The onset of the Great Depression brought devastation to Pennsylvania’s coal region. Suddenly rendered unemployed, coal miners with no other way to make a living turned to ‘bootleg’ mining, setting up their own mines. The only problem was that legally, they were on company property—specifically, property owned by the likes of JP Morgan. What unfolded was a vicious, heroic, and almost unbelievable fight to unionize the coal fields by workers whose livelihoods were labelled ‘illegal.’ TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez sits down with Mitch Troutman to discuss his new book, The Bootleg Coal Rebellion: The Pennsylvania Miners Who Seized an Industry, 1925-1942.
Mitch Troutman is a writer, educator, organizer, and member of Anthracite Unite.
Post-production: Jules Taylor
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
All right. Well, we are here at the great Red Emma’s cooperative bookstore in Baltimore. Really, really couldn’t be more honored to be here with all of y’all and our amazing guest, Mitch Troutman. We are here to celebrate Mitch’s incredible new book called The Bootleg Coal Rebellion, the Pennsylvania Miners who seized an Industry 1925 to 1942. If you haven’t already, I highly highly recommend that you get this book and read it. Now, of course, we’re not going to be able to condense this incredibly rich book that took many years to write in a 45-minute conversation. Our goal is to get you excited enough to go buy the book and read it and talk about it with your friends.
Or get it from the library.
Or get it from the library. Yeah. Hell yeah. Support your local library, please. But this is a really rich book, and I think a really invaluable service that Mitch has provided all of us, not just to ensure that these vital stories of struggle and cooperation aren’t forgotten to history, but also, so that we can better know that history and that history can empower us to act in the present.
Because we all know that we are up against it right now. We are in a dog fight with the bosses, with the planet destroying, democracy destroying ruling class, and I think we have a lot to learn from these bootleg coal miners and their kin and community. And I couldn’t be more grateful to Mitch for bringing these voices to us in this incredibly approachable form. As the great Stanton Lind writes in the forward for Mitch’s book, “Northeastern Pennsylvania, where Joe Biden grew up and Mumia Abu-Jamal is imprisoned is the principle location of anthracite or hard coal in the United States. It was also the scene of the Bootleg Coal movement, one of the most radical episodes in American labor history.” Now, I don’t know about you guys, but I knew Jack shit about this movement before this week, and I think that knowing more about what went into researching this book explains why. And so I’m going to ask Mitch about that in a second.
But building off that quote, there’s another point in Mitch’s introduction where he writes, “Michael Kazoura, a sociologist and himself a child of a Minersville bootlegger trucker, wrote about the bootlegger’s history in the early 1990s. He described their radicalism by saying, ‘When the mines closed, anthracites working, people waged a struggle that transcended the bounds of kinship, community, and union. And they raised demands that challenged the legal and moral foundation of industrial capitalism.'” So Mitch, by way of starting, I wanted to ask you, who is Michael Kazoura? And expand on that quote that I just read from him.
Yeah. Okay. Is mic all right? Yep. Cool. So Michael Kazoura, I never met him. I mean, I would’ve been like six or seven when he died, but he was a sociologist, and as I said, children of bootleg truckers in Minersville. And he wanted to write a book about it, he went around… He was also a wobbly IWW, which is how I connected with Staughton Lynd later because Staughton and Kazoura were close. But he went around and did interviews with about 40 people who were still alive, some of the last left alive from this era. And he did a little bit of writing, but got in a car accident and died. So there was no book. Staughton got a chapter out there in one of his pieces. Then fast-forward to, I’m terrible with years, but I don’t know, seven years ago or something like that, I was burned out really badly by a long I don’t know, career as a community organizer, labor organizer with some of these fellows over here.
But I needed to recuperate so I went home and partied a lot in the coal region. And a lot of those parties, well, almost all those parties were in abandoned strip lines. And I’m wondering, well, I just can’t stop, so I had a little blog, I used a pen name, nobody knew it was me. But one of the things I wrote about is the bootleg miners. What I could find that Kazura chapter and some other things like, why is it that we treat these old coal mines? They belong to us. There’s a lot of things in the coal region people think are normal, and they’re totally not normal, and that’s one of them. People party there, there was a squatted RV park you get pizza ordered there, all sorts of things. Picnics, boating, whatever.
And so I wrote this piece with what I could find, which wasn’t all that much, and it kept going viral locally, and I hear people talk about it, even though, like I said, they didn’t know it was me. And a friend of mine kept pushing me to dig in, dig into the sources, dig into the sources, and I thought I had, but I found Michael Kazoura’s widow, and she had all his stuff and was thrilled that somebody wanted to dig into it. And so those 40 interviews, again, those miner… There’s people alive today from the Great Depression, but not miners. And so those interviews are the backbone of this book. I did a lot of other research to figure out, to verify things, put things in order, and all that contextualize it, but it’s stories of what happened. And I really, the highest compliment to me is saying that it’s well written, because my goal was for people in the coal region to be able to read it. And that’s so far so good, I’ve had people tell me it was the first book they’ve read since high school.
