Coal Country: Matewan via Slaid Cleves

If you’re already feeling sad, just skip this post.

The coal mining jobs are never going to come back. Mostly because the people who used to do them have gone on to do other things, or have died of their injuries. Out here in Pennsylvania, you can still find old-timers (like my neighbor Bob up the street) who were in on the tail-end of the deep mining, worked through the heavy dragline strip-mines, and finally got out of it when the big machines started doing most of the work and mining was no longer a human task. It turns out that humans are expensive, unless you can economically subjugate them to the point where they work for whatever you tell them they’ll work for.

Here’s a song by Slaid Cleves that you might enjoy will make you cry while you read the rest of this.

I don’t know why I saw Matewan [wc] at its theatrical release in 1987, but I did. At the time I didn’t think it was a great movie and I still don’t. It is, however, an interesting movie and it portrays Pennsylvania coal miners’ life around the turn of the century.

Unlike a typical western, the story begins with a stranger coming to town. But he’s not an Eastwoodian nihilist packing six guns: he’s a labor organizer. There are oblique references to his being part of IWW (the “Wobblies” – the Worker’s International) obviously there is going to be trouble. It may surprise you to learn that, in Matewan, the mining company has got the workers thoroughly under its thumb, with corrupt bosses, company stores that deduct from wages, and a company boss that can pretty much do whatever he wants because the workers have no contracts. After my last few years’ of reading about early industrial age USA, I think it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of the typical situation: bad. The mining company responds to growing worker unrest by shipping up a trainload of black workers from down south. There are also tensions with the Italian immigrant miners. It’s a good portrayal of how the industrial capitalists pitted everyone against everyone in order to “divide and conquer” and keep the workers ignorant.

Photo by Ted Wathen [link]

James Earl Jones plays the spokesperson for the black miners almost as though he’s asleep. It’s an interesting performance. The movie has some tried-and-true tropes, like the women reaching out to across cultural lines behind the men’s backs, over feeding children. But perhaps some of those tropes are true; we need to remember that women also suffered and died in the mines. Being able to hold entire families under their thumb gave great leverage for the mining bosses.

Why would anyone wish for those jobs to come back? It’s possible, I suppose, that someone does but the only person who’d be happy with it would be a company boss.

Coal mining was a hard, dirty, short life. There are still billboards in Clearfield, near where I live for lawyers that want to represent people injured in mines or damaged by coal dust inhalation. You’ve got to suspect that there wouldn’t be signs like that, if the coal mining companies actually took care of “their” people – but they didn’t. That’s not how power works. Why would they screw their workers into inescapable shit jobs if they planned to take care of them? The game has always been to monetize ignorant and helpless workers, keep them ignorant and helpless, and wring money from them, from birth to the grave.

For those of you who don’t understand what Mr Cash was singing about – it’s about a miner who’s in debt to the company store. Miners were responsible, like today’s Uber drivers, for providing some of their own gear. They’d buy it at the company store, and pay with company scrip. They’d get paid in company scrip, too. They might pay their lodging with company scrip – because they were renting from the company. In other words, the company “vertically integrated” its business to capture all of the workers’ economic output. And, if the straw boss docked a miner a couple of loads of coal because they were late or talked back, or damaged some gear, then the worker might fall behind on their payments and be “fined” to drive them deeper in debt. If the strategy sounds familiar, it ought to – it’s basic “debt peonage” and it doesn’t make a difference if we’re talking sharecropping, tenant farming, or student loans – they all work the same way. It’s the “usury” the bible warns about and forbids. Again – who’d want these jobs? And what kind of garbage human would want to be the straw boss?

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I took a couple down-days, there. Sorry about that. Things have been surprisingly busy here and I didn’t take the time to build up a bow-wave of postings like I usually do. To tell you the truth, the news has been so depressing lately, I sometimes don’t know what to say because all I want to do is scream at the internet.

If you’re not familiar with Slaid Cleves, there are a lot of people who aren’t. His album Broke Down is some good americana. I saw him open for Ray Wylie Hubbard, once, and he’s an excellent song-writer. His song “Bring it On” is another favorite of mine. [yt]


  1. John Morales says

    Pass on the music, but the story is interesting enough.

    Why would anyone wish for those jobs to come back?

    I think reasonably-paying reliable easy-access work requiring no academic qualifications is what they wish for. The good days.

    (Yeah, I know. It was rhetorical)


    I took a couple down-days, there. Sorry about that.

    Only because you choose to be. You really don’t owe your readers.

    I’d rather you kept enjoying blogging as a hobby, rather than felt duty-bound to do so.

  2. says

    John Morales@#1:
    I think reasonably-paying reliable easy-access work requiring no academic qualifications is what they wish for.

    I agree. But that’s not the kind of job anyone’s going to find in a coal mine.

