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.

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Bisbonian's picture

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"I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” —Malcolm X

boriscleto's picture

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" In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry, and is generally considered to have been a bad move. -- Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy "

@Bisbonian
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Today, US coal comes mostly from the Western plains, dug out by huge earth-moving machinery and carried to the coasts on mile-long, dust-spewing trains.

There is still coal in Appalachia, but also deep poverty. The union, with all that it promised, is gone. The mine owners have as little regard as ever for the lives of miners and their families.

The 2010 disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine at Montcoal, West Virginia, cost twenty-nine lives. Managers pleaded guilty to impeding the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s enforcement efforts. CEO Don Blankenship was convicted of willfully violating safety standards and spent a year in prison.

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dervish's picture

@Bisbonian I was about to post the Natalie Merchant version of this song, then I'd seen that you posted Seeger's.

Here it is anyhow:

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"Obama promised transparency, but Assange is the one who brought it."

Bisbonian's picture

@dervish , but my loyalty to Pete is strong Smile

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"I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” —Malcolm X

and it's a bad sign that they don't. I say "they" even though I'm still a precinct coordinator. hmmmm

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gulfgal98's picture

who is a favorite of mine wrote a great song, "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive." Here's a video of him singing it.

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"I don't want to run the empire, I want to bring it down!" ~Dr. Cornel West

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." John F Kennedy

I've been doing political organizing with anarchists since I was a teenager -- a lot of the older ACT-UP folks where I was were anarchists, and a lot of the protest methods they taught us kids back then were anarchist methods -- so the notion that anarchists would show up in solidarity with people who are being fucked over by powerful interests is exactly what I'd expect from them. Also, there is probably no political group on the planet which gives fewer fucks about how people organize their sex/gender/sexuality identities than anarchists, which is yet another thing I love about them.

In my household there are two descendants of different families of coal miners, one out of Harlan County. We remember where we came from, and we stand firmly with the working class.

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earthling1's picture

in the hills of West Va.
He quit mining and started driving coal trucks, but the working conditions were the same.
My first picket line stint, c. 1954 in Huntingto , W. Va.

20171113_093905_0.jpg

I'm the little guy on the left. My brother on right.

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@earthling1

Makes me want to travel back in time and give you both an ice cream cone (and give your dad's boss a swift kick in the nuts).

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travelerxxx's picture

@earthling1

And downright proper "ON STRIKE!" expressions on those two young faces!

Love that picture!

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Saw a photo of police asking the coal miners to get off the tracks. Never had the impression that the police were pro-coal miners. Looked up to see if any major media outlets had anything. Nada. Story in local TV stations, otherwise just reported out of alternative media.

Seems from what I can tell, Hollywood treats Harlan as a crime drama involving violent white drug addicts. Saw a few episodes of Justified and nothing about coal miners and their plight. Appears there was some documentary called Kentucky Justice which followed sheriffs, and from the description nothing about coal miners--just a cop drama.

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Eagles92's picture

@MrWebster The series did eventually include coal. And it was done well. Highly recommend returning to it when you're seeking a binge-watch (or even when you're not). Much like Breaking Bad, the character development and complexities (IMHO) were masterful.

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gulfgal98's picture

My great grandfather on my father's side was a boiler maker in Scotland. He, my great grandmother, and three of their four children emigrated to the US in the late 1800's because of coal. They settled in the mountains in western Pa. and my great grandfather went to work for the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Company, first as a boiler maker and later as a regional manager. Their fourth child, my grandfather was born in the US after they emigrated.

The R & P Coal Company was at one time a Fortune 500 company back when coal was king. Of great grandfather's four children, only my grandfather went to work for the company. Eventually he also became a regional manager of the company. In that part of Pennsylvania, coal was a major employer and often owned whole towns along with the stores and banks therein. The Tennessee Ernie Ford song, "Sixteen Tons" described life in coal mining towns perfectly. Being in management, my grandfather hated that song.

Near my parents' home town, the electric company built a huge coal fired power plant with one of the highest smoke stacks in the US. Apparently back in those days, a coal fired power plant could be sold because the residents did not see the soot directly on their homes because it was being discharged high into the air.

