Strike finds many coal miners well off by past standards

Our living conditions are real high up here. I've got two new cars, a swimming pool, and a nice home. I enjoy life. I've got everything everybody else has. I send my kids to private school, and I have a little girl in the second grade who speaks French."

The speaker is not the vice-president of a bank, nor the owner of a fancy restaurant.

He is a coal miner.

Although this particular miner, interviewed during a visit to West Virginia just before the current strike began, lives in the more affluent northern end of the state and his wife has a well-paying job, his experience is not atypical of many coal miners in this region.

In fact, most union miners live well above the subsistence levels of their neighbors in the valleys and back-country hills of this mountainous state. They may not all have fancy homes or daughters who speak French, but neither are they the hollow-eyed children of the ungenerous hills.

The common stereotype of Appalachian coal miners as gritty, undernourished laborers with permanently stained faces living in shabby, sagging houses fits fewer and fewer of the breed as time, and new union contracts, go by.

Down here, among the men and women walking the picket lines in front of yawning, empty mine shafts, such stereotypes are greatly resented, as are the national news media, which are thought to perpetuate them.

Complains one miner: Newspaper, magazine, and TV reporters tend to seek out interviews "in the beer joints around Cabin Creek," a depressed area near Charleston, the capital --

This miner and others here claim that folks who hang around taverns may be more readily accessible to the press, but they hardly represent the hard-working , God-fearing, rank-and-file miner of West Virginia. Asked where he hangs out, miner Pat Stanton -- sitting in an impromptu mess hall deep in the earth just before the strike -- drawled. "I hang out at home; that's where I belong."

Miners and coal company officials also complain that the common image of miners living in tar-paper shacks with sallow-skinned children playing next to a scratching dog is far from typical.

Not that it's hard to find such scenes driving around the twisting back roads of the West Virginia coalfields -- especially in the southern end of the state, with its higher unemployment rate and greater ingrown poverty.

But many miners argue that these hovels, which were once the only accommodations in the deeply hated "company towns," have frequently been abandoned by working miners and now are filled with unemployed men and women who may never have seen the inside of a mine.

Housing conditions in other parts of the state have greatly improved in the 50 years since the subhuman living conditions of depression-era coal miners first affronted the nation's social conscience. Although efforts to rehabilitate coal-camp housing have failed, and efforts to provide more suitable housing have been plagued by recession, job layoffs, and high mortgage rates, the housing picture is much less dismal than it once was.

One obvious reason is the added purchasing power provided by successive union contracts.

The last such contract enabled a miner working overtime to make as much as $ 30,000 a year. And until the strike miners were working plenty of overtime.

What do miners do with such sums of money?

"I just ordered a new Jeep," one miner remarked casually to a supervisor just days before the union rank and file threw a proposed contract back at its negotiators.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to buy is land on which to build. Level land is almost nonexistent here, and more than half the acreage that is available is owned by corporations. This puts housing at a premium and often forces miners to live in trailers or on land leased from the corporations.

But in the northern counties and some communities in and around Charleston, many miners do own land.

"I live in Beckley, one of the nicest towns in this state, and I have a son at the University of Miami," remarks Harold Pendry, a miner who works for Westmoreland Coal Company. "Ninety to 95 percent of the members of my local own their own houses and the land they sit on. Most all of them have two cars, boats, and motorcycles."

One effect of all this ownership is that many miners may be overextended.

"Even though miners do have extra money, and housing isn't often a big-ticket item for them, they spend a lot of money on cars, trucks, boats, vacations, hunting and fishing gear," observes one mining company spokesman. "You get a couple of cars or a boat on time, and the bills can start to add up real quick."

Does this mean that financial pressures might force miners to abandon their strike?

"Don't ever underestimate the staying power of an Appalachian coal miner," this spokesman says. "If it is a matter of principle with them, something they believe in, they'll go down to eating roots if they have to. But they won't have to, because they can always collect food stamps."

The common perception among miners here that the current contract jeopardizes the survival of their union by permitting coal operators to buy and market nonunion coal without penalty may, indeed, inspire them to use food stamps and let their overdue payments pile up.

Asked what a projected six-month walkout would do to his fellow miners, one striker put it this way:

"Can we go six months without really hurting? No. Twenty percent of the people will be badly hurt in six weeks. There's no use kidding about that. But that doesn't mean the coal companies are just going to come in here and rule over us. I'm ready to stay out as long as it takes."

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