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The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on

By Marienna Pope-Weidemann - Red Pepper, October 13, 2017

The fatal police shooting of 37 striking workers at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine in August 2012 was the worst recorded instance of police violence in post-apartheid South Africa. Five years on, there have been no prosecutions and no real improvements – no compensation for the families living in grief and dire poverty.

There has also been no apology, although staggeringly Lonmin has created a commercial out of the incident. But as always with the Marikana story, the most important characters were left out.

A few weeks after the massacre there was another death in the community. Amidst a brutal crackdown Paulina Masuhlo, a powerful community leader, died after being shot by police. Paulina’s death helped galvanise the birth of Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana.

As well as demanding criminal prosecution for the killings and compensation for the families, Sikhala Sonke also carries forward the demands those workers died for: a living wage and dignified conditions.

Pensioners & young workers show solidarity for Idaho silver miners

By Staff - ILWU Dispatcher, September 25, 2017

Idaho’s “Silver Valley” may sound romantic, but hundreds of miners who work deep inside the region’s deep, hot and dangerous hard-rock silver mines were forced out on strike last March and now find themselves on the frontline of America’s working class struggle.

 ILWU support

 ILWU Pensioners and young workers from Northwest locals are stepping up to help roughly 250 miners and their families employed by Hecla to work in the Lucky Friday mine in Mullan, Idaho where silver, lead and zinc are extracted from narrow shafts up to 8500 feet underground.

Early contributions

 In early May, the Seattle Pensioners made a $500 contribution to help the members of United Steelworkers Local 5114. Additional support came the following month when Local 19 donated $5000 on June 8, and Local 21 donated the same amount on June 14.

Personal delivery

 “I read about what was happening to these miners, and thought my fellow pensioners would want to do something,” said Mark Downs who personally delivered an early check and solidarity letter from the ILWU Seattle Pensioner’s Club, after making the five-hour drive across Washington State with two other activists.

May Day decision

 Downs noted that the Seattle Pensioners had held their monthly meeting on May Day, “which was a pretty good day to share some solidarity,” he said, adding that the group’s vote to contribute was unanimous. Downs stayed overnight in Idaho near the small town of Mullan where the Lucky Friday miners are taking their stand against Hecla, and he attended a union picnic the next day with the striking miners.

Young Workers & pensioners 

Downs returned from his trip excited to share his experiences. Word of the strike reached Tacoma where Local 23’s Young Worker Committee (YWC) has been meeting with Pensioners on Thursdays for the past two years. YWC activist Brian Skiffington did some research about the strike and took his own trip to Mullan where he met with the miners and reported back to a joint meeting of the Tacoma Pensioners and the YWC. Both groups decided to launch a new round of solidarity over the summer.

Larger caravan

A larger solidarity caravan with 14 participants was organized to depart on August 2, in time to mark 130 days on the picket line. Caravaners made their way to the Wolf Lodge campground where they received a warm welcome from miners and family members, including camp “mom” Megan Chavez and cook Cory Chavez, who prepared breakfast early the next morning.

After finishing the hearty meals, the solidarity visitors were soon mixing it up with miners and other supporters in a spirited protest held in front of Hecla’s corporate headquarters in Coeur d’Alene that attracted 200 participants – a new turnout record.Songs were sung, chants and slogans were shouted and solidarity signs drew many honks from supporters driving past the protest.

The National Mining Association doesn’t speak for coal communities

By Erin Savage - Appalachian Voices, October 5, 2017

Last month, West Virginian Bil Lepp authored a letter in the Charleston Gazette-Mail regarding the U.S. Department of the Interior’s decision to halt a review of research linking mountaintop removal coal mining and impacts to human health.

In his letter, Lepp calls out the National Mining Association and cites its skepticism of the review, which was led by the National Academy of Sciences and already well underway.

“The National Mining Association is saying that because mountaintop removal is such a small part of the mining industry, the people affected by it simply aren’t worth worrying about,” Lepp wrote. “They are saying, ‘Even if this process is bad for the people who live near it, who cares? There are not enough of them to matter to us.’”

In response, National Mining Association President Hal Quinn submitted his own letter to the Gazette-Mail. In it, he claims that because the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences already reviewed some of the studies, the additional review by the NAS (which is independent and non-governmental) is unnecessary. “We applaud and support legitimate efforts to improve health and safety in and around mines, but this study was a symbolic gesture left over from an anti-coal administration,” Quinn wrote.

Quinn wants it to seem like the NMA cares about miners and coal communities. But nothing could be further from the truth. The NMA openly opposes multiple efforts that would benefit coal communities.

