UMWA has no working miners in Eastern Kentucky, but union's heritage remains strong
Mary Jo Shafer, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community
It doesn’t take long to find a member of the United Mine Workers of America in Eastern Kentucky. But in a part of the state where coal has long powered the economy and generations have toiled in the mines, you can’t find a UMWA member mining coal.
Though Appalachia is central to the historical strength of the union, there are no unionized mines in Eastern Kentucky. But with many retired miners, the union culture remains, and there is a new face to the union, in its representation of more than 200 county and nursing-home employees in Pike County.
The union ties in the region are strong, and binding. That’s one reason the UMWA has been successful in organizing other workers in Eastern Kentucky, according to the union’s communications director, Phil Smith.
“Many are miners, children of miners, grandchildren of miners. They know about us and they thought about us” when they wanted to organize, he said.
With the new types of members and retirees – who still hold meetings and receive union pensions and health benefits -- the union still has political weight to throw around.
Leonard Fleming, 65, of Kona in Letcher County, said his local, made up entirely of retirees, still meets once a month.
The union’s political action committee remains active, endorsing candidates and supporting or opposing legislation. In the past year and a half, the union put its lobbying weight behind new mine health and safety laws and regulations.
“By no means are we out of the picture in Kentucky,” said Smith. “We still play a large role in the political life” of the state.
Several thousand UMWA retirees live in Kentucky, and the union still represents workers at a Western Kentucky mine. Widows of miners also belong to the union.
The union pays out $71 million in pensions and $91 million in healthcare expenditures each year.
“That’s money going into the small, rural, coalfield communities where it’s needed most,” Smith said.
The UMWA once represented more than 700,000 members nationwide. “Today the union represents perhaps one-third of coal miners,” according to The Associated Press.
UMWA members say the union disappeared at Eastern Kentucky mines because of the rise of less labor-intensive strip mining, advanced mechanization at underground mines, scaled-back mining operations that employ fewer workers, smaller companies that are strongly anti-union, and labor laws that make it tough to organize new mines as unionized workplaces were mined out and closed..
And, they say, there is another, less tangible but very important reason for the lack of unionized mines in the region today — a changing view among younger workers about the need for a union.
The decline in Eastern Kentucky began in the 1990s, Smith said, during one of the industry’s cyclical downturns and Clean Air Act amendments that gave advantages to lower-sulfur coal from the Western U.S.
As more coal-fired power plants installed “scrubbers” to remove sulfur dioxide from their smokestack emissions, many shuttered mines re-opened as the ‘90s drew to a close, but many mines that were once unionized reopened as nonunion, Smith said.
The UMWA still believes that it is important to organize those mines, he said. “It’s a tough challenge but we’re not giving up on it.”
Smith said coal operators are powerful, and “In today’s political climate they can get away with violating labor laws,” intimidating workers and threatening to close the mines if they were unionized — “all illegal,” Smith said.
But contesting a company’s conduct during a union drive can drag out for years, he said. By the time the complaint gets a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board, the mine could be worked out, or the company could have dissolved only to resurface under another name. That means the organizers have to start all over again.
And Smith, like most of the union members interviewed for this story, doesn’t put much faith in what he calls “the topsy-turvy world of labor law.”
Fleming said, “The laws and so forth are totally unsupportive of the working man as far as organizing a union.”
What is lost
Union members can’t talk about the decline of the UMWA in Eastern Kentucky without stressing why it matters.
They speak with palpable pride in the union, but also a deep sense of loss.
Without a union, health and safety suffer, they said, and benefits are stripped away.
Fleming worked in the mines for 32 years and was a UMWA safety representative. Mining, and the union, are in his blood. He has three uncles listed on the fatality stones at the Letcher County Coal Miners’ Monument in Hemphill.
He was lucky, he said — he never got hurt bad in the mines, just getting some rock on him a few times, back when he was “young and tough.”
The mines were good to him — he was able to provide for his family and to stay in the mountains. But coal mining has always been dangerous work — something Fleming knows firsthand, from responding to mining disasters throughout the country as a safety representative.
He said he thinks a union makes a difference when it comes to health and safety.
The health and safety pluses of unionization stick out for retired miner Sam Gilbert, too.
Gilbert, 60, of Eolia in Letcher County, has worked at both union and nonunion mines. He was also a member of the United Steelworkers when he worked in highway construction.
With the union, workers had protection if they complained about safety lapses, he said. Today, “if you complain you end up in unemployment.”
Gilbert said he made as much in pay at nonunion versus union jobs, but “If I had my pick, it would all be union,” mostly because of the safety aspect.
“Employees who work in a nonunion mine are afraid to speak out at all about health and safety,” said Bobby Ray Hicks, 58, of Knott County, a retired miner who also works as a union organizer. “I think safety is a lot better in a union operation.”
Hicks said he thinks a union “is one of the best thing you can possibly get.
At least you can sit down and negotiate.”
Organizing is hard today for a lot of reasons, Hicks said.
Anti-union companies “handpick” their employees, and pay well, which makes the need for organization seem less urgent, he said. “People see what their checks are every week. They’re not thinking ahead,” he said. “They have all the toys” and are not willing “to give up something,” such as union dues, in order to get more in the future.
He said younger workers will “realize at the end that they want health insurance and a pension” from the UMWA, but by then it will be too late.
Younger workers don’t think about health benefits and retirement, or have an appreciation for history, agreed Fleming. “They’re just looking for today.”
“People who forget their history are going to repeat it,” he said. “It used to be the coal company owned everything. They could evict you out of town. The UMWA came in and changed all that.”
Hicks said he has worked as an organizer in Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming, and “the climate is the same all over,” mostly because workers today don’t see the need for unions.
“I feel sorry for the younger generation,” he said. “They’re just living from pay day to pay day.”
About the author
Mary Jo Shafer, now the assistant city editor of The Anniston (Ala.) Star, worked with the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in a concluding internship to earn a master’s degree in community journalism from the University of Alabama, through a new program based at the Star and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
She is a native of Lawrence, Mass., and a 2000 graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst. Her American studies and creative writing senior thesis combined social science research, media analysis, nonfiction writing and oral history in a mill city immigration and labor portrait of her hometown. She spent a semester at Union College in Barbourville, Ky., with the Appalachian Semester program, studying the modern issues facing southeastern Kentucky, especially the impact of strip mining on Harlan County. She also spent a semester of graduate, nonfiction writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. She was a reporter/photographer for The St. John Valley Times in Madawaska, Maine, in the fall of 2002 and was promoted to managing editor the following year. She received several Maine Press Association awards. She became Sunday editor at The Sentinel and Enterprise, Fitchburg, Mass., then moved to city editor at The Gardner (Mass.) News. For examples of her work, click here.