Saturday, August 23, 2014

Laid Off

Over the past four years we have witnessed an amazing downturn in the coal industry. Mines all throughout Appalachia have closed, leaving thousands of coal miners and their families in dire straits. For as long as the coal industry has existed, the people of Appalachia have lived at the mercy of a boom and bust market. How did this come to be? Weren't the people of Appalachia once known for being  robust, resilient, with an endearing sense of hospitality? Didn't they live in the mountains for nearly a century before timber and coal, enjoying the absolute freedom of their lives, without debt, without a want or care for the latest social and cultural trends that placed their urban neighbors into a life of wage slavery? What has happened to Appalachian people that has made these recent layoffs so detrimental? 

Had the most recent layoffs come 75 or 100 years ago, they would have hurt, but the blow to mountain families would not have not been nearly as severe. Our ancestors had been weary of becoming entirely dependent upon coal mining wages for their food supply and shelter. They didn’t trust banks. They’d known the bondage placed on them in the early year by company script, company stores, and perpetual debt. For years after coal became king, Appalachian people held on to that sense of freedom passed down by their ancestors. As my grandfather tried to teach us, “It’s your wants that get you in trouble, not your needs.” But theirs was also a different time. When they lived, there were still enough woods to hunt in and run their hogs. The water coming out of the mountain sides and out of family wells was still clean enough to drink. Extended families still owned enough land to graze mule teams and a dairy cow. They could still plant enough food for themselves and sometimes for their livestock. Today, many of the miners being sent home from the coal mines do not have a farm to go home to. They cannot spend their idle time using their hands to provide for their family in the traditional ways. Each day the mail carrier brings another bill, another reminder of the life they’ve been forced to lead at the mercy of “progress.”

It is truly criminal how much the coal industry has forced our dependency upon them. They’ve taken our lands, our water, our dignity—even our freedom. Since they came in, each generation has lost the ability to provide from what God has given us. Without our lands and our forests, there are fewer choices when it comes to finding happiness. We have been enslaved into the cultural and social trends our forefathers so desperately avoided. We have been told that to "be somebody" we have to work hard, to have nice homes, nice vehicles, that our children must dress in brand name clothing. Each weekend many people flock to the nearby cities to buy and show off their new shiny things, to prove to the rest of the world they are not the "dumb hillbillies" their ancestors were once proud to be. Coal mining wages are the great equalizer between mountain people and the outside world, but it comes at the cost of our health. Deep inside, we know that we are still looked down upon even if we can now afford the things others have. When the coal market is down and we are unable to purchase a false sense of acceptance, we fall into depression-some turning to drugs.

Of course, the coal industry isn’t having the best time. CEOs, board members, and stock holders are reeling with the decline of the coal market, fearful their businesses will falter leaving them without their immense power. It is the power that they truly enjoy, not so much the money. Like generals in a war room, they move their small plastic soldiers, each representing the lives of thousands of men and
Corporate jets on the ramp at Lonesome Pine Airport
women. Open this mine, close that one. Lay off this many, scare the hell out of the others to up
production. Pay into this campaign, pull the strings on the politicians already in office. It is a game to them. They have their millions, their foreign bank accounts, their global investments. They have their mansions in their gated communities. When these industrialists become outplayed by their counterparts in a different industry or in a different part of the world, they do not have to fear losing their homes. They do not have to lay awake at night wondering if they can afford school clothes for their children, whether or not they can afford the next light bill, let alone how they can afford to get their kids to the dentist.

The “War on Coal” is real. But it’s not what they make it out to be. It is a battle between industries, massive oil and natural gas companies vying for profit in the electrical generation sector. It is not being waged by the EPA and politicians. It isn't between environmentalists and coal mining families. As with any war, the wealthy corporations sit back, giving orders to their officers in congress and in the state houses, spreading propaganda to make people fight for their causes and letting the casualties fall upon the lower classes. We fight their battles and suffer their losses. They leave us with a war torn land, water we cannot drink, messes that cannot be cleaned up, and all the public debts that must be repaid. They leave us jobless and broken with children wanting to be their next coal miners, the next to fall victim to their games. Each time they battle for profits the less we are able to pick up the pieces and begin our own lives again. But we can. We must.We are Appalachians.

We can fight back. We can see through their lies, to see them as they truly are. We can remember our history and know that coal companies are not our friends and that we are not Friends of Coal, we are Slaves to Coal. We can find our way back to our own freedom, building our own economy, not being enslaved to theirs. It will not be easy. There will be mistakes, there will be further losses. But we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere begins without a dependence upon coal.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Religion of Coal

I usually avoid religion in my posts since it is such an inflammatory subject, but I can longer ignore the inclination of some people back home to apply religious morality to the subject of coal mining.

