EDITOR’S NOTE: Miners cuss. Please exercise your individual discretion if you prefer not to be exposed to a small sampling of underground-miner profanity.
It’s the fall of 2012, late September, and there I am mining coal in Bremen, Kentucky. It’s in what I consider to be the armpit of Muhlenburg County, and whether you believe it or not, Mr. Peadbody’s coal train hadn’t hauled it all away. Now don’t get me wrong, there was nothing there but corn fields, soy beans, and the smell of chicken shit from all the factory farms, but Muhlenberg County was still there and as hopeless as ever.
It was election time. President Barack Obama was running for re-election, and you could see from all the yard signs planted in front of the broke down mobile homes and the million dollar McMansions that everyone here wanted to see him out of office so they could put a stop to his “War on Coal.” I may have been a hair over 300 miles from my hometown in Eastern Kentucky, but I was still surrounded by the same damned people and the same damned mentality. I just didn’t have the view from the valley looking up into the ridges like I did back home.
The Kentucky Coal Association and their baby sister, Friends of Coal, had done a good job filling these communities’ minds with the same lines of bullshit and fear that they had done back home. The biggest difference was that these mines were booming, unlike the Eastern Kentucky ones. Laid off miners from all over Southeastern Kentucky were moving out here and going back to work – plus miners from West Virginia and one guy from Alabama.
Joe Craft with Alliance Resources and Bob Murray from Murray Energy had just a little more time left in the industry. That’s because there was still demand for coal to be shipped on the Green and Ohio rivers to nearby power plants. They weren’t going to tell anyone about the drop in market price and the real reason they were still running while all of the mines back in our hometowns were closing down. Hell no, they made it sound as if their pockets were just deep enough to keep paying us even though they were losing money.
I remember walking into the dusty training room that afternoon. It was 1 p.m. Bob Murray and his son had come to the mine to talk to us. I guess what they really wanted to do was to see if they had made any ground on getting us to think any differently about the election. For weeks now, the TV screens that hung out by the shower house and the elevator waiting pad had been playing hype: The Obama Effect. Stories circulated that employees were being pushed to attend political rallies, according to a lawsuit filed in federal district court. (The Federal Election Commission later deadlocked in a party-line vote on whether to investigate the complaint.)
When we all sat down, Bob walked up to the front of the room with his son. He gave a half grin and spoke about how far we had come and that with the election coming up we had an opportunity to choose our own futures. He told us that with a Republican leader we would see pay increases, an increase in our bonus percentages, and that as we got “that man” out of the Oval Office, we wouldn’t have to keep working weekends just to pay the bills.
Let’s just ignore Murray’s personal comments about Obama and focus on the bigger story: “You miners will not be forced to work through the holidays and the weekends just to make the ends meet any longer. We just have to make sure we get Romney and Ryan in the White House.”
Now, that’s the biggest wheelbarrow load of horseshit I had heard in my life. We all knew good and well that we worked forced holidays and weekends in order to fill additional orders and to earn the company more profits. I looked over to my miner man and in a hushed voice said, “Josh, does this bastard think we’re all stupid? He must think that we drink well water from those chicken farms. He knows good and well, just like me, that if the market price goes up and the demand goes up, not only will we keep working holidays and weekends, they’re gonna want more footage and more coal out of all us. Goddamned, if he’s gonna tell us stories, at least make them believable.”
Josh gave a half smile and nodded his head. He knew I was a “liberal artsy left winger,” but we often talked about the political environment and how we thought all of the lobbyists and coal managers were lying to us just to get some favors in the pockets of politicians all over the country. We knew what Murray was. We had heard he was the sort of man who discourages miners from reporting accidents by docking a man’s bonus if he reported one or was put on light duty. (A miner made this charge in an action filed with the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Murry Energy denied the accusation.)
My roof bolter, Mitchum, had a similar story. He broke his arm, finished the shift, went home to shower, and then went to the hospital saying he fell outside of his house. I knew what happened, his shirt sleeve got caught on a bur when he was drilling a roof bolt hole and twisted his arm up. Yet, Mitchum was a young strong man in his 20’s and was more worried about saving face at his new job and getting that $150 bonus check at the end of the month. I wish now that he had written “Eat Shit” on the check and sent it back, like other Murray Energy miners had done. (This occurrence is documented in a West Virginia ACLU amicus brief filed as part of Murray’s libel lawsuit against John Oliver and HBO.)
At the front of the room, Bob Murray continued to rant about the Democrats in Muhlenberg County not caring about the coal industry.
“They’ve got their eyes on the college professors and the woman downtown who is an artist and doesn’t work because she inherited wealth from her parents who busted their ass for a living. They don’t care about the working class. I’m telling you right now, we have to put a stop to these leftist liberals who try to say we poison the water and destroy the environment.”
That’s when his son chimed in.
“They want to complain about global warming and power plant emissions. They don’t care about you all putting food on your tables and providing for your families like Americans are supposed to do. They just want to use up all of your hard earned money to support those out there in the world who are too lazy to work and don’t want to get a job because they know the Democrats will keep them fed with a roof over their heads.”
It was all I could do to sit there and listen, but like Mitchum, I needed a job. I needed to provide for my family, and I had been a coal miner all of my adult life. I had invested in a college education specifically for a mining career. I sat there going over a list of tongue lashings that I could give them to prove them wrong in front of everyone, but that wouldn’t put any food on my plate and damned sure wouldn’t move me up the ladder for a better position. So I tried to block it out by lightly humming “Paradise” by John Prine. That was ever so fitting because this was the KenAmerican Paradise Mine.
When the meeting ended, Bob and his son walked out of the back door and drove off in their black SUV. Randy, the mine manager, talked about our goals for the upcoming weeks and issues going on with everyday work that needed to be addressed. I stared blankly out the window trying to think of a way to educate the men and women I worked with on what was really happening to our industry and our jobs.
“I need all the mine foremen and section bosses to stay here. The rest of y’all can go outside and get you a bite to eat. Mr. Murray had some BBQ catered out here. Make you a plate to take in with you as well. We have plenty.”
After all of the other miners were outside and the door closed, there were only five of us foremen and Randy in the room.
“I’m gonna pass out these envelopes that are personally addressed to each of you. Don’t tell anyone else what is inside. Don’t take it underground to share with your crew. Put it in your locker or your car. Read it when you get home, and if you have any questions, come to me.”
I was scared to death. I thought it was another lay off slip, a letter telling me I was getting a cut in pay, or some other bad news. Hell, no. It was a damned letter from Bob Murray inviting me to some political rally and or dinner event in Illinois for Mitt Romney, with a suggested donation of $250 to attend. I think I was more pissed off to receive that letter than if I had of gotten a pay cut. He leaves and has the general mine manager pass out generic letters asking us for a $250 donation to some jack ass running for president? So I did the next thing I could think of. I took a photo of the letter with my phone and sent it to a couple of friends. One of them worked at one of the biggest media companies in New York; the other was a nationally renowned journalist and known for calling out people on their bullshit. Then I waited to see how they would respond.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.