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After 18 Months, Striking Warrior Met Miners and Families Hold the Line

By Ericka Wills - Labor Notes, October 7, 2022

A somber bell toll broke the silence outside the West Brookwood Church in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. The white-gloved hand of Larry Spencer, International Vice President of Mine Workers (UMWA) District 20, solemnly struck the Miners’ Memorial bell as the names of victims of mine-related deaths were read aloud.

“As we gather this evening for our service, it is appropriate that we remember in the past twelve months over 2021 and 2022 there has been tremendous heartache as the result of mining accidents across this country,” Thomas Wilson, a retired UMWA staff representative, announced from the podium. “Twelve coal miners’ lives have been snuffed out—also, 19 metal and non-metal miners—for a total of 31 fallen miners since we last gathered.”

The annual Miners’ Memorial Service commemorates not only those who left for work in the mines over the past year never to come home again; it also honors the 13 men who died in a series of explosions in Jim Walter Resources Mine No. 5 in Brookwood on September 23, 2001. Standing on the front lawn of the church in the shadows of mine tipples, families reminisced about gathering at the same location on that fateful day in September when they anxiously waited to hear if their loved ones had survived the blasts.

In 2001, the No. 5 mine was owned by Walter Energy. Today it is part of Warrior Met Coal, the company at the center of the UMWA’s 550-day strike, the longest and largest ongoing strike in the United States. As strikers, families, and community members gathered to remember the fallen miners, all were reminded that what is at stake in the Warrior Met strike is, literally, life and death.

Sweden: Activists and locals take action against limestone mining

By Take Concrete Action - Freedom, August 31, 2022

Right now in Sweden, activists are fighting to stop the state from throwing open the doors to corporate impunity. When the company Cementa was barred from continuing to mine limestone on the island of Gotland on the basis of environmental protections in the Swedish constitution, the government decided the constitution was the problem. They granted an exception to the company, despite the fact that thousands of people were facing water shortages due to the mine draining Gotland’s groundwater. Not only that, but Cementa is also Sweden’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Now, locals and climate activists teamed up under the name Take Concrete Action to shut Cementa down by sending hundreds of people to occupy the mine.

At the end of August, they travelled to the remote island in the middle of the Baltic sea, donned their best hazmat suits and walked into a limestone mine to stay there as long as possible. Below, they explain why.

Because Sweden is at a political crossroads that could have grave implications for its people and environment – and we see this as our best chance of stopping it.

Here’s How Appalachian States Can Create “Good-Paying, Union Jobs” Cleaning Up Mines

By Ben Hunkler - Ohio River Valley Institute, August 25 2022

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) earmarks $16 billion for cleaning up legacy damage from the coal and gas industries, an investment that Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, has promised will create “good-paying, union jobs” across Appalachia.

Ohio River Valley Institute research shows that BIL funding could create as many as 4,000 jobs reclaiming coal mine damage, primarily in Appalachian counties with disproportionately high unemployment and poverty rates. But how will these jobs compare to the precarious, low- wage jobs that proliferate in the region? They may provide above-average wages, but they likely won’t be union and won’t pay enough to support a family.

Read the text (PDF).

Defend The Land: End Toxic Gold Mining

By staff - Ireland IWW, July 22, 2022

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has condemned the recent issuing of gold and diamond licences to international prospecting companies by the North of Ireland, Department for Economy. It is estimated that a number of exploration licences have been granted to several companies seeking to prospect in counties Fermanagh and Tyrone.

News came as the Industrial Workers of the World Ireland Branch held its Annual General Conference. Representatives of the IWW Ireland Branch, which brought forward a motion of solidarity to its members, reiterated it's 'opposition to any toxic gold mining in the Sperrins' mountain range stating; 'This motion extends its continued solidarity with the communities in resistance in the Sperrin Mountains in Co. Tyrone, and the continued opposition to Toxic Gold Mining in the region by Canadian multinational Dalradian Gold. In turn the union will continue to campaign and highlight the impact of toxic gold mining.'

An IWW spokesperson said that "The motion was overshadowed by media reports of a number companies (Flintridge Resources, Karelian Diamond Resources and Mount Castle) recently granted prospecting licences. This will undoubtedly see increased prospecting in other counties Fermanagh and Tyrone, an act that the vast majority of local communities would overwhelmingly object to.

"The membership of our union past a motion of our continued support with local communities fighting toxic gold mining in the Sperrins and our opposition to the environmental destruction of our land and that of our communities."

Commenting on the issuing of further prospecting licences by the Department of the Economy, a spokesperson responded stating "We have no doubt the those in power believe that it's open season for welcoming big businesses when it comes to mining in the North West. It's clear that for some, the priorities of profit comes first over the lives of workers and working class communities as well as the destruction of our environment.

