by Matt Skeens
For nearly a century the coalfields of Appalachia was a hotbed for union strikes and labor activity. We were at the center of more than a few violent and bloody fights between coal-miners pining for better pay and work conditions and the coal industry that was, and still is, one of the most corrupt and destructive industries in U.S. history. Mining conditions were horrid for those who went miles below into the earth for work to support their family. Tens of thousands of miners were killed and many more mangled in mining accidents or explosions weekly, and sometimes daily, that resembled the Upper Branch mining disaster that killed 29 miners in 2010. Company stores weren’t just lines in a song but real places where families were forced to give back over their pay, or scrip which wasn’t as valuable as cash and could only be used at the stores, to feed their family and survive.
The coal companies owned everything: the land, the stores, the courts, and local governments. The only thing they didn’t own were the people, not completely at least, and their desire for better and for what they deserved. It was because of this burning fire that wars were waged. Real ones. From the largest labor uprising at the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia which also served at the largest armed uprising since the Civil War to the multiple union strikes in Harlan County, Kentucky. The last one I remember was the Pittson Strikes in this part of Virginia right around the time I was born. Since then, however, the battles have been few and far between. The war against the impoverished Appalachian waged by the coal industry has continued without interruption ever since.
I grew up in the coalfields of Virginia in Wise County. I remember hearing about these strikes growing up coming from four generations of coal miners who were union members. I thought of the courage it took to strike as my grandfather had done when he was trying to raise and take care of my grandmother, my own mother, uncle, and aunt. During these years, all the way to when I was born in 1990, this area of Virginia was mostly held by more liberal, labor-supporting lawmakers on the state and local level. If you were to visit today, or just look at a electoral map, it resembles nothing similar to what it did when I was just a covered-in-coal-dust barefoot child or even as a teenager. During this time unions were slowly pushed out of all of the local mines, the protections and potential of betterment going with them, and conservatives slipped in with a message that was swallowed hook, line, and sinker.
From 1984 to 2008 coal mining employment was more than cut in half all while coal production continued a steady rise. Job protection, what little there was in a boom-bust industry, was completely gone. It remains that way today as I sit here with a letter from Alpha Natural Resources that was given to my stepfather given to him in November It was a warning that several mines were to be idled with major layoffs at the one he works at. It happened as they said it would. My uncle was one of the hundreds laid-off. My stepfather, however, was one of the “lucky” ones. He kept his job as a roof-bolter, the most dangerous job in a deep-mine, but with cut hours, hourly pay cuts, and no further funding to his retirement place. A few weeks later Alpha executives petitioned the bankruptcy court they had filed for bankruptcy with a few months prior to request $14.8 million in bonuses for their top seven-teen senior executives. This was a few weeks before Alpha also laid-off over 100 miners in North Carolina and were fighting suspend medical and life insurance benefits for more than 4,500 non-union retirees and their families. In January the court ruled they could have a paltry $11.9 million in bonuses. My uncle, with three children to take care of, remains without a job today.
The immoral illusion infused by corporations and conservative politicians into this area has suppressed the fight and spirit my home was built on. The area is now represented by a state delegation who proudly stands on immoral platform of the rejection of Medicaid expansion. This is all while thousands of Appalachians in Wise County, and tens of thousands more in the surrounding area, are forced to stand in long lines for days to receive basic medical care at the Remote Area Medical clinic that comes around annually to offer free healthcare. They will have five of those clinics in this part of Virginia just to keep up with the need. We need so much more, though. We deserve it in a country that has so much to offer yet provides so little to its citizens. Our representatives, however, aren’t concerned. Most who represent this area in the state legislature have Alpha Natural Resources as one of their Top 5 campaign contributors.
Southwest Virginia, and places all over this country, need more change than can be hoped for with any election. The Presidential election in 2016 brings hope to many in places wallowing in poverty, at least to those who can realize it. The opportunity is there and it’s called a Bernie Sanders victory in Virginia and beyond. Appalachia has been at the center of the battles waged against corrupt and monopolistic corporations that have ravaged our land, our economy, our health, and our very souls for well over a century. We need Bernie. We need the democratic socialism that gives a forgotten people a voice. The ground that make up these mountains is fertile for the revolution that Senator Sanders carries with him to the White House. As a wise man once said, ““Be not deceived. Revolutions do not go backward.” Let’s move forward and let Senator Bernie Sanders lead the way!
Matt Skeens, 25, is a DSA member from Central Appalachian region of Virginia. He has worked professionally as a community organizer and progressive activist for the last six years primarily in the Southern United States.