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Thoughtful Coal Miner

Civil Rights and the All Mighty Economy

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, January 16, 2018

When I attended Clintwood High School throughout the mid-90s, there was an amazing lack of ethnic diversity.  Our school was 99.8% white. The one student of color who attended CHS had been adopted and raised by a white family. It goes without saying that we had a very limited understanding of diversity. What little we did know came in the form of 80’s and 90’s whitewashed television programming pulled in with our 10-foot diameter c-band satellite dishes perched up on the hillside.

According to some, I should be racist. I was from the South, I was raised in a predominantly white area, and my hometown had even been renamed after Henry Clinton Wood, a Major in the Confederate army. So why ain’t I? Why do I stand in solidarity with people of color against injustice and the institutionalized racism of our nation?

It’s because our parents and the United Mine Workers taught us differently.

The few people of color in our county lived in the small town of Clinchco, Virginia, an old coal camp built by Clinchfield Coal Company. Like the rest of us, they were coal mining families. Their grandparents and great-grandparents had moved from the deep south searching for a better life. Though still wrought with oppression thanks to company-owned towns and the mine guard system, many people saw coal mining to be more preferable than sharecropping in the Jim Crow south.  While racism was still unavoidable in certain places throughout Appalachia, the United Mine Workers gave everyone rights as laborers and justice when facing the greed and oppression meant to subjugate us all to the will of the wealthy elite.

What racism did occur was often brought on by the coal companies themselves and the local elites who sought to divide the workforce and prevent unionization. They segregated the housing, churches, and bathhouses, doing what they could to socially and racially stratify us.

But the union wouldn’t stand for racism and segregation.  As my dad once said, “It doesn’t matter what color your skin is when you go into the mine, we all come out the same color, and so do our lungs.” This was the understanding of equality that was passed to me and my brother.

It was this sense of equality that held us all together, keeping our union and our communities close-knit and strong. It was this same understanding that led Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Appalachian coalfields in his work on the Poor People’s campaign. He had long known that the issues of racism have been rooted in classism and that classism has always been rooted in economics.

In the years since the union fell, the belief in equality that once bound our communities together has faded. Each calculated move by the industry has seen to the demise of our solidarity, starving us out during each strike, shutting down union operations, and even corrupting union leadership. In the absence of our once mighty union, the industry has guided us once again towards classism among the poor and middle class, classism that gives way to prejudice and racism.

We are caught between multimillion-dollar misinformation campaigns aimed at our continued exploitation, and the condescension afforded us by a liberal elite who believe us too stupid, too far gone, to help ourselves. What we need now are voices that call out clearly across the divide of populist politics, voices that cannot be easily drowned by the money of industry and philanthropies alike. We need voices that unite us all, from the coal mines to the inner cities, from the fields of migrant workers to the sweatshops of Bangladesh. If we are ever to find true justice in this world, we must stop letting money speak louder than our own voices of reason and equality.

“It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he should lift himself up by his own bootstraps. It is even worse to tell a man to lift himself up by his own bootstraps when somebody is standing on the boot.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 100-year capitalist experiment that keeps Appalachia poor, sick, and stuck on coal

By Gwynn Guilford - Quartz, December 30, 2017

The first time Nick Mullins entered Deep Mine 26, a coal mine in southwestern Virginia, the irony hit him hard. Once, his ancestors had owned the coal-seamed cavern that he was now descending into, his trainee miner hard-hat secure.

Appalachia’s Coalfields Weren’t Always Red

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, December 15, 2017

Since the last presidential election, I’ve witnessed a near constant stream of ridicule against Appalachian people who voted for Trump, “They are getting what they deserve,” “They had a choice and they chose a lying bigot,” “They screwed us all.”  I have even been told “We don’t have time to deal with them (Trump voters). We have bigger problems to fix.” All of these statements are dismissive of Appalachian people and stereotype us as being ignorant, egotistical, and even racist. It is not surprising that these comments have come from people who did not grow up in the mountains, who have not had to face the same limited choices we’ve had to face, let alone work a single shift in a non-union mine to achieve at least some form of stability for their family.

