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Appalachia

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.

A Plan for Coal Workers as the Industry Declines

How laid-off coal miners are reclaiming their own economy

By Trevor Decker Cohen - Sharable, June 28, 2021

For generations, hundreds of thousands of West Virginia coal miners earned a good living. The money they made supported local economies in towns across Appalachia. And their labor down in deep mines brought light to the rest of the world.

But this prosperity came at a high price. Mountains were blown to pieces, rivers ran orange with mine tailings, and generations of miners suffered from black-lung disease. For over a century, the coal industry dominated the region’s economy and psyche, preventing much else from taking root. Now, it’s crumbling. Three of the four largest coal companies that mine half the coal in the US have gone bankrupt. There’s a gaping hole in parts of Appalachia where an economy used to be.

The transition away from extractive energy, dependent on a few commodities, is not as simple as retraining miners. “You can have training programs until you’re purple, but if you don’t have a place to work, it’s just kind of mean,” said Marilyn Wrenn, the development director at Coalfield Development. “It’s not like you can move out of coal mining and go work for the big data firm that opened up down the street.” Recovery from the legacy of coal’s decline requires a thorough regeneration of local economies from the ground up.

On one abandoned surface mine, a new story has emerged. A tractor dragged a piece of machinery, scraping its way along the scattered remains of a former mountain. A crew member pushed the accelerator, and a stone crusher chewed through the rubble. “It’s eating these rocks and turning it into garden soil—and it’s awesome,” said Eva Jones, who drove the tractor.

The machine was capable of crushing stones up to 16 inches in diameter, and in one day, could make up to three acres of soil. In the new dirt, another crew planted an orchard. It was a mix of blackberries, hazelnuts, lavender, and pawpaws. Sustainably managed chickens, hogs, goats, and honeybees grazed and pollinated the half-farm, half-forest. Over time, these practices will capture carbon in the soil and generate income for the local West Virginians who farm the former minelands.

These efforts were the work of two enterprises founded by nonprofit Coalfield Development—an organization that seeks to restore economic diversity in a region long beholden to the wealth of just one commodity. “Whether you think coal is a good thing or a bad thing, it’s not wise to have all your eggs in one basket,” said Coalfield’s founder, Brandon Dennison.

As the US Pursues Clean Energy and the Climate Goals of the Paris Agreement, Communities Dependent on the Fossil Fuel Economy Look for a Just Transition

By Judy Fahys - Inside Climate News, June 28, 2021

Perhaps the proudest achievement of Michael Kourianos’ first term as mayor of Price, Utah was helping to make the local university hub the state’s first to run entirely on clean energy. It’s a curious position for the son, brother and grandchild of coal miners who’s worked in local coal-fired power plants for 42 years.

Kourianos sees big changes on the horizon brought by shifts in world energy markets and customer demands, as well as in politics. The mines and plants that powered a bustling economy here in Carbon County and neighboring Emery County for generations are gone or winding down, and Kourianos is hoping to win reelection so he can keep stoking the entrepreneurial energy and partnerships that are moving his community forward.

“That freight train is coming at us,” he said. “You look at all the other communities that were around during the early times of coal, they’re not around.

“That’s my fear,” he said. “That’s my driving force.”

New research from Resources for the Future points out that hundreds of areas like central Utah are facing painful hardships because of the clean-energy transformation that will be necessary if the United States hopes to reach the Paris agreement’s goals to slow climate change. Lost jobs and wages, a shrinking population and an erosion of the tax base that supports roads, schools and community services—they’re all costs of the economic shift that will be paid by those whose hard work fueled American prosperity for so long. 

“If we can address those challenges by helping communities diversify, helping people find new economic growth drivers and new economic opportunities, that might lessen some of the opposition to moving forward with the ambitious climate policy that we need,” said the report’s author, Daniel Raimi, who is also a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Meeting the Paris agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees C” by the end of the century means Americans must burn 90 percent less coal over the next two decades and half as much oil and natural gas, Raimi said.

And less fossil fuel use will also affect employment, public finances and economic development region-by-region, according to Raimi. In 50 of the nation’s 3,006 counties, 25 percent or more of all wages are tied to fossil fuel energy, he notes. In 16 counties, 25 percent or more of their total jobs are related to fossil energy.

Jobs and equitable transition: Bridging the chasm between rhetoric and action

By Sean O'Leary - Ohio River Valley Institute, May 26, 2021

There was a time when the sight of rows of office workers hammering away at their Friden adding machines would have sent me into paroxysms of delight because I, the Victor Comptometer salesman, had a new and better “programmable calculator” that could kick the Friden’s ass.

I was a young 1970s college graduate entering the workforce at the tail end of the era of mechanical business automation. Typewriters, adding machines, and mechanical cash registers were still the workhorses of stores and offices.

