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English on Woodrum, _"Everybody was Black down There"_ [Ala. coalfields]

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  • Amos J Wright
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      Subject: English on Woodrum, _"Everybody was Black down There"_

      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-Southern-Industry@... (June, 2007)

      Robert H. Woodrum. _"Everybody Was Black down There:" Race and
      Industrial Change in the Alabama Coalfields_. Politics and Culture in
      the Twentieth-Century South Series. Athens and London: University of
      Georgia Press, 2007. xiv + 304 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography,
      index. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-2879-9.

      Reviewed for H-Southern-Industry by Beth English, Woodrow
      Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.

      Understanding Race, Class, and Industrial Change in Southern Coal Mining

      In January 2006, a coal-mine explosion in Sago, West Virginia, trapped
      thirteen miners. The progress of rescue operations riveted the nation
      for days and ended with only one of the miners surviving. This was the
      deadliest mine disaster in the United States since an explosion in late
      September 2001 took the lives of thirteen miners in Brookwood, Alabama.
      Although the rapid progression of domestic and international events in
      the weeks following the terrorist attacks of September 11 pushed the
      Brookwood tragedy to the margins of national media coverage, it remained
      in the forefront of Robert Woodrum's mind as he wrote _"Everybody Was
      Black down There:" Race and Industrial Change in the Alabama
      Coalfields_. Woodrum opens and closes his narrative about Alabama's coal
      mining industry from the New Deal to the close of the twentieth century
      with personal insights about the Brookwood disaster. In the pages
      between, he adeptly analyzes the intersections of race, class, labor
      policy, technological change, and globalization in what has historically
      been not only one of the most dangerous industries in the United States,
      but also one of the most studied.

      On the surface Woodrum tells a familiar story. Coal mining, a sick
      industry in the 1920s that is further undermined by the Great
      Depression, experiences a short-term revival during World War II before
      a decline sets in at mid-century and gathers speed as the century ends.
      Mines curtail output or close completely as oil, gas, diesel, and
      hydroelectric power replace coal as a fuel source, while new mining
      techniques and mechanization eliminate jobs. Critics of organized labor
      heap blame on the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) for raising
      wages, driving up costs with demands for stringent safety standards, and
      including other provisions in union contracts that make Alabama coal
      uncompetitive in regional and national markets. Global coal imports at
      the end of the century squeeze the Alabama industry further. Pressure to
      cut costs undermines safety standards, and fly-by-night mine operators
      ignore wage, seniority, healthcare, and pension provisions in union
      agreements. Miners all the while experience mass layoffs and struggle to
      find other work, mining communities are economically devastated, UMWA
      membership losses are substantial, and the union can do little for the
      hard-hit miners. Alabama coal miners at the turn of the century, Woodrum
      concludes, "found themselves caught up in a system of capital mobility
      that allowed coal companies and consumers to look outside the region and
      country to satisfy their demands" (p. 215).

      By placing race at the center of his analysis, however, Woodrum adds a
      new twist to the story of job loss, community abandonment, and
      deindustrialization. Moreover, his focus on the decline of a southern
      industry with a strong, militant union tradition contributes to an
      emerging literature on the modern South that eschews the analytical
      framework of regional exceptionalism, and instead highlights the ways in
      which economic change and patterns of unionism in the region are more
      akin to the Rust Belt North than the Sun Belt South. Drawing these
      various approaches together, Woodrum argues convincingly that the UMWA's
      attempts during the final decades of the twentieth century to maintain
      jobs, benefits, and safety standards in the mines in the face of global
      competition were rooted in choices, especially relating to race, made by
      the union many years before. Woodrum bases his study on an impressive
      array of manuscript and archival sources, company and union records,
      government documents, interviews, and oral histories. What emerges is a
      thought-provoking work worthy of a wide audience.

      Woodrum explores an above ground/below ground split in Alabama's
      coalfields, a divide he utilizes to underpin his fresh look at the old
      debate about the extent and consequences of white working-class racism.
      The biracial workforce of the southern coal mining industry in the early
      twentieth century set it apart from other southern industries. In the
      steel and iron industries, whites held most skilled and semi-skilled
      jobs, and in textiles the workforce was nearly all white until late in
      the twentieth century. The strong union presence in southern coalfields,
      too, set the industry apart from other major industries in the region
      that in some cases remained open shop strongholds through much of the
      twentieth century. In Alabama's coalfields, black miners outnumbered
      their white counterparts by the 1930s, and were integral in reviving the
      UMWA, which had been moribund in the state since a failed 1921 strike.
      While segregated mining camps were the norm above ground, black and
      white miners produced coal in a cooperative underground milieu. Here,
      commonalities of working underground in a dangerous occupation forged
      bonds of solidarity among them, and often found an institutional outlet
      in the biracial unionism of the UMWA.

