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'Coal Country' Mines Seam of Class Anger in West Virginia Explosion

By Alain Savard - Labor Notes, April 4, 2022

If Don Blankenship were a fictional character, critics would say he was a cartoon evil capitalist. Unfortunately, he’s real. One of his lesser crimes was to dump toxic coal slurry into disused mineshafts, poisoning the water of his neighbors, all to save $55,000. While they sickened, he piped his own water from the nearby town of Matewan. Yes, that Matewan. He has characterized strikes as “union terrorism.”

As chair and chief executive of Massey Energy, he received production reports from Upper Big Branch mine every half hour, including weekends. And no wonder, Blankenship’s compensation was tied to production, and UBB produced $600,000 worth of top-quality coal every day in a mile-deep operation near Whitesville, West Virginia.

That is, until it exploded in a completely preventable disaster that killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010.

The workers knew something bad was bound to happen. Methane readings were too high, the ventilation and air control systems were a shambles. One day the mine was sweltering, the next freezing cold. They operated in a fog of coal dust and exhaustion. Management threatened anyone who spoke up.

“Coal Country,” a play recently re-opened at Cherry Lane theater in New York, tells the story of the disaster through the words of the miners and their families. They are backed up by stunning original songs by Texas songwriter Steve Earle, who accompanies himself on guitar or banjo from the corner of the stage. “The devil put the coal in the ground,” he growls, and you can believe it. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen created the play, and Blank directs it.

Performance Coal, the subsidiary of Massey that ran Upper Big Branch, was created specifically to exclude the union. Gary Quarles (played by Thomas Kopache), recalls that when he first hired into the mine, he couldn’t believe how management shouted at the men. That wasn’t tolerated on his union jobs. Unrelieved overtime was another difference.

Managers brought in experienced miners like Quarles for their knowledge about extracting coal, but dismissed their knowledge about how to run a safe mine. Union mines are safer according to Phil Smith of the United Mineworkers of America, "because workers elect their own safety committees and they know they can report hazards without fear of retribution.”

OVEC Union Files ULPs, Wins Case

By staff - The Valley Labor Report - March 27, 2022

After filing several ULPs against OVEC, the judge has ruled in favor of OVEC Union, who submitted complaints of wrongful suspension, terminations, and intimidation against employees involved in the union drive.

The Ohio River Valley Hydrogen Hub: A Boondoggle in the Making

By Sean O'Leary - Ohio River Valley Institute, March 18, 2022

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) torpedoed the Build Back Better bill because, he said, it is too costly. But the fleet of hydrogen hub projects he is now promoting for locations around the nation, one of them in the Ohio River Valley, may cost nearly as much, they will drive up utility bills and create few new jobs, and they will miss a large share of the emissions they’re supposed to eliminate. They will also block less costly climate solutions that can create more jobs and actually eliminate climate-warming emissions the hydrogen hubs would only partially abate. 

According to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the hydrogen hubs, which have as their centerpiece massive pipeline networks that would funnel carbon captured from power plants and factories to injection points for underground sequestration, would cost between $170 billion and $230 billion just to construct. That figure is dwarfed by the additional investment in carbon capture technology that would have to be made by plant owners whose costs to operate and maintain their retrofitted plants would also rise significantly.

A recent Ohio River Valley Institute brief pointed out that retrofitting just the nation’s coal and gas-fired power plants for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) would add approximately $100 billion per year to Americans’ electric bills, an increase of 25%. The cost of adding CCS to steel mills, cement plants, factories, and other carbon producing facilities could be that much or more.

United Mine Workers Partner for 350 Electric Battery Jobs in West Virginia

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 2022

The United Mine Workers just announced that it will partner with energy startup SPARKZ to build an electric battery factory in West Virginia in 2022 that will employ 350 workers. The UMWA will recruit and train dislocated miners to be the factory’s first production workers.

“We need good, union jobs in the coalfields no matter what industry they are in,” said UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Brian Sanson. “This is a start toward putting the tens of thousands of already-dislocated coal miners to work in decent jobs in the communities where they live.”

The first markets for the company’s batteries are expected to be for material handling vehicles like forklifts, agricultural equipment, and energy storage.

