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Nick Mullins

As Coal Production Ramps Up, Companies Should Pay Their Debts to Mining Communities

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, August 8, 2017

According to reports from the Energy Information Administration, coal production will be on the rise due to increases in electrical generation from coal fired power plants and coal exports. This means that coal companies, who have come out ahead by shirking their financial responsibilities in bankruptcy court, will be primed to make yet another killing.

For a select group of people living in coal mining regions across the nation, this boom will be a short reprieve from the economic suffering felt during the most recent downturn. But those  “lucky” enough to return to the mines will see that the economic desperation created in the last five years has changed the game. Companies will not be begging for workers as they did in the mid-2000s.  Miners will be competing with each other to get what jobs do come available, and those who are hired will face the constant threat of losing their job to the next desperate miner waiting in line. Coupled with reduced mine safety regulations, a concession given by state legislators to help the industry “create jobs,” coal mining families will be facing some truly dangerous times.

 

Many of us know this will be one of the last booms, if not THE last boom in the coal industry, especially in Appalachia. There is a long term movement away from coal in the global markets, and what accessible coal is left in our mountains will be retrieved through increased mechanization. Coal will not bring our towns back to life. If anything, it is acting as short term life support.

We need to make sure the coal industry does not come out of this smelling like roses as they always have. It is time we make them do what’s right by the miners who dig their profits out of the ground. Not one ton of coal should be removed until miners have the right to shut down an operation if it’s unsafe…without fear of losing their jobs.

It’s also time we make companies pay their debts to both the land and people where their operations have pillaged our resources. Along with a thorough reform of each state’s coal severance tax system, additional taxes should be levied against every ton of coal and  used to pay for mined land reclamation, developing clean water projects for communities, shoring up pension funds and health care benefit funds for retired miners and their families, building new infrastructure, and providing an honest-to-god just economic transition so people can lead healthier, happier lives in the region—not just participate in more economic development that sets the stage for opportunistic companies to come in and exploit our labor with the ancillary benefit of tax breaks.

It’s time for reparations, and this is our chance to get them.

Citizens living within the coalfields need to watch their politicians like hawks and vote in the people who are going to make sure this happens. This last boom shouldn’t be for the benefit of investors and company officials. This last boom should be about taking care of coal mining communities, just like Donald Trump promised.

The Ongoing Fight Against Media’s Misrepresentation of Appalachia

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, August 2, 2017

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Daniel Flatley from Bloomberg News. He was working on a story aimed at understanding why coal miners were not retraining into healthcare careers as the healthcare industry grew in Appalachia. I tried my best to answer his questions and give a broader understanding of miner retraining and economic development issues in the region. Unfortunately, the article was published just as I was heading back home to help with a family emergency. I became aware of it just today.

Let me start by saying that I am beyond angry with the title of the article and the image Bloomberg chose. The photo was a quick snapshot, catching two coal workers off guard with the intent of portraying them as senseless animals being enticed with a treat. Is it any wonder that we are upset with urban elitism and the so called “left” media? As I stated in my Yes! Magazine article, stereotyping Appalachians (in this case as being unintelligent) feeds directly into the divisive rhetoric spread by conservative politicians and coal industry associations. It is often so brazen, I honestly wonder if this isn’t the intent.

In terms of my quotes, I did NOT infer that people were actively avoiding retraining or other careers because of gender stereotypes and gender roles within the region. My quote, like the photo, was a snippit of a conversation that lasted 15 minutes. The issue is complex and leaves a great deal of room for speculation.

There is a lot of pride and heritage in coal mining, but very few coal miners would stick with a career in the mines if job alternatives with similar wages and benefits were available in the region.

When it comes to why miners weren’t jumping at job opportunities created by the health care industry, I did state that miners who were already involved in local emergency medical services and rescue squads could easily transition into such work, but there are many miners who would not consider it. This was not to say that they are incapable of the job, or that they have been institutionalized by the coal industry. I tried to explain that it would be a different environment to work in, and many would not pursue it for the same reason a large portion of our population does not pursue jobs in the healthcare industry. It takes a specific type of person to engage in the duties fulfilled by nurses and surgical staff.