Earlier this week I wrote an article for the Huffington Post titled “Don’t Tell Coal Country, ‘That’s What You Get for Voting for Trump!’”  My intent was to help people understand how their attitude toward Appalachians reinforces notions of liberal/progressive elitism—something we have long suffered from since the earliest stereotyping of our region and the indignity of the “War on Poverty.”

You can imagine then, how disheartened I was to see that my Huff Post article garnered the same derisive comments as the election. What’s more, many of the statements came from people who I thought were critically thinking, sympathetic, non-violent, social justice advocates that held themselves to a higher moral standard. Sometimes it’s easy to confuse a good cause with actual humility.

If I were to let this recent dejection fester itself into defiance, I myself would put a Trump sign in my own front yard and scream at the top of my lungs, “F**k all y’all.” And that is exactly the point I’ve been trying to make for the past five years.

The Coal Industry Mantra: Jobs First, Safety…well….

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, November 20, 2017

Nothing quite says conflict of interest more than installing a former mine company executive as the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Anyone who has worked in a coal mine knows that only loyalty to the company bottom line could raise someone from the ranks of a coal miner to that of a CEO. Coal miners also know that when it comes right down to it, a safe working record takes back seat to the number of extra hours you put in and how well you produce coal. Safety takes time, and time costs the company money.

Over 104,000 miners have been killed in this country’s coal mines since 1900. We’ve seen tragedy as recent as Upper Big Branch, Crandall Canyon, and Sago. All of these travesties could have been prevented had company executives put the safety of the worker ahead of production and financial gain.

The image featured at the top of this post shows the Hurricane Creek Miners Memorial a few miles outside of Hyden, Kentucky. For some, the memorial serves as a reminder of the 38 husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers who lost their lives on a cold December day in 1970. For others, it symbolizes one of the greatest flaws within our nation’s history of mine safety legislation.

The Hurricane Creek mine explosion occurred a year to the day following the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969. The act, a piece of legislation that could only be considered reactionary to the 1968 Farmington Disaster, was the most sweeping piece of mine safety legislation that had ever been put forth in our country. It mandated new safety equipment, new enforcement protocols, monetary fines for noncompliance, and it even began taking into account health issues to include black lung.

Yet despite its being passed, 260 miners died in our nation’s coal mines the following year—including the 38 men at Hurricane Creek.

Even though the act saw to it that laws and regulations were put into place, very little funding was given to the newly formed Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration (MESA). Without proper funding, the agency was woefully understaffed, lacking the necessary resources to inspect each mine and enforce the new laws. It was only after mine safety advocates, such as the United Mine Workers and widows of the fallen miners, raised hell about it, that more funding was put to the purpose. Even then, it was still not enough.

Seven years later, the Scotia disaster would lead to the passage of the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. Yet again, funding issues plagued mine safety enforcement agencies.  It wouldn’t be until 2007— 40 years later—that the Mine Safety and Health Administration would receive enough funding to hire the number of inspectors necessary to perform all the mine inspections mandated by law. That funding only came as a reaction to the Sago disaster in 2006 where rescue efforts were nationally televised.

Time and time again we see the reactionary nature of mine safety legislation and funding. Even today, companies and politicians work in concert to weaken mine safety laws. Kentucky has reduced the number of inspections required by their state mine safety agencies, and West Virginia has attempted to completely eliminate theirs. Trump’s nomination of Zatezalo and his subsequent confirmation by Senate Republicans, all work to prove that little has changed.

I fear for coal miners today, more than I have in years. Right now, there are thousands of miners desperately seeking work. Coal companies are aware of the abundant labor market and are undoubtedly taking advantage of it. I’m sure the companies are preaching safety as they always do, threatening that any miner caught taking shortcuts will be fired. Then they remind miners that any upcoming layoffs will be based upon individual performance.

If there was ever a more crucial time for mine safety agencies to step up for the miner and enforce the laws that are meant to protect them, it is now. I feel many federal and state inspectors know this and are trying, but they are becoming increasingly powerless as politicians continue to cut budgets and impair mine safety laws.

