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Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy: an Organizing Proposal

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 29, 2017

The world faces a crises of enormous proportions. Global warming, caused by the continued burning of fossil fuels, threatens life on Earth as we know it, and yet, those most responsible for causing the crisis, the fossil fuel wing of the capitalist class, seems hell bent on doubling down on business as usual. In the United States of America, whose corporate overlords are among the worst offenders, they are led by the recently elected Donald Trump, whose cabinet is bursting at the seams with climate change denialists and fossil fuel capitalist industry representatives. Instead of transitioning to a clean energy economy and decarbonizing society as quickly as possible, as climate scientists overwhelmingly recommend, Trump and his inner circle would seemingly rather not just maintain the status quo; they’ve signaled that they intend to make the worst choices imaginable, putting all of the US’s energy eggs into the oil, natural gas, and coal basket.

Worse still, Trump claims to enjoy a good deal of support for such moves from the Voters who elected him, which includes a good portion of the "White working class" who have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, whose policies are just barely more favorable to addressing the problems of global warming (which is to say, still woefully inadequate). Meanwhile, the leadership of the AFL-CIO, pushed principally by the Building Trades unions, have doubled down on their efforts to continue to serve as capital’s junior partners, even as the latter continues to liquidate them in their ongoing campaign of systemic union busting.  Just recently, science teachers across the country began to find packets in their school mailboxes, containing a booklet entitled "Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming", a DVD, and a cover letter urging them to "read this remarkable book and view the video, and then use them in your classroom," courtesy of the climate change denialist Heartland Institute.

One might think, given all of these situations, that…well, to put it mildly…we’re doomed. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in spite of the bleakness of these circumstances, a deeper look behind them reveals that fossil fuel capitalism is in terminal decline, that their hold over our lives hangs by a thread, so much that we the people, the workers and peasants of the world, have the ability to transform the human existence to one based not on plundering the Earth and exploiting the masses for the profit of a few, but one based on true grassroots democracy, free of suffering and want, and one that exists in harmony with the Earth. The key to making this transformation lies with clean energy, and the people who can make this transformation are the very people who helped elect Donald Trump themselves. One may justifiably ask, how is this even remotely possible?

This new organizing proposal, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy, offers a potential solution and practical steps to achieve it which can not only break the reactionary tide, perhaps once and for all, but also can greatly accelerate the very necessary process of abolishing capitalism and building a new, ecological sustainable world in the shell of the ecocidal old by building an intersectional movement championing "Clean Energy Democracy". Such a movement has the potential to unite workers, rural and rustbelt communities, climate justice activists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, and farmers of all backgrounds and revitalize a vibrant and grassroots democratic anti-capitalist left, and it offers goals that help address the intertwining crises of global warming, decadent capitalism, failing economies, and demoralized communities plagued by economic depression, racism, and reactionary nationalism.

While the burgeoning "resistance", loosely led by a coalition of groups and movements with a smorgasbord of goals and demands, many of which are reformist and defensive (though not undesirable if seen as steps along the way to more revolutionary and transformative demands) has so far successfully held back much of the worst intentions of Trump and the forces he represents, making the latter fight tooth and nail for every single inch (as well they should), such resistance still lacks the positive vision needed to truly meet the needs of most people, including especially the most oppressed and downtrodden. By contrast, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy offers one piece of a revolutionary and transformative vision that can truly help build a new world within the shell of the old, thus putting an end to capitalist economic oppression as well as the ongoing systematic destruction of the Earth's ability to sustain life.

Download the Proposal (PDF File).

Documents by Nick Mullins

NUMSA repeats the call for Sibanye to shut down for the sake of worker safety

By Phakamile Hlubi-Majola - NUMSA, February 8, 2018

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) is deeply saddened by news that two workers have died at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Kloof operation in Gauteng. According to the mining house a ‘fall of ground’ incident which the company claims may have been the result of a seismic incident caused the accident. The accident occurred at Sibanye’s Ikamva 4 Shaft‚ Kloof Operations in Glenharvie in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

This is the second incident affecting workers safety this month at Sibanye mine. Last week‚ more than 950 employees were left stranded underground at one of its mines in the Free State when a severe storm resulted in electricity supply being cut, trapping the workers underground. To date Sibanye has not properly explained why its generators failed to kick in. This delay meant that the miners were trapped underground for more than12 hours while attempts were made to rescue them.

It is important to note that these deaths are happening as the global elites in the mining industry are gathered at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town, to discuss more ways to exploit workers and pillage the country of its natural resources. The death toll in the South African mining industry remains shockingly high, with at least 81 people killed in 2017 alone. It is a reflection of the industry’s attitude towards the life of an African worker. They continue to shamelessly pursue profits before the well-being of workers. But the Department of Mineral Resources has allowed mining companies to act with impunity when it comes to mining safety.