The National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences study Quinn mentioned in his letter does not actually make additional review unnecessary. Rather, that study concluded:

Improved characterization of exposures by future community health studies and further study of the effects of MTR mining chemical mixtures in experimental models will be critical to determining health risks of MTR mining to communities. Without such work, uncertainty will remain regarding the impact of these practices on the health of the people who breathe the air and drink the water affected by MTR mining.

The much more robust review being conducted by the NAS was a step toward conducting some of that work.

More than two dozen peer-reviewed studies show strong links between living near mountaintop removal mines and suffering from negative health effects. The industry likes to suggest that regional health disparities are due to other problems, but researchers control for these socioeconomic factors. Poverty and public health issues are critical problems in Central Appalachia, but they have been problems for decades, even when the coal industry was booming. An economy based on a single extractive industry has done little to lift the region out of poverty, despite what the industry may claim.

One example of how the NMA is holding coal communities back is its opposition to the RECLAIM Act, a bill that would direct $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund over the next five years to reclaim post-mined land for the economic benefit of the region. All five members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation are co-sponsors of the RECLAIM Act.

Not only does the NMA oppose the RECLAIM Act, it opposes the Abandoned Mine Land Fund as a whole. The fund is dependent on a tax on current coal production, and the revenue is spent on mines abandoned by coal companies prior to the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977. Without the fund, taxpayers would likely be responsible for the cleanup of these sites.

The NMA claims that the fund has been mismanaged since coal companies have paid in more than $10 billion while only $2.8 billion has been spent on priority sites. Priority 1 sites pose a direct risk to human health and safety — an open mine portal or unstable land near communities, for example. Thankfully, these sites do not make up the majority of abandoned mine lands. Much of the land does not pose a direct threat to people, but it does hamper economic growth; it may be unsuitable for development in its current condition or deter nearby growth. Many sites have ongoing problems with soil and water contamination, erosion and revegetation.

In reality, $8 billion of the fund has been distributed, including $5 billion distributed to states and tribes and more than $1.4 billion transferred to the United Mine Workers of America Health and Retirement Funds. So, the NMA is upset that $1.4 billion has been spent to ensure that miners have health care and retirement benefits, rather than for Priority 1 sites...

International action on Just Transition: what’s been accomplished, and proposals for the future

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 27, 2017

Just Transition – Where are we now and what’s next? A Guide to National Policies and International Climate Governance  was released on September 19 by the International Trade Union Confederation, summarizing what has been done to date by the ITUC and through  international agencies such as the  ILO, UNFCCC, and the  Paris Agreement.  It also provides short summaries of some transition situations, including the Ruhr Valley in Germany, Hazelwood workers in the LaTrobe Valley, Australia, U.S. Appalachian coal miners and the coal mining pension plan, Argentinian construction workers, and Chinese coal workers.  Finally, the report calls for concrete steps to advance Just Transition and workers’ interests.

The report defines Just Transition on a national or regional scale, as  “an economy-wide process that produces the plans, policies and investments that lead to a future where all jobs are green and decent, emissions are at net zero, poverty is eradicated, and communities are thriving and resilient.” But the report also argues that Just Transition is important for companies, with social dialogue and collective bargaining as key tools to manage the necessary industrial transformation at the organizational level.  To that end, the ITUC is launching “A Workers Right To Know” as an ITUC campaign priority for 2018, stating, “Workers have a right to know what their governments are planning to meet the climate challenge and what the Just Transition measures are. Equally, workers have a right to know what their employers are planning, what the impact of the transition is and what the Just Transition guarantees will be. And workers have a right to know where their pension funds are invested with the demand that they are not funding climate or job destruction.”

The ITUC report makes new proposals. It calls on the ILO to take a more ambitious role and to negotiate a Standard for Just Transition by 2021, carrying on from the Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies forAll  (2015).   The ITUC also states “expectations” of how Just Transition should be given greater priority in the international negotiation process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), so that:  Just Transition commitments are incorporated into the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of countries; Just Transition for workers becomes a permanent theme within the forum on response measures under the Paris Agreement, and Just Transition is included in the 2018 UNFCCC Facilitative Dialogue. It also calls for the launch of a “Katowice initiative for a Just Transition” at the COP23 meetings to take place in Katowice, Poland in 2018, “to provide a high-level political space”.  Finally, the ITUC calls for expansion of the eligibility criteria of the Green Climate Fund to allow  the funding of Just Transition projects.

Just Transition – Where are we now and what’s next? is a Climate Justice Frontline Briefing from the International Trade Union Confederation, with support from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and is based upon Strengthening Just Transition Policies in International Climate Governance by Anabella Rosemberg, published as a Policy Analysis Brief by the Stanley Foundation in 2017.

