Retired, Coal Miner, Texas State Employee’s Union Organizer
“One of the highest values that you could say about anybody in the family was, he’s a worker.”
James spent most of his adult life working in the West Virginia coal mines. “I also worked in steel; I worked in cotton, other things, too.”
He spent 13 or 14 years as an underground miner and another 8 or 9 working in factories prior to going to work as a union organizer, a job which he held for 20 years. Many of his family worked in the mines. His father and his mother’s immediate family were factory workers. He had many great uncles, grandfathers, and cousins who were miners and through his mother he “grew up with that culture as well as the blue collar factory culture.”
James talks here about the high value he places on work itself and, as a lifelong union worker, the essential role of unions.
I grew up in West Virginia. We moved around a fair amount because my dad was laid off several times. I jokingly called him an itinerant factory worker. He worked factories all his life, so we followed the work. My mother was born at Blair Mountain, at Freeze Fork coal camp. She lived there ‘til she was thirteen; her dad went to prison for a killing during a strike and the family moved back to Breathitt County, Kentucky. I was raised up in the Ohio River Counties and graduated from high school in a place called Ravenswood, West Virginia. My dad worked at the big Kaiser aluminum plant there.
Sometimes we didn’t see him much because he worked a swing shift, day shift for seven days, afternoon shift for seven days, a third shift for seven days. So two thirds of the time, he wasn’t around. He was working. But he kept us in a place to live, which meant that we weren’t necessarily poor. We weren’t rich at all; there were times when everything was short, including food till the next pay check, but it wasn’t being poor by the standards of where we were. It was just the way it was.
My whole family worked; you worked in the coal mines or the factories. For a while we were sort of part of the Appalachian diaspora coming north to Ohio and Michigan. Then we moved back to West Virginia. Everybody I knew worked in industrial jobs. I think my earliest assumption was that I would do that. I had a lot of aunts and uncles in my family; I got ten on my dad’s side and nine on my mother’s side. Nearly all of them worked in the factories. One uncle had gone to college. I was supposed to be the one who went to college in my family, initially. So that got pushed into my head that I would do something different.
It was always, you’re supposed to grow up and do better than your father was able to do, which was both an attack on the father and an expectation on the son. I went to college a short while at a tiny Baptist School and traveled to Michigan and worked for Pontiac and Ford Motors to earn money to pay for it. The school had a strong missionary sense to it and didn’t really fit me. I tried a couple of other schools but between having a family to support and contradictions with the institutions and what they taught I went back to work first in a series of factories in W.Va. and Ga. and then in 1973 I came home to the mountains and went to work in the coal mines.
I was raised in a trade union family. Our father was on strike sometimes and I knew about being a unionist, I knew that workers weren’t treated right. I think that was maybe the initial formation of my views. It was stuff like going to a lumber yard with my dad when I was about twelve years old and they were on strike, and they were out picketing. We’d driven thirty miles to get there. We were going to build something; I don’t even remember what, but he just got out of the car, walked over, talked with these guys for a few minutes, came back, got in the car and left. And I said, “Well what about the wood we were going to get?” He said, “If guys are on a picket line for their families or themselves, you don’t ever cross another man’s picket line.”
What do you think your parents were teaching you about money when you were growing up?
Really not anything. I mean, not directly, except that you work, get paid to support your family. I don’t remember any discussion of money. They just didn’t worry about; they wanted to feed the family and they wanted to be able to help, there were three sons, help us go to school. My perception of the role of money was and still pretty much continues to be, it’s absolutely necessary to have money to feed your family and keep a roof over their heads, but you work for those reasons. You don’t work for the money itself.
The idea of getting wealthy never entered my mind. What I worked for was maybe having a job without a having to compromise my values. I never did anything for the money, still haven’t. I have never taken a job — this’ll sound weird – I’ve never taken a job because of money or refused a job because of the money. There’ve been times when I had to feed my family with food stamps or commodities; I was on unemployment and so forth, and I took jobs because the survival of my family depended on it. So I worked every dirty job there is, but I’ve never refused a job because it didn’t pay enough money.
