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In 1968, the Mannington Mine in Farmington WV owned by Consol Coal, caught fire, blew up, and 78 miners were buried, many likely alive.
In 1972, a Consol mine in Blacksville, WV, caught fire and 9 miners were buried (again, likely alive) when Consol sealed the mine off to stop the fire and save the coal.
I remember those well, having been involved in labor struggles as a working Teamster truck-driver back then with friends in the coal fields.
In the very early ‘70s, a militant movement of rank and file union coal miners called the Miners for Democracy was born, threw out corrupt leaders, and rebuilt a union that was militant, demanded safe working conditions, and knew who the enemy was, and still is — the owners of those coal companies like Consol.
I knew and worked with some of them. I even worked in the mid ‘70s to try and persuade some folks to revive the MFD as it had now dissolved and some of the militancy and class-consciousness was fading.
But at its founding, the MFD knew what it was about, knew that the coal companies were evil, and knew miners had to stick up for each other as workers…or die.
Yesterday, I stood on a sidewalk outside of this building holding a sign calling for reduced carbon emissions while a thousand or so miners and family members marched by supporting those same companies that have brutalized and exploited the communities of Appalachia for decades.
What happened to make union coal miners support the companies that buried some ancestors alive, gave most of the survivors black lung and then tried to deny them benefits, and laid them off by the tens of thousands as the companies opened non-union mines and began ruining the “almost heaven” hills and valleys of WV with mountain top removal which employs few, if any, union miners.
Why are union miners falling for the company line that there’s a “war on coal” when the coal and gas companies are really making a war on ALL of us, on our planet, on our children’s futures and certainly on those very miners who are marching on behalf of the coal companies?
BECAUSE THEY’RE SCARED TO DEATH OF THE FUTURE.
Last year, I traveled thru some of the same mining communities where friends lived and worked in the early 70’s, towns like War and Welch that were once friendly,solid, working class towns, places you’d be proud to live. When I was there last year, I couldn’t even find a pizza shop open on a Sunday and most businesses were boarded up.
MINERS ARE SCARED!
I saw poverty on that trip in those hidden Appalachian valleys that I’d not seen since the Kennedy-Johnson era and the War on Poverty days.
MINERS AND THEIR FAMILIES HAVE A RIGHT TO BE SCARED.
Why? Not because there’s a “war on coal”, but because those very same coal companies that fund their protests, pulled out of their communities once the easy-to-get coal was gone and went to mountain-top removal or tar-sands oil or fracking and left those miners and their families out in the cold, jobless, and desperate for easy answers.
I saw anger on the faces of those marching coal miners yesterday, but I smelled fear on every one of them, fear of further social and economic devastation, of hungry children with lousy schools and no way out, of old houses without money to keep them up, of the addictions people turn to when they’re desperate for relief from the social pain of unemployment that just keeps coming every time your kid looks in your empty pockets for lunch money.
Those angry and fearful miners aren’t stupid, they’re as smart as anyone else, but they’re desperate. They know what’s coming, about climate change, of looming environmental disasters already too late to avoid…but they still need to feed their kids.
Those miners and their families have fueled this nation with their labor and their lives for countless decades. They, like everyone else displaced in this Wall Street “recovery” but working class disaster, need jobs, good jobs with dignity, union protection, and living wages. Jobs that leave us with some sense of pride at the end of the shift, knowing we somehow contributed to the common good, and that ain’t gonna come from the coal companies, not now, not ever. They’ve used those miners and their families up and now they’re spitting them out, while using them one last time for their own interests.
And so I come to the proposed regulations, weak as they are, and certainly to be weaker once Congress gets done working for the coal companies. But they are still urgently needed and strengthened if we are to even begin getting off our self-destructive path paved by the fossil fuel industry.
But while we debate those rules, we must also create good jobs for those who will be, correctly, displaced from the mines.
Does anyone dare to tell me that a working miner would not rather have a good, clean, union job building solar panels or wind turbines? Or that a human being would choose black lung over a clean environment that allows comfortable retirement, a job where the roof doesn’t fall and kill you, a job where you might wind up being buried alive to save the coal?
If you dare to answer “yes” to those questions, I’ll refer you to a good psychiatrist for a sanity check.
In closing, I urge the EPA to do the SANE thing by rewriting your proposed carbon reduction regulations to not only increase the rate at which the reductions are achieved, but to demand that Congress provide the funds to put those who lose coal jobs back to work in fully funded renewable energy jobs and save the communities that have been destroyed by the coal companies.
Government cannot serve two masters. It either works for us, the working people, or for the fossil fuel companies. I know which side I’m on. How about you?
