by Rina Brundu. Miners work is never done. And once finished, if they don’t die from it, they can get killed while trying to secure it. This was the case for the 34 miners shot dead by police last month in South Africa. The brutal episode better known as the Marikana massacre, during which 78 other miners were left injured, is still unclarified in its dynamics. Police claims they were threatened by the miners on strike, while it’s today’s news that the Justice Minister of that country asked the authorities to explain why 270 arrested miners were charged with the murder of their own colleagues.
While South Africa is in shock, further up in Europe, in the Sardinian region of Sulcis, miners are also fighting a tough battle to retain their jobs and prevent closure of the last active coal mine of the whole of Italy, i.e. the Nuraxi Figus mine. With the images of those workers in mind, and in an attempt to understand whether the quality of life of modern miners has really improved, I have decided to ask a few questions to Roger L. Philpot, the son of a Kentuckian miner and author of the “Coal miners” website, a virtual place rich in information about miners lives and culture.
There is in fact something beautiful, moving and profound about the reasons which led Roger to create “Coal miners”:
“I am the son of a Kentucky coal miner. I was raised in a coal camp, and in my OWN words I want to document this life on the web site, so those who are interested can read about that experience. First of all I would like to say that there are other segments of our society that have experienced hardships and this is just one of them. In a coal camp, the company owned all the properties, the houses and everything associated with the camp. Miners who worked there just worked for wages and the pay they received was not enough to provide decent living for their families. The houses were mostly four rooms without-facilities or indoor plumbing. There were no streets, just dirt lanes filled with coal ashes from the “warm morning’ stoves that were used to heat the home. Some houses only had a single fireplace for heat in the cold winters. A general store owned by the company, allowed the miners to trade for necessities. The miners used company monies called script which could only be redeemed, at the company store.
Tennessee Ernie Ford had it right with the song lyrics: I owe my soul to the company store”. I went to a school that was built on the side of the mountain. I had to walk three, maybe four miles to get there. Our basketball court was rock and dirt. Some of my class mates wore torn and ragged clothing, and were not clean..
Segregation was part of the poverty-ridden society back then….. Discrimination was prevalent and this would bother me and as a child I knew it was wrong.
Miners didn’t have the luxury of full week’s pay at all times. The pinto beans became the main diet for the miner’s and their families. I truly believe the pinto bean kept some families from starvation. Coal mining in the twentieth century was very dangerous, not to mention the hard work. A lot of the mining was done by hand, safety for the coal miner was not an issue. I can remember miners getting killed quite frequently. The top would cave in and crush them. Coal operators would neglect safety for the better profits”.
And more: “Black lung was prevalent and most of the miners contracted this disease. Coal mining is dirty filthy job I saw my Father come home every day covered with coal dust. I made a vow that I would never go to a coal mines to work. Organized labor came into being, thanks to the United Mine Workers and John L. Lewis. This changed pay and mine conditions for the miner. Prior to the union, life was not easy. Folks had to “make do”, which in my opinion made stronger and better people. This life did me no harm it made me a better person who appreciates what I have today, I am sure others who have experienced this life can give testament to that. I made this web site for those who have experienced this life and can appreciate what it means to be a coal miner’s son or daughter….”.
No matter whether you are one of the granfathers who have “experienced” that hard style of life, once you learnt about it you cannot but wonder what is left of it in our virtual times.
Q. Roger, how important is nowadays the coal mining industry in your home-country and in the United States?
A. My country depends on coal mining and uses it extensively and depends on the production of coal. There are over 1,000 surface mines and more than 1,000 underground mines in the US. Coal generates more than half of the electricity used in a country where each person uses 3.8 tons of coal each year. U.S. coal production reached a record 1.133 billion tons in 2005, while consumption reached a record 1.128 billion tons. Electric generation accounted for 92 percent, or 1.309 billion tons, of all coal consumed in the United States.
Q. Can we say that it is still worth “digging” for coal?
A. I believe my first answers explains this question.
Q. In which way the working conditions of the American miners have changed since your fathers times?
A. The influence of the United Mine Workers UMWA made life better for all coal miners. More stringent safety regulations implemented has made it more safer for the American coal miner.
Q. Which is the memory of your father as a miner that you treasure most and what do you reckon would be the teaching to us all of those workers of long ago?
A. The resilience of the coal miner working under unsafe conditions providing for his family.
Q. The sardinian miners, in Italy, like many colleagues all over the world, are fighting to save their jobs, what could help them to win their day?
A. Simple, organized labor.
And a poem:
COAL MINERS PLIGHT
While I thank Roger for his time and, most of all, for the brilliant way he has chosen to honour the memory of his father and of the American miners of long ago, I cannot but remind this post’s readers that he his also the author of several e-books on miners’ and mining world.
One in particular, “The coal miner’s poems” is an extraordinary collection of poems wrote by different authors. From that very collection, with Roger’s permission I have reprinted the above work “Coal miners plight” by Floyd Jett. Many thanks to Floyd as well.
Follow this link to find an Italian translation of that same poem.
The original e-book instead is available for reading and free downloading at the following address:
Last but not least, please visit Roger’s site, which contains plenty of information about the lives of many good people who chose hardship as a mission in life. To all of them, as well as to the fights of the miners of the world, should go our thoughts. And our love.