      Even though the men--black and white--who labored in the coalfields of
      Alabama's Birmingham District were miners and had an identity as such,
      how they defined themselves and their interests changed depending on
      spatial, social, and temporal context. Identity formation and racial
      cooperation, Woodrum argues, did not occur in a vacuum and did not
      remain static over time. While the nature of the job may have muted some
      racial differences and made everybody "black down there," this was not
      necessarily so above ground in the mining camps, the union hall, or even
      in the man-cars that transported the miners between the surface and
      their underground workplaces. Here, the color line regularly remained
      entrenched. Interracial cooperation and the UMWA's race-related policies
      were therefore ultimately "circumscribed by the wider world of the
      Birmingham District" (p. 6).

      Woodrum presents a complex picture of race, class, and working-class
      identity, wherein interracial solidarity among the rank and file and the
      union's commitment to a progressive social agenda ebbed and flowed.
      Through the Depression years of the 1930s and the early years of World
      War II, UMWA leaders publicly voiced a commitment to using the union as
      a vehicle for economic and social advancement for both its white and
      black members. UMWA membership provided black miners with a mechanism to
      address on-the-job grievances and arbitrary treatment by white
      supervisors, as well as leadership opportunities within union locals and
      in the national union bureaucracy. Still, in Alabama where black miners
      outnumbered whites, the union pursued a "gradualist" approach to race
      relations and did not directly confront white supremacy within its own
      ranks or in the broader society. Whites typically served in the top
      positions of local unions and voluntary separation remained the norm at
      integrated union meetings. "You had a certain liberalism because we were
      all accepted as union," recalled one black miner quoted by Woodrum, "not
      accepted as union brothers, but as union members" (p. 114).

      By the end of World War II and into the racially charged decades of the
      1950s and 1960s, however, the UMWA remained largely silent on issues of
      race both above and below ground. At a time when the social and
      political terrains of the South began the most profound shifts since
      Reconstruction, the UMWA's commitment to biracialism and its black
      membership diminished significantly. Woodrum explores the thorny issue
      of Ku Klux Klan membership as an example. Rather than risk a revolt
      among its southern white rank and file by enforcing the UMWA's
      prohibition against membership in the Klan, the union's national
      leadership left it up to Alabama's leaders to determine policy on this
      issue. For the union's white leaders, as well as many of its white rank
      and file, race appears to have trumped class in the name of
      institutional stability.

      Below ground, the UMWA's commitment to the preservation of the union and
      union jobs also trumped a commitment to its black members. As the demand
      for coal dropped and the industry's postwar contraction became
      increasingly acute in the five years following World War II, the union
      focused its efforts not only on saving jobs, but also on creating a
      pension and healthcare fund for its members. In 1950, the UMWA forged a
      historic agreement with coal operators establishing such a fund, which
      was financed by a tax levied on mine output. In return for de facto
      control over the fund and in the hopes of boosting production so that
      more coal could be taxed for the pension and healthcare fund, the UMUA
      agreed to give a free hand to coal operators' efforts to modernize
      operations, introduce new technologies, and make the industry more
      competitive. But as Woodrum explains, in practice this translated to a
      profound whitening of the mining workforce. By 1960, 70 percent of black
      miners in Alabama had lost their jobs. Management retained its
      prerogatives over hiring and promotion, and continued the traditional
      practice of reserving for whites jobs requiring the operation of
      machines. White rank-and-file coal miners for their part balked at UMWA
      attempts to secure traditionally white-held positions for black members,
      and the union acquiesced to the status quo. Within the context of
      deindustrialization and potential job loss, race again mitigated a wider
      class-based solidarity.

      By the 1970s, when African Americans constituted only 11 percent of
      Alabama's coal miners, the UMWA had become, like many "old" industrial
      unions, conservative and member-centered. The long-term implications of
      the UMWA's race-related policies, protectionist rhetoric, and decisions
      to close ranks in order to protect the jobs of its mostly white rank and
      file were thrown into high relief when the union attempted to boycott
      the importation of coal from South Africa. The union found itself unable
      to sustain meaningful inter-union cooperation with Mobile's longshoremen
      whose job it was to unload the coal at port, or to forge coalitions with
      activists opposed to issues ranging from apartheid, to environmental
      degradation, to poor working conditions in the global mining industry.
      Here Woodrum points to lessons to be learned about both the past and
      present. His study is therefore not only an important read for those
      seeking a better understanding of race and industrial change in the
      past, but also for workers, unions, and community activists seeking a
      way forward in the modern era of global production and trade.


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