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A Just Transition: Break Free

By John Paul Wright - RailroadMusic.Org, May 17, 2016

There is a suggestion called a Just Transition that is floating around parts of the labor and environmental communities. To fully understand this term, we as workers, community members, union members and activists would need to explore,

  1. What we used to have.
  2. When and how we transitioned historically.
  3. Where we want to go.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson, shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, commissioned a U.S Army expedition called the Corps of Discovery. The task was to map and claim the west before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it. Part of the mission was to find a water transportation route to the Pacific Ocean. In 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition set sight on the Pacific Ocean. After finding no direct water route, they returned to St Louis in 1806. it took industry and the U.S Government sixty-four years after Lewis and Clark returned, to connect the nation by rail, from sea to shining sea.

In 1869, Leland Stanford, railroad baron and co-founder of Stanford University, drove the “golden spike” that connected the rails of the first transcontinental railroad. The railroad spike sits in the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Before the spike was driven into the ceremonial railroad cross tie at Promontory Point, Utah, the United States had not yet been connected, ocean to ocean with a transportation policy.

As the railroad companies grew and people moved at speeds never before traveled across land, small communities were rapidly becoming connected to larger markets. Farming communities had access to rail transportation and industries popped up in the railroad towns. In 1913, Ford starts mass production on his first assembly line. On June 29th, 1956, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act was enacted. It took industry 43 years to get a policy in place, that would give the automobile industry the green light to further transition this country from rail transportation of people, to personally owned vehicles.

The trucking industry was born, the railroad transitioned from steam to diesel fueled locomotives. The movement of industrial commodities replaced the passengers that were owning personal transportation. The nation’s population rapidly grew with the workers needed to build these new innovations and dreams. New industries were created with investment and taxation. The nation was more, so called secure, or was in a better position militarily, hence the name of the government policy that created the nation’s highway system.

Of course, this is a broad over simplification of many ideas, policies, historical facts and timelines. There were many other policies that were discussed and pitched. There were many laws, taxes and industrial failures and successes, as well as, iconic brands, dreams and ways of life that were transitioned or simply disappeared as one industry won favor over another.

On April 29th, 1886, the U.S Government signed an agreement with the Sioux nation that gave them exclusive rights to land in the Black Hills. The Treaty of Fort Laramie included mission schools and white teachers to teach the Indians how to be competitive and how to farm. Gold prospectors, not wishing to agree with the government treaty, broke the law, trespassed on Indian land and found gold. The Sioux, wishing to keep their land exclusive, fought back and turf wars ensued. The U.S Government took the Black Hills back in 1877.

On May 30th 1931, Black Elk, a Lakota elder and medicine man, climbed Harney Peak in South Dakota. He climbed the mountain to suggest to his ancestors that he might have failed in his vision to save his people. Black Elk saw in his lifetime a transition that included a time when his people were living in a free and open space, to a time when his people were living in poverty on reservations.

In 1977, Wendell Berry, a farmer, poet visionary from Kentucky, publishes a book called the Unsettling of America. The book starts a conversation. The conversation is about family farming and small communities. The Berry Center, today, is working to forward an idea called the 50-year farm bill. I guess you could call it a 50-year vision. Re-Transition.

On September 22, 1985 the first Farm Aid concert was held in Illinois to raise money for the failing family farms. Twenty-nine years after the nation selected a policy to build a highway system that would replace the old two lane highways; Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young were inspired enough to ask people to wake up from their American industrial dreaming. The concert was held to help the family farmers who were losing their farms to the banking industry and industrialized farming.

I have to mention, The Lewis and Clark trip was called the Corps of Discovery Expedition. The Lewis and Clark interpretive center is located on the pacific coast in a place called Cape Disappointment Park. While I recognize that these names are not exactly associated with my point, I can suggest a great discovery of disappointment.

Today, in my state of Kentucky, coal is in decline. Some suggest a war against coal has been waged and some suggest that Obama is the culprit. For decades, much like the U.S Military planes that shoot thousands of leaflets clustered in projectiles over communities, that the U.S Government is spreading democracy and freedom to in the Middle East; Friends of Coal, an industry paid for propaganda organization, has been spreading a wide array of messaging to the Appalachian mountain region. People can buy automobile license plates with the Friends of Coal logo on it from the Kentucky Department of Motor Vehicles.