I did speculate that many miners were holding out hope for Trump bringing back coal jobs and that many do not participate in retraining because of the lack of jobs available as they exit retraining. I also mentioned that some may fear that companies would not hire them if officials believed they were pursuing career alternatives. The coal industry has a very captive workforce at the moment, and they are seeking only the most dedicated miners to exploit.

This article is just more media misrepresentation of Appalachia not unlike what Ivy Brashear spoke to in her article “Why Media Must Stop Misrepresenting Appalachia.” Speaking of which, stay tuned as I will be addressing Hillbilly Elegy in the near future.

Against Our Own Best Interest: Why Working People Shouldn’t Elect Businessmen Into Office

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, June 28, 2017

In my experiences, I’ve run across many people who believe business executives are a good choice to be our lawmakers. Many of these same people also complain about the poor treatment of employees and off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, decisions that are often made by business executives.  So why exactly do people elect them into public office?

After getting into a variety of debates, I’ve found many people’s logic can be summed up in this statement, “Business leaders are smart people and hard workers who know how to make the right decisions to build companies from the ground up. They are good employers and will use their expertise to fix our government and provide more and better jobs.” If these were the businessmen and women that actually made it into office, I might consider the notion, but this is rarely the case.

Rural conservatives have a strange admiration for business executives as being job creators. Yet, these are the same people who make the big company decisions like downsizing, placing freezes on pay increases, reducing healthcare benefits while increasing employee insurance premium contributions, requring mandatory overtime, all while giving the green light for human resources to treat everyone like a literal resource—or as a threat if they have been harassed or injured in the workplace. Business executives loyalty is always to the stockholders and other investors. They are legally bound to make a profit. If this means eliminating labor overhead, they do.

Our national business culture breeds a superiority complex among corporate executives, making it difficult for them to be kind to their laborers. The free market mandates competition, which good or bad, results in a survival of the fittest mentality that ends up in a quest for the cheapest sources of both labor and materials (like coal). This is the mentality that drives people beyond having a conscious when it comes to the average laborer. For some well-to-do business leaders, it translates into the divine right to take a massive dump on anyone beneath them because, after all, “It’s just business.”

People also seem to forget the golden rule of business that allowed many of our now elected officials to make their fortunes—”It takes money to make money.” The majority of the super wealthy who own the majority of businesses, did not come by their fortunes through a rags to riches story. It came from prior wealth inherited from their predecessors.  They have never had to work hard just to survive and provide for their families. They have no understanding of the people who work for them, and therefore, no reason to care about them.

Searching for Justice in Appalachia: Part II

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, June 21, 2017

In my original post, I skirted along the edges of some personal beliefs that I often spare my readership, beliefs that I must admit, cause me to doubt myself and this work. As I mentioned in my first post, one of the downsides to being a justice advocate is realizing just how bleak the situation can be. I get up every morning, wondering if we can ever truly achieve justice.

Just to recap, coal companies have billions in assets, lawyers on retainer, political campaign contributions, and they own the majority of our resources in Appalachia. Coal companies use the money they make from our resources to hire marketing firms, pay for advertising time on TV networks, and print thousands upon thousands of Friends of Coal stickers to convince us they are benefiting our communities. For many of us, it’s a struggle just to pay our bills and buy food, let alone stand up against it.

And then there’s something I don’t often admit. There are times I question whether we have anything left to fight for. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been surface mined. Millions of acres have been underground mined leaving voids that will eventually cause subsidence, sinking more wells in the decades to come, and creating more acidic mine drainage laden with heavy metals and whatever waste we left in there. Then there’s the billions of gallons of coal sludge dammed up in hollows all across Appalachia, and tens of thousands of natural gas wells belching out “residual waste” water.