At the same time, I never took a job because it paid more than something else if I thought the job was putting me in a compromised position in terms of what I believed. I wouldn’t have worked in the coal mines if I had any knowledge at the time [about its impact on] the environment, but I didn’t know anything about all that stuff; the mines was just something that — it was just one of the options.
One of the highest values that you could say about anybody in the family was, he’s a worker. You took a job and you did the job and you did the job well, even if you were, like I was, doing union organizing. When the job was right, you didn’t screw off on the job, you did quality work. But you expected to be paid right and treated right and you’d go out on strike or slow down or work to rule if they didn’t want to do right .
Where do you think that strong ethical foundation came from for you?
I think it came from two places. One is my parents, definitely, and in different ways. My dad worked at anything he could get to support his family. My mother was a woman who was really, really smart, and never had the opportunity to do anything with that, but she passed on that love of knowledge. And she made sure there were books in the house, and people were talking to each other about things. But also I think it comes from that life and a strong working class culture. This is something I’m sort of passionate about: this bias that people seem to have toward Appalachians or “hillbillies,” as they call us. The lies. Like: they’re lazy, they’re violent, they won’t work for a job, they’re a bunch of drug addicts. What it’s about is absolute poverty and people’s inability to deal with it at this point. I think there’s a very strong core culture in Appalachia that is really hidden right now because of the conditions. The poverty. And there are just so few options for people.
I don’t know if you know about this, what happened in Charleston, in the Kanawha River. A storage tank full of chemical solution for cleaning coal burst and contaminated the water for about 175,000 people. My oldest son works for the Department of Highways in Charleston, and they’re not using the water that comes out of the tap. There doesn’t seem to be anybody willing to do anything about it, so that’s the conditions people are given, you can’t even drink the water. The coal camp I lived in for a period of time, water ran black out of the tap. The groundwater in the Southern coal fields been killed 75 years ago, probably.
So, you got these conditions. It’s like close to Third World conditions in some ways. Lot of hopelessness. And they’re not people we’re going to do anything to help, either. They’ve done all kinds of “we’re going to save the hillbillies,” but it’s all been, there’s somebody else controlling it. And Appalachians themselves not having a voice. We’ve got a lot of work still to do in the mountains. I’m getting into a rant here so I’m going to stop. (Laughs)
Tell me what you think is the biggest misperception that the rest of Americans have about Appalachia?
They think of us as stupid. And they think of us as violent. This is a developed view. When I was in school, one of the things I was exposed to there was a report that was done by the Cincinnati police department –this is in the sixties — that came to the conclusion that the Appalachian residents were inherently violent, incapable of feeling pain, and incapable of learning. And so the policy of the police department for that group of citizens was containment. Don’t do anything in the area they’re at, don’t let them get out of it. Now it is mostly black and many of the Appalachians had been able to basically become not Appalachians.
What does that mean, “become not Appalachians”?
Well, a lot of folks just sort of got rid of their accent and pretended they weren’t who they were and moved away from it or at least they tried to. That’s one of the things that white people get to do that black people don’t get to do, is pretend they’re something other than who they are.
There was a book, Yesterday’s People, I read in a Sociology class. I just hated the book. The main thing it had to say was that what was always wrong with Appalachian people and what needed to happen is that we become good middle class citizens of America. As if we weren’t.
Did you or your family have any particular feelings toward people in an economic class higher than yours?
I certainly did. I didn’t like them. I think my father didn’t, too. Basically, the “bosses class.” There were those who worked for a living and those who lived off the work that other people did. We’re talking about the people who never got their hands dirty and walked around the plant shouting orders at people with their engineer shirts on and stuff.
It’s like a group of people who consider themselves better than everybody because they had wealth. But, the reality was, they were in that position because they had been willing to kill people in the coal mines; they were the ruling class. And I think it’s gotten much worse. I think the level of avarice …. it’s all about the money. People don’t live lives, they live lifestyles. I think it has gotten a lot worse as people spend their lives trying to mimic wealth and accumulate symbols of wealth at cost of a sense of community that is based in mutual support and solidarity.
