Children across the country are taught about the Great Depression in the United States from an early age. They learn about the causes, the uprisings, and the consequences; the stock market crash of 1929 and the strikes by workers are engraved into their minds by the time they graduate–and it is all aimed at not letting another great depression occur. Despite this, there are few high school graduates and college students who are aware of the details of the war on poverty, which was a depression in its own right. It is of vital importance that young people learn about the war on poverty; not only did it impact a region that many still call home, but it can alo serve as a lesson in economics and community action. Miners in Appalachia during the 1960s war on poverty (despite being part of the “lucky” employed population) were subject to despicable working conditions, and were constantly suppressed by coal mining firms and even local governments when attempting to fight back against such treatment. “Roving picket” movements and grassroots organizations, like the Appalachian Committee for Full Employment and the United Mine Workers of America, arose around the Appalachian region as miners continued to face low wages, unsafe conditions, and intense labor. In 1960s Appalachia, mining firms continuously mistreated workers and the measures the miners took to fight back ultimately failed, demonstrating a massive problem in the way the region’s economy and local governments operated.
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To begin, it is important to understand why Appalachian miners were so poverty-stricken during this time. Miners had never been treated particularly well; but strangely enough, the creation of unions (which were intended to grant these blue-collar workers rights) created a domino effect for years to come. In Everett Tharp’s 1971 document entitled “Strip Mining,” he explains how the Great Depression kickstarted the creation of the Blue Eagle, “which became a symbol of scorn by all coal operators and gave the miners the right to join a union of their choice.” Because of this, the firms were required to pay certain wages, rather than having the freedom to pay the workers as little as possible. Tharp goes on to explain that because the firms were “forced to submit to unionization by a screaming eagle, the operators began to seek relief from their predicament by substituting machines for human beings,” and thus began the mechanization of coal mining. In his 1988 novel What’s a Coal Miner to Do? The Mechanization of Coal Mining, Keith Dix mentions a 1940 miners song with the lyrics, “Miners’ poor pocketbooks are growing lean, Miners’ poor pocketbooks are growing lean, They can’t make a dollar at all, Here is where we place the fault, Place it all on the coal-loading machine.” This major issue is further explained in the January 15, 1965 document entitled “The History Goals and Objectives of the Appalachian Committee for Full Employment.” The document explains that this development resulted in an increase in the “production per man hour,” because the workers “became more proficient in the operation of these machines,” and that “as the production rate increased, the unemployment rolls also increased.” And thus, the document continues, as time went on and the “unemployment compensation of the idle miners [was] used up, they began to seek work at any price.” As Keith Dix discusses in What’s a Coal Miner to Do? The Mechanization of Coal Mining, the shift toward a more modern way of mining occurred without any consultation of the miners themselves. This series of events laid the foundation for weakened unions and years of mistreatment and poverty for the helpless miners at the hands of their employers. In the words of the ACFE in their application for Community Organizing Program, the “deficiency in education and living standards [was] a direct result of an inadequate and inequitable tax structure and low wage standards as set by corporate monopolies whose employees [were] denied the right of a strong labor union to protect their interests.”
With the knowledge of how the horrific mining conditions in Appalachia began, it is then important to understand just what the aforementioned conditions were. In David S. Walls and John B. Stephenson’s 1972 book Appalachia in the Sixties: Decade of Reawakening, the authors described reporters who dared to explore the region as searching “in vain for signs that the smashing new coal comeback [was] denting the poverty that [had] gripped, crushed and depopulated” Appalachia. To gain a full understanding of just how terrible it was for workers, it is helpful for one to put a name and face to these stories as to humanize them and show the reality of the war on poverty. The following photo from LIFE Magazine’s infamous article “War on Poverty: Portraits From an Appalachian Battleground, 1964” is of an eighteen-year-old miner named Ray Martin. The article explains that Martin earns ten dollars per day at his “job in a mine near Isom, one of the shoestring ‘dog holes’ kept going through low wages, back-breaking labor, overused equipment and minimal safety measures.” Martin is visibly unhappy in the photograph, and the amount of dirt on his face illustrates how grueling the work was, especially for such little reward. In fact, this was not unusual for miners–in Ron M. Linton’s Courier-Journal article “Kentucky’s Tragic Strike,” he describes the workers as “lean, tawny men, [with] coal-grime ground into their skin.” Beyond this, the most striking aspect of this photograph is that Martin and others in his position were, according to the caption, actually considered lucky “by local standards.” As mentioned in the previous paragraph, many of those in the Appalachian region lost their jobs entirely after the industry became mechanized, and to have a job at all–even with the horrible working conditions–was considered a blessing. Yet the issues for the lucky employed population went beyond just outside appearance of grime and struggling; the health issues that came from the most popular method of coal mining, underground mining, were immense. In David S. Walls and John B. Stephenson’s 1972 book Appalachia in the Sixties: Decade of Reawakening, the authors explain that “underground mining requires that meticulous attention be devoted to supporting the roof, to supplying miners with fresh air, and to ensuring that explosive gases are quickly exhausted,” but in contrast, “surface mining avoids such problems; there is no roof to support and ventilation takes care of itself.” As a result of the absence of surface mining, miners developed black lung disease (pictured), also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, which is described by the United Mine Workers of America website as a “preventable, occupational lung disease that is contracted by prolonged breathing of coal mine dust.” The effects of black lung disease on different airway passages are immense; both the alveoli and bronchioles of workers are affected immensely. Courier-Journal describes the effects on the alveoli, saying that “years of cleaning out dust deposits causes the alveoli walls to become weaker and less elastic,” and “leads to emphysema,” which makes it difficult for those affected to breathe. The Courier-Journal also describes the effects on the bronchiole, stating that “dust deposits lead to scarring and inflammation, which clogs passageways, obstructing airflow and causing chronic bronchitis.” This disease Miners had no choice but to subject themselves to these extremely dangerous conditions because of the monopolization of the industry and region by the coal mining firms of the time.
