Another strike in a Red State
If progressives ever wanted to win back middle America then they should start by paying attention to the needs of the working class. It should start with Harlan County, Kentucky.
It’s day 38 of a nonviolent blockade of a Harlan County, Kentucky railroad track. During the occupation, union miners have stood with non-union miners, transgender anarchists have built solidarity with Trump-voting Republicans, and a 100-year-old labor movement has found a new generation of working-class leaders fighting to keep the region’s wealth where it came from: in workers’ hands and in the foggy hollers of central Appalachia.
On July 1st, the nation’s sixth-largest coal company, Blackjewel LLC, declared bankruptcy without warning, leaving 1,700 employees out of work. Coal miners’ June 28th paychecks bounced, leaving many workers thousands of dollars in debt. Their final paychecks, which ought to have come on July 12th, never came.
Blackjewel miner Shane Smith, 29, learned he was out of work the day after the birth of his sixth child. “This is what fed our kids,” he says. “This has ruined us.”
On July 29th, a woman who lives near a Blackjewel prep plant noticed a train being loaded with coal. She sent a message to some Blackjewel workers, and soon enough Smith and four others were clambering onto the tracks to stop the trainful of $1.4 million worth of coal.
Harlan County went 85 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, but there are fewer people employed in coal now than at the end of the Obama administration.
Harlan County’s average household income is about $29,000, while unemployment in 2017 was 9.4 percent.
(Sanders sent 18 pizzas to the blockade in mid-August.)
What is amazing is who turned out in support of these workers.
“Because of propaganda in Appalachia, it’s always about, ‘Well, do you support coal or do you not?’” says Lill, 29, a transgender activist from the county adjacent to Harlan who showed up on day two of the protest preaching a doctrine of mutual aid among working-class people. “And nobody wants to talk about how complicated it is, how maybe the same industry that allows you to feed your family also lays you off, breaks your back, causes you to get black lung.”
Lill, who uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns, quit their job as a server and, along with a small crew of transgender anarchists, set about marshaling the blockade into an organized labor camp. They helped set up a camp phone line, a solar shower, and a kitchen capable of feeding dozens. The anarchists, who spent 27 days on the tracks with the miners, brought up questions the miners hadn’t yet considered: Who are you going to call if this gets you arrested? Who’s going to bail you out?
“I didn’t know who they were at first, but I kind of got used to them,” says Sarah Kelly, 43, the wife of a Blackjewel miner. “We haven’t had the support [from our church] we thought we’d have out of all of this. You don’t never know where your help is going to come from. You don’t know who’s going to be preparing your meals.”
I can't think of a better phrase in politics: "a crew of transgender anarchists preaching a doctrine of mutual aid among working-class people."
It just makes me smile.
I can probably guess why the church didn't support them.
In case you aren't familiar with Bloody Harlan, I wrote this essay on TOP some years ago.