And my other goal was to get across how it feels. There’s a million books, there’s a million history books on strikes, on actions, on all these different things, and it sounds like totally foreign a lot of the time. Impossible to imagine in the day-to-day sense. And so, I would use those quotes to try to get that across.
That’s wild, man. I mean and I was especially interested in that genesis story of the book as someone who you’d talks to workers all the time, and I record a lot of those conversations for my podcast, and I’ve lost one recording, and I’ve never forgotten it. And it fills me with dread before every recording thinking, is everything set? Am I going to lose this? And so just the thought of this treasure trove of firsthand interviews with folks who are involved in this, sitting in a basement, waiting for you to find them is just, I think a really incredible story and also a reminder to all of us that there’s so much history, rich history, beautiful history of struggle all around us, but we got to be the ones to dig for it and find it. And I wholeheartedly agree. I think that not only have you done a great service by digging those sources up, but you have packaged them and written them in a way that is so engaging.
And that was something that we were talking about earlier, is that, reading this book, it’s almost too incredible to believe sometimes. And so I can’t imagine, I have to imagine there was a pretty tall task to try to narrate this into existence. But there’s almost like a campfire quality to it. And I was wondering, again, we can’t give folks the whole breakdown of this book in the next half hour, but I was wondering if we could jump off by giving the campfire version of the Bootleg Coal movement that I think we’ll entice people to rent or buy this book and dig deep into it.
Yeah, thank you. I mean, I literally wrote it with campfires. I do the research and do some writing and not know what’s good or not, and then I go hang out with people and tell them, especially people who only halfway cared. And whatever they were into, I’m like, okay, that goes in. And also, this is all their history and my history, but I didn’t know about it. Very few people knew about it, there’s still a few people who mine this way, and they still know the technical details and how to do it, and they know that something, they thought they used to be a lot larger, but they didn’t really know this either. So 101 or campfire version, the mines closed down, the miners, they tried, well, not just the miners, the entire communities left with very little. There were still textile mills, which paid not enough for people to survive on.
They tried lots of things. They tried, “Oh, let’s have the middle class people write a grant.” They tried… Yeah, surprised it didn’t work. They tried charity, but great depression hit. There’s not charity to go around. They tried public works projects, building roads and stuff, but that first off only takes up so many people’s time. And second, it’s one of these weird things where it was only unemployed miners can build the roads. It’s weird stuff like miners have to be the ones to learn to code now or whatever, anyway. So they did the other thing, which is an old strike tactic they had. The best time for a coal miner to strike is in the winter, because that’s when that fuel is needed. And anthracite was being used for home heat here and all up and down the East coast. So they would strike in the winter, people would be mad, there’d be a lot of pressure on the companies and the union to settle, and the miners would stick it out in part by breaking into the mines and working them themselves during the strike and just taking all the coal home.
And may I just say, hell yeah.
And I mean, they had many ways to do that. And the union never said anything, never commented. And they also sometimes dug their own mines in the outcroppings, the places where the coal comes out of the ground. And so when things got tough and stayed tough, and it was looking bleak, they started doing that again. And as other solutions failed, they started to get bolder and bolder, partly because they didn’t have anything else to rely on. And partly because there was just so many people doing it. The miners themselves, like 7,000 or so, at least people doing it. And this was across two main counties, and then the edges, some others. And people at first hit it all, throw some brush over the hole, take the tools home with you, scatter the dirt, so you didn’t leave a pile of leavings.
But then they started here, somebody in the next county over, they just told the cop go to hell. And there were lots of arrests, but they clogged up the prisons. And then they started demanding jury trials for, trespassing was usually the charge. Started demanding jury trials and most of the juries wouldn’t convict them. Some of the judges were sympathetic, there was no other money coming in and would give them a dollar fine with a year to pay it. And it escalates from there to the point where they form bootlegger’s unions. And that’s… I’m not an academic and so the way I approach this book is really wanting to know how they organize that stuff. Really, really on the human level, how they organize that stuff. And there were a bunch of around, but they were like, “Yeah, they’re always saying that stuff organized, whatever.”
But then when they had group fights, either because of some injunction or some dispute with someone else, then they started forming unions. Communists played a role, but never controlled it. And it blew up, blew up it. There were bootleg truckers, which we’ll get into later, taking coal from here all the way up to Connecticut, selling it for two, $3 less than company coal. And yeah, it goes wild. Like 14,000 people in total then working directly in the industry. And that’s not counting a lot of family members who are also working in there and stuff like that. And who would turn that down? Somebody shows up at your heat and excuse me. Somebody shows up at your door and like “This is illegal, but I can sell you your heat for the winter for 30% less.”
