waning across Appalachia for decades. Indeed, in March 2016 there were only 15,900 “extraction workers, machine operators and their helpers” in the entire United States, or .019 percent of the American workforce, and only a share of those were located in Appalachia.[1] Virginia’s coal-dependent counties, for example, had fewer than 3,000 individuals working in the more encompassing occupational category of mining in 2015 (and still fewer in 2016), even as Donald Trump argued during his presidential campaign and after he entered office that he would “bring the coal industry” back in those areas in the Commonwealth and nearby states dependent on it by stopping what he called the Obama administration’s “War on Coal” and by unfettering corporations from “undue” pollution and safety standards. [2]

What is clear, however, is that neither President Barack Obama, nor his administration’s effort to combat climate change and the continued degradation of the region’s (and nation’s) rivers, water supply and air, “caused” coal’s decline. To argue otherwise is to lie to a population experiencing a long-term disorienting economic sea change and to give them unrealistic hopes that a way of life and level of affluence can quickly return to their communities that most have not experienced in decades. Moreover, that lie contributes to the delegitimation of national governing institutions and, if acted on, as indeed the Trump administration is now doing, will not bring coal back, but will impose environmental costs on millions. Perversely, those damages will hit those working in and living near the mines still in operation hardest.

Nonetheless, many individuals in the coalfields of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, longing for a more economically prosperous past that was last known decades ago in their communities, have supported Trump and continue to do so. What I wish to explore here is the fact that residents of these towns have nonetheless witnessed first-hand the reality of the decline of the industry that once sustained them, know well too that many coal firms have long exploited them and also realize that undue national regulation did not cause their present difficult situation. Even so, many from these communities support a charlatan who tells them that he can bring back a way of life now all but gone. One suspects it is their attachment to their memories of their towns that makes them wish to believe him, despite their experience and irrespective of their deep awareness of the costs “their” industry has imposed on their families. This paradoxical phenomenon is not new, and those ensnared within it are not to blame for it.

Nor, I hasten to emphasize, did malevolent government regulation imposed by the nation’s first African-American President do this to Appalachia. That is a Trumpian lie. Obama did not wish to harm the region’s residents, and to argue such, as Trump does often, is to play on citizens’ basest attitudes and fears.  To illustrate these arguments, I rely on a powerful book based on the reflections of Appalachian coal miners, men and women alike, on their profession, their lives and the political economy of their communities.

Sociologist Mike Yarrow and his wife Ruth Yarrow undertook 225 interviews, principally in the late 1970s and mid-1980s in Fayette, Raleigh, Mercer and McDowell counties in West Virginia and in southwestern Virginia. In 2015, Ruth Yarrow published a share of the observations of those interviewed in a volume entitled, Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields.[3]  Together, the interviews provide poignant testimony to a fast vanishing way of life. I cite brief portions of this rich text below to illustrate four larger analytical points germane to the current presidential administration’s claims and policies.

First, as I highlight above, presidential or Republican Party rhetoric notwithstanding, neither unions nor government regulation created the predicament in which these communities now find themselves and the trends fueling it have been afoot since at least the early 1970s. Second, while surely earning a decent wage, miners have ever been aware of the precariousness of their work and of their employment. Most of those whom the Yarrows interviewed had seen firms cut corners too many times and witnessed too many friends injured or worse, or debilitated by Black Lung disease that companies refused to acknowledge, to imagine that most of their employers worried much about their individual employment, health or safety.

Third, and ironically, given the GOP/Trump narrative, a substantial share of these miners recognized that America’s political economy and the near complete economic dominance of coal firms in their communities implied that their only hope for effective regulation of their working conditions would come from the national government. Finally, the Yarrows’ interviewees understood that a major change was already occurring in the country’s public philosophy that would soon rob them of the role their union had played for several decades in pressing for decent salaries, working conditions and benefits. They were concerned that lone company purview over those critical concerns would redound to their individual and collective detriment. I treat each of these contentions in turn.

Writing in 1988, Mike Yarrow noted the following:

The people we talked with have seen a radical decline in employment in the last ten years due to mechanization, increased foreign competition and a slump in the coal market. The pattern now is islands of employment in a sea of unemployment where the employed few are expected to work longer hours, to produce more, and to ignore safety violations.[4]

Reflecting on the change to which Yarrow pointed, a laid-off miner named Tim offered these thoughts:

Looking for work is a 40-hour job. Takes three months to learn how to do it. And it’s expensive—resumes, gasoline, Driving to Charleston to take civil service tests. I know one miner who lost his phone. Now he’s too poor to get a job. I lost any sense of direction. I got so I lost confidence in myself.[5]

Mining technology and global demand have shifted markedly since coal’s heyday in Appalachia in the 1960s, and no amount of claiming otherwise will undo those long-term trends. Coal will not soon employ the thousands it once did or suddenly support communities once dependent upon it, but now long in decline. While that reality continues daily to unfold in economic terms, it is hardly easy for those experiencing it to accept it and not to resent and be bewildered by its force and consequences for themselves, their families, friends and acquaintances, and for their communities. Equivalent alternatives will not be easy to create.

