Want to know why West Virginia’s politics turned from blue to red?
If you listen to many who’ve watched the state’s evolution, seeds of the change from primarily electing Democrats to state and national offices to Republicans were sewn decades ago.
No one factor explains why Donald Trump won about 68 percent of West Virginia’s votes in the 2016 presidential election, but something sticks out for many long-time observers of Appalachian politics — the decline of unions and the social structures that built up around them in the coalfields.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, wasn’t a popular man — except maybe in West Virginia.
The state handed Carter six of the 49 electoral votes he won across the nation. At the time, the Mountain State was considered a Democratic stronghold. It’s a reputation that held for another 20 years, through the Clinton presidency.
But by the end of the 1970s, machines had been slowly replacing workers in mines for decades. That in turn, caused a decline in union membership. Always at odds — sometimes violently — with coal operators, unions were also feeling the pressure of companies intent on pushing them out.
“Mechanization always puts pressure on jobs, and by the ’70s and ’80s, more and more non-union mines were operating,” said Davitt McAteer, who headed the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Bill Clinton.
A union’s benefits went beyond the better wages, healthcare and pensions they’d fought for in preceding decades. They were a part of what brought the community together, like churches and football teams, said Shannon Bell, author of “Fighting King Coal: The Challenges to Micromobilization in Central Appalachia” and a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky.
“Unions used to occupy a central space in the lives of not just miners, but their families,” she said. “When that was gone, there was a hole in the community’s identity. Coal companies grabbed that space.”
President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1981. That defeat had ripple effects that weakened unions across the country. Mine companies such a Massey Energy took a stance that they would not deal with unions in any way, McAteer said.
When there are fewer miners on the books, dues increase and benefits decrease. As a result, there’s less of an incentive for miners to remain in the union. Pensions promised to miners were also drastically cut, he said.
“At the end of the day, the companies were saying, ‘The union bosses are costing you workers money. I could give you more without the union.’” McAteer said. “It was cheaper for them to do that. Unions were in a no-win situation.”
It wasn’t a situation unique to coal mines, but it had a profound effect on West Virginia’s communities beyond just the union miners. The mindset of families and their workers started to reflect these changes.
“The old maxim used to be that miners went home to Jesus and [union leader] John L. Lewis. Now you just see Jesus Christ,” McAteer said.
Into that void stepped the coal companies themselves.
‘Friends of coal’ and the ‘thoughtful coal miner’
When Bell arrived at the University of Kentucky in Lexington in 2010, she noticed students wearing a T-shirt that struck her as odd.
“It read ‘Coal, Cats and Calipari – A Winning Team’,” she said. “The coal industry had donated all this money for the basketball team.”
The T-shirts were part of a strategy to win the hearts and minds of coal country and Appalachia, to fill the gap in communities left empty by the decline of unions, Bell said.
The coal industry started the Friends of Coal campaign, which combated opposition to coal company policies in and outside of Appalachia, and sponsored events such as the Friends of Coal Bowl football games between West Virginia and Marshall universities.
“Students would talk about how they got a Friends of Coal sticker because their dad or granddad was a coal miner, and for the sacrifices they made — not because of the things the coal companies were trying to do,” Bell said.
But the campaign linked cultural touchstones such as sports teams and a pride in coal mining to the companies themselves. And it pushed a pro-mining agenda that warned that a loss of mining jobs was a loss for Appalachian culture.
Nick Mullins, a former coal miner who runs “The Thoughtful Coal Miner” blog remembers being a miner in Virginia during protests against mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. His fellow miners would joke about shooting the protesters, whom they referred to as “squirrels” from the trees where they were perched.
Most of the young miners sided with the company because they believed, in part due to the coal industry’s deliberate effort, that outside forces were determined to shut down the companies that gave them jobs and leave them with nothing, Mullins said.
“The Friends of Coal, the notion of a War on Coal, the companies played on that — the idea that this is it, that there are no alternatives,” he said. “They developed a base of people that would fight against any change.”
