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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.”

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.”

Alabama Miners Are Still on Strike After 8 Months

By Nora De La Cour - Jacobin, November 8, 2021

Last week, more than 500 coal mine workers picketed in New York City, joined by a diverse army of other labor movement members and supporters. The mine workers, who extract coal for steel production, are now in the eighth month of their strike against Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama. Their aim is to force Warrior Met to restore the pay, benefits, and schedules they had before their previous employer, Walter Energy, declared bankruptcy and auctioned off its assets in 2016.

On Thursday, the mine workers marched to the headquarters of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and Warrior Met’s biggest shareholder. After the rally, five United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) members and the union’s president, Cecil Roberts, sat down in the street and refused to move. The six were handcuffed by the New York Police Department and arrested for their act of civil disobedience.

The striking workers brought their picket to the middle of Manhattan because they have been barred from gathering outside the Brookwood mines. On October 27, a Tuscaloosa County circuit judge issued a temporary restraining order stopping all UMWA picket activity at Warrior Met. The injunction, which has been extended through November 15, blocks strikers from gathering within 300 yards of any mine entrance or exit.

That’s a huge restriction. As Haeden Wright, president of the UMWA auxiliary for two of the striking locals, explained to Jacobin, moving the pickets three football fields back from the mines “could put you on a completely separate road from Warrior Met property.” In in an interview with Jacobin, labor scholar Steve Striffler called the restraining order “an unconstitutional act that effectively takes away the miners’ right to free speech and assembly at the conflict’s most important sites.”

The injunction is the apparent product of an aggressive campaign by Warrior Met to spread the misleading narrative that UMWA members are engaging in violence and vandalism on the picket lines. Labor journalist Kim Kelly reported that Warrior Met hired the public relations firm Sitrick and Company to “neutralize the opposition” and “reframe the debate” around a strike that has garnered local and national support despite embarrassingly insufficient coverage from the corporate media.

Mine Workers from Across Appalachia Arrested Outside BlackRock Headquarters in NYC

Striking Alabama coal miners protest corporate greed at NYC BlackRock headquarters

By Jaisal Noor - The Real News Network, July 28, 2021

Striking Alabama coal miner Mike Wright says workers at Warrior Met Coal are taking their calls for fair pay and benefits to the NYC headquarters of their company's biggest investor: BlackRock.

Job Creation for a Clean Jumpstart

By Amanda Novello - Data for Progress, July 2021

Government stimulus is sorely needed: more than a year into the pandemic recession, nearly 10 percent of Black workers are unemployed, and over 6 percent of all workers are unemployed. There are still more than 7 million fewer jobs than there were last June, and nearly 40% of all unemployed workers are long-term unemployed. A majority of those out of work have no college degree. In addition, there are 5 million fewer people in the labor force than pre-pandemic, including 3 million women who left the labor force since last February, and 2 million men.

Decarbonizing the economy in tandem with a full, job centered green recovery, will require many different plans to be executed at all levels of government and society. That’s why, this March, Data for Progress and Evergreen Action released the Clean Jumpstart 2021 report that offers 39 policy priorities for how to carry out our existing commitments, while increasing ambition and creating good jobs that Americans desperately need, in communities that need them most. All components of this plan are popular with likely voters. The Clean Jumpstart 2021 plan represents how a bold climate investment package, like the American Jobs Plan, could tackle the climate crisis and build a clean energy economy.

The Clean Jumpstart 2021 plan would invest a total of $2.3 trillion over four years. Some investments would create jobs more or less immediately, while others will take longer to realize full job-creation effects. Therefore, in this memo, we estimate that the plan would create an average of 2.7 million jobs annually for the first five years. But the job benefits of the plan don’t end there. The policies in Clean Jumpstart would also create up to 960,000 jobs annually for five years following (year 6-10 after investments begin). Approximately 40 percent of all jobs created would be “direct” jobs, or employment working directly toward these policy goals, and the rest would be due to additional work generated along supply chains and in communities due to the multiplied impacts of increased demand.

Read the text (PDF).

From Black Lung to BlackRock: Striking Alabama Coal Miners Protest Wall St. Financiers of Warrior Met

Kim Kelly interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan González - Democracy Now, June 22, 2021

More than a thousand coal miners at Warrior Met Coal are now in the third month of their strike in the right-to-work state of Alabama. The miners walked off the job on April 1 after their union, the United Mine Workers of America, called the first strike to hit the state’s coal mining industry in four decades. Workers are fighting for improvements to wages and benefits after they agreed to drastic cutbacks in 2016, when Warrior Met Coal took control of the mines after the previous company went bankrupt. Today a group of striking mine workers traveled from Alabama to Wall Street to protest the investment firms backing Warrior Met. “These are the companies that fund Warrior Met and allow Warrior Met to pay their executives millions of dollars a year, while the miners, the workers themselves who are creating that value, are struggling to get by on sometimes as little as $22 an hour,” says labor journalist and organizer Kim Kelly.

The True Price of Coal

By Kim Kelly - The Real News, June 8, 2021

It’s been over two months since 1,100 union coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, hit the picket line, citing unfair labor practices against Warrior Met Coal. The strike itself has gained more national attention, which has also put a spotlight on the harsh tolls that coal mining takes on workers, their bodies, and their families. From work-related diseases like black lung and silicosis to methane explosions and roof cave-ins, coal mining has always been a dangerous job, and coal miners today still face many hazards. In the latest installment of “Battleground Brookwood,” TRNN contributor Kim Kelly continues her coverage of the strike at Warrior Met Coal by investigating the true price of coal production.

National Economic Transition Platform: A Visionary Proposal for an Equitable Future

By staff - Just Transition Fund, Summer 2020

Workers and families affected by the changing coal economy are facing a profound crisis complicated by unique difficulties. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic decline, coal facility closures, layoffs, and cuts to vital services were devastating to people and places dependent on the coal economy—many of whom are still struggling following earlier economic declines, the loss of manufacturing jobs, or inequality and widespread poverty.

For low-income communities and communities of color already disproportionately left behind by the status quo, the need for equitable and inclusive economic growth is vital. But, now, with COVID-19, these unique challenges are exacerbated. The closure of even more coal facilities is accelerated, giving communities little time to plan for the disappearance of their largest employer and the erosion of the tax base, which provides critical funding for public services, local education, and health care systems.

Read the text (PDF).

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