Source: bit.ly/UMWAEnergyJobs

What Germany’s Effort to Leave Coal Behind Can Teach the U.S.

By Alec MacGillis - ProPublica, January 31, 2022

In late September, just before the German parliamentary elections, the Alternative für Deutschland held a large campaign rally in Görlitz, a picturesque city of about 56,000 people across the Neisse River from Poland. I was making my way down a narrow street toward the rally when I entered a square that had been dressed up as Berlin circa 1930, complete with wooden carts, street urchins and a large poster of Hitler.

Görlitz, which was barely damaged in the Second World War, often stands in for prewar Europe in movies and TV shows. (“Babylon Berlin,” “Inglourious Basterds” and other productions have filmed scenes there.) It was a startling sight nonetheless, especially since, a few hundred yards away, a crowd was gathering for the AfD, the far-right party whose incendiary rhetoric about foreign migrants invading Germany has raised alarms in a country vigilant about the resurgence of the radical right.

In fact, at the rally, the rhetoric about foreigners from the AfD’s top national candidate, Tino Chrupalla, was relatively mild. Germany’s general success with handling the wave of more than a million refugees and migrants who arrived in the country starting in 2015 has helped undermine the party’s central platform. Chrupalla moved on from migrants to other topics: the threat of coronavirus-vaccination mandates for schoolchildren, the plight of small businesses and the country’s desire to stop burning coal, which provides more than a quarter of its electricity, a greater share even than in the United States.

Coal has particular resonance in the area around Görlitz, one of the country’s two large remaining mining regions. Germany’s coal-exit plan, which was passed in 2020, includes billions of euros in compensation for the coal regions, to help transform their economies, but there are reports that some of the money has been allocated to frivolous-sounding projects far from the towns most dependent on mining. Chrupalla, who is from the area, listed some of these in a mocking tone and told the crowd that the region was being betrayed by the government, just as it had been after German reuni­fication, when millions in the former East Germany lost their jobs, leading many to abandon home for the West. “We are being deceived again, like after 1990,” he said.

Such language was eerily familiar. For years, I had been reporting on American coal country, where the industry’s decadeslong decline has spurred economic hardship and political resentment. In West Virginia, fewer than 15,000 people now work in coal mining, down from more than a 100,000 in the 1950s. The state is the only one that has fewer residents than it did 70 years ago, when the U.S. had a population less than half its current size — a statistic that is unlikely to surprise anyone who has visited half-abandoned towns such as Logan, Oceana and Pine­ville. Accompanying the decline has been a dramatic political shift: A longtime Democratic stronghold, West Virginia was one of only 10 states to vote for Michael Dukakis in 1988; in 2020, it provided Donald Trump with his second-­largest margin of victory, after Wyoming, which also happens to be the country’s largest coal producer, ahead of West Virginia.

From Biscuits To Steel: Ohio Valley Organizing Goes Beyond Coal

By Katie Myers - Ohio Valley Resource, January 21, 2022

(Excerpt):

Public awareness of labor issues is growing but labor unions still face huge challenges.

Maxim Baru, an organizer with Industrial Workers of the World, spent the past months helping organize staff of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a regional nonprofit, after complaints of long hours, sleepless nights and low pay.

“Just because there’s a new sense of vibrancy doesn’t make the situation totally more advantaged,” Baru said. “A lot of employers still have enormous financial and political advantages over their employees.”

OVEC’s board retaliated sharply, firing two employees, according to former organizer Brendan Muckian-Bates.

“I think that’s one of the things that frustrates me the most about this whole thing is we didn’t even get to present a path forward for OVEC,” Muckian-Bates said.

Employees filed four unfair labor practice suits to recoup their pay. In November, the company’s board dissolved the organization instead of recognizing the union. The National Labor Relations Board is now attempting to extract back pay from the company for the two fired employees. A judge has frozen the nonprofit’s assets.

Baru said organizing nonprofits and other industries has been challenging, and many workplaces require a different approach than the old-school shop floor once did.

“If we deliver that demand by continuing to do a kind of one-size-fits-all cookie cutter prefabricated unionization drive, we’re going to disappoint a lot of people,” Baru said. “The process of unionizing can sometimes be very lengthy.”

