Many people have lost their jobs and homes in the mountains of West Virginia.
The last volley on top of Blair Mountain in 1921 ushered in a relative truce of sorts between the coal miners and the mine owners. With the exception of the assassination of Sid Hatfield in 1921 and the brutal slaying of Eddie York in 1993 there was a sort of hush that setteled over the hills of Southern West Virgnia. Occasionally gunfire and fights would break out, but the off-the-charts violence that had characterized Logan and Mingo Counties had been dialed down a notch.
The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, along with related legislation coming out of Washington, saw the unions gather strength both in numbers and power. Along with the growth of the union, came a sort of prosperity for miners and their families. While life in the West Virginia coalfields had never been easy, the 50s and 60s saw communities growing and in a fashion flourishing. Electricity came to the valleys as did indoor plumbing, better construction of the miner’s homes and each yard at at least one – and often two – automobiles sitting in the driveway. Blair WV reached it’s pinnacle of population during this time when 4500 people called the base of Blair Mountain home.
During the 70s, growth and prosperity finally plateaued. While life still wasn’t easy, it was easier than many of the residents could remember it. It was also easier than their parents and grandparents had gotten accustomed to.
And then, roaring out of Mingo County like a slurry pond that had suddenly broken it’s earthen dam, Don Blankenship stepped foot on the stage of coal mining country.
Blankenship was born in Stopover, Kentucky and raised in Delorme, West Virginia. His father was a Korean War veteran and his mother a member of the McCoy family of Hatfield and McCoy infamy. Soon after Blankenship was born his parents divorced. Taking her divorce settlement money, Blankenship’s mother opened a convenience store and gas station in Delorme.
Three years after graduating from Matewan High School, Blankenship earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Marshall University in 1972 where he was the recipient of Marshall University’s “Most Distinguished Alumni” award and inducted into the Lewis College of Business Hall of Fame in 1999.
While working as an accountant for the Keebler Company in Macon, Georgia, Blankenship got a call to come work for a Massey subsidiary, Rawl Sales and Processing Company. Climbing the corporate ladder, Blankenship was promoted to president of Massey Coal Services, Inc. (1989–1991), then president and chief Operating Officer from 1990 to 1991.
Under Blankenship’s greed and desire for total control Massey began, in 1984, a push to break the union along the West Virginia and Kentucky border. But union miners refused to give away their high wages, pensions, benefits, and independence without a struggle. Compelled by the blood their ancestors spilled to give them their rights, and in solidarity with South Africans working in slave conditions in Massey mines across the globe, union miners struggled intensely for two and a half years against company goons, amoral scabs, and a state police force which might as well have been on king coal’s payroll.
Massey’s union busting forced other company’s to break their unions to stay competitive. When the union was thriving, southern West Virginia was modestly prosperous. But thanks to Blankenship and Massey, the money that stayed in the form of high wages and pensions was pulled out of the area and into the pockets of New York stockholders.
Blankenship was an active participant in corrupt West Virginia politics. While Blankenship, who grew up beside the railroad tracks in a tiny border town along the Tug River always claimed to have a different perspective that fueled his desire for change in West Virginia, the only true perspective that Blankenship had was a desire to line his own pockets – and the pockets of his friends. Throwing away the opportunity to be a hero to his native West Virginia, Blankenship instead rode to riches on the backs of coal miners who had no options in the valley of despair.
His greed reached it’s zenith when groundwater pollution from coal slurry injection by Massey Energy, began contaminating wells around Blankenship's home. With company money Blankenship paid to build a water line to his home from a neighboring town and did not offer to provide uncontaminated water to any of his neighbors.
Blankenship’s disregard for the safety of his workers was well known throughout the region. Foreshadowing the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster where 29 miners were killed, Blankenship wrote a memo in 2005 to employees telling them that maximizing coal production was more important than spending time constructing things like support beams or ventilation shafts:
“If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal.”
On December 8, 2011, news outlets reported that Don Blankenship had incorporated a coal company in Kentucky named McCoy Coal Group. Kentucky Energy and Environment spokesman Dick Brown indicated McCoy had yet to seek mining permits. The United Mine Workers of America calls his formation of a new coal company "a travesty," and says Blankenship belonged in jail.
With the union busting behavior of Blankenship and his friends, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) saw their membership decline from over 100,000 to just barely 15,000. At the cost of lives, a community and health, a down home boy who had the chance to do good, raped and pillaged the land of his fathers and did it all without the first trace of remorse.