NUMSA sends its deepest condolences to the families of the workers who lost their lives in this horrific incident. Last week we called for a shut-down of operations at Sibanye in the Free State until workers safety could be guaranteed, but we were ignored by the DMR. We repeat the call that Sibanye-Stillwater should not be allowed to operate until the safety of workers can be guaranteed. We demand a full and detailed investigation into the cause of the accident. It seems evident to us that Sibanye is not taking enough care to guarantee the safety of workers underground.

Trump's Policies Won't Bring Back Coal Jobs -- They Will Kill More Miners

By Michael Arria - Truthout, February 4, 2018

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump consistently claimed that he would revive the coal industry, and since becoming president, he has consistently declared victory. "Since the fourth quarter of last year until most recently, we've added almost 50,000 jobs in the coal sector," Donald Trump announced last June. "In the month of May alone, almost 7,000 jobs."

Trump was presumably repeating a number he had heard mentioned by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who proudly touted the 50,000 figure in various media appearances last year. Pruitt's numbers are, in fact, way off. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from the beginning of 2017 through that May, about 33,000 "mining and coal" jobs were created. That's obviously much lower than 50,000. Plus, most of those 33,000 jobs actually came from a subcategory called "support activities for mining." When Trump made that statement, the actual number of new coal jobs was about 1,000. Now it's about 1,200. Preliminary government data recently obtained by Reuters shows that Trump's efforts to increase mining jobs have failed in most coal-producing states.

In addition to coal production dropping off, solar and wind power are now a cheaper option, and more Americans are becoming aware of coal's devastating environmental impact. Even early Trump supporter Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, the country's biggest privately held coal company, admitted that the president "can't bring mining jobs back."

Coal Country Knows Trump Can’t Save It

By Jeremy Deaton - Nexus Media, January 18, 2018

Since taking office, President Trump has been checking items off of a coal-industry wish list—ditching the Paris Agreement, stripping environmental safeguards, undermining workplace protections for miners. While the president’s rhetoric has raised hopes for renaissance of American coal, Trump’s policies have done little to revive the ailing industry.

Experts warn that the administration’s repeated promises to resurrect mining jobs distract from the hard work of rebuilding coal country. Appalachians understand that industry isn’t coming back, but Trump is making it hard for them to move on.

“Promising to bring coal jobs back and repealing environmental regulations at the national level is only harmful to these communities, because it gives them a sense of false hope and it would set them back,” said Sanya Carley, a professor of energy policy at Indiana University and lead author of a new study that examines how Appalachians are coping with coal’s decline.

Over the last three decades, the coal miners have suffered a series of blows, losing more than 100,000 jobs. The biggest hit came during the Reagan years when coal companies started replacing men with machines, allowing them to mine more with fewer workers. Then, hydraulic fracturing drove down the price of natural gas, making it cheaper than coal. More recently, the price of wind and solar power has plummeted, dealing another blow to the industry. Today, coal-fired power plants are shutting down right and left, and there is virtually nowhere in America where it makes sense to build a new coal generator.

Trump can nix every environmental protection on the books. It would do almost nothing to revive jobs. Miners’ biggest foe is, and has always been, the steady march of technological progress. There is perhaps no better symbol of the industry’s decline than the Kentucky Coal Museum, powered, as it is, by a set of rooftop solar panels.

The death of coal, inevitable though it may be, is a tough pill to swallow in parts of Appalachia, where coal permeates every facet of local life. “The coal industry sponsors local elementary schools. There are signs all over the place about different coal companies. They pay for sports, and the students wear their logos on their t-shirts,” said Carley. “We’re told the coal industry goes to high schools and essentially recruits people out of high school and sometimes encourages them to get their GEDs, but other times doesn’t. So, these students leave high school making $60,000 to $80,000 to $120,000 dollars a year immediately without even needing a college degree.” Today, those jobs are increasingly hard to come by.

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.

A just transition from coal demands a cross-regional sharing of benefits and costs

By Natalie Bennett - The Ecologist, January 4, 2018

The world has to stop burning coal to produce electricity. We cannot afford the dirtiest fuel, killing with its air pollution, heating the planet with its carbon. That’s a reality that’s dawned in increasing numbers of countries, with the UK among them, who have signed up to the Powering Past Coal alliance, launched at the Bonn climate talks.

In Britain, the reality is this signature is more symbolic than practical. The government had already promised a phase out by 2025 (which could be a lot earlier). In August only 2 percent of electricity was produced through coal and its financial cost is increasingly ruling it out.

But the politics of coal are very different in Poland, where 80 percent of electricity is still produced with highly-polluting fuel, and the government is one of the last in the developed world still building new coal-fired stations.

Trump took credit for airline safety in 2017. What about the surge in coal miner deaths?

By Mark Hand - ThinkProgress, January 2, 2018

President Donald Trump is taking credit for what a new study is calling the safest year on record for commercial aviation. The president, however, is refusing to take responsibility for what his mine safety agency is saying was a year where almost twice as many coal mine workers died on the job than the final year of the Obama administration.