We can speculate why coal is in decline and many are worried that it, is never going to come back. The people I work with almost every day are family men from a place. A small town or city. They have transitioned from being employed in Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee or West Virginia, to being employed in Louisville, Kentucky. Many of them drive home after putting in their good 12 in for the railroad. Some of them do not see their families for days and then drive upwards of three hours on their off days to and from where they, the worker, used to live with their family.

It would be easy and a serious over simplification to suggest that they should just move their families to where the work is. It would not be an easy conversation if one would suggest that they have voted themselves into this position. It would be fact to say the railroad industry has partnered and profited greatly with the coal industry. It would also be a fact to mention that the railroad is forcing these people to move and train on new territories for 30 days with no pay. What we railroaders call on “their own time and dime.” It would be a very hard to get answers if one were to ask; Where is the railroad unions in all of this? Shouldn’t the workers be paid if they are being asked to move with the industry? Are the railroad and coal industry friends? Who is doing this to who?

I remember in school being taught that to learn the proper way to spell the word friend, all one had to learn was a saying. A friend is a friend to the END. The friend, I mentioned that has been spreading information designed to forward the goals and intentions of the coal industry, has a slogan suggesting that Coal, Keeps the Lights On. That is a simple suggestion. What else can coal do? What has it done? The industry group also suggests that after the mountain has been leveled by mountain top removal, industry will leave in the wake of progress and innovation, usable land. A golf course. Tourism. The State of Kentucky included in the recent budget millions of dollars for a project to build a replica of Noah’s Ark.

The railroad, CSX transportation, in 2009, got rid of the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia that it owned. CSX put the hotel into bankruptcy and then a person bought it. His last name is Justice. This is the hotel that has the famous bunker located under it where Congress would go in case of a nuclear war. To be somewhat a smartass, but very serious. I suggest that these two facts, the ark and the hotel could be a metaphorical suggestion of a new transition in policy. Maybe the transitioning workers could stay closer to home and we as a Commonwealth should build more than one ark. Maybe we could build a really big one on some of that usable land? Maybe we could call it the house of the rising seas, hotel and casino.

As I write this, there is a new activist movement called the Break Free Movement that is organizing direct actions all across the world. The actions have slogans like, Leave It In The Ground and No Bomb Trains. People have been arrested blocking railroad tracks leading into oil transportation terminals. Direct actions are taking place all over the world to place the dire need for an energy transition into the public eye. I must mention that I write these words because I am worried. I write these words because I am a railroader and know deeply many of the perspectives that people on both sides of this so called war on coal or possibly now, A war on the fossil fuel Industry, have. I am deeply concerned in many ways.

To have a “just” transition. I suggest, we as a Commonwealth, we as a people of this Republic; workers, labor leaders, community members, and community leaders must come together in a circle. We could place issues of coal, fossil fuels and transition in the center of this circle. Each of us would perceive the issue differently. Our ideas of what happened, is happening and what might happen, would all be different according to our individual positions in the circle. Our personal suggestions of a fix would be quite far ranging and there would be levels upon levels of perspectives of how to define the many suggestions of what a “Just” Transition might be.

I do understand there is a fierce urgency of now for some. I also understand that some feel the machine must be stopped at all costs. I also know policy changes take time. While I know, working in the industry that I do, the greasy wheel gets the grease , I also know what happens if the greasy wheel does not get the grease. I also know how hard it is to get people to sit down in a circle. In calling for a just transition, we are going to have to make sure we all sit in circles or else I feel we may all be running around in one.

To be clear, I suggest reading Black Elk Speaks, and Wendell Berry’s, Unsettling of America. I also might suggest that changing our Agriculture Policy would create many opportunities and jobs. We used to own our farms. We used to ride the rails. We used to have localized economies. We The People have a serious task before us.

Its hardship is its possibility.

(Wendell Berry, The Vision)

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