Kentucky Labor Institute
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    Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
    Did you know...that the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, first printed in 1903, is the oldest peer-reviewed publication dedicated to Kentucky history?Subscribe to the Register (only $40 per year).
  • Kentucky Coal Miners: Which Side are You On?
    Posted On: Dec 12, 2016

    Kentucky Coal Miners: Which  Side are You On?

                                                                joe brennan

    More than a century has passed since the bloody struggles in the Appalachian  hills of Blair Mountain, those battles have never been resolved. Kentuckians still labor hard long hours in the dark depths of the coal mines. Their numbers have diminished by the thousands each year. Coal needs are being reduced by natural gas. Power plants have converted to other sources of energy. Politicians proclaim a "War on Coal" while receiving millions in contributions from coal owners, but reject Black Lung Disease assistance. They also favor reductions in food stamps and unemployment benefits. The suffering of miners increases year by year.

    The plight of laborers and their families continues. Is unemployment really five percent? That depends on who you are, where you are, if your house was repossessed, if you are confronted with tens of thousands of student debts, what you owe in credit card debt, how many jobs you need just to stay afloat. Are you considered too old or too inexperienced for today's work demands, or unable to move because it is impossible to sell your home? Is it nearly impossible to find credit, face major health difficulties, or pay for adequate health insurance covering yourself or family members - one who may suffer from some incapacity? Are you confronted with bills for an elderly family member? Are you a member of a minority group, racial - ethnic - language limited - LGBTQ? Do you feel that you will be working until you die because you have no pension, no savings, and will not receive enough from Social Security to survive? Do you lose sleep at night worrying if the American Dream will ever be more than  nightmare?  These are the unfortunate questions confronting many in today's labor force.

    The issue of Labor and laborers, the size and shape of today's labor force is indeed different than in former years. We still have miners who dig out the coal, farmers who cultivate our lands, laborers who manufacture the products we use every day, but in many instance whether because of mechanization,  computerization, internationalization, America's workforce has radically changed. Many of the basic issues remain the same - salaries, work hours, workplace safety, job security, disposable income, cost of living expenses, health conditions, housing availability. Workers will always be with us, for in one way or another we all are, or have been laborers. But the world of work has changed, and so have we.

    Not too long ago, most physicians had their own private offices, so did dentists, so did attorneys. It now takes a staff of receptionists, insurance coverage personnel, nurses - practical - registered - practitioners, IT specialists, and answering services. University professors, not adjuncts, actually taught full time. Librarians focused their attention on books. McDonald's had only one arch, Yum didn't exist as a multi-national restaurant conglomerate, Kentucky Fried Chicken sold only fried chicken. None of the fast food companies had the majority of their stores in countries outside of America. Americans drove cars made here, not those made  in Mexico, Germany, Japan, South Korea, or Italy. Thirty five percent of labor belonged to a union.

    What has happened with America's perception of Labor? How do Americans envision labor? It used to be easy. That was someone who worked primarily with their hands in the fields, in the factories, in the streets, or in stores. There really was no labor force working in fast food stores - they didn't exist, nor did Wal-Mart, or Target, or Kroger Super Stores. There were the so called "professionals" who weren't represented by organized labor - and many still erroneously think that such representation is needed. While the world of work and workers has changed, perceptions to adapt to such changes have been slow. A few words of reflections.

    Minimum wage workers have problems with both the quality of their wage, and the conditions of their workplace. Despite the media's presentation, the majority of these workers are not teens, but adults supporting themselves and family members. They lack stable work schedules, excessive unpaid work obligations, better known as wage fraud, and they face an inability to organize without fear of job loss. Politicians propose that a living wage will bankrupt small businesses. The owners meanwhile prefer to consider themselves as franchise owners with minimal direct administrative connections with the brand name company. As such, they consider themselves not covered by the regulations of the National Labor Relations Board. Their workforce is thereby obligated to accept whatever work conditions are imposed, including low wage salaries. Unfortunately, the reality is that for their employees with dependent children it may be said, "Hungry children cannot survive on $ 7.25.

    Kentucky labor is cheap, but not that cheap. Ford can manufacture it cars cheaper in Mexico, and then there is the competition with China, India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. An electronic product that may cost $265 to produce here, can be produced for $16 dollars in China. Living conditions in the migrant camps that I have visited in Oklahoma, Florida, and Kentucky are horrible, cannot compare with China. American owned Apple pays for security nets at its company operated  China housing facilities in order to reduce employee suicide.  

    Attitudes towards professionals in the labor force have become increasingly negative. Take the position of teachers. The media blames the teaching profession for all educational difficulties in our school systems. "Teachers earn too much, poor teachers are impossible to remove, they expect too much for retirement. They should all be replaced by private institutions controlled by Corporate investment interests, financed by public taxpayer funds".