The picture becomes even darker when I realize that the issues we have in Appalachia apply on a global scale. Everywhere there are natural resources to be had, companies have undertaken similar initiatives, and it’s all driven by the insatiable desire of millions and millions of people competing for social status and seeking all things comfortable and convenient. Add in all the social, racial, and environmental injustices that go along with it, and how the mainstream discredits justice seekers as eccentric or extremist and well… there just doesn’t seem to be any hope left out there in the world. I constantly go in and out of states of depression and the idea of throwing my hands in the air to run screaming into the woods where I would live out the remainder of my life as a hermit becomes more and more appealing.

But I never will. I can’t give up.

People on both sides of these debates are so often on the same page but don’t realize it, and therein lies some hope. Most folks working in extractive industries are conservationists, and that’s not a far cry from environmentalists. True, they’d rather be beaten about the head and shoulders with a roof jack than to be considered a “treehugger,” but many would stand up to preserve their hunting grounds or local lake. The problem always seems to be a break down in communications between environmentalists and the working class, and the industry always knows exactly where to place the dynamite on the bridges that are built between them. It’s always in the industry’s interests to keep people at odds—it’s been that way since the union days.

I’m going to keep trying to build those bridges. Some environmentalists consider me arrogant and self-serving when I criticize their methods, and some miners like to call me a “disgruntled employee” or a “treehugger,” but I’m none of it. What I am is crazy. Crazy enough to believe that if we can just clear away the bull****, we might have a chance at gaining our freedom, our land, and our children’s future back. This is where the rubber meets the road for me, this is where the past 20 years of my adult life comes to a head; getting up every morning, putting everything I have out there, taking the licks I get for opening my mouth, trying to scrape by on what little money comes our way, and forging ahead.

Coal Miners Deserve Better

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, April 24, 2017

In 1989, Pittston Coal (present day Alpha Natural Resources), eliminated the healthcare benefits of all it’s pensioners. This included retirees, disabled miners, and widows. It led to the last major UMWA strike centered in southwestern Virginia, just across the mountain from Eastern Kentucky. 1,400 miners walked off the job, sacrificing their paychecks to restore those benefits to men and women whose lives were given to coal mining.

The old cliche “As much as things change, they stay the same” couldn’t be truer this day in time.

Not only has the coal industry taken away the health benefits for pensioners again, thousands of miners who retired from union mines are facing the possibility of losing their health benefits and pensions. The reasons are many, and there are a lot of fingers being pointed right now. Some want to blame the United Mine Workers for poor fund management, others want to blame the coal companies for busting the unions and eliminating future income into those plans, and a few (including myself) are casting some blame towards the for-profit healthcare industry that’s gone overboard with unnecessary tests and hospital stays to increase their financial gain. In my opinion, it’s all of it, but in the end it doesn’t matter who is to blame. Everyone who has screwed this up has more money than any coal miner will ever see in their lifetime. Why should the coal miners be the ones to suffer the results?

The burden of fixing these problems now falls on the nation who has benefited from the cheap energy and steel that Appalachia has produced. It rests with people waking up to the facts and realizing that coal companies will continually work through corrupt politics to get out of their obligations to their workers.

People deserve better than what the coal companies will ever give them, they deserve some comfort and rest after pulling their time in the mines. Every coal miner should walk off the job tomorrow and not let another ounce of coal make it to market until our fathers and grandfathers are taken care of, until every miner from here on out has guaranteed healthcare, pensions, the right to stop work if things become unsafe, and the guarantee of a healthy severance package the next time a coal company pulls up stakes to save their own wealthy hind-ends.

Actually, everyone in this nation should be raising hell with their politicians. This latest chapter of screwing some of America’s hardest working people should send shock waves through the national consciousness and have everyone up in arms, or at least looking at the voting records of their politicians and jerking the ones out who don’t actually support the working people. Last I checked, there’s way more working people suffering than rich folks. People should be standing up for what’s right and just when it comes to labor and worker safety. Politicians are supposed to serve all the people, not just the ones who line their pockets.

If You Really Want to Help Appalachia

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, December 30, 2016

I’ve been writing this blog for 6 years now, working to hammer home many points. The most important have included the coal industry’s means of winning the hearts and minds of our mountain communities, and how people in the environmental camps have ignored the industry’s acculturation of Appalachian values.

