UMWA membership declined
as production trends changed
By JEFF LESTER, Senior Writer November 16, 2004
Between 1909 and 1927, there were 500,000 to 600,000 production workers
in bituminous coal mining nationwide. By the time John L. Lewis became
president of the United Mine Workers of America in 1920, the UMWA represented
roughly 300,000 coal miners.
The 1933 passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act included provisions protecting the right of workers to organize. That is when the 43-year-old UMWA began its first massive organizing drive in Southwest Virginia under the leadership of Lewis, who later also founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The UMWA's District 28, chartered in 1933, went on to serve miners in Virginia, eastern Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.
The 1935 National Labor Relations Act greatly expanded the move toward a pro-union, high-wage political environment, sparking massive increases in the number of workers represented by a union. Overall union membership among American workers doubled between 1936 and 1938.
During World War II, Lewis led an estimated 500,000 UMWA members to violate the labor movement's no-strike pledge in protest of frozen wages.
In the two years after the war, the federal government operated bituminous mines for 13 months during a nationwide strike.
In 1946, the government and the union struck an agreement to allow more mechanization of mines, in exchange for a promise of lifetime health care for miners. Lewis knew the ultimate result would be significant layoffs. By 1950, coal mine employment had fallen to 351,000.
Growing mechanization, along with competition from other fuels, dropped coal employment below 150,000 by 1960, when Lewis retired.
Fourteen years later, Westmoreland Coal Co. launched its first surface mine operations in the western United States, joining other companies in what was then a high-productivity, non-union environment.
In 1990, nearly 11,800 people were employed in the Southwest Virginia coal industry, with slightly less than 3,800 of them represented by the union.
By 1999, only 70,000 coal production workers were left in the entire U.S.
Early that year, the UMWA's District 28, with headquarters in Castlewood, Va., merged into Alabama-based District 20 due to the shutdown of several large local mines and loss of membership.
By the end of the 20th century, the UMW's nationwide membership of active miners had declined to about 30,000.
In 2003, roughly 6,500 people worked in the Southwest Virginia coal industry, with roughly 350 of them belonging to the UMW.
Sources: In the Kingdom of Coal, by Dan Rottenberg; Ohio University economics department study; U.S. Department of Labor; Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority.