Meet Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy. He wants the federal government to leave him alone and allow the Free Market system to work its magic. This is extremely ironic, as the state has a long history of absentee land ownership which has led to much of the state’s economic troubles. People generally don’t invest much in the state. The state, therefore, would likely benefit from government intervention.
However, in an article on Blankenship in the Huffington Post, Blankenship is quoted as having said that mine safety regulations are as “silly as global warming.” His Upper Big Branch coal mine had been cited hundreds of times for safety violations before exploding in April of 2010 and killing more than 20 workers. He still doesn’t see the need for regulatory measures. He called for the federal government to back off. He has given many speeches to large crowds who support his philosophy.
To put things in context one must explain where Don Blankenship’s ideas come from and how they are far from unique or original. Material from historian Jerry Bruce Thomas’ An Appalachian Reawakening: West Virginia and the Perils of the New Machine Age will be used in order to do so.
Having been born in Charleston and growing up in Saint Albans, WV, I noticed that I lived in a small town in which most people could only find work either selling insurance, working retail, working for the local hospital, becoming a lawyer, preacher or teacher. Or working for local chemical or coal companies. It forced one to wonder why so few people lived in the town and why it was so difficult for many people to find work. Now it all makes sense.
In Thomas’ book, he explains the collapse of the coal industry, steel and farming industries and the resulting “Great Migration” of West Virginia citizens between 1940 and 1960. He writes that one of the largest employers in the state was Big Coal in the 1940’s and that the number of employees began to diminish after mechanization began to take over and less people were needed in the mines.
In 1948, coal companies employed roughly 126,000…by 1960, the number was closer to 49,000. Bynum Gilbert, a World War II veteran originally from WV who left for a time to find work said, “The coal business went bad here in 1952 or 1953. There wasn’t much work anywhere. If you didn’t want your family to starve, you had to take off for where the work was. That meant going to Cleveland, Chicago or Detroit.”
Why did the coal companies largely fail? Why was economic growth in West Virginia largely stagnant overall?
Well, the coal companies failed because they lost a large portion of their workforce due to a series of deals made between John Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America and local industry leaders. In exchange for union control of the retirement fund and increased contributions to the fund, Lewis would support increased mechanization efforts on behalf of the coal industry. He would work to avoid strikes. This is why Big Coal suffered and still suffers in West Virginia.
The reason for overall stagnation of the state’s economy is fairly straightforward. I mentioned earlier the problem of absentee land ownership. A study undertaken in 1978 by the Appalachian Alliance showed such forms of ownership, which had begun in the 18th Century, persisted into the 20th to a large extent. In the 1950’s Governor Marland attempted to change course and raise taxes on corporations. He was unsuccessful. Big Government was apparently overstepping its perceived boundary. The state legislature opposed him every step of the way and newspapers, including the popular Charleston Gazette, lambasted him, claiming that he’d likely destroy Big Coal.
Coal companies weren’t the only ones to oppose reform. Weirton Steel met for a series of celebrations they named “Americanism Week” beginning on June of 1950. They feared any sort of New Deal type programs and vowed to fight “Socialism and Communism.” The lack of willingness to regulate the coal industry resulted in several mining disasters. One of the most well-known was the Buffalo Creek disaster in the 1970’s. In 1969, year before the disaster, David McAteer published a study which indicated that perhaps one out of every 273 miners died in the mines at the time.
Why? Reduced visibility in the mines due to dust and exposure to dangerous and potentially explosive gases such as methane. Does this sound familiar? This unwillingness to alter the status quo remains in the state. 67% of West Virginians voted for the small government, pro-states rights candidate, Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
Don Blankenship was born into a largely conservative atmosphere in which business interests were viewed as vitally important and safety regulations and unionization were viewed as negative. The mining disasters which occurred under his watch were not a result of his failure to adhere to government regulations, in his mind. Instead, government regulations were merely hampering his freedom and causing the economic woes of the current recession. Yet, as just explained, the government isn’t to blame.