What do you think is a common misperception about coal mining?
Well again, misconception is the people are dumb and violent . Some people think, why would they work in the mines if they weren’t, you know? I worked with guys that had college degrees. People who were just totally skilled at their work and absorbed in it, who played music, produced art, were good loving parents. Even though I disagree with the use of coal based on what I now know now I still have to support the guys, particularly the guys who work underground. If people really want to stop the mining of coal they need to get serious about a transition that fair and just for miners.
Was there any point where you really started to hate it and wanted to get out?
No. I was ready to work ‘til I retired; I just got laid off.
What happened when you got laid off?
They shut the whole mine down. We came out on midnight shift, and they were standing at the portal handing out layoff slips. We’d had some layoffs and cutbacks, but we’d been told that things were pretty secure. That was a complete surprise. We mined metallurgical coal, and essentially two things happened. One is, they basically quit producing basic steel in the United States. Most of it was coming from Europe and then eventually from China and so forth. So they weren’t really producing steel like they used to, and then use of coal for producing steel went away.
They had an electric furnace then, I think. Yeah. Walked up, got a slip. People were angry. People were stunned. In the mining industry, people are used to cycles where, you know, you would get laid off and then you would get a job or eventually get called back or you’d go on strike and then come back in when the strike was over. Sort of a different thing, took place in ’86, when I got laid off. Which is awhile back now, but it seems like yesterday. The jobs starting going away and not coming back. Like we were all getting thrown away like we were of no use. It was one of the things that propelled me to be an organizer.
How did you end up in Texas?
I got an offer because my activity in the mines was known to a lot of people. The offer came from Texas State Employees Union/CWA Local 6186. I eventually became the assistant organizing coordinator for the local. I never worked for a national union, I always worked for locals. My primary work was organizing people in the union and training young organizers how to organize.
Another big concern for me is, young people have no education about labor. There is nothing that’s taught in the schools about labor unions. It’s a part of history that is extremely important, the only voice that working people have had for ages, and we got to have a labor movement. We don’t have a labor movement, any progressive change in the country’s impossible. It’s history that’s hidden and denied. So that makes it difficult. But once you start talking to people, people are interested. There have been polls where they’ve said that a majority of people, when asked if they would like to join a union, just given a simple question, have said, Yes, if I could, I would.
Do you think this history is hidden deliberately?
Yes. I don’t think it’s any great conspiracy, but I think the people who run things control a lot more than the economy. They also control education and popular culture. More and more young people are being taught one side of the story. But many are not accepting and are looking for the truth.
I think we have a culture, a society that’s based on profit and money. And that makes it destructive, because its number one priority is, how do I make the most money? If that’s getting rid of jobs, if that’s working unsafely, if it’s ripping off money for my personal use to the point that other people can’t make a living. The gap between the top and the bottom is the result of the theft of wealth by people who are already wealth: I think we’re in an unsustainable society that needs to change. I view myself as a dyed-in-the-wool socialist because of that. I think money cannot mean society. It has to be about people.
Do you think we’re going to see that change in our lifetime?
Not likely. But I see a lot of young people now getting involved. I think we just need to keep nurturing that. It’s a generational struggle. People fought for a different kind of way to live for a long time. Anne Braden said that you want to be a part of what was called in the civil rights movement the beloved community; you want to be a part of the struggle for a better way to live. Then she said, you won’t live to see the results, but you want to be a part of it. And that’s basically how you do it.
Do you see signs of hope?
Yes. I see mostly the young people. And people grasping for answers. There’s a lot of, how do we do this? You can’t have a world without struggle; struggle is essential. Without struggle, the same views and the same people will continue to rule. If we established the world we wanted, at some point, somebody would need to change that. Struggle to make things better for folks is always there. It’s the way we are able to live more human lives.