Since leaving the coal industry, I’ve tried to get folks to understand that we Appalachians, coal miner’s especially, do not respond to traditional environmentalist messaging. At minimum, those who agree with the environmental concerns are not going to push their throats further into the coal industry’s blade. More often, they will join in the socialized ridicule of those who are being othered, i.e. the environmentalists. What is needed is for people to understand the issues and the way we have been manipulated and controlled, then apply it to their own communication strategy.

As a 9th generation Appalachian and the 5th generation of my family to have worked in the mines, I can say with confidence that no outside organization will ever be successful in turning the tide in Appalachia. We have been fighting the coal industry for 150 years and fighting poverty for the last 50+. Millions of dollars have been funneled in through organizations like the Appalachian Regional Commission, and yet we are still fighting the same battles.

So if you really want to help Appalachia, you’ll help us help ourselves.

The first step is to tear down the coal industry’s facade of benevolence, and remind people of the industry’s history in our region. Many people already distrust the industry, but will fight for it in the face of an outside threat. Coal mining is part of our identity, and the coal industry has spun the “War on Coal” to be a threat to that identity. The result, as Dr. Shannon Bell has stated in her book Fighting King Coal, is the cultural hegemony of our region.

So what do we do to fix it since there’s no silver bullet?

It will take a lot, there’s no doubt about it, but the best place to to start is with educating the public. In a technological world where audio/visual has become the primary means of conveying a message, we must embrace it. This is why I focused a bit on film and broadcast journalism during my recent studies at Berea College. Just as I was re-entering the world from four years of college, some wonderful folks had already done a lot of work before me and the documentary film Blood on the Mountain was in the process of being released.

I believe the film has become the best means to help tear down the industry’s previously mentioned facade of benevolence towards Appalachia. It shows the true history of coal and how they have maintained control of us, even in contemporary times, dividing our communities, destroying the unions, and raping our lands.

In many ways, the film embodies the very mission I have dedicated this blog—and my life—to achieving . When I was asked by the filmmakers to be interviewed for the film, and later to help get it out to as many people as possible,  I saw it as a perfect opportunity to bring real tangible change to my mountain home.

The next phase of the film is coming, but we need the funding to accomplish it. We want to take this film into as many union halls, churches, homes, and community centers as possible FOR FREE . We want to turn it into a tool that can be used not only in Appalachia, but in any area where people face the same issues we face with corporate corruption.

The coal industry has ruled our lives under false illusions and economic control. We can break free, but people, both in Appalachia and outside of Appalachia, must better understand the mechanisms of control through which industries operate, and understand how we can empower entire Appalachian communities to fight against them. I wish I could say that the past 15 years of activism in the region have accomplished this in some small way, but the region’s continued support of men like Mitch McConnell—and now Jim Justice and Donald Trump—is pretty strong evidence to the contrary.

It pains me to think of the amount of time and money that has been invested in so many organization’s “grassroots” campaigns, only to see these kinds of outcomes. We are overdue for this new strategy.

We have launched a Kickstarter to fund Blood on the Mountain’s public outreach campaign. Our goal is $25,000 and it is all or nothing, meaning, unless we raise the full amount, we don’t get anything. We are going to use the funds we received to create a curricula and educational materials to complement the film, and we will use the remaining funds to get the film into Appalachian communities—FOR FREE.

Based on the size of your donation, you can receive DVD copies of the documentary, digital access to it, other documentaries such as The Appalachians and Coal Country,  and many other wonderful rewards. So please, give what you can give and advocate to help us raise money for this outreach. Given the divisiveness of our recent election, we need this film to bring people together, now, more than ever.

So please, please share this post and the Kickstarter link far and wide. Donate/purchase a copy of the film and more.

A Response to Nick Mullins’s December 2015 blog post “The Problem with Environmentalism in Appalachia.”

