“We deify the wear and tear on our bodies as a noble cause to feed and clothe our children. To our misfortune, this pride is now being wielded against us.” – Daniel Hawkins
Which side are you on? is a song written in Harlan County, Kentucky during the Harland County War in the early 1930s. The lyrics are still relevant today.
Coal miners take an immense amount of pride in their coal mining heritage, a heritage tracing back four and five generations for some. Our earliest coal mining forefathers worked in pony mines without proper ventilation, roof control, and with little more than a pick, shovel, and breast auger to extract coal. Their wages were meager and when they returned home they would work their farm, tending to the horses and mules, raising a large garden and livestock just to feed their family. The physical labors they endured and the resilient mental attitudes they maintained set them well apart from present day coal miners.
The men who worked during those times should be given as much respect as our war veterans. They faced death on a daily basis while working in horrid conditions for twelve hours a day. There were no battles; there were no tours of duty, it was everyday life. Even with all of the hardships they faced they still had the courage to stand up for what was right, putting everything on the line to unionize and improve every aspect of their job. They stood in front of machine guns and faced the harassment of company-hired thugs. The battles they fought saved countless lives, forcing the government and coal companies to improve safety and create laws which would have only come as a result of horrendous accidents prompting public outcry.
Our pride stems not only from this heritage but also from working extremely hard to provide for our families. If we go home so tired we can’t sleep, we are morally satisfied with ourselves. We deify the wear and tear on our bodies as a noble cause to feed and clothe our children. To our misfortune, this pride is now being wielded against us. The coal companies tell us we are great men because we work hard for our families. They create organizations to build upon our humble pride, continuously feeding it until it becomes arrogance towards others. We continuously buy into their propaganda while they increase production quotas, and require more mandatory overtime. It’s okay though, because it is the right thing to do for our families, because we are hard working coal miners.
We are working hard to keep the coal industry going so we can still have jobs and keep our pride. The companies are just barely making a profit so we have to work twice as hard to keep them going. If we don’t they will go bankrupt and we’ll lose jobs. We have to tell our government these new environmental regulations meant to protect everyone’s health are wrong because it hurts the coal company’s profits to the extent they will be forced out of business and we will all lose our jobs.
It’s all for the greater good isn’t it? We simply have to do what we have to do to survive.
For the longest time I bought into it all, then I thought about my great grandfather and what he went through, what he sacrificed to give his children, and his children’s children, and me and my children a better life.
I began to wonder what occurred in the past twenty years that made coal miners believe the coal companies care about them as people. What caused them to think the companies have their best interests in mind? What would our forefathers think after all the struggles they went through to fight for their future generations? The more I thought about those questions the more I realized we’ve forsaken our heritage, and our pride has been turned into an excuse for greed.
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 on Sunday, October 24, 2010.