“If God didn’t want us to use coal, he wouldn’t have put it there!” I've heard it a dozen times from friends and family back home. It's even been preached in sermons to coal miners and their families and proclaimed at coal rallies. Yet, no one seems to ask the question...what if coal wasn't placed here for us to mine and use it as we have?

Let us look at the history of coal.

In the early days of coal mining thousands of men and boys lost their lives every year in the darkness of a mountain. The owners of the coal mines were ruthless and full of greed, paying as little salary as possible and turning coal miners into slaves through company script and hiring mercenaries to maintain the status quo. The coal was shipped off where it would be put to use making steel in massive mills, polluting entire cities and causing countless deaths from respiratory illnesses. The steel mill owners, like the coal company owners, were full of tempestuous greed, treating their workers in much the same ways as in the coal camps.  Though rank and file unions ended many of these abuses, the greed of coal and steel industries continue the exploitation of their workforce, denying them safety in the drive for more production, refusing them black lung benefits, and even finding ways to avoid their pension obligations.

And what of the steel that was made? What purpose has it served? Bridges, railroads, massive skyscrapers and buildings, and even machines of war that have spilled blood the world over. Have these things made us a better people? Have they brought us closer to God?

The world created by coal has never been one of justice and equality, especially that taught by Jesus. Billions of people throughout the world are cast into extreme poverty as the industrialized nations build larger cities and wage wars for more resource wealth. Millions of people attend churches powered by coal, hearing the good word, hearing of Jesus' teachings, and somehow ignoring all of the suffering and despair caused by their love of comfort, convenience, and material things. Each Sunday they hear about the salvation of God and learn how to save their souls but do not care to learn about the way coal companies appeal coal miner's black lung benefits, about the  billions of gallons of coal waste polluting Appalachia, the children with asthma living near power plants, let alone the sweatshops full of children across the world that manufacture the clothes on their backs. 

"Cheap energy" is the new gospel that breaks the backs of thousands of coal miners. A "healthy economy" blinds people to the unhealthy water sources where coal is extracted, cleaned, and used. God's creation is being polluted and destroyed, torn down in the name of progress, and many so called Christians can only worry about their precious economy, unwilling to seek alternatives and grant our children a better life, a life that doesn't require them to sell their health and happiness for a paycheck.What would St. Peter say to someone who did not fight to keep their children from such a fate?

And so I ask, would a loving God, who created this amazing world full of life, full of so many wonders, who sent his only begotten son to teach us lessons of love and humility, really place something here that would create so much harm and hatred? Would He tell us to lay waste to the lands He created so we can have a better economy--more money?

God provided us with everything we need on this Earth. Have we truly needed coal? Did He intend for us to be devoted to energy? Did God ever intend for us to work in the coal mines for money, destroying our bodies to make someone a big profit?  

What if coal isn't a gift from God? What if it has been our greatest temptation?

Has coal created love, or a love of money? 

Matthew 6:24

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon [money].

1 Timothy 6:10

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after , they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Hebrews 13:5

Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have : for he hath said , I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.

Matthew 19:21

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast , and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Present Day Coal Mining: Dishonoring our heritage.

Drive into the central Appalachian coalfields and you’ll see dozens of vehicles with stickers such as “Friends of Coal,” “Coal Mining our Future,” “Friends in Low Places” etc. I am not entirely sure when the change came, but sometime in the last fifteen to twenty years the ultimate goal of coal miners has gone from working to give future generations a better life outside of coal mining, to ensuring they have no alternative but coal mining.

This is the most disturbing part of Appalachia’s decline to me. Our forefather’s pride and heritage, their struggles through decades of abuse from the coal industry, has all been forgotten. Their lessons, such as putting needs before wants and finding happiness in simplicity, has been replaced with unbelievable short sightedness. The once modest home of the young Appalachian coal miner has become anything but. The basic beat around, ride to work truck has become a tricked out diesel with rims complete with a "Friends of Coal" license plate and a vinyl sticker in the back glass with the mantra "Friends in Low Places." 

Of the many things lost in the past two generations of Appalachian coal miners, humility, compassion, and a willingness to listen and think critically has been among them. For this, I place a great deal of blame on their parents for withholding some of the most important lessons that were taught to them as children: their history, the importance of living simply, and the difference between want and need.

Today, coal miners have a long list of justifications for what they must do for a living, much of which revolves  around what money has to tell them. Sadly, the voices of our past has been diminished beneath the modern day “necessity” for all things big and shiny. It's a disgrace to the coal mining families who spent decades fighting and sacrificing to give their children a better future.

The old ways of looking down the road for the next big challenge, then doing what one can to weather it, has been given up for “live for today, who knows what tomorrow will bring” attitude. For those of us who still look towards the future, we know what is coming. It is as easy as looking to the past. Boom and bust, poverty and sickness, all while coal company owners live on wherever the water is clean and their is easy access to the private jet. Their children will never have to face the challenges our children will face.