Say less. Well, so I want to drill down on that and give folks a little more of that sense of space and time that you do in the book. Let’s talk about what this looked like on a day-to-day basis. But before we get there, I want to jump back to something you said. And this goes to the, I guess this is a typical book author question, but it’s one I’m intensely fascinated by. Because I grew up in Southern California, and I never felt like that was a place that I, even though it was so much a part of me, I wasn’t interested in it in terms of academically or thinking about it historically. And I think there’s actually more than one reason for that. Because southern California especially, but this is increasingly the case around the country, it doesn’t allow you to become wedded to a place.
I’ll give one example. I remember as a kid in the 90s, one of the oldest buildings in town, I grew up in a town called Brea in Northern Orange County. There was an old saloon and an old bank from the old oil mining days. And it looked like old school tombstone style buildings. And it did make me feel like, it reminded me, I was like, oh, this is what the buildings at Knottsberry Farm modeled after. And there was a big hullabaloo about preserving them when developers wanted to knock them down. And so I remember seeing some of my teachers and people in the neighborhood with signs saying, save these buildings. And it was barely on my radar as a kid, but the city basically strong armed them, said, “Get the out of the way.” They bulldozed those buildings and they put up a little plaque that no one ever looks at.
And so it’s like that’s what it’s living in a place like Orange County. Everything is paved and then built and then paved again and rebuilt in the latest strip mall stucco style. And so this uncanniness that prevents you from, I think, thinking deeply and historically like that. But now years later, I’m way more interested and I see more signs of the things I would like to study more in the memories from my childhood. Like the fact that my brothers and I used to run around the hills and we would go climbing up the old oil rigs that you really shouldn’t climb up because those things aren’t safe.
But it’s like, now I’m thinking, man, that was part of who I was, our day-to-day. I want to learn about the labor situations of people who were building these and using these. And that’s a really tough thing to do is, I wanted to ask you how you dealt with the task of writing about home and what it meant for you to learn more, like you said, about stuff that was actually always a part of you, but maybe you didn’t know until you started researching it in this fashion.
Yeah, my big question. I grew up around some of the miners. Like I said, people still doing it like this using, maybe I didn’t say yet, but there’s still some people doing it like this using similar methods, it’s legal. They call themselves independent miners rather than bootleggers, there’s not very many of them left. And I grew up around some of them, but I was always just super intimidated because, they’re big and their family names, they’ve made a name for their family names. You mess with one, you mess with them all. So, always intimidated by them. I’m sure at least one of them will listen to this, but they know what I’m talking about.
Anyway, and so the idea of even researching the minors, it was kind of intimidating. I didn’t know until later that my family was bootlegging on both sides. I didn’t know until later that pretty much everybody in those counties descends from bootleggers and that the people doing it now are some of the ones still left. But, I mean, I really needed this to be true, first off. I needed whatever narrative I came up with, I tried to shoot it down over and over and over, and I did. Some of these chapters, I rewrote 20 times. Because it’s hard to put a narrative on a bunch of chaos. And especially these people, there’s not… They had unions, but they weren’t getting together to decide how to do things. Things were all over the place.
I got to give a quick aside. So there’s a strip mine, and they were in the 30s in this time period, and they were doing their thing, strip mining coal from the ground, and they lock up for the night and go home. Well, I shouldn’t say they lock up, they close up for the night and go home. When they get back the next morning, they find that somebody’s been running their equipment all night, strip mining and all the coal’s gone. And so they do their mining again for that day and then lock things down real well. Then when they get the back the next morning, somebody’s stripped all the equipment, all usable part’s gone. And so a story like that, before I’m going to go tell people, this is what happened. I need to know that that’s actually what happened. And, I don’t know, I don’t know. I mean, just really…
Writing about the place you’re from is really tough. You’re going to expose yourself to everyone, but people really soak it up. My metaphor is that, the coal region events I’ve done, it’s people come with a book labeled my identity with a few blank pages and asked me to fill it in for him. They’re just really into it. There’s a few things that I thought people would take issue with, the communists, some of the not everything the bootleggers did was ethical. Even if you consider the main thing ethical, not everything was. And people were just really like, “No, this is it.” And again, so many stories have been coming out since this book came out, because people weren’t talking about it. This stuff died, I mean, World War II kind of kills the big bootleg movement. Some people come back and do it later, but never on the scale. But the thing is, in the 50s, the FBI came around and deported some of these people.