Coal Miners Weren’t Happy When Joe Manchin Derailed Build Back Better

By Austyn Gaffney - Sierra, January 19, 2022

The United Mine Workers of America issued a statement criticizing the senator for withdrawing his support from the legislation:

When West Virginia senator Joe Manchin III, a well-known coal baron, withdrew support from the Build Back Better agenda, the Biden administration’s landmark climate and social safety net bill, an influential coal-mining union was quick to respond.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), a labor union formed in 1890 to organize coal miners seeking safe working conditions and fair pay, released a statement by international president Cecil E. Roberts on December 20 characterizing the union’s relationship with Manchin as “long and friendly” but expressing disappointment that the bill didn’t pass. (On the same day, the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of American labor unions, released a similar statement.)

“We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to the legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working,” Roberts wrote, “and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities.”

Given the UMWA’s history with Manchin—he has been an honorary member since 2020—it was a notable reminder of just how much is at stake for miners and their communities as the president’s signature measure hangs in the balance. The Build Back Better legislation includes important items for the UMWA, like incentives to build manufacturing facilities in post-coal communities, financial penalties for employers who deny workers their rights to unionize, and an extension of the black lung trust fund, a levy paid by coal companies that provides a small monthly payment to miners with pneumoconiosis, a disease caused by coal dust and silica inhalation. 

UMWA statement on Build Back Better legislation

By Cecil E. Roberts, International President - United Mine Workers of America, December 20, 2021

“The United Mine Workers and Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have a long and friendly relationship. We remain grateful for his hard work to preserve the pensions and health care of our retirees across the nation, including thousands in West Virginia. He has been at our side as we have worked to preserve coal miners’ jobs in a changing energy marketplace, and we appreciate that very much.

“The Build Back Better (BBB) legislation includes several items that we believe are important for our members and their communities – some of which are part of the UMWA’s Principles for Energy Transition we laid out last spring.

“The bill includes language that would extend the current fee paid by coal companies to fund benefits received by victims of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung. But now that fee will be cut in half, further shifting the burden of paying these benefits away from the coal companies and on to taxpayers.

“The bill includes language that will provide tax incentives to encourage manufacturers to build facilities in the coalfields that would employ thousands of coal miners who have lost their jobs. We support that and are ready to help supply those plants with a trained, professional workforce. But now the potential for those jobs is significantly threatened.

“The bill includes language that would, for the first time, financially penalize outlaw employers that deny workers their rights to form a union on the job. This language is critical to any long-term ability to restore the right to organize in America in the face of ramped-up union-busting by employers. But now there is no path forward for millions of workers to exercise their rights at work.

“For those and other reasons, we are disappointed that the bill will not pass. We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working, and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities.

“I also want to reiterate our support for the passage of voting rights legislation as soon as possible, and strongly encourage Senator Manchin and every other Senator to be prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish that. Anti-democracy legislators and their allies are working every day to roll back the right to vote in America. Failure by the Senate to stand up to that is unacceptable and a dereliction of their duty to the Constitution.”

West Virginia IWW Commemorates Battle of Blair Mountain Centennial

By Amine Bit - Industrial Worker, October 20, 2021

Over Labor Day weekend, a series of events were held in West Virginia to commemorate the centennial of the “Battle of Blair Mountain,” the largest labor uprising in the history of the United States, which pitted local mine workers against mine owners, law enforcement, and even the US military in 1921. The commemoration was sponsored in part by the Industrial Workers of the World branch in West Virginia.

According to the Blair Centennial Project, the main organizer of the events, the aim of the commemoration was to “memorialize the brave men and women who fought for the civil rights of miners and their families” and to “celebrate the spirit of Blair Mountain that was passed on to us today.”

The centennial’s kickoff was held on Friday, September 3, and tabled by sponsors, including the West Virginia IWW. The event featured West Virginians speaking about their families’ connections to the Battle of Blair Mountain and the larger series of conflicts between mine workers and mine owners throughout the United States, known as the Mine Wars.

“One of the women, Wilma Steele, on the board for the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, went to high school in Matewan, West Virginia, and didn’t learn an ounce about the history of the Mine Wars until she married into the United Mine Workers of America,” says Jonah Kone, a member of the West Virginia IWW. “They just don’t teach it in school here, and that’s intentional.”