By Lou Martin - RAMPS, January 14, 2016

RAMPS web editor's note: Our friend and ally Lou Martin wrote this (in response to Nick Mullins’s blog post “The Problem with Environmentalism in Appalachia“) and asked us to post it. Although this isn’t an official communique from RAMPS, we’re posting it in the spirit of fostering dialogue so that our movement can be stronger and more effective…

I wish more people knew the environmental movement in central Appalachia the way I have gotten to know it in the last four years.

I have been a longtime fan of Nick Mullins’s blog The Thoughtful Coal Miner, and I hope Nick knows that I appreciate and respect him and his family for their work—work of all kinds—to end mountaintop removal.  And I appreciate this recent blog post because it is grappling with a difficult subject and because, to be effective, we need to take a hard look at ourselves and our strategies.

As I understand the post, the main problem with environmentalism in Appalachia is that environmental organizations have not won over coal mining families.  Nick writes, “Coal mining families are not very receptive to environmentalists—and that’s putting it lightly. Why should they be? In what way have environmentalists approached coal mining families over the past two decades? In what way have environmentalists presented themselves to the public?”

Throughout the blog post he talks about “environmentalists” and “coal mining families” as being two different groups, opposed to each other.  In another place he writes, “At the end of the day, I had to realize that perhaps many environmental organizations are just as ‘out of touch’ as Appalachian people think them to be.”  Here, environmental organizations and Appalachian people as if they are almost mutually exclusive.

When I think back to why I got involved fighting mountaintop removal, I think of the people who inspired me, and almost every one of them came from a coal mining family or were former coal miners—and all those people belonged to environmental organizations.

But Nick is talking about a general perception of “the environmental movement” that someone in the region might get if they only watch the occasional news report or witness a demonstration.  Those people, I suppose, might not really be able to differentiate between a small organization based in the region and a national organization like the Sierra Club.  Between an organization that advocates civil disobedience and those that do not.

The Problem with Environmentalism in Appalachia

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, December 30, 2015

I tend get flak from both sides of the argument surrounding coal. Environmentalists distance themselves from me because I am often critical of them, and some even hate me these days. Pro-coal folks tend to dislike me for my stance against coal companies. It only goes to show that telling the truth has never been popular, or easy.

So let’s get to it.

Coal mining families are not very receptive to environmentalists—and that’s putting it lightly. Why should they be? In what way have environmentalists approached coal mining families over the past two decades? In what way have environmentalists presented themselves to the public?

Though most environmentalists have their hearts in the right place when it comes to helping other people, I’m afraid they’ve done a poor job of translating it to the public. So when the knee jerk reaction of coal miners and their families is to identify environmentalists as “out of touch,” I am not entirely surprised.

Decades of outside media infiltration has portrayed our people (Appalachians) in a negative way. The “War on Poverty” brought thousands of people from outside the mountains to tell us how to live (like we were to stupid or something). Let’s not forget that the first outsiders to come into the mountains were the land agents and coal companies who would lie, cheat, and steal to take our lands and mineral rights, and would then force us into a mono-economy making us dependent on mining coal to survive. Appalachian people have had enough of outsiders and for good reasons. That being said, I am very skeptical of many outsiders myself, and will gladly tell anyone who even remotely appears to be looking down their nose at us to go &#*^ themselves, no matter how “well intentioned” they think they are. But I digress.

For the longest time, unions helped us remind ourselves that coal companies were the outsiders, but when the unions were busted, the industry seized the opportunity to re-image themselves as part of our communities. Through industry public relations organizations, we were told that Appalachia was “coal” (see Bell & York, 2010) and that any threat against coal was a threat to our pride and heritage. They have even pointed to environmentalists as the new outside threat. Since the coal industry has the money to promote their message (see Friends of Coal), and they have the coal miner’s ear at work and through paychecks, they can paint a picture of environmentalists as being “out of touch tree hugging idiots” who support the “War on coal.” Many environmentalists have played right into this portrayal, sometimes so perfectly that I’ve wondered if it was intentional. Let me repeat that last statement. Many environmentalists have played right into the negative stereotypes, sometimes so perfectly that I’ve wondered if it was intentional. If the coal companies infiltrated the unions, you know they infiltrated the environmental movement.