What's worse, our children are no longer shown how to raise their own food in the family garden. Few know the enjoyment of looking forward to and finally tasting things that come into season. The wonders of watching a plant grow from a seed to provide you with free and  abundant food is being lost. Instead of a vocabulary of greasy beans, bantam, or kennebec, children instead learn wages, xbox, ATV, mortgage, and war on coal. 

How long has it been since a coal miner built a can house?

Forgetting our history, supporting the coal companies, destroying our mountains, polluting our water—now that is what I call dishonoring our coal mining heritage, dishonoring every coal mining family who ever stood up to the coal companies, fighting to give their children a chance at a better future.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Appalachians, Freedom, and Kindness

I've heard it said that Appalachian people started moving to the mountains to find solitude and freedom. I try to put myself into the place of those early pioneers, many of which were Scotch-Irish, brought to the new world as indentured servants. I try to think of what their choices were after being victims of classism, sentenced to lives of  deplorable living conditions and near starvation.
 Is it hard to believe that they enjoyed the freedom given to them in those rugged, untouched mountains, that they preferred living in a state of nature similar to that which was described by John Locke or Jean-Jeaques Rousseau? 

I do not pretend to romanticize this past. There were times in which terrible circumstances tore from those settlers every shred of happiness they could muster in the wilderness. Justice may have been wrongly and cruelly served where passion struck hearts overpowered logic. Yet, I do not believe they lived in utter destitution and misery, for if they did, they would have made different choices.

It is this choice that defines Appalachia and the people within it. Those early pioneers and the many subsequent generations were not imprisoned there. Nothing prevented them from moving back to the cities and farmlands back east, or from venturing further west with the expansion. The people of the Appalachian Mountains stayed, choosing to continue their simplistic lives together, forging the underlying familial values and a sense of generosity that largely defines the region even after war and industrialization brought greed and violence back into the hearts of many.

Shucking Corn Till Sundown - Walt Curlee
Scarcity of land and political motives divided people. Company script and paychecks began replacing gardens. Television replaced evenings spent on front porches or sitting around the kitchen table with neighbors.

Even then people still tried to stick together as society forced them apart. The labor movements were born in the mountains, born from those people still fighting for freedom.

Egoism is the means by which many search for false happiness these days, each relinquishing themselves to the will of the economy. The society our ancestors fled from three and four hundred years ago has infiltrated every hollow, every ridge line, every creek. The kindest of people have turned to hardness against their neighbors in search of paycheck after paycheck.

Life has become hard for those of us who still cling to the old ways. We were taught that someone's worth should be based on their generosity while it seems the rest of the world is taught to base their worth on money. We were taught to look for the goodness in others while the rest of the world is being taught to "do unto others before they do unto you." 

Our happiness is being robbed by the ill will of others, by selfishness, by the callousness taught to children in a world of "take what you can get." And still we cling to those old ways, we hold onto that glimmer of hope that people's hearts will soften, that people will think not in terms of what they can do for themselves, but what they can do for others. Though it is easy to take the hurt we so often feel and lash out with equal venom, we instead choose to transform it into a deeper sense of love--a means of cherishing who we are and where we come from.

Here's to forgiveness...and hope.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Upper Big Branch Remembered

Has the pain subsided? Have the families of the Upper Big Branch victims found peace? Have they  experienced a day in which they miss their loved ones any less?

The following is an emotional account from the family member of an Upper Big Branch victim.

For politicians who have never worked a day in the mines, today is another day to "honor" the victims of Upper Big Branch, to speak to the sacrifices of all coal miners, to empathize with the families for their losses, all fort he underlying purpose of gaining votes. They must be careful though, they must teeter upon the dangerous edge of consoling the public without crossing the line and losing campaign contributions from the coal industry.

The watered down safety legislation following the disaster, legislation that does everything but give coal miners the power to shut down a dangerous operation without fear of job loss, is evidence that nothing has truly changed.

The hearts of the coal company executives  are still as cold as the marble monuments naming the fallen.  a monument that it my eyes, does little to honor the men they sacrificed for profit, so much as it reminds me of the heartless greed of their "business." 

For me, this anniversary calls to question what has happened to our Appalachia.

What has caused us to support the coal industry and the politicians on its payroll, to become "Friends of Coal?" Why do we chant and rally for those who have taken so much from us? Why aren't we fighting for a future in which our children will never again have to face such anguish at the hands of greed driven coal companies? 

Let us continue to pray for those who are walking to the gravesides of their loved ones.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Coal is all we've got"

My father has bothered to tell my brother and I on more than one occasion, "I wish I had've got you
boys more when you were growing up. A lot of the guys at the mine were buying their kids new four wheelers and things. They'd buy bass boats, and campers and take their families to the lake every weekend, but I just couldn't bring myself to go into debt like that." Naturally our response has always been, "We didn't need that stuff anyway." And we didn't.