A year of resistance against coal extraction: support the Ffos-y-fran 5!

By Mitch - Reclaim the Power, September 22, 2017

Reclaim the Power’s 2016 camp focussed on the issue of coal with a mass trespass against Ffos-y-frân coal mine closing it for the day. But that was far from the end of the story…

Ffos-y-frân is the UK’s largest opencast coal mine, it is very close to Merthyr Tydfil and is operated by Miller Argent. The main consumer of the coal for most of its existence has been Aberthaw power station near Barry in South Wales.

In December 2016 Reclaim the Power, Coal Action Network, Bristol Rising Tide and United Valley’s Action Group began a series of actions to close Aberthaw power station.

The first action against Aberthaw was a short and creative blockade of the only access road. Check it out in this short film which shows what happened and explains why we are targeting Aberthaw.

Aberthaw power station was the dirtiest power station in terms of nitrogen oxides in the UK, with the UK government allowing it to breach European Union air quality standards. The levels of toxins were more than double those from other power stations because Aberthaw burnt Welsh coal which is less flammable but supported Welsh mining jobs. In 2016 environmental lawyers, Client Earth, brought a case to the European Court of Justice which ruled against the UK government for allowing Aberthaw to kill 400 people a year through poisonous emissions.

Within two weeks of the opening action activists were back at Aberthaw, this time with a more serious blockade of the power station’s only access road. This time for four hours, entirely blocking the road with two tripods, causing a large tail back of lorries, before campaigners left with no arrests. It was unclear whether the power station was actually asking the police to remove the blockade as its workers and bosses were absent.

Aberthaw is run by the utility company RWE nPower whose head offices in Swindon were visited within a month of the previous action. There was a visual presence at the enormous offices which resulted in a security shut down (although one person still managed to get inside). The protest raised awareness of the opposition to the power station amongst employees and in thelocal media.

The next action in part organised by Reclaim the Power involved many more people; 150 made it to a stony south Wales beach in January to show their opposition to the power station. Marianne Owens from the PCS union said, “It’s working class people who suffer from this dirty energy,” as she addressed the crowd from the sea wall. At the demonstration demands were made for a Just Transition for coal workers to sustainable jobs.

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.

‘I closed my eyes and waited for the bullet’

By Thumeka Magwangqana and Primrose Sonti - Open Democracy, August 16, 2017

Five years ago today, 34 mine workers were shot dead in South Africa during a bitter dispute with British firm Lonmin. Today their community is taking their demands for accountability to the firm’s HQ.

In August 2012, mine workers at British company Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine in South Africa went on strike to demand the living wage. In the week leading up to 16 August, the workers tried to access the managers’ offices but they were pushed back by security. This was where the battle began.

Pushed back from the managers’ offices, the mine workers decided to go to the koppie, a small mountain near Lonmin’s mine, outside the company’s premises. They were there for a few days waiting for management to reply to their demands, and the rest of us in the community were not allowed to go near them. Every day when the men came down from that mountain, we asked them to tell us what was going on. Ten people were killed between 12 – 14 August, including two police officers.

We watched what was happening on TV constantly and in the afternoon of 15 August, we saw a crowd of people. Horses and police officers were growing in number on the koppie and, as women and leaders of the community, we were very upset. We were waiting for good news, for the management to make good decisions.

Early in the morning of 16 August, we saw the barbed wire encircling the koppie and we knew that people there were going to die. We collected the women of the community and, as leaders, we said that we should go straight to Lonmin management and tell them that if they didn’t want to give the mine workers the extra money, then it was better that we take them home because the situation had become so bad.

We collected the women and when we met near the mountain, we were too late. We heard the bullets, and then the ambulances.

Thirty-four mine workers were shot dead.

We couldn’t get there afterwards, there was a large crowd and we were told not go there, that it was very hectic. We turned back and didn’t sleep that night. Early in the morning, we went to see the police at the koppie and were fighting with them, trying everything. Then we cried.

We went to the police stations and hospitals to look for the missing. We were looking for a guy that was staying in the yard of one of our houses. He didn’t come back and we weren’t sure if he died or was in hospital or jail.