And that resistance to change for fear of losing jobs meant leaving the Democratic Party for the Republican Party, which supported the coal companies.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, isn’t sure which came first, the move from a Democratic to Republican state or the decline of the unions, but he believes the two are linked.
Democrats moved away from the interest of miners and their families, pushing them toward the Republican party, he said.
“Look at their choice of candidates — Al Gore, Hillary Clinton — they’re anti-coal, anti-fossil fuel,” Raney argued. “Jimmy Carter came in around the oil crisis. He created the coal commission…The whole idea was that he insisted power plants turn to coal as a source of electricity.”
There has certainly been a push through Friends of Coal and in other ways to bond workers to the companies they work for, he said.
“It felt like we needed a true identity out there, that we are all in this thing together,” he said. “We were being assaulted on all fronts with anti-coal policies and statements. Whether someone was union or non-union, Friends of Coal never made a distinction about that.”
Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, is the vice president of the United Mine Workers of America International District 31 in Marion County. He said the money poured into the Republican Party, their candidates and groups like Friends of Coal started by the industry have also led to more Republicans being elected up and down the ballot.
“There are always going to be issues that we agree on with the industry,” said Caputo, pointing to their shared belief that the industry needs fewer EPA regulations as an example. “But when they refer to themselves as Friends of Coal, I think that should be changed to Friends of Coal Operators. … But look, it’s a brilliant strategy, brilliant campaign. I encourage West Virginians to look at the issues they stand for, issues that affect workers on the job.”
The campaign had another effect, Mullins believes.
“It left a belief that there were no other options, that this was it,” he said. “There became a lack of hope for anything better and a sense of hope that mining would go back to the glory days.”
Party chairs chime in
Certainly unions don’t play the role in society that they played 70 years ago, and that’s a factor in the decline in influence and votes for Democrats, said Conrad Lucas, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party. But the party also no longer supports the desires of West Virginia voters, such as a strong coal industry, he said.
“I don’t think they’re aligned with coal companies, I don’t think they’re aligned with jobs,” he said.
Lucas said the needs and wants of West Virginians are the needs and wants of the coal industry.
“Everyone is under attack and there’s a strong banding together of people affected by the coal industry,” Lucas said. “In some ways, it’s very much West Virginia against the world.”
Belinda Biafore, state chairwoman of the Democratic Party, agrees that the decline in unions has led to fewer Democrats being elected.
“The numbers are not there,” she said. “Some are fighting on the wrong side of the fence. I’ve never understood it.”
Coal companies, she argues, don’t stand with the workers as they say they do. Ongoing attempts to weaken safety regulations in particular are going to lead to more injuries and deaths. Protections for workers are something that Democrats stand for and coal miners should be behind, but many still vote with company owners and the Republican Party, she said.
But, she pointed out, the message that there has been a war on coal and that war aligns coal companies and their workers against Democrats has been relentlessly promoted for eight years.
Shortly after Obama was elected in 2009, a billboard went up at the split of interstates 77 and 79, just outside Charleston. It read “Obama’s No Job Zone” and stayed there for the entirety of Obama’s presidency.
“Maybe it’s a bit our fault,” she said. “Maybe we don’t have the right message or put the message out in the right way.”
Trump’s success in particular, Lucas pointed out, is not a new thing. A 2011 poll from Public Policy Polling found that Trump tied with Mike Huckabee with 24 percent as the top choice in the field of GOP candidates. It was the first time he’d led in a PPP poll.
“I think it comes from a general sense of strength,” Lucas said. “He was never shy about his support for the coal industry. … We’re tired of being placated to. That’s why Trump was so appealing.”
Gary Harki (@GaryAHarki) is an investigative journalist at The Virginian-Pilot. Most recently he’s written about criminal justice issues and mental health. He is also the paper’s database reporter, assisting with data projects across the newsroom. Originally from Marion County, West Virginia, Gary still makes it back to Mannington frequently to visit his parents, siblings and nephew.