Front Porch Blog

Coal Jobs, America, and Violence

Building on Jeff Biggers’ message

Happy labor day everyone. This day carries special significance in Appalachia, particularly for our coal miners. We look at it with special attention today as, Don Blankenship, Ted Nugent, Sean Hannity and several far-right extremists are holding a protest – opposite the actual UMWA labor rally – meant to whip up the fervor against those of us working to address climate change and mountaintop removal. They are holding the “rally” because, in Don Blankenship’s words:

If big biz and gov’t are working against American workers, who will support them?

Despite the fact that they are working to draw attendance away from the labor rally, this event is titled the “Friends of America” rally, and it is being hosted by a swath of sordid characters with extremist union-busting pasts, and a history of inciting violence against those they disagree with.

For instance, on his website, Sean Hannity asked Which Type of Revolution Would you Prefer?
The choices?
a) military coup
b) armed rebellion
c) war for secession

You know what is missing? D) “democratic elections.” Hannity and those like him refuse to recognize the legitimate elections which have taken place over last 4 years. His extremist views are unpopular and can not command a majority of American voters. So his only choice is to offer his viewers violent alternatives.

Ted Nugent has a long and equally sordid history, recently telling the now-President of the United States to “Suck on His Machine Guns.” Hannity defended this statement on his television show.

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is equally notorious, telling an ABC reporter who was attempting to report on Blankenship’s dealings with a WV Supreme Court justice in the French Riviera:

If you’re going to start taking pictures of me, you’re liable to get shot.

Not to mention that Massey pulled in $20 million of profits last quarter while making huge layoffs and being fined millions for clean water act violations.

So, today they gather to incite fervor and hatred of those of us who are working to protect our climate, protect our mountains, and protect and promote Appalachian jobs. For those who are not familiar with the history of violence against those working for progress in the coal mines, I suggest you read about the Appalachian mine wars or the Battle of Blair Mountain. The threat of violence is not an idle one in Appalachia to this very day. In a now famous instance, a supposed coal-miner invaded a July 4th picnic on Kayford Mountain this year and threatened to kill a father and his child by slitting his throat.

A letter printed just last week in the WV Register Herald called out two local women by name, saying:

Honestly, you threaten my livelihood or the well-being of my family I might attack you too.

One of the women has already been assaulted while protesting the destruction of her home. Their tactics are disgusting.

But why do they have to resort to such tactics? Why aren’t they using empirical data and sound science to back up their assertion that treehuggers are taking their jobs? Because people like Don Blankenship know that position is indefensible. I’d like to take a few minutes to refute their premise, and make a few suggestions on how we can promote jobs in Appalachia.

Lets start with a simple statement. The coal industry is killing Appalachian jobs.

Lets look at historical coal employment in the state of West Virginia.

According to the WV Department of Mine Safety, Health, and Training, the peak employment in West Virginia mines was 130,457 workers in the year 1940. The latest employment data for a full year shows just 21,190 miners for 2008 (equal to the year 1897). Generally about 5-6,000 of those are surface miners in West Virginia although the numbers for May 2009 show a drop in surface employment to just 3,457 in WV. For the curious, KY numbers are similar.

The coal companies have made a career out of union-busting and cutting jobs. Mountaintop removal is used specifically because it takes the miner out of the mine, and lowers overhead costs for coal companies. This has resulted in 115,000 fewer mining jobs in West Virginia alone. Less than 15% of surface miners in WV are unionized. For all underground and surface miners in WV, just about 1/4 are unionized. The numbers for Kentucky are even worse.

As outlined by Dr. Hendryx of WVU, the counties with the highest amount of mining are the counties with the highest unemployment, highest poverty, highest mortality, and lowest life expectancy.

The Hendryx study found that coal-mining’s costs outweigh the benefits to Appalachia by $42 billion per year. Mining areas fared significantly worse across all socioeconomic and mortality indicators compared with non-mining areas of Appalachia and/or the nation. These conditions worsened as levels of mining increased. Hendryx also notes that as strip-mining increases and underground mining decreases, areas with heavy mining have the highest unemployment rates in the region, contrary to common perception that mining means jobs.

So, the question becomes: How do we honor and promote jobs and economic development for coal miners and citizens in Appalachia.

My recommendations:
1) Stop mountaintop removal and return to traditional deep-mining, which keeps our mountains intact and employs more workers underground and off-site.
Not only is stopping mountaintop removal likely to inspire more economic diversification in Appalachia, but simply putting miners back to work underground will do more than enough to offset mountaintop removal jobs. What industry is going to want to move into an area where foundations are cracking from unstable ground and the water is completely ruined?

2) Invest heavily in energy efficiency.
An Appalachian Regional Commission study shows that investing in energy efficiency would bring 15,000 jobs a year to the Appalachian region. That is more workers per year than currently work on mountaintop removal sites total.

3) Invest in green jobs and renewable energy.
Coal River Mountain Wind is one of many instances where we can create more jobs and more energy from renewable sources than coal. Small-scale locally-owned wind farms could provide even greater economic benefit to the Appalachian region than utility scale wind.

4) Reclaim the mess made by mountaintop removal
Turn that bulldozer around and start rebuilding what has been lost. It will take decades, at least, to clean up the mess that has been made in Appalachia from mountaintop removal. But it must be done if we are to restore our home and bring long-lasting economic prosperity to the Appalachian region.

5) Honor the American miner
People across America fail to recognize the contributions that coal miners have made to our nation, to the labor movement, to our military, and to our industry. I agree with Jeff Goodell that there should be a monument to coal in every city and town in the United States. Coal has helped America achieve industrial and military greatness and has powered our successes in the 20th century. But we now know that Appalachian coal supplies are dwindling, and that coal mining as we know it destroys our mountains, streams, communities, and our very climate. We have got to provide new economic opportunities beyond coal-mining in Appalachia if we are to preserve our heritage and culture, and if we are to allow our children a safe and whole place to grow up. But we must recognize the value of what coal-miners have fought and died for over the last several centuries if we are to carry their legacy into our changing world here in the 21st century.




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