By Seth Sandronsky
January 1st, 2018
Domestic coal mining history above and below ground lives on the pages of Written in Blood: Courage and Corruption in the Appalachian War of Extraction edited by Wess Harris (PM Press, 2017). The anthology unpacks the industry, people and communities of a coal-rich region, amplifying relevant class and gender issues over a century.
On one hand, coalfield accidents, such as the 1968 Farmington mine disaster, bury miners. Meanwhile, underground air injuries cause black lung disease.
On the other hand, an industry-friendly establishment tries, by force and ideas, to bury the narratives of women, men and children. Most the time, society’s victors write history.
Prevailing assumptions and conclusions dominate consciousness. The ruling order’s ideas rule society, to paraphrase Marx.
There are counter-narratives to elite stories, though. Harris’ book is a splendid case in point.
Contributors, such as Tom Rhule, expose the production of mainstream ideology that glorifies capital over labor. One strand of this process is anti-communism.
The coal industry and its allies used it to smother working class voices. Mine owners and their allies in the academy and press in part appealed to American patriotism to make their case, subject matter that Alex Carey writes about in Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (1995).
Then and now, capital, e.g., mine operators and owners, also tried to divide and separate coal workers along ethnic and linguistic lines, according to Joy Lynn, in an interview with Michael and Carrie Kline. Sow division and strengthen social power is the name of this ruling tune.
The Klines also interview a retired federal mine inspector, who describes how the coal companies ignore safety in the pursuit of profitability. His accounts of corporate malfeasance are revealing; its purchase of political power system operates to the harm of working families.
The coal company store was a site of gender oppression. The power and control of capital over labor involved “forced sexual servitude” under the Esau scrip system that Harris and other contributors detail.
As a matter of policy, coal management males practiced sexual misconduct against miners’ daughters and wives in places such as the Whipple Company Store. This history does not make for easy reading.
The lengths that management went to oppress male miners and their female family members reflect the institutional relations of misogyny and patriarchy. They are deeply rooted in the past of Appalachian coalfields and US society generally.
The Battle of Blair Mountain was a site of a united uprising of miners, begun in 1921. Harris’ essay disentangles that epic conflict over unionization in the face of oppression, e.g., horrendous labor conditions. It was at the time “the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War.”
Nathan Fetty considers current developments in Appalachia from a legal viewpoint. He in part examines trends in the United Mine Workers of America and the struggle for health and safety as fracking for gas grows.
Carrie Kline focuses on ways for people of the region to move forward, past resource extraction and labor exploitation during coal mining. This is a monumental challenge, similar in some respects to what deindustrialized communities in the Rust Belt face.
I found the book under review compelling. The contributors deliver insight and foresight.
Seth Sandronsky lives and works in Sacramento. He is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email [email protected].