Just Transition for the coal industry is expensive – but cheaper than failure to address the needs

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 5, 2017

July 2017 saw the release of  Lessons from Previous Coal Transitions:  High-level Summary for Decision-makers , a synthesis report of case studies of past coal mining transitions in Spain, U.K., the Netherlands, Poland, U.S., and the Czech Republic – some as far back as the 1970’s.  Some key take-aways from the report:  “Because of the large scale and complexity of the challenges to be addressed, the earlier that actors (i.e. workers, companies and regions) anticipated, accepted and began to implement steps to prepare and cushion the shock of the transition, the better the results”; “the aggregate social costs to the state of a failure to invest in the transition of workers and regions are often much higher that the costs of not investing from an overall societal perspective.” While the level of cost details varies in the case studies, it is clear that costs are significant.  For example, the case study of Limburg, Netherlands states that the national government spent approximately 11.6 billion Euros (in today’s prices) on national subsidies to support coal prices and regional reconversion, in addition to  several 100 million per year in EU funds. “One estimate also suggested that in the Dutch case, all told, regional reinvestment in new economic activities also cost about 300 to 400 000€/per long-term job created.”  Limburg is also cited as “remarkable for the relatively consensual nature of the transition between unions, company and government.”  (see page 10).

The Synthesis report and individual case study reports of the six countries are available here . These are the work of the Research and Dialogue on Coal Transitions project, a large-scale research project led by Climate Strategies and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) , which also sponsors the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.  Future reports scheduled for 2018: a Global report, and a Round Table on the Future of Coal.

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.

From the Abused Heart of Coal Country, Warnings and Lessons on Next Steps

By Lucy Duff - The Washington Socialist, July 31, 2017

This June I traveled to the heart of coal country in southern West Virginia, my native state.  Over recent years films and news stories have exposed the ravages of mountaintop-removal mining on that land and its people’s health and livelihood.  The documentary Blood on the Mountain, a feature last year and this in our metro DC LaborFest, is one such source.  It portrays this most intensely mechanized technology as an acceleration of a century of Appalachian exploitation by the mining industry.  Shaving off mountain tops, it now extracts many more tons of coal with fewer workers. That has shrunk the scope for comparatively well-paid work that the United Mine Workers (UMWA) long struggled hard to negotiate. Mountaintop-removal has intensified risks of damage from flooding, blasting, ambient coal dust, sludge storage and water pollution.  State – and now federal – officials fail to enforce what regulations exist against workers’ risks, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  Fracked cheap natural gas nevertheless outcompetes coal.

Well before mountaintop-removal sped up mining’s harmful impact, federal-state partnerships had been aiming to “tune up” the core Appalachian industry for “more desirable social outcomes,” but with modest funding and negligible effect (John Alexander Williams, Appalachia: A History, 2002).   It was in large part an economic draft that swept many young millennial mountaineers into our military. Those who returned from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan were apt to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, for which they were prescribed opioids. Today the southeastern coal region looms as a national epicenter both of rural poverty and of addiction.

I wanted to see and hear for myself just how bad the situation there is, and what the people make of their prospects.  Van Jones’ recent watchword to an anti-Trump audience- “I don’t like coal but I love coal miners, ‘cause they go down in holes”- was on my mind.  How to think distinctly about moving to green energy and yet dealing justly with fossil-fuel workers? 

For my short visit I’d arranged an appointment with staff of Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), based in Raleigh County at Naoma, not far from Beckley, WV.  For nearly twenty years this small nonprofit has pursued its main goals: to halt permits for further mountaintop-removal mines and to reduce violations by current operators of clean-water and occupational-safety law. Thus I got to speak with two among the relatively few local people who actively resist the coal-industry ties of business and government. One is Debbie Jarrell, CRMW Co-Director. The younger activist, Junior Walk, drove me on a brief tour with distant views of mountaintop removal in action and of a former reclaimed mine site.

CRMW aims to save what’s left of Coal River Mountain — the tops of its neighbors Cherry Pond and Kayford Mountains having been blown away– and to salvage the community’s quality of life. Its strategy is largely on the legal front.  Since state mine inspectors do no more than a pro forma job, the nonprofit has enlisted citizens to help its staff monitor mining activity that erodes mountainsides and pollutes streams and drinking water. Some volunteers are mapping a watershed plan to keep impurities out of Marsh Fork, a tributary of Big Coal River.  CRMW files lawsuits against the most flagrant violations and publicizes judicial outcomes.  It campaigns for stronger measures to contain massive toxic coal sludge. It succeeded in getting closure of an elementary school located near a strip mine and sludge impoundment and building of a new school at a safe distance.  This summer it has been testifying at hearings about the health impacts of surface mining for a study currently underway by a National Academy of Sciences panel.  CMRW is one of about a dozen advocacy grassroots member groups of the Alliance for Appalachia, joined in multi-state pushback against the coal industry.  Yet it views these efforts as mainly a “holding action;” to carry on much more against entrenched powers would be an act of futility.   

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