"For those who still support or gain financially from those multinational companies profiting from toxic gold mining, yet still turn a blind eye to the impact it will have on all our lives, what more can be said. With the information now gathered and widely available on the devastation toxic mining will cause, our union calls for all mining licences to be immediately withdrawn. Nothing more than the immediate end to toxic mining will be acceptable to our union and that of the local communities who continue to resist and defend the land or environment."

Making workers heard along the battery supply chain

By D'Arcy Briggs - Spring, July 7, 2022

The battery supply chain is growing fast, fuelled by the increasing demand for electric vehicles (EV), and with that the creation of new jobs. In Europe alone, employment related to the EV industry is estimated to increase by 500,000 to 850,000 by 2030. The auto industry has a relatively high level of unionized workers, but the number decreases along the supply chain, where workers’ rights violations, as well as forced and child labour, increase.

Every region makes up different parts of the battery supply chain. There is a lithium triangle in Latin America, most mining is done in Africa, Asia Pacific is seeing new battery investments and there is booming investment in electric vehicles in North America and Europe.

As Illinois Coal Jobs Disappear, Some Are Looking to the Sun

By Kari Lydersen - In These Times, May 26, 2022

While Illinois phases out coal, clean energy jobs hold promise—both for displaced coal workers, and those harmed by the fossil fuel economy.

Matt Reuscher was laid off a decade ago from Peabody Energy’s Gateway coal mine in Southern Illinois, in the midst of a drought that made the water needed to wash the coal too scarce and caused production to drop, as he remembers it.

Reuscher’s grandfather and two uncles had been miners, and his father — a machinist — did much work with the mines. Like many young men in Southern Illinois, it was a natural career choice for Reuscher. Still in his early 20s when he was laid off, Reuscher ​“spent that summer doing odds and ends, not really finding much of anything I enjoyed doing as much as being underground.”

By fall of 2012, he started working installing solar panels for StraightUp Solar, one of very few solar companies operating in the heart of Illinois coal country. He heard about the job through a family friend and figured he’d give it a try since he had a construction background. He immediately loved the work, and he’s become an evangelist for the clean energy shift happening nationwide, if more slowly in Southern Illinois. With colleagues, he fundraised to install solar panels in tiny villages on the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua, and he became a solar electrician and worked on StraightUp Solar installations powering the wastewater treatment center and civic center in Carbondale, Illinois — a town named for coal. 

Solar installation pays considerably less than coal mining, Reuscher acknowledges, but he feels it’s a safer and healthier way to support his family — including two young sons who love the outdoors as much as he does. 

“You work with people who are really conscious about the environment. That rubs off on me and then rubs off on them,” Reuscher notes, referring to his sons.

Illinois has more than a dozen coal mines and more than a dozen coal-fired power plants that are required to close or reach zero carbon emissions by 2030 (for privately-owned plants) or 2045 (for the state’s two publicly-owned plants), though most will close much sooner due to market forces. Reaching zero carbon emissions would entail complete carbon capture and sequestration, which has not been achieved at commercial scale anywhere in the United States. 

Coal mines also frequently lay off workers, as the industry is in financial duress, though Illinois coal is bolstered by a healthy export market. A ​“just transition” — which refers to providing jobs and opportunities for workers and communities impacted by the decline of fossil fuels — has been an increasing priority of environmental movements nation-wide, and was a major focus of Illinois’ 2021 Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA). The idea is that people long burdened by fossil fuel pollution and dependent on fossil fuel economies should benefit from the growth of clean energy. Reuscher’s story is a perfect example. 

But in Illinois, as nationally, his transition is a rarity. Solar and other clean energy jobs have more often proven not to be an attractive or accessible option for former coal workers. And advocates and civic leaders have prioritized a broader and also difficult goal: striving to provide clean energy opportunities for not only displaced fossil fuel workers, but for those who have been harmed by fossil fuels or left out of the economic opportunities fossil fuels provided.

'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.”

Fossil Fuel Workers Will Play A Vital Role In The Global Energy Transition

By Haley Zaremba - Oil Price, February 9, 2022

  • The global energy transition may have hit a snag in 2021, but it’s clear that it is a force that will not be stopped
  • A loss of respect, opportunity, and income in coal country has led to severe political fissures and a growing feeling of underappreciation for coal miners. 
  • While phasing out fossil fuels is crucial, so too is supporting and acknowledging the contributions, needs, and priorities of the many workers and communities who stand to lose everything in the energy transition.

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.

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. 

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