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For Towns That Coal Built, Strikes and Layoffs a Part of Life

May 15, 1993

WEST FRANKFORT, Ill. (AP) _ Residents and businesses in the gritty small towns that coal built are digging in for tough times ahead as a strike between the United Mine Workers and coal companies threatens to spread.

But then economic ups and downs are nothing new around here.

″It’s always been a rocky road,″ said John Simmons, mayor of West Frankfurt and owner of a small grocery that survives mainly on miners buying sandwiches and drinks as they go to and from work.

Since Monday, about 290 miners have been on picket lines at the Old Ben Coal Co. No. 25 mine near West Frankfort, a town of about 9,500 in southern Illinois.

The mine is one of 10 being struck, eight in Illinois and two in Indiana, by some 1,800 miners.

Although it’s too early to assess the economic impact on the small communities around the mines, workers are preparing for a long strike and businesspeople are holding their breaths.

″The businesses have not suffered yet, but that could be a premature comment,″ said Larry Rollinson, the city’s economic development director. If the strike drags on, ″I would imagine ... there will be a crunch in the amount of dollars spent here.″

West Frankfort, sitting on one of the richest coal seams in the nation, has a mining history dating back to the early 1900s and boasts its own Coal Miners Hall of Fame.

Yet unemployment in the city and surrounding Franklin County typically reaches double figures.

The miners sitting outside the No. 25 mine say they’ve already started to cut back on spending. Many say they have wives working and have been expecting the strike for a while.

″I’ll be eating a lot more meat loaf than I will T-bone steak,″ said Ted Murphy, a 17-year mining veteran.

The bitter part, they say, is seeing a family tradition disappear. Many are second-, third- or even fourth-generation miners.

″Like the old saying goes, we’re a dying breed,″ said Bob Chamness, who has spent 19 years in the mines.

Improved technology, stiffer competition and new federal regulations that discourage the use of high-sulfur coal has cost the industry thousands of jobs in recent years.

In 1979, 71 operating mines employed 18,500 workers and produced 59.5 million tons of coal, according to the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals. By last year, the total had dropped to 39 operating mines with 8,830 workers producing 60.6 million tons.

The union uses those numbers to bolster its claims that it is fighting for miners’ jobs. UMWA President Richard Trumka has threatened to expand the strike next week unless negotiations resume.

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