Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Friends of Coal"

There is a sociologically and politically interesting phenomenon sweeping the coal fields of Kentucky (similar things are happening is West Virginia) called the Friends of Coal.

Friends of Coal is the brainchild of a coal industry organization Kentucky Coal [note the nearly identical websites]. The Kentucky Coal Association central membership is coal companies and associate members comprised of businesses related to coal mining such as engineering firms, equipment firms, (even law firms) and individuals employed in the coal mining and related industries.

Friends of coal began as an exercise in what political pundits call "AstroTurfing" -- industry sponsored and supported activity posing as grassroots organizing -- but it has become a genuinely popular organization garnering membership, support and funding from thousands of Kentuckians from all walks of life. This may be a political first, a popular movement in support of a particular industry, not by its workers, but by a wide cross section of individuals and families living within the communities where an industry operates.

Not only does one see the bumper stickers, window stickers, yard signs, pins and t-shirts declaring "Friends of Coal" in eastern Kentucky. But most intriguingly, the Friends of Coal organization proposed a special issue Kentucky license plate (see photo at top taken at a stop light in Letcher County), which has been wildly successful and can be seen on cars (and especially trucks) everywhere in eastern Kentucky.

This may be the first time in the United States that an industry actively engaged in whole series of major political battles (over the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, mountain top removal, and fly ash storage) has been able to get the general public to voluntarily help fund their public relations battle through a official state sponsored tax (license plate fees). Usually industries have to use their own monies (albeit coming from customers) for legitimation advertising and activities.

The average person in eastern Kentucky who sports a "Friends of Coal" sticker or license plate views supporting "the coal industry" as identical to supporting "coal miners." A view which flies in the face of the very long record of industry abuses of the health and safety of miners, and successful efforts to undermine unionization of coal mining.

Supporters of Friends of Coal fear that new environmental regulations will bring a sudden and abrupt end to all coal employment in the mountains. They lack awareness that the coal industry has done quite well on its own to cut coal mining employment despite many decades of special treatment and tax advantages from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Employment in coal in Kentucky has dropped by two-thirds from a high of about 48,000 in 1981 to 17,893 in 2006. [graphic from MACED based on data from].