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Coal mining has always been a troubled and tragic industry

January 9, 2010
By Wayne Sheets Contributing Business Writer

Back in the mid-1980s, I read in one of our country's major newspapers or magazines that only two out of five college sophomores knew when the American Civil War took place. I was shocked by the revelation and ashamed that I did not know either. I have since changed that.

Recently I was taken aback again when I realized that I knew very little about the coal mine wars in my own state of West Virginia. Well, that has changed, too, albeit to a lesser degree by reading a book published by McLain Printing in Parsons.

The book is titled "Bloodletting in Appalachia - The Story of West Virginia's Four Major Mine Wars and Other Thrilling Incidents on Its Coal Fields" written by Howard B. Lee, West Virginia's Attorney General from 1925 through 1933.

Lee's book is analogous to James M. McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom - The Civil War Era." Those who have read McPherson's book might cry foul at this analogy, but let me explain.

"Battle Cry of Freedom" has been hailed by critics in the literary world as the best single volume on the Civil War ever written. It is voluminous but does not cover every detail of that traumatic, singular event of our history. How could it? More than 50,000 books have been written on that war. West Virginia's mine wars were, of course, no comparison in scope but to the state it was no less traumatic. However, in comparative terms of suffering and loss of life, the coal mine wars in West Virginia were as costly to the state as the Civil War was to the nation. Lee, as does McPherson, covers his subject in such tantalizing detail that it whets the appetite for a greater knowledge of the subject.

It's hard to judge at times just who is the victim and who is the culprit in many of the struggles between miner and mine operator. Granted, the miners were held captive to little more than slave conditions in which to work and live by the coal operators and, in most cases, were driven to violence by hunger and hatred of the mine operators and their mine-guard thugs. The mine operators on the other hand were forced to fight to keep wages as low as possible because of market conditions. Much of the struggle took place before and during the depths of the Great Depression. That, however, did not justify the suffering, misery and squalor that miners and their families were forced into by the operators.

Here's a brief excerpt: "As a bitter aftermath of those strikes and injunctions ... in the years between 1920 and 1925, no fewer than 50,000 men, women and children were evicted from their homes in southern West Virginia. They found shelter under cliffs, in tents and in improvised shacks built by the union. Year after weary year, they lived and starved in those unwholesome surroundings. Malnutrition and unsanitary conditions increased the death rate to appalling figures, especially among the children."

The mines were unionized nationally in 1933 and everyone thought that would put an end to the troubles. It didn't. While unionization was desperately needed and gave the miners bargaining power for a better chance at a descent life with better wages and no longer living under the threat of being evicted from their company-owned homes for reasons they did not fully understand, it eventually brought about mechanization of the mines and put thousands of miners out of work - permanently. John L. Lewis, who brought about unionization and served as president of the Unite Mine Workers Association from 1920 until 1960, brought about a sea of change in the mining industry. But he also bled the mine operators dry by ever-increasing demands for higher wages and fringe benefits.

There were criminal elements in the ranks of both the miners and the operators. At times, it's hard to distinguish which is which and who is the perpetrator of evil. The book also brings to light the tremendous influence the coal industry has on the politics of West Virginia from the late 1880s, when coal was first discovered, until the 1970s - the period covered by the book. It is no different today.

On Oct. 3, 1956, Lee stopped in a coal mining town in the southern part of the state and talked to an idled miner of the day. The unnamed miner said of the contract agreed to that very day by John L. Lewis and the Coal Operators Association, "Economically, the coal fields are dying. In a few years nothing will be heard in large sections of these mountains except the hoot of the owl and the eerie cry of the whippoorwill." Now, in some respects, the coal mining industry is a shadow of its former self and the mournful quaver of the whippoorwill is gone.

This little book of 216 pages, including the index, is now in its 13th printing. Officials at McClain Printing told me that, including this printing, they have printed some 16,000 copies of the book. The book is not only a great first-hand-knowledge history of the coal mining industry in West Virginia, it is also a study in human tragedy.

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At the beginning of this new year, it might be a good time to think about the security of your PC. If you have access to a computer at home or at work, here are some ways to safeguard your personal information by creating strong passwords - the only thing protecting the sensitive information on your computer(s).

If you don't have a strong password, the sensitive information and personal information on your computer(s) is unprotected. This is why it is vital to construct a strong password and keep that password secret. Here are some tips for choosing and protecting your passwords:

n Don't use passwords that are based on your own personal information. For example, passwords that use numbers from your birthday, anniversary and children's birthdays are very easy to guess.

n Don't use a name of your pet or child.

n Don't use your phone number or any part of your Social Security number.

n Don't use words that can be found in a dictionary.

n Use a combination of letters, numbers and special characters, such as $ or %, as well as upper and lower case letters.

If you are worried about remembering your password, make up a little rhyme or story that can help you.

Be careful with password reminder questions. Think about how many people know the answer to the question you select. Your high school and favorite ice cream are common knowledge.

Be careful with Web sites and programs that let you store your passwords. The security on these sites can vary. If you use password keepers, be sure to use different passwords for each site. This way if one password is compromised you will have limited exposure.

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The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index, which had declined in October, increased slightly in November. The Index now stands at 49.5 (1985=100), up from 48.7 in October.

Consumer Confidence posted a slight gain in November, says Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center. "The Present Situation Index, however, was virtually unchanged and remains at levels not seen in 26 years (Index 17.5, Feb. 1983). The moderate improvement in the short-term outlook was the result of a decrease in the percent of consumers expecting business and labor market conditions to worsen, as opposed to an increase in the percent of consumers expecting conditions to improve. Income expectations remain very pessimistic and consumers are entering the holiday season in a very frugal mood."

We are, of course, through the holiday shopping season and will have to wait to see how it compared to years in the recent past. Some indicators are pointing to a slower than expected shopping season, the weather which did not help, notwithstanding.

 
 

 

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