LAS VEGAS (AP) _ A shift to a new kind of economy may be under way nationwide, but one of the blunt truths of the blue-collar world is still largely unchanged: The last hired means the first fired.

Just ask Jody Hogge of Taylorville, Ill., who in 1978 joined the first wave of American women to go to work in underground mines by joining Peabody Coal Co.'s No. 10 mine near Taylorville.

``When I started at the mine there were more than 1,000 union members working there, and maybe a dozen of them were women,'' Hogge said recently.

Hogge joined at a good time. Employment in the American coal industry reached its modern-day peak of 260,000 workers in 1979. Since then, the number of miners nationwide has declined steadily, reaching 122,000 workers in 1998, the latest year for which complete figures are available.

Among the casualties is the Coal Employment Project. Begun in 1978, the organization was instrumental in helping many women make the transition into an industry long dominated by men.

``Often, I would be the only woman on a shift,'' said Cosby Totten of Tazewell, Va., one of the founders of the project.

The project's membership peaked in 1984 at nearly 1,000 people, including women miners, some of their male co-workers and activists from other unions.

By the time the organization disbanded in June of last year, there were only 12 working miners among the 50 attendees.

``With all the coal mining jobs being gone, there are just so few women still working that we couldn't keep it going,'' said Hogge, who served on the project's board of directors for seven years.

Over the years, the Coal Employment Project eased the transition for many women trying to make their way into a workplace long barred to them. Even in the 1970s, many men still believed it was the worst kind of bad luck for a woman to go underground, a sure bet to cause an explosion or some other disaster.

``Really, the women who went in first had more problems with the men than I did,'' Hogge said. ``Some of the men even thought that women should be paid less for doing the same job.''

Hogge was laid off from Peabody's No. 10 mine in 1991, and in 1996 the mine closed down. The decision to disband the project was like losing part of her family, Hogge said.

``CEP started as a network, but it became more like we were sisters,'' she said. ``It was really a support system. When you're out there by yourself, there's just nobody else to talk to.''

In 13 years underground, she advanced to a skilled position as a shuttle car operator, earning close to $17 an hour plus benefits.

The good pay underground was attractive to women with families to raise, and family issues became one focus of the project. Their activism led to provisions for family leave in many coal industry contracts.

It was a job Hogge, 57, needed as she and her husband struggled to raise seven children. Although no longer a miner, she is still active in the United Mine Workers union, often working as a labor organizer.

Earlier this month, she served as a delegate to the union's constitutional convention in Las Vegas. Her regular work is providing home health care for homebound patients.

She still has to answer certain questions about working underground.

``It seems like I always get asked the same two questions,'' she said. ``Women always want to know, `Where do you put your purse?' and 'Where do you go to the bathroom?'''

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On the Net: Coal Employment Project: http://www.thekeep.org/(tilde)cep