— by Mel Packer
This was delivered as a comment at the Environmental Protection Agency’s public hearing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 1, 2014 about proposed new regulations.
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Pete, I acknowledge that pretty much all of my proposed “solutions” or ideas will not be done by this government. I also am well aware of the many failed programs re: conversion from the past. Nonetheless, if we lived in a democracy for, of, and by the people instead of the corporate auction that passes for a government, we would demand and win a jobs program that was guaranteed to provide a decent living with safe working conditions. I was not suggesting that private industry take this on nor be begged to do so (and you didn’t suggest that), but simply that a “peoples” government would march into those valleys, make it clear that industrial capitalism has failed all of us, tax those very corporations, and use that money to commit long term to subsidizing an alternative energy industry that would guarantee good, safe, long-term jobs to those displaced by reduction and eventual (way down the road) elimination of carbon emissions. Of course many miners would not jump at the chance to work on solar panels or wind turbines without guarantees of job security (or at least income), but I’m willing to bet almost all would take that risk if there WERE those guarantees given that the few union deep mines currently operating are closing anyway. And yes, it’s hard to re-train in one’s middle ages. I know, I did it twice. But with income guarantees while re-training, it becomes much more attractive and likely to succeed.
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Well I don’t think I need a shrink but I wouldn’t be surprised if lots of the miners would NOT jump at the opportunity to make solar panels. For lots of reasons. Yes it may be safer but it is unknown, not something they know well how to do. Many are middle aged and now they have to start something totally new. I am all for complete conomic conversion funding for folks who would lose their jobs be it restrictions on logging, coal mining, nuclear weapons development etc. But the reality is these programs have rarely been attempted and never come close to being done well. Long delays in eligibility determination, applying, getting retraining programs set up, developing jobs for the folks who are trained etc. There is every reason to believe they wouldn’t be receiving compensation for a long time.
A better approach would be company paid grants to everyone displaced. And we all know how likely it is Congress would approve that.
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Martin and Briget,
Thanks for your excellent comments and analysis.
The company unions have militarized our front line of defense. Workers have but one option, One Big Union. No more hacks, who watch us die. No more traitors, like Tony Boyle, UMWA President who murdered Jock Yablonski. Jock said it best: “Every union should have a vision of the future,” stated Jock Yablonski as he announced his candidacy for the UMWA presidency. “What good is a union that reduces coal dust in the mines only to have miners and their families breathe pollutants in the air, drink pollutants in the water, and eat contaminated commodities?” We are one class on the job, or in the communities.
This is one of the most compelling testimonies I’ve heard from the hearing. The EPA was developed to protect the citizens of this country yet the protections put in place such as the clean air, clean water and Superfund acts do not apply to the Unconventional drilling for gas. They are promoting this as the answer to clean energy over dirty coal. It’s up to our government to support and protect the people who have been working all their lives to deliver energy for all of us to consume yet they are looking at a future of poverty and unemployment.
Critics of progress always seem to offer an all or nothing proposition, it won’t do this or it won’t do that. The lights will go out and we’ll all be out of work! How did you get here today? Did you drive your car? Are you going to fuel your car with solar energy? We can, and we should be instead of trading one toxic source for another.
History teaches us that time and again these critics have been proven wrong. Seatbelts in cars did not kill the automobile industry-they save lives. Environmental laws did not kill industry-they created new ones. It’s time for the EPA and US government to see that leaving this up to the States to regulate and monitor is a mistake especially here in PA where our DEP is more interested in promoting dirty extraction of gas instead of protecting the tax paying citizens.
Everyday new markets are developed for wind and solar and other sustainable, less polluting energy sources. Germany recently crossed the 50% threshold for producing its domestic energy needs. The naysayers always seem to forget about our capability for innovation and adaptability. Our government owes it to these Coal miners and the rest of us to train them for jobs in the renewable energy sector and stop relying on toxic fossil fuels and promoting and protecting O&G.
We could once again be an industrial nation of building solar and wind to give us the energy we need. How many jobs would be created in manufacturing, installing and maintaining renewable energy sources?
It’s a war on the people. If any of us dumped even a few gallons of the toxic mixture used by the O&G industry we would be arrested and thrown in jail. If another country was caught doing what O&G is doing to us we would declare war. It’s time for the EPA, the DEP, the politicians elected to protect the health and well being of the tax paying citizens to start doing exactly that. Subsidies and job training in the renewable industry is the answer to so many of our concerns yet there was no mention of regulating the emissions coming from the toxic O&G industry. We all face the problem of unemployment and poverty if we’re going to rely on shale gas extraction as the answer to our energy needs. We’re all facing living with toxic air, worthless land not having potable water if we don’t change our mission now!
Thank you Mel! Excellent testimony.