Bargaining electric power: Miners, blackouts, and the politics of illumination in the United States, 1965-1979

Postdoctoral Social Sciences Teaching Fellow, University of Chicago
kahle@uchicago.edu 
Twitter: @trishkahle  

Résumé

This article examines how the perils conjured by blackouts in American cities after 1965 became interpreted as a key point of political and bargaining leverage for the nation’s coal miners. The anxieties provoked by these blackouts –sexual deviance, urban unrest, spoiled food, lost productivity, and Cold War incursions– pointed to a broader crisis of American political and social life driven by the massive social changes which had taken place since the end of the Second World War. As the United States entered the 1970s, a long-range energy crisis appeared not only to secure the future of the once-imperiled coal industry in the United States, but also allowed miners to recast their union as a bedrock of national security rather than as one of the main sources of the nation’s labor unrest. Evoking the threat of coerced darkness in the modern American home which had been designed for bright illumination, they also pointed to the figurative darkness of the coal mining workscape, described by one miner as “beating the devil at a game of hell”: the constant threat of black lung, disablement, and death. A form of collective bargaining leverage thus opened up a broader debate: how, given the deadly work of coal extraction, could energy be produced in a democratic society that guaranteed the right to life, liberty, property, and, increasingly, light? Did “one man” have to “die every day” to keep the nation’s lights on? This paper argues that miners used the framework of lights and darknesses to contend that mines must be made safe and energy democratized in order to stabilize the energy regime in crisis. In so doing, they framed a new politics of illumination which allowed them to navigate a new terrain of collective action.

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Introduction

In the early months of 1966, the coal industry was still reeling from the fallout of a large regional blackout that had “plunged” 30 million people and 80,000 square miles across the Northeast in “darkness and peril.” The coalfields had not lost power in the blackout, and fuel shortages had played no role in the event. Still, the editors of the industry journal Coal recognized the utilities were coal’s largest market, and that the future of the two industries were tightly bound together. They castigated those “who designed, built, operated and observed” the nation’s power system and had “failed…to foresee disaster after disaster.” The blackout was a “dark disgrace” which they compared directly to the “senseless tragedy of the assassination” of President John F. Kennedy. “Unbelievably,” Coal observed, the blackouts had resulted from a system operating as intended “it was a predictable yet unforeseen sequence of events” in a system increasingly organized around large-scale interconnection.1 Their dismay and anxieties were emblematic of a society that across the early 20th C. had invested heavily in electric power to foster social, economic, and political stability.2 The absolute necessity of reliable illumination reached from the coalfields to urban police forces that began to develop illumination-based security strategies in response to unrest in many of the nation’s cities between 1964 and 1968. It exposed the way illumination bound together an emerging set of rights and obligations imagined to govern electricity production and use. These relationships of illumination gave political meaning and moral inflection to currents of electric power.

Figure 1: Primary Sources of US Electric Power Consumption, 1950-1980. Adapted from Energy Information Administration, “Electric Power Sector Energy Consumption,” Monthly Energy Review, January 2019. Accessed January 29, 2019.
Figure 1: Primary Sources of US Electric Power Consumption, 1950-1980. Adapted from Energy Information Administration, “Electric Power Sector Energy Consumption,” Monthly Energy Review, January 2019. Accessed January 29, 2019. 

The majority of this illumination, with some regional variation in hydro-rich, coal-poor areas of the country, was coal-fired (Figure 1). The centrality of the utility market to the coal industry was well understood by coal miners, who imagined the relationships of illumination running along power lines –“coal by wire.”