  3. DonDueed says

    Not sure if it’s just me, but both those embedded videos are the same song — the Johnny Cash version of “Sixteen Tons”.

  4. says

    I would like coal companies to fire every manual worker before it’s too late for their health, invest billions in automatic mining machinery, then go bust big time when the coal market collapses around them.

  5. says

    I would like coal companies to fire every manual worker before it’s too late for their health, invest billions in automatic mining machinery, then go bust big time when the coal market collapses around them.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing the executives go down into the mines.

    And not come back up.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    Everyone’s heard of Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin, Gryffindor. What fewer people probably realise is that ALL English schools operate a house system, not just the ones for wizards or nobs. The names of the houses can tell you a lot about the school and its area and ethos. My high school ones were named after famous Christians – Butler, Augustine, Becket, Temple. My middle school, it was the names and titles of a local member of the aristocracy – Balcarres, Lindsay, Crawford and, er, the other one. But in my primary school, the four names – Junction, Bamfurlong, Maypole and, er, the other one – were names of collieries. Most of the parents at that school worked in a mine. Most of the kids expected to. Our town was built on coal and cotton, and the cotton was long gone before I was born.

    My favourite job in my career was in a factory that owed its existence to government subsidies and grants intended to encourage big companies to develop and give employment in areas where mines were closing. A lot of the old hands were ex pit employees.

    This preamble is intended to establish that I have some personal knowledge here. Equally, my knowledge is UK based, to pinch of salt and all that.

    Here in the UK at least, mining was NOT bottom-rung, low status work, at least not after WWII. Apart from anything else, it was an exempt profession – miners didn’t go to war. This was in recognition of their importance to the economy and society, and the fact that their job was at least as dangerous as going to the front line (and they didn’t get to be demobbed when the war stopped). There was a PRIDE in that. There was also a pride, taken legitimately, in doing hard work that produced something tangible – something that the country needed. Miners kept the lights on. Kids who weren’t so good at maths had a good shot at self-respect and self-actualisation by being part of that. It sure as shit beat stacking shelves. It was also a good deal better paid. At least in the UK, and in the last 50 years, miner was a well paid job – certainly better paid than the average, and WAY better than the average in the communities where it was an option. It’s also important to say that coal mining was nationalised, so there were no individual pit-owners, no vulture capitalists, at least in my lifetime.

    There was a reason why Thatcher took on and destroyed the mining unions in the eighties – they were TOO POWERFUL. Consider that – in the sixties and seventies, the government had to kowtow to the miners, not the other way round. They got so powerful they painted a target on their backs. You can say a lot about the destructive effects of deindustrialisation, but you can’t say the miners were the first target because they were weak. The Tories did the classic technique of taking down the biggest, hardest target first, as a demonstration of power. It took them over a year, and the after-effects are still being felt. Google “Battle of Orgreave” .

    There’s a lot to unpack about why the dangers were tolerated by the people exposed to them, and “toxic masculinity” covers a lot of it.

    In summary – I can see why people would want those jobs back. What they were replaced with were indoor jobs with no heavy lifting on minimum wage. Women’s jobs, essentially (see “toxic masculinity”). I can totally see why a community would want to return to the old days, even as I acknowledge that their reasoning is flawed. It’s easy for me – good at math, in an indoor job with no heavy lifting, but better paid than any miner – to criticise.

  7. Dunc says

    Why would anyone wish for those jobs to come back?

    In addition to the points that sonofrojblake makes @ #7, because America is a really, really shitty place to be long-term unemployed. Even a hard, dangerous job that’s going to put you in an early grave is going to look pretty attractive once your unemployment benefit runs out.

    It’s pretty much impossible to imagine the effects of long-term unemployment if you haven’t suffered from it yourself. It’s absolutely crushing, even in a country that doesn’t basically toss you to the wolves after six months. It’s kinda like being in prison (in that you have endless time on your hands but can’t do anything with it, plus you’re a social pariah), only without the guarantee of a roof over your head and 3 meals a day. And they put your family in with you, if you have one.

  8. says

    Here in the UK at least, mining was NOT bottom-rung, low status work, at least not after WWII

    I wonder how much that had to do with not having a recently enslaved workforce, and a large immigrant population that were more or less desperate for work – that’s a situation that’s perfectly set up for playing one agenda off against another. (If there is one part of Matewan I think they exposed particularly well, it’s the divide and conquer between cliques of miners. Basically, that was the attack-point of the socialist labor organizers, too: “you’re all workers, solidarity!” etc.

  9. says

    If you’re already feeling sad, just skip this post.

    My opinion is exactly the opposite. When I’m feeling happy, I don’t want to think sad thoughts so as to not ruin my mood. When I’m already sad, there’s nothing to lose, so I might as well read about all the horrors of this world. Anyway, since I already had a shitty day,* reading about debt peonage at the evening wasn’t even that bad. By the way, I didn’t know that this was happening in the USA. Humanity sucks.

