“A new age of technology and media coverage is the only reason machine guns are no longer set up at mine sites to threaten union men and women. Advances in forensic science are the only reason union sympathizers aren’t maimed and killed by company thugs. Such actions would become a public relations nightmare for the company.” – Daniel Hawkins
Many people may wonder why I have switched sides, why I have gone from a coal miner to, well, a person interested in preserving the environment. It is not an easy story to tell, and would probably best be broken up into several parts.
Part I of III: The Coal Industry
I was raised with coal being the epitome of our lives in the mountains. As I mentioned before, my father, grandfather and great grandfather were underground coal miners. Most of the children I attended school with were the children of coal miners or coal operators. There were two underground mines operating down our small hollow and a strip mine across the hollow from our house. Coal trucks were a constant on our road until 6:00 p.m. during the week. My mother wouldn’t let my brother and I ride our bikes on the hard top until after they stopped hauling coal.
When we weren’t riding our bikes we were in the surrounding forests with my cousin, hiking around in search of adventure and hoping to find a cave to explore.
All too often we’d happen upon an abandoned strip mine, some of which were in operation before current reclamation laws. The land was flat with perpendicular high walls ranging from fifty to 200 feet high, gashing into the mountainside like an eviscerated animal. Other strip mines had been reclaimed properly, but the grass and autumn olive bushes did nothing to regain the wonders of the forest which had owned the land for thousands of millennia before.
We spent a lot of time on these strip jobs, eventually riding motorcycles and camping on them, but we couldn’t help but wonder what it was like before. My father, who had known the mountains before they were stripped, told of hickory trees three feet around at the buttress and having a massive canopy. He said in September when the hickory nuts were fullest the tree would have nearly a hundred gray squirrels cutting nuts. I was angry I would never see such magnificent trees with abundant wildlife.
I was also raised union and I gained an early knowledge of coal company politics and worker treatment. I became well educated during the 1989 strike against Pittston Coal. My father didn’t work for Pittston but he still went out on strike and stood side by side with many of my uncles and cousins who did. I was taken to rallies and we often stopped to help supply picket lines. I recall seeing the police brutality and hearing of Pittston’s thugs, Vance Security, intimidating UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) supporters by running over strike shacks and slashing tires right in the owner’s driveway.
People think that coal companies have somehow had a change of heart since the days of the Battle of Matewan and Blair Mountain. No such change occurred. A new age of technology and media coverage is the only reason machine guns are no longer set up at mine sites to threaten union men and women. Advances in forensic science are the only reason union sympathizers aren’t maimed and killed by company thugs. Such actions would become a public relations nightmare for the company.
This doesn’t mean companies like Pittston didn’t have their thugs work diligently and maliciously to break the strike. They just became less brazen. Still today companies have many tactics to underhandedly break strikes and threaten union members.
Local history also taught me of the cruel voracity inflicted upon the people of these mountains in the earliest days of coal mining. Both Clinchco and Trammel, Virginia stand as reminders of the old coal camps where men nearly became indentured slaves. They were paid in company script rather than U.S. currency, script that could only be used to purchase items from the company store and to pay the company rent for the homes their families lived in. Conditions inside the mines were horrifying and the labor involved in extracting the coal could only be described as torturous.
My great uncle still has my great grandfather’s breast auger. A six foot long, one inch drill bit he would cradle against his chest and turn with his arms like an old brace and bit. I tried it once in soft dirt and found it extremely difficult. To think he would have to drill twenty or more holes in hard coal before he could blast it with dynamite was a seemingly impossible notion to me. Once loosened by the blast he loaded the coal by hand, breaking it up with a pick, sorting out the slate and placing the coal in a one-ton pony car. He was not paid by the hour, only by the ton. When he and his fellow workers decided things could be better if they unionized they were met with pink slips and then machine guns.
From this knowledge I am aware that coal companies have no interest in helping the Appalachian people. We are a resource to them. If one reads the mission statement on the Friends of Coal website, (Friends of Coal is an organization developed by the West Virginia Coal Association which is a conglomerate of coal companies) they say: By working together, we can provide good jobs and benefits for future generations, which will keep our children and grandchildren close to home.” They are trying to use our pride in a way that will keep our children and grandchildren here to work in their mines.
It doesn’t take one much time to realize if the coal companies have shown such malevolence to the people of the mountains, they must show an equal malevolence towards the environment in which we live.
Anyone who is willing to stand in the way of coal company profits will assuredly feel their wrath, whether it be the coal miner seeking a better wage and better safety, or the people seeking to protect their mountains and streams.
Daniel Hawkins is a former coal miner from Virginia. Having finally gotten fed up with current labor practices and environmental destruction within today’s Appalachian coal mines, he has left the mines in search of a better future for his family. In this series, he looks into Appalachia’s past and possibilities for the future. You can find his full series on his own blog, http://thoughtfulcoalminer.blogspot.com/. This post originally appeared on Daniel’s blog onSaturday, October 9, 2010.