And so people were very tightlipped about everything that had happened. One, they didn’t want to be affiliated with the communists. But two, they just didn’t want to be seen as radical. And so in a bunch of the oral histories, I should say, they dynamite a lot of company equipment. And the oral histories, it keeps coming up, “Yeah, I know who did it.” And the bootleg unions, they kept logs. For you to sell your bootleg coal to a bootleg trucker who then sells it to a bootleg breaker whole process, you had to have your little union tag paid up. And they kept track. And there’s one interview where the guy’s like, “Yeah, I still have some of that. I’m going to burn it after you leave.” Which is, maybe you didn’t burn it. Maybe it’s still out there. I don’t know.
Actually, since this book came out, literally somebody found a bunch of photos the company had taken, buried it in a wall. He had demoed a house and found them in the wall, and it was the company before they would blow up the bootleg mines. As you can see, there’s these crazy wooden structures. They would take their photo with them first.
Wow. Well, that’s wild. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to ask that question, because I read in the book that, for those reasons, including, we’ll take the communist example. When you got McCarthyism spreading wildfire and the fear and the lives that it ruined, of course people are going to destroy documents or hide them or suppress these histories. And so I have to imagine for those to whom these histories have a personal connection, there’s got to be a sense of gratitude for preserving these or bringing them back up knowing that they’re not gone completely. And we owe a tremendous debt to you. We owe a tremendous debt to-
Yeah, the guy who recorded these things, his widow who kept them. That’s just a really, I thought, I wanted to make sure that we got that on the recording because it’s a really important part of this book. And I wanted to, let’s talk a little bit about what this looked like on the ground. So first things first. Give us a sense of the job itself. What were these bootleg miners doing? How did they keep the operation going?
All right, I’ll try to keep it brief. So there’s outcroppings of coal that basically the company didn’t want to mine because it was not profitable for them. You dig down into that. Everything in the first 20 feet is crap. You got to just get rid of it, can’t burn it. Then you maybe hit coal. You’re going on intuition, you’re going on the mental map you have of underground. They don’t have company maps unless they steal them, which happens, but most people don’t have them. And once you dig that, you just keep going down in, a lot of it is about this pitch. The nice stuff the company mines is somewhat horizontal and very thick. But I was in one that some people had two winters ago, and it was about that wide and that steep. So-
I guess for people who are listening to this, that’s the size of a porta potty.
And they’re just constantly climbing up and down all day. But you drill and blast upwards so that gravity brings it down to you. Obviously it’s dark down there. They’re making, they’re using a lot of homemade inventions even today, but especially back then, using two by fours for rails, using gutters for my house to circulate air, all sorts of things. And it was dangerous, obviously it’s mining, but also some people who did it were certified miners, some people weren’t. And as time goes on, because this whole thing lasts 15 years, you get more and more people who maybe they would’ve grown up and worked in the regular mine, but it wasn’t there. So they’ve never been in a regular mine unless they were robbing it. So, also, they went into the old mines and robbed everything out of there too. Even timbers, even taking wet old timbers that are holding up the roof there and hauling them into their own mine and using them.
So, tons of that. Tons of accidents and collapses and things like that. And so typically when there was a collapse, everybody in the area would shut down, all the bootleggers and they would go and dig or do whatever they have to do until they get the body out or the person who’s alive out, which however it works. And even some of the companies would close down for that. Because, another piece of this is everything’s owned by JP Morgan. But old JP Jr. Senior’s dead by now. Old JP, he’s not in the office, in the coal region. He’s probably never been there. And so the supervisors at these different mines, the company mines, they had a lot of sympathy for the bootleggers too.
So they would shut down to help with rescues. The community would just set up everything at the mine site. There’d be all sorts of cooking going on. And sometimes it’d take three weeks, but they almost always got people out. One of the things the miners would do is all their business was done in cash. So they keep it in their pockets to help incentivize people farther to find their bodies. Funny but not, no, I’m seriously, it is. I mean, there’s a lot of grim humor in this, which is still 100% what goes on in the region today. But I think, I don’t know, that’s the nuts and bolts.
Well, and I guess who were the people doing this? Because you also write about this is it’s incredibly diverse or becomes an incredibly diverse part of the country. And I guess just give us a sense of the people involved in this and where they were coming from.
So I mean, it’s primarily first or second generation ethnic whites or immigrant whites. There’s also the Pennsylvania Dutch, who I come from who have been there a lot longer, but honestly speak worse English at the time. I mean, there’s just people, I’ve found logs from the companies, registers of accidents and stuff. And there’s just people from everywhere in a way that’s defies mapping it all out. Somebody from Brazil, but only one of them, stuff like that. There was a small group of black miners in Pottsville, but they had never been treated well during the company days. And far as I could tell, they weren’t treated well by the bootleggers in particular either.
Do you mind getting the trucking yet? Should I go there?