    I took a couple down-days, there. Sorry about that.

    I agree with John Morales—since blogging is something you do in your free time and without getting a salary, it makes sense for you to do it in a way that is enjoyable for you.

    *Today I went to a conference about food waste and how to reduce it. The people I met there made me seriously depressed. There was a politician responsible for environmental issues, several people who had coauthored a book about food waste, and a bunch of environmental activists. I expected to hear at least something hopeful (when will I finally learn not to be optimistic?), but, of course, that didn’t happen. Solutions that got proposed were:
    #1 Educate consumers about the fact that curved cucumbers and blemished fruits are perfectly edible.
    #2 Talk about the problem and motivate people to reduce their personal household food waste.
    #3 Make various programs that encourage schools, hospitals, hotels, etc. to reassess how they serve food and look for ways how to reduce waste.
    #4 Use more plastic packaging so as to extend the shelf life of various products.

    My opinion: #1 is dubious, because supermarkets never sell food that looks imperfect. The only place where you can buy curved cucumbers is a farmers’ market. People who regularly shop there already understand that such food is edible. #2 sounds ineffective. #3 is actually very useful, but the results are small-scale. #4 is something I cannot comment about without resorting to rude words.

    Of course, I had to butt in and propose different solutions.
    #1 Ban the use of PVC and non-recyclable food packaging. The answer I got: “We cannot do that in a democratic country.” I wonder why, considering that the same democratic countries have been able to ban DDT, incandescent light bulbs, and mercury thermometers. Why not ban PVC food packaging?
    #2 Increase taxes for environmentally harmful products and practices. If taxes made pollution and waste too expensive, businesses would change their practices. Answer: “That won’t happen, because in Brussels there’s a strong lobby for the plastic industry and all other relevant industries; they won’t allow any new legislature that reduces demand for their environmentally harmful products.
    #3 Facilitate dumpster diving (remove all the locks and fences around waste containers, replace deep containers with shelves that can be reached also by people who aren’t fit enough to jump into a deep container, make dumpster diving legal). Make it legal and easy for people and businesses to donate their leftover food. Answer: “We cannot do that, somebody might get a food poisoning.” This one is true only for a handful of products. A significant portion of food that ends up in a landfill doesn’t get toxic after the “best before” date expires.

    My conclusion: everybody agrees that there is a problem. However, the only acceptable solutions are the only ones that are bound to be ineffective and won’t change much. Supermarkets don’t want to facilitate dumpster diving or sell visually imperfect food, because it would compete with and reduce demand for the expensive food they are trying to sell. The plastic industry doesn’t want to reduce the amount of plastic food packaging. Those who are harming the environment don’t want to change their current practices. Lawmakers don’t want to make any decisions that might be unpopular with somebody. Everybody agrees that there is a problem, but doing something that might significantly improve things is bound to cause discomfort for somebody, thus it cannot happen.

    I already said this one, but it bears repeating: humanity sucks.

    I start to think that my life’s getting depressing. Oh well, at least the Internet offers me an extensive supply of cute kitten pictures.

  10. lorn says

    A whole lot of danger, health risks, and having to put up with asshole bosses can be explained away knowing that coal jobs could easily average $30 an hour once you figured in OT and production bonuses. I have read that it might be closer to $35 and hour. But I suspect that these figures only apply to really productive mines during times when coal prices were high.

    Coal is logistically expensive. It is heavy and difficult to move for any set amount of embodied energy. And it doesn’t stop there. Clinker and ash have to be removed and disposed of long term and the risks never go away entirely because they are hazardous materials. Coal and ash piles can be mobilized by rain and have been known to bury entire towns. And then there is the fact that they are toxic. Deep mines can and do collapse, flood, leak heavy metals and sometimes burn. Strip mines fill and/or pollute entire valleys and any water courses that flow through them. If the flow stops it can restart suddenly. Sometimes decades after most people even remember that there once was a mine before it became a housing development.

    Other than keeping coal families in beans there is precious little good about coal.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    Other than keeping coal families in beans there is precious little good about coal

    Yeah, feeding a large proportion of the population who would otherwise literally starve is a trivial benefit.

    Coal also powered the railways and factories that made modern life, well, modern. It’s easy from 2018 to scoff at it, but relatively speaking it is EASY. It’s not all that far below the ground, you just (more or less) dig it out and burn it. And that gives you heat, light, power, electricity, textiles, cross-country transport, steel, ships, and on and on and on.

    The entire modern world is built on a foundation of coal. Sure, in 2018 it’s a pretty shitty way to power your economy, but it’s important to realise that there are only ANY alternatives because of the progress we made under coal power.

  12. says

    The entire modern world is built on a foundation of coal

    Aside from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what has modernity done for us?