COAL RUN, Ky.—Sidney Coal Co. President Charlie Bearse was expressing an opinion that many in these mountains secretly share. Problem was, he put that opinion in writing.
“It is common knowledge that the work ethic of the Eastern Kentucky worker has declined from where it once was,” Bearse wrote to the state mining board. Bad attitudes and drug abuse, he argued, were affecting attendance, “and, ultimately, productivity.”
Bearse’s appeal to the board: Relax an English-only policy in the mines so he could bring in Hispanic workers.
U.S. companies are constantly complaining they need migrant workers to do the low-paying, menial tasks Americans just won’t. But at $18 an hour and up, plus benefits, these are some of Appalachia’s best jobs.
Here in Hatfield-McCoy country—where Hispanics make up less than 1 percent of most counties’ populations—Bearse’s comments were fighting words.
“They bring Mexicans in here, they’ll get ‘em killed,” disabled miner Homer Black said over the rumble at the company’s massive coal preparation plant. “These people ain’t going to put up with it.”
Added 23-year-old Shannon Gibson, who recently took the state test for the “green card” that would allow him to work underground: “They’re just looking for more workers who’ll work cheaper and work longer.”
Bearse has acknowledged that his choice of words could have been better. And his timing couldn’t have been worse.
“For all kinds of reasons, the labor pool is smaller,” said Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor.
But United Mine Workers union organizer Tim Miller said that’s nonsense, calling the purported miner shortage, “the biggest farce out there right now.”
In the past two years, the state of Kentucky has issued nearly 13,000 “green cards”—inexperienced miner’s work permits. During a recent week, Kentucky labor officials counted 7,187 people actively seeking coal mining work, 5,390 of whom claimed prior mining experience. There were another 1,146 people actively seeking mine employment in the three coal counties just across the West Virginia border.
Miller, one of the mining board’s seven members, said there are 1,400 laid-off union miners in western Kentucky alone who could go to work today. He echoed the sentiments of many who believe the industry is simply hoping to exploit Hispanics and drive down wages.
“They want people who don’t have the ability to protect themselves,” Miller said.
“If they can flood the market with Hispanic workers, if they can get away with paying a guy $8 an hour, the next guy will be willing to work for $7.”