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The myth of the “pro-coal” president: The historical truth of government’s alliance with coal companies against miners

Both during his campaign and his presidency thus far, Donald Trump has repeatedly used coal miners as a sort of rhetorical prop. To him, the coal miner represents the disenchanted everyman he claims to speak for: a struggling American worker whose livelihood has been stripped away by the liberal establishment in the name of climate change and clean energy. Many of his most extreme moves last year, such as withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and taking aim at Obama’s Clean Power Plan, have been done supposedly in the name of “putting coal miners back to work.”

The Trump administration’s narrative of job-killing environmental regulations ignores the fact that the coal industry has been declining for decades. Many of the reasons are economic, such as the cheapening of natural gas. Coal mining processes have also largely shifted from labor-intensive underground mining to technology-intensive mountaintop removal. But as Trump continues to attack what he calls “the war on coal,” he has become increasingly popular with big coal executives such as Bob Murray of Murray Energy.

Murray was present, applauding in the audience, when Trump signed an executive order mandating a full-scale reconsideration of Obama’s Clean Power Plan by the EPA last March. Photos of the occasion show Trump surrounded by a cohort of coal miners. Clearly, the miners were brought in for the photo op to further paint Trump’s deregulation agenda as good for workers. A consideration of the history of coal miners, coal companies and the federal government leading up to this moment, however, makes these photos seem much darker, even downright sinister.

Class War in Coal Country

American coal companies have a long and bloody tradition of suppressing the rights of miners to unionize and to work in fair, safe conditions. When these conflicts have arisen, companies have often received support from politicians, law enforcement and even armed forces. Perhaps the most legendary example of such a conflict was the Battle of Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia in 1921. During this week long armed confrontation, President Warren Harding sent federal troops to aid the Stone Mountain Coal Company in squashing the uprising miners.

The Battle of Blair Mountain was one of a series of violent clashes known as the “Coal Wars,” lasting roughly from 1890 to 1930. Of the over twenty conflicts during this period, most stemmed from coal company attempts to halt the growing tide of miner unionization.

Miners and their families lived and worked in an exceptionally deadly environment. Uncontrolled explosions, mineshaft collapses and work-related diseases like black lung made for high mortality rates among miners. Polluted air and water in mining areas often killed the spouses and children of miners as well. Because miners were often paid their wages in company scrip—a sort of voucher that could only be exchanged for marked-up goods at company stores— and had to buy their own tools, poverty was endemic among mining families. The United Mine Workers (UMW) had successfully organized workers around these issues in several states by 1920, despite heavy company repression.

When the UMW began organizing in the town of Matewan, West Virginia in 1920, Baldwin-Felt agents hired by the Stone Mountain Mining Company evicted union members from their homes. This led to a much-mythologized standoff in which the town’s union-sympathetic sheriff and two miners were killed. Miners then began to plan a mass armed campaign through Logan County and Mingo County to assert their union rights with force.

The Battle of Blair Mountain

On August 25th, 1921, 10,000 armed miners marched through Logan County until they reached Blair Mountain, where anti-union county sheriff Don Chafin had assembled his own forces. Chafin had the financial support of the Logan County Coal Operators Association and, eventually, the West Virginia National Guard and the federal troops sent by President Harding. Still, the miners were able to hold their ground until September 2nd. Only 985 miners of the 10,000 participants were indicted.

The Battle of Blair Mountain is often referred to as the largest labor uprising in United States history. Though the miners were initially defeated, the battle served as a galvanizing moment and many now believe that it strengthened organized labor in West Virginia in the long run.

What does a “pro-coal” president mean for miners?

The Battle of Blair Mountain undoubtedly demonstrates the power of worker solidarity but also offers up sobering lessons about the willingness of government to intervene on the side of capital and business. Despite years of lip service to the well–being of coal miners, Trump’s actions have so far followed this same pattern. Many of his “pro-coal reforms” have chipped away at the health and safety regulations that generations of mine organizers have fought for.

Before the now-infamous EPA executive order photos, Trump set up another photo op with miners when he signed a bill repealing the Office of Surface Mining’s Stream Protection Rule. The bill reversed an Obama-era regulation that prevented mining companies from contaminating waterways with waste. In other words, Trump invited miners to stand smiling behind him while he put the very water sources that their communities use at risk.

Similarly, the Trump Administration has prompted the Mine Safety and Health Administration to reconsider regulations meant to limit miners’ exposure to the coal dust and chemicals that cause black lung. Far from ailments of the past, black lung and respiratory cancers are still serious risks that miners face. Attorney Tony Oppegard, who has represented miners in many mine safety cases in recent years, has openly accused Trump of threatening miners’ health to strengthen his relationship with powerful coal executives. “I don’t think the Trump administration has coal miners’ best interests at heart,” said Oppegard in an interview with Politico. “They’re aligned with coal mine operators as opposed to miners, and the only reasons they would want to reopen these rules or revisit these rules are to weaken them.”

All of Trump’s pontificating about “ending the war on coal” to “put coal miners back to work” misses the fact that hazardous jobs and polluted environments won’t help miners and their families. Deregulation in such dangerous industries often increases profits for coal companies at the expense of coal miner’s lives. “Jobs” alone weren’t enough for the miners who fought in the Battle of Blair Mountain—they risked their employment to fight for safe jobs, better conditions, and fair treatment for themselves and their families.

The history of the Coal Wars reminds us that politicians who are so blatantly allied with coal companies are generally against the interests of workers. The notorious class struggle in the coal industry is far from over and will likely hit a fever pitch again under the Trump Administration. Coal miners, now perhaps more than ever, need the mass support of people who actually care about their wellbeing, health and safety.

Kelly Miller will graduate from The Evergreen State College this spring.


An Old Coal Miner’s Reality Principle—

Sixteen Tons and deeper in debt  

Some people say a man is made outta mud

A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood

Muscle and blood and skin and bones

A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong


You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt

Saint Peter, don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go

I owe my soul to the company store


I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine

I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine

I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal

And the straw boss said “well, bless my soul”


You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt

Saint Peter, don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go

I owe my soul to the company store


I was born one mornin’, it was drizzlin’ rain

Fightin’ and trouble are my middle name

I was raised in the canebrake by an ol’ mama lion

Can’t no high-toned woman make me walk the line


You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt

Saint Peter, don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go

I owe my soul to the company store


If you see me comin’, better step aside

A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died

One fist of iron, the other of steel

If the right one don’t get you, then the left one will


You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt

Saint Peter, don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go

I owe my soul To the company store

“16 Tons” was written by Merle Travis at the request of Capitol Records, who wanted some “folksy” songs in a hurry.  Travis immediately wrote three songs about life in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky’s coal mines, where his father worked. One was Dark As A Dungeon, the other, Sixteen Tons. [From the ever-lovin’ internet on the archive blog at]


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