Appalachia’s main industry is dying and some workers are looking to a new economic promise after Trump’s proves empty.
Set in a wooded valley between the Tug Fork River and the Mate creek, Matewan, West Virginia, was the site of the 1920 Matewan massacre, a shootout between pro-union coal miners and coal company agents that left 10 people dead and triggered one of the most brutal fights over the future of the coal industry in US history.
The coal industry in Appalachia is dying – something that people there know better than anyone. Some in this region are pinning their hopes on alternative solutions, including rising Democratic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.
“Coal is over. Forget coal,” said Jimmy Simpkins, who worked as a coalminer in the area for 29 years. “It can never be back to what it was in our heyday. It can’t happen. That coal is not there to mine.”
A coal production forecast conducted in 2018 by West Virginia University estimates coal production will continue to decline over the next two decades. Over 34,000 coal mining jobs in the US have disappeared over the past decade, leaving around 52,000 jobs remaining in the industry, despite several promises made by Donald Trump throughout his 2016 election campaign that he would bring those jobs back.
“A lot of guys thought they were going to bring back coal jobs, and Trump stuck it to them,” said 69-year-old Bennie Massey, who worked for 30 years as a coalminer in Lynch, Kentucky.
The town was at the center of the American labor movement in the early 20th century. At the peak of the coal industry in the 1920’s, about 500,000 miners were union members. As the coal industry declined, so did union membership, and now the town’s local miners’ union, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local 1440, consists entirely of retired miners.
Carl Shoupe, a retired coalminer in Harlan county, Kentucky, who worked as a union organizer for 14 years, said people in Appalachia need to start moving away from relying solely on the coal industry as an economic resource for the region.
“What we’ve been doing is trying to transition into the 21st century and get on past coal,” he said.
Those transition efforts are still being impeded by the coal industry, as Shoupe says the majority of property in the area is still owned by coal companies and they have denied his efforts to develop solar panel fields.
The Green New Deal, a resolution proposed by Ocasio-Cortez, calls on the federal government to transform the United States’ energy infrastructure and economy to deal with the climate crisis. The resolution includes a call to create millions of high-wage union jobs through a federal jobs guarantee and a just transition for vulnerable communities.
Republicans – and Fox News – have slammed the proposal. “It’ll kill millions of jobs. It’ll crush the dreams of the poorest Americans and disproportionately harm minority communities,” the US president said last month.
Shoupe doesn’t think so. “They have bushwhacked this Green New Deal, told all kinds of lies. For different people in different parts of the country, it means different things,” he said.
Stanley Sturgill, a coal miner for 41 years in Harlan County, Kentucky, explained the Green New Deal would open the door for elected officials to use the plan to render solutions needed in their own communities.
“If it was called the Red New Deal, it would be approved by now,” said Sturgill. “What you’re doing with the Green New Deal is you’re opening the door to infringe on the Republicans’ money and that’s what they’re afraid of. Republicans laugh and say you can’t pay for it. But if you tax everybody what they should be taxed, and I’m talking about the wealthy, there wouldn’t be a problem.”
Sturgill cited the coal companies that receive billions of dollars in annual government subsidies and tax breaks while hiring expensive lawyers to fight to pay black lung benefits to coal miners. “I fought seven years before I got my black lung benefits, and they were hoping I died before getting paid,” added Sturgill.
Thousands of coal miners are currently at risk of losing their pensions. The coal miners’ pension fund is estimated to become insolvent by 2022 as many of the companies that were paying into the fund have filed for bankruptcy. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund that was founded to provide benefits to coal miners with black lung disease – a progressive disease that eventually suffocates sufferers – is also severely underfunded.
On 23 July 2019 about 150 coal miners and miners’ widows visited Washington DC to appeal to Congress to pass legislation ensuring these benefits are properly funded. Several retired coal miners who made the trip were unhappy with the response from Republicans, especially the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
“McConnell came in, never did sit down and said ‘I thank you for being here. I know you’re concerned about your taxes on black lung, I just want you to know we’re going to take care of it,’ and out the door. I said: ‘no he didn’t!’ We drove ten hours to sit with our representatives and talk to them and that’s all we get,” said George Massey, who worked as a coalminer in Benham, Kentucky, for 23 years and has served on the town’s council for 19 years.
“They look at us like we’re something under their shoes. They couldn’t care less about coal miners in south-east Kentucky,” Massey added.
Those sentiments of being discarded by elected officials helped Trump’s promises to bring back coal and “Make America Great Again” resonate with many voters in Appalachia. A substantive amount of political reporting has reinforced these sentiments by dismissing Appalachia as “Trump country”.
“They’re watching their whole livelihood and proud culture disappearing and somebody comes and says ‘I can bring that back for you’ is a powerful message for some, and has a lot to do with holding on to that hope they can keep what they have,” said Adam Malle, an organizer with Southeastern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a group focused on just economic transition efforts away from extractive industries in Appalachia.
“If we’re talking about a just transition, if these are places used to providing the energy for the country, that’s what we need to do to transition them out. Creating jobs and a pathway to do that is the role that plays,” said Taysha Lee DeVaughan, the president of Southeastern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.
“People identify with the strength and tradition of coal mining. It’s a powerful message. For us in environmentalism, we need a more powerful message, that we’re not going to leave you behind, which is how it feels or has felt going forward.”
Terry Steele, who worked as a coalminer for 26 years in Matewan and is still an active member of UMWA Local 1440, explained the nostalgic hope behind Trump’s promises are rooted in racism and sexism while ignoring that the “good old days” where when labor unions were much stronger.
“The good old days you should remember is when we had unions and we could look forward to a future and our kids had a better future,” said Steele. “Now our kids are scared to death of their future. It’s because of greed and everything flowing to the top.”
Steele emphasized the need for renewable energy jobs to concentrate on Appalachia.
“Build something where these people used to work in the mines, and good-paying jobs, not having to work three jobs to make what you used to be able to make with one. We want other jobs for our kids to work at,” he added.
Though the coal industry has significantly declined, its historically exploitative practices still persist as coal corporations file bankruptcies that leave workers unpaid, while coal communities are left behind. Several mine sites have even been abandoned with no implemented clean-up. Congress has yet to pass several proposed bills to fund these benefits and clean up projects.
“It’s a racket. Miners are being robbed every day,” said Bethel Brock, who was a coalminer for 32 years in Wise, Virginia. Between 1968 to 2014, an estimated 76,000 coal miners died of black lung disease. He fought coal companies for 14 years to secure his own black lung benefits after he was diagnosed.
“The coal operators don’t care, they just want to take you like a piece of worn out mining equipment and set you out in a field somewhere, that’s their philosophy.”
Brock continues fighting for other miners to receive their benefits in the face of attorneys and coal company doctors who drag out appeals against paying out benefits and intimidate current miners from filing claims.
“We live in a country that tolerates stuff like that,” he said.
Michael Sainato in Matewan, West Virginia I The Guardian