Carbon County, USA

I wrote a book about mining coal and the United Mine Workers in Utah and the West. It came out this year with U of U Press, and studies changes in the industry and the union from 1933 to 1985.

Carbon County, USA studies unions in western coal and asks the question, “What the hell ever happened to the labor movement?” If you are interested in social justice, in tilting the scales of power back towards ordinary people, then this book is for you. It does not have all the answers, but it does provide an independent, critical angle that I believe can help us understand the great successes – and frustrations – of our predecessors.

The unions that we’ve had have accomplished great things. But they have also been struggling, and in most instances declining, for about forty years. While once over 90% of coal miners were members of a union, today nonunion mining dominates the industry. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was not only the country’s pioneering industrial labor union – it also provided the organizational model for the CIO unions it helped to jumpstart. As an “indicator species” of power in American workplaces, the UMWA story tells us much about where we’ve been as a country. It can also tell us much about where we might be able to take things if we wanted.

There are places called “Carbon County” in many states that have all had similar histories based on coal, and have had similar trajectories as that industry has boomed and busted over the years. Beyond that I think it’s possible to imagine that that all of us are living in place you could call “Carbon County, USA.” We’ve all got these heroic past traditions of ordinary people coming together to change the world and improve their lives and communities, through things like unions, the UMWA, the CIO, the civil rights and feminist movements. Yet today, conversations about labor movements often seem more like romantic nostalgia than any kind of tangible, realistic search for practical solutions. What happened to those worlds, and why did they change?

Some people might not be comfortable with the idea of coal mining for environmental reasons. I’d like to challenge them to think about our collective “Carbon County” past as something we can be proud of, and something we ought to get to know. Coal people jump started the labor movement in this country, and for a long time were thought of as heroes by anyone considering themselves at all “liberal” in the political sense. I’d like to remind people of that, and challenge folks to connect with others of different backgrounds and learn to respect and listen to them.

Those of the New Deal labor movement, and their kids who tried to revive it in the seventies and eighties when it was falling apart, have always been my heroes. I wrote this book so people of my generation could learn about the times when people stood up for themselves on the job and put an end to being taken advantage of. I also wrote a lot about people who tried that and failed, because their experiences are every bit as important. You got to know what it means to get in there and fight and loose before you can talk at all soberly about ways you might be able to stand up for yourself.

I want people to get ideas from this book and get inspired by it. But I also understand that the UMWA and many other unions were pretty brittle and conflicted by the late 60s. I’m very sympathetic to everyone who fell through the cracks in union models, and I’ve tried to treat all parties on all sides of the conflicts in this book with respect.

In its pages, Carbon County USA starts out with trying to understand the heyday of the New Deal era UMWA, praising its strengths while critically evaluating limitations that would grow into greater problems with time. Union bureaucratization, corruption, and complex benefit-fund management’s implications are then situated within the context of coal’s decline in the fifites and sixties. The second section picks up again with a detailed, comparative examination of increasingly contentious organizing drives at newer, nonunion prioperties as they opened up in Utah, Arizona, and Wyoming in the late sixties and early seventies. It then examines western experiences with the Black Lung rebellion and the Miners for Democracy reform movement. The third and final section examines the implications of identity for labor activists whose careers and organizational affiliations transcended “New Left” and “Old Left” worlds. Specifically, it asks how local Chicano activists, the Lady Miners of Utah, and a younger generation of miners who came of age during the great (and ungreat) strikes of the seventies-eighties energy boom can all give us insight into what mining and unions came to mean for different groups of people.

Perhaps, the only thing that can save this country is if we get a labor movement going again. Perhaps, that’s not just the only possible force that could reduce economic inequality and money’s political influence — but it’s also the only force that could decentralize and broaden power in ways that expand and stabilize democracy. The new labor movement will probably not look exactly like the old one . . . but we do need to know what the past was and what it struggled with if we are going to improve upon its record.

If you would like to help this project succed, one of the most helpful things you can do is to leave a review on its Amazon page. Reviews help sales, and they also help me gauge what kind of an impact this book has had, what its shortcomings might be, and how to improve as a writer and an author. Conducting a detailed, community level study of a major labor organization’s evolution over a fifty year period of time has been a work of substantial effort. I’m very interested to find out what about this story I’ve managed to get right, and where else I could be looking to fill in gaps I might have missed.

If you haven’t got a copy yet, you can order one direct from the University of Utah Press, or support a small business by ordering through your favorite local bookstore. Moab’s Back of Beyond Books has been very supportive of this project and would be happy to get a copy moving your way.

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