Illinois has a long proud history of labor activism in its coal fields. Union miners have been active since 1861 when the first national miners union, the American Miners’ Association (AMA) was founded in Belleville, IL. Since then mine workers have organized under many banners, be that the AMA, the Reorganized United Mine Workers of America, the Progressive Miners of America or the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The UMWA has represented mine workers in Illinois since 1890. At one time the UMWA represented over 50,000 miners in the state.
Sadly December 20, 2013 is a historic milestone in Illinois. December 20 marks the final day of operation for the last union coal mine in Illinois, Crown III, located in Macoupin County. Crown III will close because its contract to supply coal to Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in Decatur has ended. ADM has instead opted to purchase its coal from non-union operations in Wyoming and Illinois.
This is the same ADM now demanding corporate welfare from the state legislature in order to remain in Illinois, ostensibly to protect local jobs. Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel seems sympatico to ADM’s demands and is likely to extend the city’s largesse on the backs of Chicago taxpayers.
While union representation has withered, the Illinois coal industry has recovered to a level not seen in the state since 1990. According to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Illinois is the 5th largest coal producing state, employing over 4000 miners. Over 47 million tons of coal were mined in 2012 and that number may reach 55 million tons this year.
In one respect the erosion of the labor movement in Illinois’ coal fields can be tied to the march of mechanization in the mines. Due to mechanization coal operators rely on fewer and fewer workers to extract more and more coal. Yet unions build power through numbers. How do you build collective power when the number of available members continues to decline?
I’m always a bit dumbstruck when I hear old-timers from the mines (many of them union members) blindly defend the coal industry, blaming the loss of jobs on misguided “socialist” environmental regulations, yet never questioning the role of new mining techniques or technologies on the decline of mining jobs.
It’s as if technological advances are somehow politically neutral and inevitable, yet environmental policies result from malevolent, liberal handwringing enacted to address fictional problems. Whatever effects environmental regulations may have played to suppress the coal industry, it’s quite obvious that far more mining jobs have been lost to technological innovation and market forces than to any EPA rulemaking. According to the U.S. Census, industry employment dropped by almost 400,000 jobs between 1920 and 1960 while coal production increased almost two-fold during that time. The EPA wasn’t founded until 1970.
But one might argue, “So what? 4000 guys have mining jobs in Illinois. Who cares if they belong to a union?” It matters because unions build power through collective action. Capital has few legitimate foes as formidable as a well-organized workforce. And in the case of coal mining, union representation can be a matter of life and death. Historically, the UMWA has played the dominant role to ensure safe mining standards. And its contracts ensure that miners and their families live dignified lives in their later years through modest pensions and guaranteed health care.
So what is to be done? Government is largely owned by the corporate sector. The enforceability of contracts for average folks continues to decline. As Steve Rhodes writes: “As it stands now in America, contracts are used to handcuff ordinary people but essentially meaningless to corporations with hordes of lawyers who can always reinterpret to get what they want.” This year’s battle with Peabody Energy over the Patriotic Coal bankruptcy underscores this point.
Maybe Mother Jones had it right. While I’ve also been surprised to see retired miners who appropriately revere her name fail to understand her radical politics, Mother Jones was unequivocal in her position regarding the distribution of wealth: “I believe in collective ownership of the means of wealth. At this time the natural commodities of this country are cornered in the hands of a few.”
Maybe we need to look to the 19th century in order to learn how to live in the 21st.
“Step by step, the longest march
Can be won, can be won;
Single stones will form an arch
One by one, one by one
And, by Union what we will
Can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill,
Singly none, singly none.”