For the first time in about a century, no union coal miners are working in Kentucky. The state’s few remaining union miners were laid off New Year’s Eve when Patriot Coal’s Highland Mine in Western Kentucky shut down, the United Mine Workers of America confirmed.
“Appalachia was always a really tough nut for the union to crack, and I think maybe Kentucky was the toughest nut of all,” said labor historian James Green, author of a new book about West Virginia’s mine wars.
In retrospect, the fight to unionize Harlan County’s Brookside mine in 1973 was one of the last stands for the union in the commonwealth, Green said. The struggle was immortalized in the Oscar-winning documentary “Harlan County, USA.”
The decline of unions is a nationwide trend that applies to organized labor of all types. In 1983, 20 percent of American workers belonged to some sort of labor union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes. By 2014, that number had fallen to 11 percent.
But Green said the decline of the coal workers’ union is one of the starkest in the country.
“The steel and auto industries have managed to regroup and regain some hold,” he said. “Still, most General Motors workers are [members of the United Auto Workers union]. You can’t say that about most coal miners.”
‘A Way of Life’
When third generation Harlan County resident Deke Hampton went into coal mining in the 1970s, he didn’t seek to join a union mine. It just happened.
“I was just raised in what you’d call union country. I guess you could put it that way,” Hampton said. “It was a way of life.”
Not anymore. Now, Kentucky’s union miners are a relic of the past.
Like Hampton, Quentin Clark is a third generation coal miner. But Clark is 22 years younger—41 years old—and lives in Hopkins County, in Western Kentucky. He’s never considered joining a union–an attitude shared by most of his peers.
“When you throw in union dues that you’re required to pay, you throw in the fact that someone else can determine whether you work or whether you do not work, there’s a lot of factors that keep the younger guys from even considering it,” he said.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said the United Mine Workers of America was successful in many ways in obtaining better working conditions and benefits for members; so much so, that most miners don’t see the union as essential anymore.
“Coal miners are now paid very well,” he said. “They have excellent benefits. They have many ways they can inform regulators of any concerns they have anonymously. So the union representation I don’t think is seen as needed as it was in the past for our industry.”
Bissett, whose organization represents many of the state’s coal operators, blames some of the union’s problems on Kentucky politics. The UMWA endorsed Alison Lundergan Grimes in her losing bid to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell. The union also backed President Barack Obama in 2008. Obama’s environmental policies are perceived by many as detrimental to the state’s coal industry.
“Some of their policies have seemed to be more connected with perpetuating the union than really being of benefit to the coal miners,” Bissett said.
The United Mine Workers of America declined to comment for this story.
Unions and Safety
Regardless, Tony Oppegard, mine safety attorney and former regulator, said the coal miners’ union still has a vital role.
“It’s much harder for a miner at a non-union mine to stand up for safety,” he said.
In theory, federal safety laws mean coal miners can’t be discriminated against for refusing to work in unsafe conditions, Oppegard said. But in practice, those laws are lacking. In non-union mines, making a formal discrimination complaint to the federal government, is a time-intensive and expensive process. At union mines, Oppegard says miners have more protections.
“Miners take [federal mine safety laws] for granted now, a lot of miners do, and they don’t see the need for a union,” he said. Now, where they see the need for the union is when they get hurt and the company then treats them like a disposable commodity.”
In Kentucky, more than 6,000 coal miners have lost their jobs since 2008. In those circumstances, Oppegard said he worries that the prospects of being unemployed may convince non-union miners not to speak up against unsafe work conditions.
There’s a lack of impartial data about the relative safety of union and non-union mines, just anecdotal stories. Predictably, union and non-union miners tend to disagree on this point.
“I’m not going to say it was like night and day difference,” Deke Hampton said about safety at union and non-union mines.
After a few years as a union miner in Harlan County, Hampton worked three decades as a state mine inspector until retiring in 2009. The starker differences were between mines run by big companies and smaller operators, he said. But on a whole, he found that union mines tended to be the safest.
“Some of the big companies that I inspected, they provided safety for the miners, but not on the scale of the union,” he said. In union mines, “the men dictated what was safe and what wasn’t.”
Hopkins County coal miner Quentin Clark said as far as he’s concerned, the advantages to joining a union today are minimal.
“It’s not a safety issue anymore,” he said. “We’re talking about a dollar or two an hour, is that what they want to try to get? Or a day or two off a year. It’s not as significant as it used to be.”
And if he is approached tomorrow by union organizers, Clark still wouldn’t be interested.
“I would tell them, ‘Thank you, appreciate it, but no,’” he said.