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HARLAN, Ky. — Kentucky coal miners bled and died to unionize. Their workplaces became war zones, and gun battles once punctuated union protests. In past decades, organizers have been beaten, stabbed and shot while seeking better pay and safer conditions deep underground.

But more recently the United Mine Workers in Kentucky have been in retreat, dwindling like the black seams of coal in the Appalachian mountains.

And now the last union mine in Kentucky has been shut down.

“A lot of people right now who don’t know what the (union) stands for is getting good wages and benefits because of the sacrifice that we made,” said Kenny Johnson, a retired union miner who was arrested during the Brookside strike in Harlan County in the 1970s. “Because when we went on those long strikes, it wasn’t because we wanted to be out of work.”

Hard-fought gains are taken for granted by younger workers who earn high wages now, leading the coal industry to argue that the union ultimately rendered itself obsolete. But union leaders and retirees counter that anti-union operators, tightening environmental regulations and a turbulent coal market hastened the union’s demise in Kentucky.

The union era’s death knell sounded in Kentucky on New Year’s Eve, when Patriot Coal announced the closing of its Highland Mine. The underground mine in western Kentucky employed about 400 hourly workers represented by the United Mine Workers of America.

For the first time in about a century, in the state that was home to the gun battles of “Bloody Harlan,” not a single working miner belongs to a union. That has left a bad taste in the mouths of retirees: men like Charles Dixon, who heard the sputter of machine gun fire and bullets piercing his trailer in Pike County during a long strike with the A.T. Massey Coal Company in 1984 and 1985.

“I had my house shot up during that strike,” said Dixon, the United Mine Workers local president at the time. “I was just laying in bed and next thing you know you hear a big AR-15 unloading on it. Coal miners had it tough buddy, they sure have.”

The shots fired at Dixon’s home recall the even deadlier organizing battles of the 1920s and ‘30s, many in Harlan County.

One ambush shooting in 1937 ended with the death of union organizer Marshall Musick’s 14-year-old son, Bennett, when “a shower of bullets tore through the walls of the house,” according to union leader George Titler’s book, “Hell in Harlan.”

Organizing battles raged in Appalachia throughout the last century, most notably the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, where thousands of striking miners fought a shooting war with law enforcement and replacement workers, ending in dozens of deaths. One year earlier, 10 people had died in Matewan, West Virginia, in a skirmish over eviction notices served to miners who had joined the union.

In Harlan County, Kentucky, the 1931 Battle of Evarts ended in four deaths. More recently, the strife of the mid-1970s Brookside mining strike here was captured in the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Harlan County U.S.A.”

Johnson, who appeared in the film when he was 22 years old, returned this summer to the scene of his first picket line arrest along state Highway 38 in Harlan County.

He had stood there, near the Highsplint mine entrance, with other union members and gasped as state troopers set up a machine gun across the street. After about four hours of noisy picketing, a tall trooper stuck a baton between Johnson’s legs and raised it up to his groin.

“We just came to lend them a hand that day, and ended up going to jail,” said Johnson, now 63 and battling health issues.

Johnson, Dixon and union leaders worry that the union’s disappearance in Kentucky has opened the door for coal operators to lower worker standards.

“When the coal industry rebounds to the extent that it does, and non-union operators take a look around and see that there’s no union competition, and they’ll see that they can begin to cut wages, they can begin to cut benefits, they can begin to cut corners on safety, they’ll do that,” said Phil Smith, a national spokesman for the miner’s union.

Smith pointed to operations run by former Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship, who closed union mines in the 1980s and now faces criminal conspiracy charges in the 2010 deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 workers.

But industry leaders argue that higher wages and safer mines in recent decades have reduced the desire for workers at non-union mines to organize.

“Anymore, I just don’t think there’s that level of discontent between the company and working coal miners, which I think is a very good thing,” said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, an industry group. “If anything, they’ve won, which I think they’ve worked themselves out of a job, in that respect.”

Bissett said mines have become safer despite the union’s diminished presence in Kentucky.

“We’re in some of the safest time in the history of U.S. mining right now and a time when the UMWA is at their lowest level,” he said.

More vigorous federal enforcement and the closing of older Appalachian mines in a turbulent coal market have also contributed to declining injuries and deaths.

Union membership remains substantial in West Virginia, with more than 30,000 members, largely because that state wasn’t affected by the environmental regulations on high-sulfur coal that essentially halted mining in western Kentucky in the 1990s. Smith said those western Kentucky mine shutdowns led to the loss of about 20,000 union members in two years.

Patriot Coal cited the slumping market when it told workers the Highland Mine had to close.

“You could’ve heard a pin drop,” said mine worker Scottie Sizemore.

A safety officer at Highland for just a few months, Sizemore had left another coal job and his family behind in Harlan County, 300 miles away.

Union miners at the Highland mine were making about $24 an hour and working four 10-hour shifts a week. Workers at non-union mines typically work long shifts six days a week, and benefits vary from mine to mine. Sizemore, who was not in the union at Patriot, has since moved back to Harlan County to work for a smaller mining company. He took a hefty pay cut.

Wages were less of a priority than safety during the Brookside strike of the 1970s. Organizers were pushing the mine’s owner, Eastover Coal Company, to sign a contract establishing a United Mine Workers local there.

Returning to the scene of his arrest four decades ago, Kenny Johnson looked past a small bridge that leads to a mining operation. Coal is still being mined there today, just not by union miners.

