Professor Mike Clark liked to surprise his class by occasionally serving his blend of rich roasted Columbian coffee and pastries to his 11 o’clock class. He used these periods to deliver an informal discussion-style lecture to his class of political science honors students.
Today, as the coffee was being served, he said, “I want to add another problem facing the President-elect. First, let me clearly state I am not anti-union. I grew up in a coal mining and small mill town in Western Pennsylvania. My grandfather was a coal miner who died from black lung in his early ’50s.
“Without the sacrifices made by both early union leaders and their followers, I don’t think the nation could have developed into the No. 1 economic power in the world. The excesses of the early industrialists make for incredible reading today. A lot of the cruelty imposed on people living in ‘company towns,’ especially by the coal and iron capitalists, is lost in the bits and pieces of the era that makes its way into our written history that is readily available to students like you.
“A few examples that I know from listening to people I visited in the remains of the old company towns in Appalachia. This particular town was built and operated by the coal magnates of the early 20th century. It was populated by new immigrants who debarked from the long voyage across the Atlantic and were immediately loaded on railroad cars for the short journey to ‘company towns’ in the coal country of Appalachia. The houses were newly built, unpainted, and with none of today’s landscaping to soften the harshness of dirt streets lined with side-by-side hastily built houses.
“The miners were paid with company script that was only accepted in the company store. Voting in elections was controlled. The first miner to vote for Democrats was thrown down the mineshaft. The mine owners had their own law enforcement called the ‘Coal and Iron Police.’ In one mining area in West Virginia, the United States Air Force bombed a large group of miners to control a labor demonstration that the state police was not able to break up. Were unions necessary to protect the rights and lives of the workers? Is there any doubt? What is the role of unions today? Does that role extend to teachers and civil servants? I will talk about those subjects at our next coffee session. In the meantime, think how unions could possibly be a problem today for our President-elect.”
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