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Thursday, May 29, 2014 12:01 am

A novel of the coal mine union struggle, set in Virden

Sixteen Tons, by Kevin Corley.
Hardball Press, 2014.

These are perilous times for the working men and women of America. Recent elections have swept conservative political leaders into power in state governments across the nation and those elected officials have set their sights on the wages and benefits of workers in the public and private sectors. Fueled by multimillion-dollar political contributions from billionaire industrialists, the war is being waged on a battlefield tilted against workers. In those states controlled by conservative legislatures, laws enacted involving unemployment insurance, minimum wage, child labor and collective bargaining all share one trait. They favor employers over workers, big government over local government and destroying the economic rights of individuals.

Of course this war is not new in America. The struggle has been ongoing since our nation was founded. History teaches us that sad fact. Kevin Corley is not a famous historian and he does not have a degree from a fancy university, but he has reminded us of this struggle in a compelling historical novel, Sixteen Tons, that serves as a sobering reminder of the struggle for workers’ rights in America. It will never make the New York Times best-seller list or be made into a movie with a cast of Hollywood stars, but it is nonetheless a book that should be read and enjoyed by a large audience, especially residents of central Illinois who wish to learn more about the history and impact of the coal mining industry on this part of our state.

Corley taught history in Taylorville schools for seven years. During his career he taught the history of the coal mine wars to many students whose ancestors struggled in those battles for workers rights. The oral histories he helped created with many of those miners and research material from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum are the source material for his novel, primarily set in central Illinois in the early 1900s. While the novel is fiction, Corley has re-created history by often using the actual words of real-life individuals spoken as dialogue by the fictional characters he created. And some of the characters in his novel, labor organizer Mother Jones, for example, are real-life people. In a poignant scene in the novel, Corley quotes an actual speech of Mother Jones: “I learned in the early part of my career that labor must bear the cross for others’ sins, must be the vicarious sufferer for the wrongs others do.”

Sixteen Tons tells the story of the family of Antonio Vacca, an Italian immigrant who journeys to central Illinois to toil in the coal mines at Virden. The title of the novel refers to the quota that miners were required to dig on a daily basis, six days a week. Life in the mines is dark, dirty and dangerous. Corley’s vivid description of a mine disaster and the subsequent rescue efforts reminds readers that miners’ lives were in constant danger. We are reminded of this fact again by recent news reports of mining deaths in West Virginia, in a mine where OSHA cited owners for hundreds of safety violations and miners were powerless to bring the mine into compliance with the law.

But there is difficulty above ground as well as below. Owners controlled the lives of the miners to a degree that few would tolerate. In addition to the working conditions, they controlled where the miners lived, where they bought their food and almost every aspect of the miners’ lives. When the miners attempted to organize in order to improve their plight, employers hired thugs and bribed politicians to destroy the union movement. Corley’s depiction is both depressing and uplifting as he portrays the working man and his family unwilling to accept defeat in the struggle for decent working conditions. He describes the efforts by union organizers across America in a battle for human dignity. Reading Sixteen Tons allows readers to better understand the historical context of the ongoing struggle for workers’ rights in America. For those who maintain that unions have become too powerful, Corley’s novel serves as a reminder that unions remain a crucial bulwark against the oppression of countless American workers.

In mid-June, Kevin Corley will travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with the presidents of the United Mine Workers and the AFL-CIO. He will be recognized for Sixteen Tons, a book serving as an important reminder for those who have forgotten the sacrifices made by many to improve the plight of workers in our great nation.

Stuart Shiffman served for 22 years as a judge in Illinois. He is currently of counsel to Feldman-Wasser in Springfield and serves as an adjunct professor in the Political Science and Legal Studies Department at Illinois State University.

Kevin Corley will be signing Sixteen Tons at Springfield’s Barnes & Noble in late June as well as other bookstores in central Illinois.

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