Johnson recalled the hard lessons he took from that clash.

“I realized that day that it was very serious and that people would fight you, even to the point of having you put in jail for standing up for some of the ideals that coal miners hold dear,” he said.

As he spoke, a young, burly miner drove across the bridge, smudges of coal dust on his face. He angled his truck across, a few feet away from where Johnson was standing.

As he accelerated away, a cloud of dust kicked up behind him.

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(10) comments

Condor Kid

How many times must I welcome you all to the rise of Progressives? "Feel the Bern", The rise of Bernie Sanders is just the tip of the iceberg. We're grown weary of the millions and billions spent on negative campaign ads, propaganda and they may soon lose effectiveness. We demand liberty, justice, and EQUALITY for all! My advice to Dave Koch, Marc Lasry and all the other billionaires out there is to buy gold, bury it in the ground, or move you're money off-shore because we are coming for you. We would rather struggle as one than live in serfdoms created by and for you!

Bullflap

Blah, blah, blah....they pushed too hard and caused all those hard working miners to lose thier jobs and benefits in states with miserable economies and soaring unemployment rates.

Wis_Taxpayer

Yeah, nothing honors the American worker like selling cheap stuff made in China to promote a guy who has devastated his state's middle class.

For some reason known only to him, Walker thinks that it is somehow good for workers to have their experience and knowledge discounted as worthless and meaningless.

But there's more. There's always more.

What makes Walker's tweet exceptionally egregious and insulting is the fact that he is lying through his weasel teeth. In Walker's Wisconsin, there are no merit raises:

Merit raises and retention pay increases for state workers — including some UW System employees — have been suspended by Gov. Scott Walker’s administration.

The announcement about the raise suspensions, “effective immediately,” was made in a Feb. 5 memo to state agencies’ human resources directors.
It’s unclear how many employees will be affected. Under Walker’s 2013-15 budget, most state workers received a 1 percent pay increase each fiscal year.

The freeze affects merit pay raises, known as Discretionary Merit Compensation, and increases aimed at retaining workers, known as Discretionary Equity or Retention Adjustment Programs. Other raises are not affected.

“We suggest that agencies cease accepting or processing any additional requests because the suspension is anticipated to continue for the remainder of this fiscal year,” wrote Gregory Gracz, director of the Office of State Employment Relations.


The current fiscal year ends June 30.

“This is another slap in the face of workers by the Walker administration,” said Marty Beil, executive director of AFSCME Council 24 Wisconsin State Employees Union. “It shows more disdain from the Walker administration for the working men and women of the state.”

Beil said there aren’t many people “screaming about it” because morale is so low that workers weren’t expecting any merit raises.

No, Walker has no respect whatsoever for the workers.

Then again, we kind of knew that when he compared workers to ISIS terrorists and bragged about how he "took on" the state's workers and beat them.

Except for one thing, Mr. Walker. We're still here and we're still coming and we're still fighting. And you're still running away.

Wis_Taxpayer

Walker is the candidate of fear, hate, and divide and conquer. If that is the kind of human being you want to be... good luck with that!

If you are enjoying this Labor Day weekend, Thank a Union.

The "Free Market" didn't create it, The 1% didn't create it, The Blood, Sweat and Tears of American workers did!

So, you hate Unions... tell me again how happy you are to have 3 days off this weekend!

Bullflap

The decline in coal is due to lost market share coupled with unions that played uncompromising hardball one too many times.

GrandpaS

A little over 100 years ago, people had to recognize what Henry Ford was starting and begin working out of the horse drawn buggy business. That's where the coal industry is now. If I owned a mining company, I would be beginning to move into manufacturing wind turbines and solar panels. No, coal will not disappear overnight, but as the future arrives, there will be less and less need for it. I wonder how many appliance companies still make kitchen ranges that burn wood under the burners? Change happens, in spite of those who fight it. It's time for the coal industry to lead, follow or get out of the way.

Wis_Taxpayer

Really... maybe you should take a look at history... if you did, you would find that the most productive time in the history of our country was when corporate taxes were at 92% And the American workers were protected by the largest number of labor unions in our history.

So, tell us all again just how unions are killing the coal industry... or was just another Koch brother's talking point you heard on Fox News?

GrandpaS

"Johnson, Dixon and union leaders worry that the union’s disappearance in Kentucky has opened the door for coal operators to lower worker standards." From what I've heard, safety violations in the mining business are already a very large problem. "Safety for our workers? Nope, profit for our owners and Boards of Directors. An occasional explosion or cave-in here and there that kill or trap a few people? No big deal. We've got to keep our profits up." The best thing that could happen right now in the U.S. is for unions to start actively recruiting members again, and for those members to support their unions. Executive pay and benefits have grown by leaps and bounds, including "golden parachutes." When do the working people who made those businesses successful start getting their share of the pie again? With the greed in today's businesses and the support of that greed by the GOP, strengthening unions would be the best way there is of rebuilding America's middle class.

crank

It's a sad day when people look at the declining coal industry and conclude the reasons coal miners are unemployed and the unions failing are due to the government declaration that coal is 'the enemy'.

Coal production in Kentucky is lower now than in the early 60's. The coal miner's don't have a union anymore because the coal miners are becoming obsolete.

Frangel45

It is a sad day to realize that once again corporate owners have the right oppress workers with impunity. When gullible voters don't take the time to UNDERSTAND

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