Behind all that machinery were companies – Burroughs, Monroe, Friden, Victor – whose names were as familiar then as Cisco, Oracle, and SAP are today. And those companies supported factories, sales offices, and repair facilities that provided living wage jobs to hundreds of thousands of workers and their families.

Then, within a little more than a decade, it was all gone. A year after I fizzled as a Victor salesman, I was playing at home with my new Radio Shack TRS-80 home computer and five years later, instead of an adding machine and typewriter on my desk at work, there sat an Apple II desktop computer, precursor to the Mac.

Gone too were those hundreds of thousands of jobs plunging not only workers and families, but entire communities, into financial crisis. One could argue that Dayton, Ohio, once home to National Cash Register and the business forms giant, Standard Register, never recovered.

The knock-out blow suffered by the office automation industry was as ferocious and sudden as the one that hit the American steel industry a few years earlier, the textile industry a few decades before that, and also as the one that possibly faces workers in the fossil fuel economy today.

So how did we as a society help displaced workers and communities manage the economic consequences of the transition from the mechanical workplace to a digital one? We didn’t. Thanks to the New Deal, we had unemployment insurance and Medicare and Medicaid were brand spanking new. But that was about it – a little help for individuals and families and none whatsoever for communities.

American Jobs Plan Can Accelerate Solar Power in West Virginia

By Autumn Long and Ted Boettner - Ohio River Valley Institute, May 25, 2021

As a recent article in Forbes noted, the ‘dam has broken’ in West Virginia for solar power. While solar energy comprises less than 0.2 percent of electricity production in the state today, the market for solar energy is marching forward. Despite not having a renewable energy portfolio standard – which would require that utilities get a certain percentage of the electricity they sell in the state from renewable resources – like 30 other states, West Virginia lawmakers have started opening more doors for solar power. For example, state lawmakers this year legalized purchase power agreements (PPAs) to allow third parties to own and operate solar installations for customers while charging them a fixed rate that is typically lower that what the customer pays for electricity. In 2020, the West Virginia Legislature created a utility solar program that allows the state’s investor-owned utilities (FirstEnergy and American Electric Power) to produce as much as 200 megawatts of solar electricity each.

A flurry of new solar projects is now under development in the state. Toyota announced plans to spend $4.9 million to construct a 2.6-Megawatt solar array at its manufacturing plant in Buffalo, West Virginia. In October 2020, the WV Public Service Commission approved plans for a $90 million investment to build a 90-Megawatt solar farm in Raleigh County. Earlier this year, a 100-Megawatt utility-scale solar project was announced at the former Dupont Potomac River Works manufacturing facility in Berkeley County. And earlier this month, Nitro Construction Services acquired local solar installation company Revolt Energy, with plans to expand operation throughout the state on former coal mine sites. Revolt had recently installed a 487-kilowatt rooftop solar array (1,200 solar panels) at Nitro Construction Services’ headquarters in Putnam County.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), West Virginia ranks last (50th) in solar production in the nation with just 11.2 megawatts of installed solar power and less than $35 million in total solar investment in the state. Total solar jobs in the state were just 311 in the 4th quarter of 2020, with 18 solar companies operating in the state. Between 2012 and 2020, the number of solar jobs in West Virginia has grown by 241.

An October 2020 report by E2 found that jobs in solar pay close to what jobs in the coal, oil, and gas industries pay, $24.48 an hour (median) compared to $24.37 an hour (median), respectively. Approximately 10 percent of solar industry jobs are unionized, according to the Solar Foundation, which is above the national average and similar to levels found throughout the construction industry. Wage data for solar employment is not available for West Virginia, but it is likely below the national average.

There are a number of policy proposals at the federal level that could lead to significant acceleration in West Virginia’s solar industry. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes two key provisions, including a 10-year extension of the federal solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which currently offers a 26% tax credit for solar installations, and an expanded direct cash payment in lieu of the ITC that allows solar owners to receive money even if they don’t have taxable income, much like a refundable tax credit. A cash grant option would ensure equitable benefits of the ITC are accessible to low- and moderate-income households, people with low tax liability, and nonprofit institutions such as schools, churches, local governments, and rural electric cooperatives.

New Analysis Estimates an Equitable Energy Economy will Require $33 Billion to $83 Billion Investment in Workers

By staff - Utility Workers Union of America, May 4, 2021

As the Biden administration considers federal resources for coal workers and their communities, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) urge a set of comprehensive supports estimated to cost between $33 billion over 25 years to $83 billion over 15 years. The analysis, Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape, underscores that a fair and equitable shift to a low-carbon economy requires intentional, robust, and sustained investments in coal workers, their families, and their communities.

