Trish Kahle, University of Chicago | Newberry

Trish Kahle, University of Chicago

Friday, December 15, 2017


Labor History Seminar

Who Designed This Upside Down System? Coal Miners’ Place in a New Energy Regime

As the national energy crisis peaked in the early months of Winter 1973, Arnold Miller—the recently elected United Mine Workers president and leader of the Miners for Democracy—asked the rank-and-file delegates who had gathered at the UMW constitutional convention, “Who designed this upside-down system of allocating the nation’s energy resources?” To answer this question, Miller drew on a growing body of research and political commentary that pointed to the emergence of a new type of company that had emerged alongside the efforts to reform the UMW: the energy conglomerate.

Although miners had been grappling with the emergence of this new type of firm since at least 1969, as the nation faced a growing fuels shortage, the 1973 Arab oil embargo catalyzed the chronic shortages into a full-blown crisis. Coal miners found themselves forced to negotiate not only a new company structure that altered the tripartite company-state-union relationship which had long structured collective bargaining and organizing efforts, but also a political crisis which simultaneously heralded them as the nation’s potential saviors while also blaming them for strike rates which were the highest of any industry. This paper contends that the centrality of coal miners to potential political solutions to the crisis exposed the ways in which the energy crisis was not only a crisis of consumption or international diplomacy, but a crisis of post-World War II industrial democracy—one which must be examined from the perspective of the energy workplace.

Cost and Registration Information 

Newberry Scholarly Seminars are pre-circulated. For a copy of the paper, email Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.