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A man speaks to the crowd at a United for Coal event in Pikeville, Ky., on Oct. 13.
Elizabeth Thompson/Appalachian News-Express
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Date published: 10/21/2012
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.--Drive through the coalfields of Central Appalachia, and signs of the siege are everywhere.
Highway billboards announce entry to "Obama's No Job Zone," while decals on pickup truck windows show a spikey-haired boy peeing on the president's name.
"Stop the War on Coal," yard signs demand. "Fire Obama."
Only a few generations ago, coal miners were literally at war with their employers, spilling and shedding blood on West Virginia's Blair Mountain in a historic battle for union representation and fair treatment.
Today, their descendants are allies in a carefully choreographed rhetorical war playing out across eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and all of West Virginia. It's fueled by a single, unrelenting message that they now face a common enemy--the federal government--that has decided that coal is no longer king, or even noble.
Blame the president, the script goes. Blame the Environmental Protection Agency. And now that it's election season, blame all incumbent politicians--even those who have spent their careers in a delicate dance, trying to make mines safer while allowing their operators to prosper.
The war on coal is a sound bite and a headline, perpetuated by pundits, power companies and public relations consultants who have crafted a neat label for a complex set of realities, one that compels people to choose sides.
It's easier to call the geologic, market and environmental forces reshaping coal--cheap natural gas, harder-to-mine coal seams, slowing economies--some kind of political or cultural "war" than to acknowledge the world is changing, and leaving some people behind.
War, after all, demands victims. And in this case, it seems, victims demand a war.
Coal helped build America. It powered steam engines on railroads that opened up the West. It fueled homes and factories. It made a lot of people rich and others comfortable. By the early 1900s, more than 700,000 men and boys worked in the nation's mines, many for coal barons offering opportunity and brutality in equal measure.
The miners who resisted exploitation helped shape the principles of modern labor law: Pay by the hour. A week that lasts five days, not seven. Black men and white men paid the same.