Yeah, I was going to say, let’s bring in the truckers.
Okay. So trucks, this is still part of the same thing. I’ll get back to it. So trucking is somewhat new, it’s new that people could afford to buy a truck. And JP Morgan owns the coal companies and the rail lines. So they’re not trying to truck that coal, they don’t want that. And so the bootleggers save up money by trucks. Well, they need to expand their markets and sell this coal, but they don’t really know people per se. Some of them, there’s some expats from the coal region who live around, but a lot of them go get a load of coal drive somewhere like Baltimore and just knock on doors until they find people to sell it to and build it up that way.
And then a lot of people from the cities, again, primarily Baltimore and Philly, who have trucks, follow them back up the region and do the opposite. They drive around the coal hills looking for miners. And typically the miners would have a kid post up on the road somewhere and their job was to well hide from cops and flag down truckers to sell the coal. And this is something I’m really glad to be here to share. And I also really wish I had found more sources, I want to know so much more. But they’re at least 300 coal truckers based out of Baltimore. And at some amount of them were black. I have no idea how many, but a sizable number. Because I have multiple oral histories who said, “Yeah, we worked with a black guy out of Baltimore.”
But, I mean, this leads into the whole Baltimore thing. Should I just go there too?
Let’s go there, baby.
Okay. So first the trucking, it was hard to figure this stuff out, but it was about a 12 hour round trip and people would do it with two people, typically. The guy, Kazoura, his parents, his mom and his dad, they ran one bootleg truck together. One would sleep, one would drive, they’d switch off, try to get two loads a day if you could. So that’s 24 hours, nuts. And people who had trucks here already were often people who were hauling something already. And so they would be doing a second run as well to get that in. And trucks at the time, no radio, no heat. The seats are right angles. They’ve invented shocks, but you can’t afford them.
And the way you’re going to make money off this coal is by loading way too much onto your truck. And so it doesn’t matter if you have shocks. Anyway. So also since cars are still somewhat new, the streets are still made for horses and all that, where you might have a straight stretch that just goes into a sharp 90 return. And so there were a lot of accidents back then, a lot of people getting killed, especially when their truck was overloaded. And then the truckers had all sorts of signals and stuff because they had their routes. And one of them that I found the route going into Philly, they had certain gas stations, they’d have a barrel out front, and if it were on its side, it meant take a different way. There’s cops up here, and they had, if you pass a boot like truck coming the other way, and they had their bandana tied out front, that also meant take another path.
So tons of people, and it’s literally just constant traffic. So down here though, you have the Baltimore Coal Merchants Association also controlled by JP Morgan. They’re pissed. They’re the ones who sell the coal. They’re not the same as the coal company, but they’re the ones who sell the coal and they try a whole bunch of things. There’s mass arrests of truckers for overloading their trucks. But the bootleggers union, the one back home, and then also the one that forms here among the truckers, they hire lawyers and get those people off. Then they tried making a $300 fee, you could sell coal out of a truck if you paid $300, which I don’t know the calculation, but it’s some amount of money none of us have in our pocket right now, that’s for sure. And they were able to fight that off. The federal government was doing a bunch of new deal programs at the time.
And so the Baltimore Coal Emergence Association tried to work in price fixing to that and say, you have to sell coal for X amount, therefore the bootleggers wouldn’t be able to compete with the companies. But that died on its own. So other than the at least 300 coal truckers here, there were at least 200 coal dealers. And that was somebody who runs numbers. They’d be in your neighborhood and you’d go talk to them. “Yeah, I want three tons.” “Okay, that’s the price, here’s the money.” And then the coal trucker would come to them first and they’d point to where that coal goes to. But then after all these big fights, they really strengthened the union here, the bootleggers union. And so they cut some kind of deal with a gas station by the B&O shops. Is that, what’s the name of that place? That’s what I was asking you earlier.
Well, I think in Pig town, it’s like, I guess where the B&O Museum is now, I don’t really know Baltimore too well. But they cut some deal with a gas station there where all the coal sellers and all the coal truckers just went there, and it was centralized. So it was a set price, and as long as you had your little union tag, the first person on the list, the trucker went to them. And so it was distributed it all through the city that way. And this is like, just such a wild amount of sophistication for something that’s just blatantly illegal. And there’s also all sorts of legislative attempts to stop. When they can’t get the bootleg miners at home, which we don’t have time for really to get into that, but there’s tons of stuff going on there. When they can’t get them at home, they start going after the truckers in all these different places. And what they run up to a bunch of times is a judge saying, “Well, we can’t make something illegal that’s already illegal.”
