Dispatches from the Potomac#26 | The West Virginia Coal Wars

This is a translation of an article originally written in August 2018 for publication in the October 2018 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

West Virginia, Coal, and Trump

Last year, under the direction of the Trump administration, the US Department of Energy issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking designed to sustain and continue the use of coal and nuclear power. In response, all of the delegates representing West Virginia in the US Congress (two senators and three congressional representatives; one Democrat and four Republicans in total) voiced their agreement, saying that coal is still necessary. In the 2016 presidential election, then candidate Donald Trump won all counties of West Virginia by a nearly unprecedented margin. In fact, more than three quarters of voters throughout the state cast their ballots for candidate Trump. To fulfill his campaign promises, President Trump has not changed his stance on preserving the use of coal. In the almost two years since his election, Trump has visited West Virginia no less than five times, and on two of those occasions he has directly addressed the people of the state. This is in contrast to former president Barack Obama, who only visited the state three times in his eight years in office, a comparison which seems to illustrate the current president’s dedication to West Virginia.

The West Virginia Coal Wars, a Forgotten Period of History

A mine in West Virginia (Photo credit: iStock)

Behind Wyoming, West Virginia is the second largest coal-producing state in the US. Coal development in West Virginia began in the middle of the 19th century; to meet the surging demand for coal at the time, more and more mines were developed in the state. The work environment for miners was particularly harsh, as they were closed off in the mine shafts for long periods at a time with only rudimentary tools to work with, and on top of that they faced a high risk of accidents. Nevertheless, the compensation, which was paid out by the ton (i.e. a performance-based wage structure), was a source of income that allowed those who possessed the motivation and physical strength (i.e. coal miners) to support their families.

The towns that developed via such single industries (logging, mining, etc.) in these remote areas were rightly called “company towns”. Within a coal mining town, the miners were leased shabby lodgings by the company, and were sold their everyday necessities at shops owned and run by the same company. The miners were paid in “coal scrip,” a kind of voucher that served as a substitute for legal tender but which could only be used at shops and other businesses owned by the mining company. As wages rose, the rents for housing and the prices for products at company shops rose as well. If an employee quit the company, he and his family, along with their belongings, would be evicted as a matter of course from company housing. Needless to say, the miners laboring under this system became trapped by their circumstances and increasingly exploited. At the time, the bulk of the costs of production consisted of labor costs, so for competing mining companies, it was necessary to keep labor costs to a minimum.

Given these factors, disputes between labor and management were inevitable. The unionization of labor in West Virginia began in the second half of the 19th century. Mining companies began to hire heavily armed guards to keep union organizers out of the camps of their workers. It was around this time that renowned organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was successfully unionizing laborers. Jones, who had lost her husband and two children to illness, then saw all of the businesses she subsequently built destroyed in a fire, did not appear to be afraid of anything. She would unflinchingly visit places that even the toughest of union organizers (namely the United Mine Workers) feared to go, and fearlessly stepped in front of the muzzles of the guards’guns. Through the work of Mother Jones and other union leaders, much progress was made in unionizing many parts of West Virginia. Some forces in the southern part of the state, however, continued to resist unionization. It was in one of these areas that, in 1920, the forced eviction of fired miners and their families from company housing led to a shootout between miners and hired private security that resulted in a total of 10 deaths on both sides. Amidst subsequent, smaller skirmishes that produced more fatal casualties, Chief of Police Sid Hatfield, who had sided with the miners and organizers in the dispute, was shot and killed in front of his wife. Spurred on by this event, around 10,000 armed miners now members of the United Mine Workers began rallying in protest, leading to direct armed conflict against a total of about 3,000 armed men comprised of local law enforcement officials and private security personnel hired by the mining company. Mother Jones herself went to the site of the conflict and tried to reason with the miners, but at this point not even she could persuade them to stop fighting. The battle resulted in dozens of deaths on both sides. The local law enforcement authorities even resorted to borrowing aircraft and dropping bombs on the miners. The conflict was arguably the largest instance of civil insurrection among the nation’s citizens at the time, second only to the Civil War. Given the magnitude of the escalation of the conflict, the state and federal government sent in their armies to intervene and disarmed both sides. Many on the side of labor union were imprisoned on charges of murder, treason, and related crimes. With the failure of this uprising, the power of the union in West Virginia was largely crippled. In the short span of five years following these events, union membership shrunk from around 50,000 to just 10,000. It would be more than a decade until workers’ basic rights were broadly guaranteed with the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and similar legislation.

Lessons of the Coal Wars for the Current Age

Judging the actions of the coal mining companies back then through the lens of what is currently considered common sense or the societal norm is not necessarily the right way to look at those events. The people who ran those companies at the time were merely trying to make their companies as efficient as possible as a way to survive amidst market competition. If we were to take what they did and apply it to the current era, it would look something like this: Duties performed by humans, whose labor costs are growing and whose work is not as reliable, are replaced by machines and AI. Employees work to their maximum level of efficiency to use and monitor these technologies so that they do not injure themselves or get sick doing the work. Foreigners who will work for low wages are employed as much as possible. However, as companies pursue such policies using such economic rationales as “free competition” and “greater efficiency,” the people will be filled with a growing sense of discontent; this is as true now as it was during the Coal Wars. It is amidst levels of discontent like this that things incomprehensible by conventional standards can occur. The groups that are the most approving of the tariffs and other protectionist moves, as well as the immigration policies being implemented by the Trump administration, are the labor unions, even though conventionally they are supporters of the Democratic Party. There are many people dissatisfied with the sort of politics that follow the economic principles conceived by urban elites. Candidate Trump spoke of policies that resonated with people feeling this kind of dissatisfaction, and the people that believed in those promises supported him. Perhaps this is a trend that has been gradually taking hold since the 2016 elections.

The people of the big cities did not show sympathy at the death of Sid Hatfield, who was a hero to union members in West Virginia. The New York Times reported the series of incidents at the time in an article titled, “The Primitive Mountaineer” in reference to Hatfield. It seems as though the history of “the forgotten” had already begun at least a century before.