Stereotyping Appalachians Feeds Only the Coal Industry

By Nick Mullins - The Thoutghtful Coal Miner, November 6, 2017

Trump won the vote in Appalachia because people are tired of being looked down upon. Considering the work of powerful industry interests, a century’s worth of negative stereotyping, and culturally insensitive protests against coal—a source of people’s pride, heritage, and income—it’s not difficult to understand how. 

My family has lived in Appalachia for nine generations, and we have worked hard all our lives without asking for a great deal. We were never drawn to extravagance, nor did we need to keep up with the Joneses. Simplicity and family were the means to much of our happiness. As long as we had a decent home, food, and the time to watch our children grow up with a good moral compass, we were fulfilled. “It’s not your needs that get you into trouble—it’s your wants,” my grandfather would often say.

But this lack of complication has been the subject of ridicule by many outside our communities. Among a national and now international audience, Appalachia has been viewed as a degenerate region without sophistication. The dehumanization of its people has allowed for the exploitation of its vast energy and timber reserves, and putting Appalachians down has often been a means of lifting others up: “I may not be rich, but at least I’m not a hillbilly.” These forces have made maintaining our dignity a constant struggle.

Exploitative economic systems have ensured that there is no change to our status quo. Low property taxes have appeased out-of-state land-holding companies while keeping our public education system in a near constant budget crisis. What money extractive industries do contribute is spent funding state-certified curriculums on the benefits of coal. Our children are fed an industry narrative that dignity, sacrifice, and the patriotic duty of mining are inextricably tied all while downplaying a century’s worth of labor struggles for basic human rights. These issues, compounded by an existing need to appease common core initiatives and standardized testing goals, have limited teachers’ abilities to instruct on critical thinking.

By co-opting Appalachian values, the coal industry has elbowed itself to the center of our region’s cultural identity. Shannon Bell, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky, has studied the many ways coal industry associations have adapted Appalachian culture in appealing to its people. She found that the industry has used pro-coal media campaigns such as Friends of Coal to manipulate the region into believing that support for the industry, despite its destructive nature, is the accepted cultural norm.

Meanwhile, media misrepresentations have fueled negative stereotypes held by urban populations. In many ways, this has put us on the defensive, pushing Appalachians to seek out and attack the shortcomings of our city counterparts. Rural people have long seen urbanism in contrast to their own values, fixating on stereotypes of city dwellers and suburbanites as being selfish and lacking common sense. Many also associate academia and liberalism with urbanism, an association exploited by media organizations, like Fox News, that politically oppose government regulation and environmentalism.

As a result, the efforts of progressive organizations working in Appalachia are sometimes taken as downward-looking elitism. It doesn’t help that many progressives and environmentalists have done a terrible job of communicating with local communities, both in their actions and presentation. When outside activist organizations expect Appalachians to simply accept their protests, marches, street theatre puppets, and public civil disobedience as avenues to their logic, they foster tensions that manifest in bumper stickers like: “lib·er·al / lib(-ə)-rel / noun 1Someone so open minded that their brains have fallen out.”

The Confederate flags, Trump signs, and pro-coal stickers I see displayed throughout Appalachia are not as much the result of deep-rooted racism and bigotry as many would like to believe. They are often symbols of defense against a world that views us as lesser people. They are symbols given to us by politicians and corporations that have learned to speak our language, and they throw gasoline on the fiery dissent many feel toward longstanding urban ridicule.

There is no easy fix for the situation in Appalachia. Poverty causes intense suffering with all of the symptoms you would expect. Health outcomes are plagued by a lack of access to health care, food deserts, and the environmental pollution created by decades of coal and natural gas extraction and processing. Overprescription of pain medications has led to a drug abuse epidemic that has spread to younger generations suffering from a loss of hope. Recent media attention on these issues stemming from Donald Trump’s election has fed into the national stereotyping of the region, keeping Appalachia in a vicious cycle of self-destruction.