    Negative attitudes towards the labor of our police officers also continues to grow. They can't be trusted, they are too quick on the trigger, they are racists, they only want a salary. Nothing can be done to change their basic attitudes. We had better arm ourselves to assure our personal security, and that of our families and property.

    Politicians attempt to convince the community that by promoting so called right to work legislation, union influence will cease, new businesses will flow into Kentucky, and there will be thousands of new jobs. Right to Work originated as a "designated Christian Movement" to avoid the integration of races in the work place. Experience demonstrates that if such corporations are attracted to Kentucky simply because of the opportunity of obtaining cheap labor, the companies will prosper, labor will not. The individual laborers will lose thousands of dollars annually. Once opportunities are presented in other states, or other countries, such companies will leave, and the previously low waged labor force will be left unemployed. As it is, Kentucky currently offers industries twelve billion dollars in tax free incentives, while at the same time the total Kentucky revenue is only ten billion dollars. After all, Kentucky needs a state subsidized Noah's Arc. If this doesn't make sense financially, how can it make sense for the hard working laborer force?.

    Kentucky labor faces unique challenges. What do you study, what training do we need, what are the present employment needs, and those of the future? If the focus is computer training, will the jobs be present? How many schools of social work, psychology, education, nursing , law, business do we have, and will the graduates from these schools find available employment? Who is benefitting, the educational institutions, or the students who will soon graduate and join the unemployment roles with an excessive student loan debt?

    Labor related to manufacturing has reportedly left Kentucky. Computerization has become prevalent in newly designed factories. But major segments of Kentucky, both urban and rural, lack basic educational and technical requirements. If there are a severe reading deficits, how does the laborer operate the widget, or even repair it? Are there any more trade schools, but for what trades? Traditionally, unions would train trade apprentices in professionally supervised programs in on the job training. But, what will happen now with politicians attempting to discredit prevailing wage contracts in state educational and building contracts where apprentices have received their training and expertise?

    Kentucky labor faces major difficulties. Its demographics are not encouraging. We are on the bottom of the scale in a number of major factors that would encourage real and long term economic development. We are the weakest in the nation in numbers of high school graduates, college degree recipients, median income levels, while high in poverty levels, unemployment figures, disability numbers, serious chronic health statistics, and those recently covered insurance recipients are awaiting news of pending changes.

    All this brings us back to the Appalachian sectors of Eastern and South Eastern Kentucky's coal industry. We would like to think that the labor situation in that region is isolated from us, but the reality is that there is an unspoken fear that similar circumstances could also affect us and our families. Here in the coal industry we clearly see the developing labor crisis. Safety devices to detect the ill effects of coal dust in miners' lungs have been rejected by the same local politicians who claim that they are protecting the miners against the "War on Coal".  Mechanization has decimated the need for a larger coal labor force. Employment patterns covering generations has limited the possibilities  for obtaining newer employment sources. Labor risks remain high in the mines. Mountain top mining has only increased the incidence of Black Lung disease, especially among a younger workforce. The marketability of Eastern Kentucky coal is more questionable. Environmental and safety regulations bring further production restrictions. The new Governor's combative posture against federal environmental agencies will only exacerbate a troublesome situation. Such may also be said of his stand on reductions of health care coverage to a population that can least afford it, given their lower disposable income levels, and the impact on family health conditions.

    Today's labor situation presents new and greater challenges. Technology has its place, but it can also negatively impact the worker and the workplace. The line worker will need some expertise in computer operations, as will the grocery or sales clerk. Teachers may find some of their duties have been replaced by the on-line-classroom. Engineers, accountants, attorneys, may find that their services too have been parceled out to lower paid professionals living in another country but connected with operations through the internet. Manufacturing jobs will face a continued challenge with NAFTA, CAFTA, and TTP. Beyond inversions, tax diversions, off shore offices, deferred payments, there is the sometime forgotten issue that labor conditions directly affect a human beings and families. Where is the place of social justice in the labor issue of today and tomorrow?

    What is the unique Unitarian response to Kentucky's labor situation? Certainly it cannot be transcendental. We are not waiting for some miracle, although such a thing would be needed to resolve our fiscal mess. We are not awaiting a parousia, a second coming from the last Imam, or even Jesus. You are confused? I am confused, our legislators are confused as to what can be done. There is no easy resolution to Kentucky's labor situation, but something has to be done. Our taxation problem needs to become more progressive, pensions have to be provided to avoid future teacher poverty, educational improvements need to meet labor requirements and cannot be reduced, labor must obtain income increases to pay increasing living expenses. Labor in all its forms, professional or occupational, must be valued. The road is not clear, but if steps are not taken, the expected end of our travel, and our dreams, will never be achieved.


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