Coal mined from a Harlan County strip mine falls from a conveyor belt in Totz, Kentucky. Veterans of bloody worker strikes of yesteryear say the improvements they won have made unions obsolete. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

Kentucky coal miners bled and died to unionize.

Their workplaces became war zones, and gun battles once punctuated union protests. In past decades, organizers have been beaten, stabbed and shot while seeking better pay and safer conditions for their work deep underground.

But more recently, the United Mine Workers union in Kentucky has been in retreat, dwindling like the black seams of coal in the Appalachian mountains.

And now the last union mine in Kentucky has been shut down.

“A lot of people right now who don’t know what the [union] stands for is getting good wages and benefits because of the sacrifice that we made,” said Kenny Johnson, a retired union miner who was arrested during the Brookside strike in Harlan County in the 1970s. “Because when we went on those long strikes, it wasn’t because we wanted to be out of work.”

Hard-fought gains are taken for granted by younger workers who earn high wages now, leading the coal industry to argue that the union ultimately rendered itself obsolete. But union leaders and retirees counter that anti-union operators, tightening environmental regulations and a turbulent coal market hastened the union’s demise in Kentucky.

The union era’s death knell was sounded in Kentucky on New Year’s Eve, when Patriot Coal announced the closing of its Highland Mine. The underground mine in western Kentucky employed about 400 hourly workers represented by the United Mine Workers of America.

For the first time in about a century, in the state that was home to the gun battles of “Bloody Harlan,” not a single working miner belongs to a union. That has left a bad taste in the mouths of retirees: men such as Charles Dixon, who heard the sputter of machine guns and the sound of bullets piercing his trailer in Pike County during a long strike with the A.T. Massey Coal Company in 1984 and 1985.

“I had my house shot up during that strike,” said Dixon, the United Mine Workers local president at the time. “I was just laying in bed and next thing you know you hear a big AR-15 unloading on it. Coal miners had it tough, buddy, they sure have.”

But industry leaders argue that higher wages and safer mines in recent decades have reduced the desire for workers at non-union mines to organize.

“Anymore, I just don’t think there’s that level of discontent between the company and working coal miners, which I think is a very good thing,” said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, an industry group. “If anything, they’ve won, which I think they’ve worked themselves out of a job, in that respect.”

Bissett said mines have become safer despite the union’s diminished presence in Kentucky.

“We’re in some of the safest time in the history of U.S. mining right now and a time when the UMWA is at their lowest level,” he said.

— Associated Press