Coal-fired electricity is down to 20 percent today from about half of the nation’s electricity generation a decade ago. With more closures on the horizon, a sustained and comprehensive set of supports is needed to ensure individuals who have powered America for generations can stay in their communities, prepare for new careers with family-sustaining wages, and can retire with dignity.

“For decades, the coal industry has simply locked its doors and forgotten the individuals and communities who rely on the coal industry and who exist in almost every state across the country,” said UWUA President James Slevin. “Approaching these closures with the right set of economic supports offers a better alternative to the chaos and devastation we’re seeing today.”

Recognizing coal and mining facilities often directly employ hundreds of individuals and many more indirectly across several counties, the economic and social infrastructure of a region undergoes lasting changes when facilities close.

“The economic upheaval resulting from the dramatic job losses in the coal industry over the last decade has uprooted families, deepened economic anxiety, and left community leaders scrambling to keep schools open and social services in place,” said report co-author Jeremy Richardson, a UCS senior energy analyst who comes from a family of coal miners. “But solutions are readily available with forward-looking and visionary action by policymakers.”

Does Shale Gas Extraction Grow Jobs?

Mineworkers Union Supports Biden's Green Energy Plan

By Brian Young - ucommBlog, April 21, 2021

One of the biggest impediments to President Biden’s climate plan has done a 180 and is now supporting the plan.

The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) announced this week that they support the President’s green energy policies in exchange for a robust transition strategy. The union hopes that this will mean more jobs for their members as it becomes clear that more industries are moving away from coal. The move by the UMWA is especially important as they have a close working relationship with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin whose support will be needed to pass any green energy plan. Manchin is also the Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The union is also calling on Congress to allocate funds to train miners for good-paying jobs with benefits in renewable energy sectors.

President Biden has proposed allocating $16 billion to reclaim abandoned mines and to plug leaking gas and oil wells. This would not only provide bridge jobs for workers in areas like West Virginia, but it would also address serious environmental issues that these abandoned mines and wells are causing.

Mineworkers President Cecil Roberts said in a live-streamed event with the National Press Club that coal jobs decreased by 7,000 last year leaving only about 34,000 active coal miners in the United States.

“Change is coming, whether we seek it or not. Too many inside and outside the coalfields have looked the other way when it comes to recognizing and addressing specifically what that change must be, but we can look away no longer,” the United Mineworkers stated. “We must act, while acting in a way that has real, positive impact on the people who are most affected by this change.”

“We have to think about the people who have already lost their jobs,” Roberts said. “I’m for any jobs that we can create that would be good-paying jobs for our brothers and sisters who have lost them in the UMWA. As we confront a next wave of energy transition, we must take steps now to ensure that things do not get worse for coal miners, their families, and communities, but in fact get better."

To help these workers through a just transition, the union is proposing significant increases in federal funding for carbon capture technology and storage research and development funding. They are also calling for building out a carbon capture infrastructure such as pipelines and injection wells. This would allow coal-fired plants to remain open, but they would have to install technology that would capture emissions and store them underground instead of in the atmosphere.

Preserving Coal Country: Keeping America’s coal miners, families and communities whole in an era of global energy transition

By staff - United Mineworkers of America, April 20, 2021

At the end of 2011, nearly 92,000 people worked in the American coal industry, the most since 1997. Coal production in the United States topped a billion tons for the 21st consecutive year. Both thermal and metallurgical coal were selling at premium prices, and companies were making record profits.

Then the bottom fell out. The global economy slowed, putting pressure on steelmaking and metallurgical coal production. Foreign competition from China, Australia, India and elsewhere cut into met coal production.

Domestically, huge increases in production from newly-tapped natural gas fields, primarily as a result of hydraulic fracturing of deep shale formations, caused the price of gas to drop below that of coal for the first time in years. As a result, utilities began switching the fuel used to generate electricity from coal to gas. An enlarging suite of environmental regulations also adversely impacted coal usage, production and employment.

By 2016, just 51,800 people were working in the coal industryii. 40,000 jobs had been
lost.

Companies went bankrupt. Retirees’ hard-won retiree health care and pensions were threatened. Active union miners saw their collective bargaining agreements – including provisions that had been negotiated over decades -- thrown out by federal bankruptcy courts. Nonunion miners had no recourse in bankruptcy courts and were forced to accept whatever scraps their employers chose to throw their way.

Since 2012, more than 60 coal companies have filed either for Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy or Chapter 7 liquidation. Almost no company has been immune.

In 2017 and again in 2019, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and its bipartisan allies in Congress, led by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), successfully preserved the retiree health care and pensions that the government had promised and tens of thousands of miners had earned in sweat and blood.

The UMWA was successful in preserving union recognition, our members’ jobs and reasonable levels of pay and benefits at every company as they emerged from bankruptcy, but in no case has the contract that came out of bankruptcy been the same as the one our members enjoyed when a company went into bankruptcy

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