On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted: “Since taking office, I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news — it was just reported that there were zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”

Over the past 20 years, the average number of airliner accidents has shown a steady and persistent decline, thanks to “safety-driven efforts” by international aviation organizations and the aviation industry, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an independent research group. Nowhere in the analysis did the researchers mention efforts by the Trump administration as a reason for the airline safety improvement.

In the coal mining sector, data from the Trump administration’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the federal government’s mine safety agency, show coal mining deaths nearly doubled in 2017. But unlike the aviation statistics, Trump isn’t taking any personal responsibility for the coal mining deaths. What’s more, he tapped a former coal executive with a record of safety violations to head MSHA.

The death of a coal miner in Fayette County, West Virginia, on December 29 brought the total number of U.S. coal mining fatalities in 2017 to 15, according to MSHA’s website. Eight of the 15 coal mining deaths last year occurred in West Virginia. The remaining deaths occurred in Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. In the previous year, under President Barack Obama, the coal industry saw its lowest number of coal mining fatalities to date, with eight deaths recorded across the country.

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Trump claims he’s fighting for coal miners, but he’s reevaluating the rule protecting them from black lung

By Mark Hand - Think Progress, December 15, 2017

The Trump administration intends to examine whether it should weaken rules aimed at fighting black lung among coal miners, a move the administration says could create a “less burdensome” regulatory environment for coal companies.

As part of his mission to drastically cut federal regulations, President Donald Trump appeared to indicate Thursday that he is willing to risk greater harm to workers, including stymieing efforts to reduce black lung in coal communities, to appease his deep-pocketed corporate supporters. This anti-regulation effort stands in stark relief to Trump’s rhetoric — starting in his days on the campaign trail — that continually portrays himself as pro-coal miner.

Plans to reexamine a mine safety dust rule rule, implemented three years ago, were highlighted in an anti-regulation agenda released Thursday by the Trump administration. At a White House event, Trump touted his administration’s progress in cutting regulations, saying he wants to return the federal government to the level of regulations that existed in 1960.

In August 2014, the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) respirable dust rule went into effect. The long-delayed rule sought to lower miners’ exposure to respirable coal dust, the primary cause of black lung disease, also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. According to statistics, black lung is a disease that has been a contributing factor in the death of more than 76,000 coal miners since 1968.

The Trump administration said MSHA, an agency of the Department of Labor tasked with regulating and enforcing health and safety issues for the nation’s mining sector, will be conducting a “retrospective review” of the landmark final rule, officially known as the “Lowering Miners’ Exposure to the Respirable Coal Mine Dust, Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors.”

Ken Ward Jr. reported Thursday in the Charleston Gazette-Mail that the Trump administration will be reviewing the safety rules at the same time as a resurgence in lung disease among coal miners, especially in West Virginia and other Appalachian coal states.

How should communities cope with the end of coal? Advice from the frontlines

By Amelia Urry - Grist, December 12, 2017

The Mon Valley in western Pennsylvania was once at the center of an industrial revolution that put the United States on the map, but you might have trouble picking out some of its towns on that map now.

“These communities have been neglected by everybody,” says Veronica Coptis, the executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice and a longtime resident of Greene County. She grew up among the emptied-out towns that first sprung up beside the steel factories and coal mines that once lined the Monongahela River for miles.

Now those steel plants are gone, and many of the mines have closed. The coal mines still in operation are largely mechanized, operated by an ever-dwindling number of non-unionized laborers. The Center for Coalfield Justice, based in Greene and Washington Counties, works to protect the rights of people living in mining towns, filing legal challenges and advocating for better policy from the state government.

The work does not make Coptis popular with all of her neighbors.

“My rule of thumb is that I will have any conversation with anyone, but I will not be yelled at,” Coptis tells me. She spends a lot of her time having hard conversations with coal miners who distrust environmental activists on principle, until they realize she is a local fighting for the future of her home.

“Almost all of our staff live in the community, and most of our board of directors and our volunteers” Coptis says. “Our organization is really rooted here.”

Coptis became an activist after the lake in her local Ryerson Station State Park — popular as a local boating and fishing retreat — was drained in 2005 to make way for coal mining. The recreation supported by the lake was one of the only economic activities not linked to mining in the area, and its disappearance left Greene County in even more precarious straits than before.

Coal generation makes up about a third of the United States’ power supply — a share that has been shrinking thanks to a boom in natural gas, among other factors. As the end of coal looks more and more inevitable, so does the need for “just transitions.” That is, the engineering of fair economic and environmental conditions for communities who have historically relied on fossil fuel extraction.

This is what Coptis’ work comes down to: an effort to build a better future for people whose lives have always been entwined with the fortunes of the coal industry.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can read our cover story on Germany’s just transition here: Life After Coal.

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