The kickoff also featured other performers, centering around a concert of traditional Appalachian music.

The following day, organizers held a series of historical and artistic events. The day began with an event hosted by the West Virginia Association of Museums to consider the issue of museum neutrality in circumstances of historical injustice. There was also an IWW-themed event where union songs were played, along with recognition of recent IWW organizing campaigns in the area, such as at Coal River Mountain Watch.

Another event, entitled “The People’s Church,” was organized by a pastor whose goal is to bring back “Holler Gospel,” a form of religious observance that was once popular in the area. During the period of the Battle of Blair Mountain, much union support came from religious quarters, who used the Bible as justification for the labor movement and in direct defiance of “company churches.” Miners attended Holler Gospel services during lunch breaks and even signed union cards during religious events.

Although the Battle of Blair Mountain Centennial was meant to be commemorative, there was also a feeling of relevance for the future — that the events were more than just rumination on history.

“This event will serve as a catalyst for things to start happening one or two years from now,” says Kone. “There’s a lot of labor organizing happening within the United States.”

One Million Rounds: The Battle of Blair Mountain

By Vince Ceraso - The Socialist, August 29, 2021

When you think of violent labor disputes, which come to mind? For some, it may be the infamous 1886 Haymarket Affair, 1912 Lawrence textile strike (famously known as Bread & Roses), 1894 Pullman Strike, or something as modern as the 1991 Justice for Janitors police riot. But not many will recall the Battle of Blair Mountain, a week-long civil war that took place in West Virginia during the late summer of 1921. Some 13,000 mineworkers took on 3,000 law enforcement officials, military personnel, and the usual local scabs. Rather than take oppression sitting down, these miners put on their hard hats and geared up for war. However, despite the numbers, the miners suffered a crushing defeat and what resulted was the near collapse of the United Mineworkers of America. But how did it all begin?

In the spring of 1912, West Virginian mineworkers, who all lived in small towns near their respective coal fields, attempted to negotiate contracts with the mining companies to give them higher pay raises and union dues that would be automatic. As you might expect, negotiations fell through, resulting in 7,500 workers going on strike throughout West Virginia. Even local supporters who were not mineworkers joined in. This caught the unwanted attention of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a private police force that was called to the task of using brutality, fear, and intimidation to break up strikes. To really send the message, the agents began evicting miners from their homes, for unionizing with the UMWA.

Eventually, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, co-founder of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, joined the strikers, but was later arrested for her involvement in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912. In the early months of the year-long said strike, the miners issued their own declaration of war against the West Virginian government. Several instances of guerilla-style conflicts began to explode in Kanawha County, WV. Things got so bad that WV Governor William E. Glasscock placed the region under martial law. After a year of bloody combat, more than 50 people were reported dead. The Paint Creek-Creek Cabin strike was the beginning of a 9-year labor conflict, now famously referred to as the West Virginia Mine Wars.

Fast-forward to 1920. The Baldwin-Felts agents were at it again, ransacking homes and evicting miners and their families at the Pocahontas Coalfield in the town of Matewan in Mingo County, West Virginia. This time around, they came face to face with Sid Hatfield, the Matewan police chief and beloved labor organizer. Unlike the vast majority of cops in West Virginia, Chief Hatfield was very outspokenly pro-union, using his position of authority to protect striking workers. He confronted the Baldwin-Felts agents and threatened to arrest them, prompting the agents to brag about their own arrest warrants against Hatfield.

Over the years, the circumstances of what happened next have been debated, but according to official court transcripts published in David Alan Corbin’s Gun Thugs, Rednecks & Radicals: A Documentary History of the West Virginia Mine Wars, an eyewitness testified that Cabell Testerman, the mayor of Matewan, said outright that the detectives’ warrants were “bogus,” triggering an angry Albert Felts, one of the heads of the Baldwin-Felts agency, to pull a firearm from his briefcase and shoot the mayor, who died of his wounds minutes later. Immediately after, Hatfield began firing, and a firefight between him and the agents ensued. When the dust settled, one miner, an innocent bystander, seven Baldwin-Felts agents and Mayor Testerman lay dead, while several other townsfolk were wounded in the crossfire.

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