With such rampant mistreatment and violations of rights by the mining firms, many may wonder why the miners did not do anything to help themselves–but they did; their efforts just proved largely unsuccessful. Perhaps one of the most controversial ways the miners went about demanding their rights was through strikes and pickets. The “roving picket” movements were a series of pickets with the goal of shutting down non-union mining firms. Picketers were generally disrespected by those around them. In the “Roving Pickets Oral History Project,” which features a series of interviews from a broad range of people, Lee Sexton, a miner from Kentucky, claims that he was sworn at and had drinks thrown at him during his time participating in the strikes. Despite the underlying good intentions for the region behind these pickets, there were several violent measures taken. Beyond this, the mining firms did not take kindly to them, and there were several conflicts as a result of the miners’ forceful tactics. One of the most brutal examples can be seen in Business Week’s 1959 article entitled “Violence Lingers in Kentucky.” Written during week five of the 1959 strike, the article states that “sporadic gunfire and explosions” could be heard, and a “machine gun [had] been set up, menacingly, at one non-union mine.” Although there were several violent outbreaks, there were also many picket movements in which the picketers claimed to have been unarmed. Yet even in the conflicts in which the picketing miners claimed to be unarmed, there was conflict on the opposing side. Voice for Jobs and Justice’s article reprinted from The Mountain Eagle dated February 19, 1965 entitled “Pickets Visits Mines,” states that “a picket spokesman denied that he or his fellow pickets were armed,” yet also states that “troopers were armed with carbines and shotguns” to deter the protesting miners. This apparent aggression shown by the troopers brings up an important issue that miners (allegedly) faced: little support from the local government. This is illustrated in another Voice for Jobs and Justice article from October 9, 1964, entitled “Shots Fired Into Combs’ Home and Appalachian Committee Office.” The article deals with an incident in which there was an attempted shooting at the vice president of the ACFE, Jason Combs’, home. Within the article, Everett Tharp (once Vice President of the ACFE) voices his opinion that the shooting was not random, and that there was an ulterior motive related to the committee. Tharp says that the “shooting followed a campaign of intimidation against the Committee that [had] been going on for the past several months.” Further, many miners claimed that the firms manipulated situations in order to put themselves in a better light while making picketers seem to be in the wrong. Another interviewee from the “Roving Pickets Oral History Project,” that participated in the pickets, Clayton Turner, claimed that firms would purposely destroy their own machinery in order to place the blame on miners and get insurance money. On a larger scale, it is clear that the miners received little to no attention from the government, as even today many people are completely unaware of these events, because they are not discussed in grade schools or anywhere else. These examples are just a few of the many pieces of evidence that the local government and companies were not supportive of the miners; rather, they set them up for continued misery in the workplace.
With such a large collection of evidence that the local governments and mining firms in Appalachia did not have the miners’ best interest at heart, one may wonder exactly how these institutions got away with such blatant mistreatment. Much of the blame lies with the lack of a strong labor union for miners to rely on. Although there were unions for the miners–like the United Mine Workers of America–they failed to adequately defend the rights of miners. According to Keith Dix in What’s a Coal Miner to Do? The Mechanization of Coal Mining, the United Mine Workers of America actually supported the mechanization of coal mining which was uprooting miners’ jobs. Going along with this, Everett Tharp’s document “Strip Mining,” places the blame for the failure of the roving pickets on the shoulders of the union, stating that “the union and Welfare Fund failed to support the movement and, as a result, the movement failed.” The miners simply lacked representation to defend them from wrongdoings. This is discussed in Paul Nyden’s 1975 dissertation “Miners for Democracy: Struggle in the Coal Fields,” as Nyden discusses how all the miners really needed was a say in the actions the firms took; with this sort of democracy, many (if not all) of the other problems would be fixed. Instead, the lack of a strong union to fall back on resulted in the miners having nothing to stop the mining firms from paying low wages and subjecting workers to highly dangerous conditions.
There were many things that led to the grueling working conditions that Appalachian miners faced in the 1960s. Strangely enough, it was ultimately the unions that repeatedly failed the miners they were trying to protect. To simplify the process, one could conclude that unionization led to mechanization, which then led to less jobs, which led to work for lower pay and weaker unions, which then led to the poor conditions. While it is tempting to use this watered-down version of the story as an ultimate conclusion, the issues were not that simple. Had the Great Depression policies of requiring firms to unionize not been implemented, the miners of that time period would have just been paid the absurdly low wages that they were accustomed to. However, if any simple conclusion can be drawn from the events described in this essay, it is that these miners needed to be represented by a strong organization–whether it be the United Mine Workers of America or something entirely different. With representation and support, they may have been able to overcome the conditions and even get more of a say in their local governments. The way the firms continuously mistreated workers, and the fact that the measures the miners took to fight back ultimately failed, demonstrates a massive problem in the way the region’s economy and local governments operated. It is important for everyone, especially students, to understand why and how this happened. Although it is difficult to conclude one simple way these atrocities could have been avoided or solved, the knowledge of how they began and how they continued on is a vital part to avoiding the same fate for future miners, even outside of Appalachia.
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