A lot of my parent's thriftiness came from common sense and being raised in hard times. Even during the best years of coal mining it wasn't uncommon for the mine to shut down for a few months. They knew it was better to put a little money back in case times got tough rather than spread themselves to thin.

It also gave them the advantage of standing up to the company when miner safety became a problem or the company was trying to cut benefits without reason. Without a massive amount of debt, my dad could go on strike and stand up for what's right--not just for himself, but everyone that worked at the mine. Imagine if the men at Upper Big Branch had that right.

Today it's a bit different. I've seen way to many diesel pickup trucks with Friends of Coal tags that tell me all I need to know about the newest generation of coal miners. You could always tell many of the older coal miners from the younger just by looking at the parking lot of the coal mine I worked at. The older coal miners drove beat-to-hell pickup trucks and cars, while many of the younger miners rolled up with $30,000+ pickups. And the spending didn't end there. I'd hear about their houses, sports cars, vacations, motorcycles, expensive toys for their kids. I'd just shake my head.

I'd sometime ask if it wouldn't be smarter to buy cheaper vehicles, smaller homes, and put a lot of the $50,000+ a year back into savings? I'd often hear excuses such as, "You only live once." Further argument was futile.

I can never understand why today's coal miners fail to look beyond the immediate future--why they don't realize that being dependent upon one skill set, and one industry, is setting yourself up for failure--is putting your family at risk?

I hate it when I hear coal miners say, "Coal is all we've got!"  Whose fault is it?

There's an old saying, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." Somehow, that saying has been lost among many people. Every coal miner would have been serving themselves and their families well if they, in the time they were making good money from the coal companies, put more effort into putting themselves through training in a different skill set, not to mention voting for politicians who would have worked to bring job alternatives to the mountains. Of course, the training part is difficult because coal companies often work miners on rotating shifts, 1st shift for a week or so, 2nd for a week or so. I wondered if they didn't do it on purpose just to keep coal miners from taking advantage of going to college or being trained in different skills.

From day one in the mine, I began paying double payments on the only debt I had, a 10 year old used pickup truck I purchased for half the price of a new one. It was my only debt. We inherited the old home place and spent the last six years using tax returns to put a new roof on, install new plumbing, new doors and windows, remodel the kitchen and bathroom. Our car was a 10 year old Subaru and when we decided to get a new car (a mistake I know), we at least got a small Corolla and kept the payments low. Not only that, we already had the money in the bank saved up to buy it outright. We didn't because it made more sense to take advantage of the 0.0% financing, rather than deplete our savings in one purchase.

I did these things because I had remembered the times my dad had been laid off. I wanted first and foremost to be prepared for the inevitable, to ensure my family would have what it needed if hard times came.

When the big "surprise" came that the coal market is taking a hit and mines are being shut down everywhere, who should really be blamed for the financial woes of coal miners across Appalachia?

Well, it's happened and continues to happen. What's worse is that no one seems to be the wiser. You can tell by how many Friends of Coal tags are out there on the roads and how many coal miners are quick to point fingers to a "War on Coal," voting for the same politicians who've kept Appalachia poor and coal companies rich. 

It's hard to get folks to realize what is going on. I've tried. It's even harder to get people to change their way of thinking. Something major has to happen for someone to change, making it  more of an adaption than an actual change.

How long will it take to turn things around? I have no idea, but in the mean time I have to wonder how much more damage will be done to Appalachia and how many more generations will have to leave before everyone realizes the need to bring in different jobs. I just know the first step will be to stop propping up the coal industry as being the almighty saviors of Appalachia.

There are a lot of people with some amazing ideas out there. I think it's time folks started listening to them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

For Our Children

For thousands of coal miners whose sacrifices have spanned multiple decades, the point of going to work in the mine everyday was to provide their children a chance at a life they could not have. They did not work to spoil their children, but to see to it that cold and hunger did not take from their happiness. They worked to give their children better opportunities in life, opportunities they hoped would not leave them broken down and gasping for breath.

What has occurred in the past 10 years to cause coal miners and their families to want anything different? Why have so many people changed from wishing their children never stepped foot in the mines to putting "Coal Mining Our Future" stickers on their vehicles?

It seems to me that if we wanted a better future for our children, we'd be fighting for change in the mountains. The health of my children is important to me, and I'm sure it's the same for any loving parent out there. Why is it then, that people back home have such a hard time accepting the health problems being caused by mining? Why are they fighting so hard for jobs that will take their children's health instead of fighting for jobs that could provide a cleaner, healthier future for them?

I went into the coal mines to give my children a better future, and I left the coal mines for the same reason.

Now I'm speaking out about it. Does that make me a bad person? Does that make me a hypocrite?