But due to decades and decades worth of coal strikes in which people in the cities went cold for the winter, people really hated the coal companies. And it was like, the public opinion was that, the bootleg, I mean, not the bootleg unions, the traditional coal miners unions were willing to negotiate and the companies weren’t. And so at this time, most people even in office were just coal companies. You guys can fix this. You can drop the price of coal, you can open up more mines, whatever.
What a concept. I’m thinking about that and where we are today. I mean, hopefully things are changing, but that has not been the case for many, many years as we all know. And I wanted to, we got a few minutes left before we open it to Q&A. But I want to circle back to that question of the organizational sophistication of this clandestine operation. And in fact, the democratic ethos running through it, which you highlight throughout the book, and you have a great little passage here in the intro that I’m going to read for everyone.
Where you say, “The bootleggers were also highly democratic. Mines were run cooperatively by two to five partners. Even if one partner owned the equipment, they all received equal shares, for they felt that it was the labor and the risk that produced the coal. Bootleg Union meetings were loud raucous affairs where everyone got a say before votes were taken. The organizations promoted the idea that human life was more important than private property. By sticking together, they were able to nullify the private coal and iron police, negotiate the withdrawal of state police, hold large scale rescues in the event of mining accidents and arbitrate disputes among miners.” I imagine all of our ears perked up when you said these bootleggers had a union.
Talk to us about that and about the democratic side to this whole operation.
So to be clear, it is not that ideological. That’s part of writing about home is I can’t cast these people as something they weren’t, and most of them weren’t anti-capitalists but they did. See, right now it’s humans or property, and we’re going to choose. Though, there were radicals amongst them. And it really goes back to the miners union, if anybody’s ever heard of The Molly Maguires, this is the same place. And they had tried for decades to get a union and were just killed. And so they took to labor terrorism, burning down mines, killing mine owners, and then were even more brutally repressed for that. And so the strike of 1902 was a big part of people’s identity. That’s the strike that they finally won the entire region, every single anthracite mine was involved. And the slogan was to do it was, “It’s not Slovak coal, it’s not Polish coal, it’s not Italian coal, it’s just coal, and you mine it.”
And so that’s like this, to them, that’s what wins, that’s the thing that wins. And so when problems arise, they try to use the union to solve it, whether the union higher ups even want that or not. And so when it came time to organize the bootleggers, they did it very organically. They did it through their social clubs, they did it with their same union structure, they were taking notes that nobody will ever get to read. And as far as splitting money at the mine, the way they saw it is, this isn’t an investment. This isn’t a business. Any one of us could die today. This is all from our own labor, and that’s why we’re splitting it. There was a famous journalist at the time who said, “There’s big money in bootleg coal, but no one person’s making it.” Because I didn’t mention at one point they’re like, 10% of the industry is bootleg. The next largest company is 10%.
Oh yeah. And I guess just as a final, what can we do with this history today? Question. And we can very much let this bleed out into the Q&A, but it just got me thinking. And we’re having this conversation at the moment when the longest coal miner strike in recent memory is coming to an end, as folks probably know. Over a thousand union coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama were on strike for close to two years against Warrior Met Coal. They’ve been holding the line all that time, but they are now returning to work without a contract. They’re still trying to negotiate Warrior Mets trying to prevent over 40 of the minors from getting their jobs back. So it’s a real tough pill to swallow, and it’s been a very protracted and arduous struggle. And I just think about that compared to this because the Warrior Met was able to weaponize business friendly courts and file injunctions against the union, essentially stripping their ability to effectively picket it. Because the Warrior Met Coal miners, three of them could pick it 100 yards away from the mine entrances.
They were facing scab violence all the time. But if they said shit or reacted to that violence, they immediately got arrested and their lives turned upside down, so on and so forth. So you just see how unbalanced the workers and the company and the law have become, and this is always the elephant in the room when we’re talking about labor strategy today and how we get around these tactics from the bosses, how we build real working class power. And I feel like anyone who studies our country’s history has to acknowledge that, well, a lot of the power that we built came from breaking the law or not limiting ourselves to the strictures of a legal system that is designed and operated by and influenced by the business class. So that’s what sticks out in my mind. I don’t know, you can say, I’m saying B-Gay do crimes, but I do think that we have to sit and think seriously about-
Doing one of those two, if not both.
The same time. So I guess I just wanted to ask if now that you’ve finished this monster tome, you’ve done this research and you’re going around talking to people about it, I guess what stands out to you is, it’s relevance to the situation that we find ourselves in today as working people?
Yeah. Here’s the deal. If I knew what to bootleg now, I’d already be doing it. You’d already know about it and you’d be doing it too. But that’s how this happened, that’s how this whole thing went down, is people hearing about what was working and trying it. And I don’t know, my conclusion for the book was the hardest part to write because I don’t know that. I got this history of them and I hope a lot of smart people manage to read this book and can come up with some ideas too, because I’ve done some organizing, but I don’t know I what the vision is. But I mean, absolutely about breaking the law. I mean, injunctions just make it not possible to actually have a picket. You can only have a, I don’t know, the image of a picket that’s it. You can’t actually stop anybody from doing anything.