If there is any hope for Appalachia, it is in eliminating the sources of the problem, not just treating its symptoms. We must address the communication barriers that exacerbate feelings of resentment and increase political and cultural divides. Perhaps then we can work toward ending corporate influence over our local culture, economics, and political systems so that we, ourselves, can really begin to shape a better future for our region.

This Former Coal Miner’s Perspective on Climate Change

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, September 19, 2017

I do not subscribe to the labels being thrown out these days. I do not consider myself an environmentalist, a liberal, nor do I consider myself a conservative either. I am an Appalachian family man who cares about his kids more than the coal companies do.

I’m not naive enough to believe that companies who seek a profit from extracting coal, oil, or natural gas, tell us the truth. Instead, they stretch the truth beyond its limits to protect their investments and bottom lines. We see it every day, and miner’s face it when they are injured and seek compensation to continue feeding their families.

Being Appalachian, I also know that many politicians and charitable organizations who have come to “help” us over the years have used our poverty and suffering to gain votes and donations. It is a problem that continues to occur, and after nearly a century’s worth of exploitation from outside entities, it is no wonder we have trust issues.

People are just trying to survive day to day, and when you are just trying to survive, it is difficult to see issues as more than black and white. We don’t have time to ask questions and research answers outside of the information we receive from the most influential people in our lives—friends, family, and sadly, employers.

When it comes to climate change, people rationalize their opinions based on how it affects them. For those of us in Appalachia, the way climate change is affecting us is almost always perceived through the “War on Coal.” Surprisingly, no one seems keen enough to try to navigate around that communications framework with any amount of credibility.

Coal Miners Are Good People

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, September 1, 2017

People ask me “Why do Appalachians vote against their own best interests?” Some are friends who are honestly trying to understand the situation from a point of concern. I know that they seek the cause for the discrepancy, rather than assume coal mining families are incapable of making intelligent political decisions.

The question still stings however,  and whether meant or not, it brings up the age old stereotypes of Appalachian people as being backward and ignorant. Often I can separate those who mean well, from those who are just out to place the blame on someone for our nations current political troubles. The latter tend to follow up their question with another statement— “They are bringing it on themselves.”

Such outright condescension pisses me off and explains much of why people back home vote exactly the way they do.

In his book Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers (1982), Ron D. Eller stated that our nation seeks to attribute Appalachia’s social problems to a “pathological culture” rather than the “economic and political realities in the area as they evolved over time.” In 2017, nothing has changed. Case in pointHillbilly Elegy.  The realities Eller speaks of, however, are linked wholesale to the trillions of dollars of natural resources our ancestors inadvertently settled upon 200 years ago, resources that supply our nation’s insatiable low-cost desires for all things comfortable and convenient. Suffice to say, this crucial information is willfully overlooked in most media representations of Appalachia and becomes just one of many other issues backlogged within our nation’s cognitive dissonance.

As with most materialism in our country, people don’t want to know about the origins of their lifestyles: the deplorable third world sweatshops filled with children sewing together our latest fashions; the slave labor used to extract precious metals in Africa for our electronics; industrial farming complete with pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones; and the exploitation and destruction of Appalachian communities to supply electrical power and provide other raw materials. As our nation continues its frivolous pillaging, people continually find it easier to ignore and dehumanize those who suffer from it rather than to acknowledge the true costs of their urban wonderlands.

I refuse to let this happen, especially with the people I know and grew up respecting.

The Mono-Economy of Coal or: How to Maintain a Captive Workforce

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, August 19, 2017

There has been no drought of media attention about coal, coal miners, and Appalachia over the past year. I myself have fielded more than a dozen calls from media outlets wanting to know more about the region, each looking for new angles or “ins” with coal mines and coal miners. Though a few have done a decent job contextualizing Appalachia’s deeper issues, many still manage to skip over some very important details about our situation—and that’s a problem. It’s this lack of depth that allows authors like J.D. Vance, and his book Hillbilly Elegy to reach national best seller status and thereby define our existence among an international audience.

So here is something for everyone to consider—the forces that control Appalachia’s economy also seek to maintain a captive workforce aimed at exploiting miners and their families.

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.

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