Coal is a dinosaur, like the animals that helped make it. Strip mining, which is how much of coal is now mined scars the land permanently even though in western PA, the coal company was required to "reclaim" the land. Mining families cling to their way of life because it is often the only way to make a living. Coal made those towns and broke those towns as the mines were worked out. What the government needs to do is offer the miners and people living in coal country a well paying alternative working in the renewable energy field.

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"I don't want to run the empire, I want to bring it down!" ~Dr. Cornel West

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." John F Kennedy

boriscleto's picture

This was published about a week before Bernie put out his version of the Green New Deal

“Coal is over. Forget coal,” said Jimmy Simpkins, who worked as a coalminer in the area for 29 years. “It can never be back to what it was in our heyday. It can’t happen. That coal is not there to mine.”

Stanley Sturgill, a coalminer for 41 years in Harlan county, Kentucky, explained the Green New Deal would open the door for elected officials to use the plan to render solutions needed in their own communities.

“If it was called the Red New Deal, it would be approved by now,” said Sturgill. “What you’re doing with the Green New Deal is you’re opening the door to infringe on the Republicans’ money and that’s what they’re afraid of. Republicans laugh and say you can’t pay for it. But if you tax everybody what they should be taxed, and I’m talking about the wealthy, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/12/west-virginia-appala...

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" In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry, and is generally considered to have been a bad move. -- Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy "

and I've been in this apt. fourteen years,so I've grown accustomed to the sound of trains passing by but the rail traffic has gone up so much in the last few months it started to get my attention because trains with anything other than coal, or tanker trains, are very few and far between. In fact even one in a day is noticeable and hot on their heels from both directions are always the other trains bringing loads northward and and the empties back southward. 24/7.

I'm well aware of the coal terminal across the border and anyone that has ever taken the ferry to Victoria (on Vancouver Island) or from there to the mainland can't help but see when they are at the Tsawassen terminal the huge piles of coal across the way and the many long trains coming and going.
It's named 'Robert's Bank' coal terminal and many years ago as a brakeman on Canadian Pacific Railway it was one of the terminals I was assigned to for a few months at a time.
However all our coal was from Canada and all the empties were headed back to Canadian coal fields, I never saw a Burlington Northern train anywhere near Robert's Bank and I was coming and going from there all hours of the day and night.

So I'm wondering if PM Justin 'lets spend billions to get into the gas pipeline business' Trudeau has essentially let the tRump administration know that even though through local activism we stopped the planned construction of the largest coal terminal in North America to just dig away because we have a terminal for you ?

The New York Times (2016) does its usual slanting of the facts, and attributing the failure for the permit on 'the market',fish and native rights (how many projects like this one were stopped by that concern?) and gives just one paragraph mentioning opposition groups never mentioning that groups organized town halls, public meetings with officials, and marches all over the State for over two years.
Letters to newspapers,members of Congress, State and Federal, visits to politician's offices,some people arrested for blocking the railroad tracks, petitions,...you name it.

U.S. Denies Permit for Coal Terminal in Washington State
"...The $665 million project, called the Gateway Pacific Terminal, was already hitting headwinds. The developer asked last month that the state environmental review on the project be delayed, citing “uncertainty and related costs.” And one of the largest potential suppliers of coal, Peabody Energy, filed for bankruptcy protection last month."

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/10/us/washington-state-army-corps-denies...

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snoopydawg's picture

@aliasalias

Trump is opening up the land that used to be included in the monuments in Utah to oil and gas drilling. He is allowing it in Native American lands and they are fighting him in court. But let's remember how Obama became Sarah Palin and drilled baby drilled. He reopened the seas to drilling after the BP blowout that he totally mishandled.

"How is that hope and change working out for ya'all?"

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America is a pathetic nation; a fascist state fueled by the greed, malice, and stupidity of her own people.
- strife delivery

@snoopydawg @snoopydawg and there were people from here that were part of the kayak groups blocking drilling equipment.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHDupw5ssLc

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Hawkfish's picture

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We can’t save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.
- Greta Thunberg