Book Review: Killing for Coal by Thomas G. Andrews

Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War.  By Thomas G. Andrews.  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.  386 pp.  ISBN 978-0-674-04691-6.)


            In 1914, a deadly shootout erupted between colliers and national guardsmen in what would become known as the Ludlow Massacre in the Colorado coalfields. Thomas G. Andrews’ book, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War,  uses this massacre to frame his work on the coalfield wars during a time of unionization in the American West.  Andrews chooses to expand his lens backward by deconstructing this event into an energy issue of supply and demand that became so great that humanism was forgotten. Andrews never intends his book to be a blow by blow depiction of the Ludlow massacre.  Instead, he uses Ludlow as an example of how industrial capitalism and the consumer driven economy it created laid waste to the environment and the miners as both were ignored in the supply chain.  Andrews takes his reader down deep into the earth, and thus deep into the issues, to show that these coal wars were not just terrible incidents to be viewed alone, but they were part of a collective interconnectedness that joined energy and society throughout the industrial world creating a unique biosphere sandwiched between the underground environment and the world.       

            Andrews does not try to make the Ludlow Massacre central to his story because this would destroy the interconnectedness he is trying to show to his reader. Instead, Andrews goes back to the coal itself as a relatively innocuous “rock,” and shows how those who came to possess it were the holders of profit and power.  Then, he goes a step further and shows the interaction between those who wanted to posses it and those who were to extract it, and their multi year struggle between workplace safety and fairness and the profit margin that ended in a deadly work stoppage and unionization attempt. 

            Andrews’ book will surprise some readers because he does not focus his work on the victimology of the miner as many other authors would do.  Rather, by his objectivity he shows a more complete tale of the broader picture of coal as the center of mass consumerism, the rise of the industrial capitalist and the rise of the laborer as their joint voices are heard in labor relations of the time.  By deconstructing this massacre, Andrews can go backwards in time to show the changes that coal brought to the environment, the communities, and the individuals along the way.  Andrews also shows how the working class became more inclusive as the work underground fostered a spirit of community and mutual need and respect as the colliers worked inside the dangerous and unpredictable conditions that surround underground mining.

            Andrews’ book is filled with factual science, but that should not deter the average reader.  He flows over the science as easily as a stream over stones, and the reader easily follows his journey.  It is also filled with stories of class conflict that built into a sense of brotherhood that grew into unionization.   Andrews takes the position of a pragmatic observer.  In this way, the reader cannot be taken in by Andrews’ preconceived notions and the reader is instantly separated from their own biases as well as the facts speak for themselves.  In the end, the astute reader will be left questioning their own consumerism as part of overall global energy consumption.

            Make no mistake, while this book is not solely about the massacre at Ludlow, it is about the rape of the environment surrounding the mining communities, the upstart cities, the industrial accidents, and the massacre of the free market system by the industrial capitalists.  It is also about the need to band together for the betterment of the masses as workers fought for their rights, and it also shows the need for an arbitrator in their midst.  In the end, however, Andrews’ real point is to show how we, as a nation, got so caught up in a rock in the ground and allowed it to lord over us as consumers, and that is no small accomplishment.

            This book is an amazing look into the coalfields.  Though it is written about Colorado, it could easily be transplanted into the same situation in other coal producing states.  However, it is also a look into mass consumerism and the need of our country to rely on that one great natural resource to the exclusion of many things including worker safety, fair wages, community spirit, and the environment.  Anyone reading this book with any knowledge of the coal mining industry will find familiar passages inside, but may be surprised to see how fairly Andrews treats the industry in this day and time.  This is a book that could be read by nearly anyone interested in the coal industry, but also environmentalists, capitalists, and students can take a message from Andrews’ words.  As a country, when we cry for “green technology” we need to ensure that this is not just a trendy phrase, but that we truly understand how enveloping a new buzzword can become.  Therefore, Killing for Coal absolutely shows any reader that by expanding new energy sources one can open a Pandora’s box, and what comes out is not always what you expect.