ABA Journal

King Coal’s Violent Reign: Century-Old Labor Strife Still Raises Constitutional Questions

On May 8, in West Virginia’s primary election, President Barack Obama received nearly 60 percent of the 178,000 votes cast in the Democratic primary. His opponent, who received about 40 percent of the vote, was a convicted felon named Keith Judd who managed to get on the ballot despite the fact that he is serving a 17½-year prison sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, Texas.

“Nobody had ever heard of this Judd, but they didn’t have to,” says Phil Fogleman, who sells modular and mobile homes to many of the miners who live in and around Summersville, a small community in the south-central part of the state. “It was strictly a vote against Obama. People are tired of the EPA restrictions on the coal industry. That’s our livelihood.”

In swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, coal is an issue. But in West Virginia, coal is—and always has been—the heart of every issue, whether taxes, elections, law enforcement, the environment or the courts.

West Virginia is a land of deep-green mountains separated by fog-laden “hollers” and rippling creek bottoms. State tourism folks like to call it “wild and wonderful.” But much of its lush scenery sits atop broad seams of coal—coal that fueled eras of American industrial development, a way of life that now seems at risk. The outsourcing of those industrial jobs, competition with cleaner and cheaper sources of energy, and conflicts with environmental regulations have taken their toll on West Virginians who feel that they are simply holding on to everything they can.

Their immediate problem with Democrats was administration concern for mountaintop mining—the environmentally questionable practice of gouging mountain peaks with explosives to expose their rich veins of coal. In a rough-hewn state that has endured grinding poverty, high unemployment, mining disasters, labor violence and even martial law, the concern seemed to some misplaced. And across the state on billboards, on radio talk shows, in newspapers, in public forums and television advertising, West Virginians were urged to resist the Democrats and their “war on coal.”

What made the 2012 presidential election remarkable in West Virginia was more than concern for the coal industry; it was the extraordinary political partnership forged between two historic antagonists: coal miners and their management. It was an alliance that would have been impossible a century ago between the industry and the grandfathers of today’s mineworkers.

Click here to read the rest of “King Coal’s Violent Reign” from the December issue of the ABA Journal.

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