The miners with whom the Yarrows spoke knew well that the companies employing them were interested foremost in production because mined coal meant profits, but most of them knew equally well that safety had to be paramount, even when it meant slowing production, but that such would never be popular with their employers. As a female miner, Elsa, observed:

The company gives us an hour safety talk, Telling us to be careful, explaining different accidents, and saying, ’Don’t let this happen to you.’ Then, when they dismiss us, they say, ‘Beat the Day shift!’ The company will tell you that if the bosses catch a man Doing an unsafe act, They’d come down hard on him. They don’t. That’s a big lie.

The miners the Yarrows encountered understood the dynamics of the American political economy. They knew that their municipal government would not inspect their work conditions vigorously because most local revenues came from the coal companies, as did many other community services and much philanthropy too, and those firms were not shy in reminding elected leaders of that fact. The same was true of state elected officials, who received generous campaign contributions from the coal industry and who likewise were often reminded how dependent their constituents were on those firms for employment. These realities alone gave companies a great deal of leeway on miners’ work and safety conditions, and meant that only federal officials were likely actually carefully to inspect mines and to levy fines or demand changes in safety practices. Here is how miner Ken put this point:

I’ll tell you if it wasn’t for the federal inspectors, There wouldn’t be nothing done. The state inspectors don’t do nothing. … Nothing would be done if it weren’t for the federal inspectors.[7]

Finally, miner Al spoke to the fact that the long (116-day) strike during the winter of 1978 had taken its toll on the United Mine Workers union and that many non-union mines were now opening and able to attract employees.  He argued that a pro-market and anti-union logic had been embraced by government (which it indeed had been in the form of neoliberalism and antipathy to unions which would shortly be embodied by President Ronald Reagan and the GOP especially),

The country’s in a sad state of affairs When the government takes the side of big business, As opposed to the people it is sworn to represent. It’s the situation where dollars are matched against the people.

The Bituminous Coal Operators Association Would prefer not to bust the union. They’d rather have it weakened, a controlled situation, Whatever bureaucrat is in power s union president.

That’s the man they can call on to direct the workforce, Whichever way they want it to go. Capitalism, you know, the whole system Is built on war and exploitation Of the working and poor class of people. You either have slaves—or a slave-like work force— In order for the wheels of capitalism to turn.[8]

I cannot explain Trump’s appeal to so many coal country voters, but whatever the basis for that enthusiasm, it will not be rewarded with a renaissance of the coal industry as Trump has promised, nor with the sudden return of prosperity to the many towns dependent on coal mining in Appalachia hard-hit by decades of technological and economic change. Indeed, the future of this region’s coal dependent communities remains murky. What is far easier to conclude is that they are being done a terrible disservice by these appeals to their economic heritage and dealt false hope in the bargain. For a people so long beleaguered, false hope can be dangerous. Meanwhile, too, the Faustian exchange Trump now has on offer will only continue to degrade their beloved land and communities with increased pollution and less safe and healthful working conditions for the declining number still working in the mining industry. These proud and hard-working people surely deserve better, and the federal government could play a vital role in helping them achieve it. It plainly is not now intending to do so.


[1] Bump, Philip, “There are Fewer Coal Miners than you might Realize,” The Washington Post,  March 20, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/03/20/there-are-fewer-coal-miners-than-you-might-realize/?utm_term=.9c3d96613c77, Accessed August 6, 2017.

[2] Gibson, Allie Robinson, “Southwest Virginia Coal Production Continues Decline,” The Roanoke Times, March 22, 2015, http://www.roanoke.com/business/news/southwest-virginia-coal-production-continues-decline/article_4d5bf842-43ec-55d2-9d6e-1bdbe029f110.html; United States Energy Information Administration, “Average Number of Employees by State and Mine Type, 2015 and 2014, https://www.eia.gov/coal/annual/pdf/table18.pdf;  Guillen, Alex, “Trump Signs Order to end ‘Crushing Attack’ of Obama Climate Legacy,” Politico, March 28, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/03/donald-trump-obama-climate-change-policies-236570, All accessed August 7, 2017.

[3] Yarrow, Mike and Ruth, Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2015.

[4] Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2015, p. 7.

[5] Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, pp. 29-30.

[6] Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, pp., 65, 66.

[7] Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, p.12.

[8] Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, pp. 76, 78.