So it’s tough. But I did an event with someone in Ithaca who’s been organizing teachers for a long time. And various states, I don’t know what here is, but in Pennsylvania, teachers can strike two weeks a year, that’s it. So when it happens, everybody says, oh, I guess we’re going two weeks into the summer. That’s it. There’s zero leverage there. But she says that illegal strikes by teachers have increasing more and more, and she wonders what happens if they stay on strike long enough that kids have to stay home, parents can’t go to work, that hits the whole economy. What will it look like when that happens? And it seems like we’re probably going to find out in the next five years.
Let’s give it up for Mitch. Okay. So thank you for that incredible conversation. Let’s open it up to Q&A. We got Meg over there with the microphone. Again, we are recording this, so if you don’t want your question to be on the recording, please feel free to come up to us afterwards.
I was just curious about the bootleg Union, and obviously their opponents are the company and the state, of course. But I suppose if people are in on this illegal thing, was there any illegal but exploitative hierarchies that existed amongst people that were involved in bootleg coal? Or was it just like, oh, everyone’s in on it and everyone gets along and no one’s trying to rip anybody else off? Or is there gangster crime activity thing?
Yeah, I’ve looked at this stuff internationally trying to find similar things, and there’s tons of similar things going on, and a lot of them get taken over by mafias or cartels, which are synonyms. And the best answer I found in this is that basically they’d be stupid to try. That was people’s opinion. But no, people, again, it’s chaos, not every mind’s run the same way. I’m generalizing to tell the story. But there were some people who ran a bootleg hole where they had… There was one case where this guy had employees and the employees lived in his house and he kept a ledger and they never got paid. That’s the company town, he recreated that. And then he got hit in the head with a shovel, and that’s why it made the newspaper, and I know about it. So on the level of the bootleg union, no. But also those things were like chaotic, they had very little money. Any leadership was volunteer. So I don’t know. I don’t have a solid answer for why, but.
I somehow knew you would have a question. Thank you so much for all that you’ve shared today, Mitch. It’s been super-duper interesting. I’m Shashi with Speak Out Now Socialists here in Baltimore. And I listened to the New York Times podcast interviewing the Alabama coal miners. And one thing really stood out to me about that interview, which was where he talks about his real disillusionment with the political system and how coal miners today feel very abandoned by both Republicans and Democrats. And I think we’re in a really interesting part in the… Well we’re talking about an interesting part of labor right now with the push for clean energy and whatnot. So I guess my question is, and you mentioned talking to people who were very grateful for your book and stuff. So what’s your impression of how open people are to political ideologies or socialism or ideologies that really take into account what workers are facing? And maybe a little bit about, if you don’t know much about maybe what people are saying, then what’s your hope for what could come of that?
Yeah, I did some, ill-conceived organizing in North Philly for a little while, and I remember one guy telling me like, “We don’t care who helps us. Whoever it is, communist, fascists, this Democrat, we’re going to be with whoever can actually do something rather than just talk.” And I think that’s just where really desperate people wind up. But I do want to say as far as abandonment, there’s like this problem, the cold should stay in the ground. But also the food you ate here was warm because somebody’s sucking in along a silica dust somewhere. These things are both true. And it’s not… The miners, they’re going to be some of the last people to say, we should ban mining that, but that’s obvious. But I don’t, there’s a contradiction at all to say they matter, they work, they risk their lives. And also this stuff is killing the planet. I mean, how many of us are lucky enough to work jobs where we’re not doing bullshit? If that’s bad.
And also, just to piggyback on that, because we covered, the Warrior Met Coal strike probably as much, if not more than any other outlet at the Real News Network. And that was largely due to the great journalist Kim Kelly going down to Brookwood multiple times for us to do video reports, text reports. We had on the ground podcast reports with the folks from the Valley Labor report, another great labor outlet down in Alabama. And we got to know a lot of these people, and they definitely were abandoned by both parties. And it fills me with so much rage because I grew up deeply conservative. We watched Fox News all the time. I remember basically every election year after Al Gore’s movie came out that Republicans loved going to coal country posing for a picture with some coal covered miner and saying that they, they’re going to protect jobs.
