Posts Tagged ‘Harlan County’


Alessandro Portelli, “Harlan County/Kolkata” (November 2016)

by Alessandro Portelli [ht: db] at Jadavpur University in Kolkata


There hasn’t been a war on coal in the United States. There’s been a war by the coal industry on coal miners.*

The modern peak of coal employment was in 1984, when 177,848 miners (about .16 percent of the national labor force) were employed by the coal industry. Since then, coal production grew but mining employment decreased. Thus, by 2011, the coal industry employed only 88,000 miners (about .06% of the labor force), a decrease of 51 percent, while producing 22 percent more coal than in 1984.

Here’s the decline in total mining employment in the United States:

coal employment

The coal industry’s modern war on miners has consisted of two major shifts: one technological, the other geographic. The switch to surface mining meant an increase in labor productivity (many fewer miners are required to extract each ton of coal with mountaintop removal and other forms of surface mining). The move to the west—within and across states—has meant a sharp decline in coal production and employment in old coal regions (such as Appalachia) and an increase in production (with some increase in employment) in newer regions (such as western Kentucky and Wyoming).

The fact is, the coal industry won the war on miners. And there’s no hope that a revitalization of the coal industry will do anything more than line the pockets of the owners of the coal mines.


*Actually, the mining industry has engaged in a permanent war on miners: early on, it involved an attack on miners’ pay, safety, and unions (think Blair Mountain and Harlan County); since the mid-1980s, it’s been a war on miners’ jobs.


In the world imagined by neoclassical economists, workers are simply free to stay at or leave their jobs. What doesn’t exist in their models is a worker who tries to do the right thing—and then suffers the consequences.

Mackie Bailey [ht: db] is one such worker—a Kentucky miner who provided information about dangerous practices at an underground coal mine in Harlan County where a man was crushed to death in June 2011 (for which the company and three supervisors pleaded guilty in federal court).* Bailey is now facing a complaint filed by the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing for taking part in the dangerous activities he reported to state and federal regulators.

To Bailey and his attorney, that’s an injustice, not just because supervisors ordered Bailey to do unsafe work, but because his information helped convict the people responsible.

“They’re trying to punish the whistle-blower,” said Bailey’s attorney, Tony Oppegard, who previously worked as a federal mine-safety official and as a prosecutor in the state mine-safety agency.


*The photo above shows Bailey operating a roof-bolting machine at the Manalapan Mining Co.’s P-1 mine in 2011.


I just took a memorable trip to Harlan County, Kentucky—a region with a rich history and crunching poverty.*


The latest battle in Harlan County is over mountaintop removal, which is already dominating the landscape and looming over communities across the border in Virginia:


*The median household income in Harlan County (according to the Census Bureau, for 2006-2010) is $26,582 (compared to $41,576 for Kentucky) and the poverty rate is 30.7 percent (compared to 17.7 percent for Kentucky)