Billy Vandom was 220 feet underground, but to him, it was the top of the world. He is a coal miner, a species of well-paid American worker that was on the verge of extinction in these parts for more than a decade.
Now global economic forces have realigned, and coal mining is back. And a new generation of miners is living the good life not seen here since coal was king.
“I was able to buy me a new truck and I got my wife a new car,” said Vandom, 22, from the helm of an enormous ram car, hauling tons of freshly mined coal through the low-lit darkness of the Gateway Mine here. “We have a new baby boy, and we moved into a new apartment and we fixed up a nice room for him.”
Vandom has gone from struggling to pay bills with two low-wage jobs — cooking at the Elks club and changing oil at the local Pennzoil — to making $20 an hour plus benefits.
Those are union wages, but there is no union here. As the industry withered east of the Mississippi River, so did the United Mine Workers of America — from 167,000 active members in 1980 to 16,000 today. The shift is profound in Southern Illinois, where being a miner used to begin with pledging allegiance to the UMWA for leading miners into the middle class.
Now the union is trying to come back, too, beginning with an organizing campaign targeting Peabody Energy Corp., owner of the Gateway Mine and the world’s largest coal company.
It is proving to be a tough slog, and not just because the weakened union is up against a multibillion-dollar company. The UMWA is struggling to bridge a gap between young workers like Vandom, giddy over high wages in this long-depressed region, and older ones focused on pensions and gold-plated health care in retirement.
It is the same generational divide that defines the national debate over Social Security, but it is starker here because there is no one in the middle. As Midwestern coal production crashed in the 1980s and 1990s, young workers fled. People here refer to a “lost generation of miners.” At Gateway, as at mines throughout the area, almost everyone is over 50 or under 30.
It falls to UMWA organizer Ron Huff to try to straddle the generation gap. He said he is making headway with middle-aged miners but very little with younger ones.
“All they can see is the money,” he said. “I was the same way when I was their age.”
A Generation Gap
The miners here come not only from different generations but different worlds. Those in their 50s mostly began mining as union men from union families, following grandfathers, fathers and uncles.
Their towns erected memorials to men who died in mine accidents alongside memorials for fallen soldiers. They relied on the union to protect them in a dangerous workplace and were raised to revere John L. Lewis, the longtime UMWA president.
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