But then here were 1100 God-fearing coal miners in deep red Alabama. These are your constituents and they abandoned them. The right-wing media, abandoned them. Right-wing media, Fox News did more stories on a puff piece about some coal miners helping a hybrid car that had stalled on the road in West Virginia than they did about the Warrior Met Coal Strike. That’s how little of a they actually give about the workers they pretend to be for. So I think that… And also I think a lot of us around the country abandoned them. And I do think a lot of people didn’t know what to do with the fact of, “Well, these are coal miners, we don’t want the coal.” And there are nuances there because this was metallurgical coal that was being mined in Brookwood, so it’s going to come out anyway. But I will say to your point, and this is something we all, especially on the left, especially within labor, really need to do some soul searching on. Because I’m sad to say that by and large organized labor, especially at the leadership level, they are not serious about addressing the climate crisis.
We see that right now with the Willow Project. They have dropped all semblance of being for green jobs, like a bad habit. The second that it means that they can tout certain number of union jobs. And frankly, that’s just not good enough anymore. And I would point people to some hopeful organizations and efforts like True Transition, which is a nonprofit that focuses on lifting up the voices of oil and gas industry workers and is crafting policy with them about how to transition to a more green economy that is worker focused and that ensures better labor standards, better jobs, so on and so forth. So they’re a really great resource. I would recommend checking them out. I interviewed some of them before. But yeah, we’ve got a long way to go in terms of the organized labor movement, and it’s frankly depressing.
Anybody got a question on that note?
Hi. I was just wondering about if you could speak about the relationship between the bootleggers union and the united mine workers? And was that good or bad, or both, or what?
Yeah, there’s a bunch in there about that, and it’s complicated, so I don’t want to take too long, but there were only a few mines left open in the bootleg region, and the people who were still working, who were still UMW miners, felt like really guilty. And a lot of them were moonlighting as bootleggers for free to help their families, which there was nobody, the company hated more than moonlighters. And then on the bootleggers side, a lot of them were still paying union dues as bootleggers to the UMW I mean, to keep their membership active and to keep their locals active. And there’s one case where the UMW local became the bootleg union.
But as time went on, you have more and more people coming in who never were in the union, and you start to build up resentments over different conflicts. There’s one town where the mine was opened in the next town where they were all bootleggers, and to make the UMW mine more profitable, they wanted to strip mine the other town and destroy the coal holes. And so there was a couple day standoff where everybody from both towns was facing each other down very intense, but there was a lot of heartbreak for people. Yeah.
Hi. Really, really appreciating this talk. And I wanted to ask more about the process of you writing this book, because you’re talking about 40 interviews, but you’re also talking about all the research that you had to do to contextualize that, to make it into a story. And that you came at it from not being a trained historian. And so I think that for people who are like, what do I do? How do I communicate the history that I know from where I’m from? It feels really important for maybe you to talk more about the process of actually writing this book. And what can you offer to people who have stories in their own backyards that they have access to, but they’ve never received the training to write it?
Oh man, I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, that’s the realist thing, but I continued. I mean, I hadn’t been to college, and while I was working on this book, I did go back to college for an undergrad to be a history teacher. And I purposely kept it separate, the book and the college, because I didn’t want that academic influence, you got to make an argument or whatever. But they definitely helped me get my shit together as far as making citations and stuff like that. But honestly, the biggest help that the university was having access to the databases. So the thing, actually, I was talking to Kim Kelly at an event the other night, her book Fight Like Hell, she said, one of the hardest parts of writing it was that she didn’t have access to JSTOR. I mean, afterwards somebody told her that the Philly Public Library gives access, and she was a little shocked.
But that’s real. But advice, I don’t know. Man, I really don’t know. I mean, I guess one thing I did from the beginning as well was try to shoot high. There are plenty of people who offer to publish it on a local press, but local books or self-publish books don’t usually have the same level of rigor. Not that PM press did that editing on my book, but… Well, actually, another thing I did, my friend Matt Smucker, a different author, he calls it friend exploitation, which is just farming my chapters out to everybody. I mean, that was where it was at really. Especially to family and stuff like that. I mean, they were all really happy to help. A lot of people don’t have time too, and I don’t know, but I mean, ultimately writing is a mess.
Well, I think there’s something to be said about the point you made earlier in the talk about how a lot of the narrative framing came from trial and error of sitting down even at a campfire and trying to tell this history in a compelling way. There’s a really great and rich tradition of that. One of my favorite anti-war books is this old checkbook by an author called Jaroslav Hasek called The Good Soldier Svejk. That’s how he wrote it. He would go to a bar and try out drafts on people, and if they all were all cheering and they’re laughing, he’s like, “Okay, that stays in the book.” But if it didn’t hit, then he would say, “All right, fuck it. I’m cutting it.” So I do actually really, there’s a very democratic process there that I think, I don’t know, definitely made the book very gripping to read. Again, it’s a great read. Y’all should read it.
Yeah. At some point in this process too, though, I quit drinking and it made it harder to stay up late enough to be like, okay, you guys are done talking about that. Great. Let me tell you about some history. Okay.