Coal Country Has Been Burned Before

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S1: Gary Lewis has worked in Harlan County Kentucky for 24 years. He’s a coal miner. The work comes and goes but the money is pretty solid. It was until this summer did you notice checks bouncing or did you just not get paid.

S2: Well now I’ve got a check deposited on the bank on a Friday and then the follow one Weinstein’s My bank told me to check bounced back to a basic number vampires I take money back out of my checking account left me like ten hundred dollars right.

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S3: Oh you must have been mad. Oh yeah.

S1: It turned out the company Gary worked for black Jewel was filing for bankruptcy. Gary says when he called his superintendent to figure out what was going on The Boss was driving to his own bank.

S2: He got to his bike you got money out which I is still left him in the. He had limited money in his pocket to him over. How much money is owed to you at this point and tight and ran around six miles.

S4: Over the next couple of days. Actual workers like Gary would figure out all the ways they hadn’t been paid the child support that never got sent their retirement accounts where money just hadn’t shown up for weeks. Then the workers found out there was a train full of black Jewel Cole and it was set to leave town.

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S5: I mean if I can say like No I can say it yes. If they can afford to pay it. Why should I be upset. Let’s go and then get more money.

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S4: This is why dozens of co-workers ended up pitching tents in the middle of those train tracks during the mining company to haul their coal out of town. The miners have been here for six weeks now 24 hours a day.

S2: Yeah they’re cyber looking at say that they got little a kitchen area set that was grills that they can do cooking.

S6: They got the airport tenants stayed up were down and had once said that public drag from the bank.

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S7: So that’s what’s blocking the train. The Cornwall game.

S6: Yeah. Yeah. Cornell Cornell Barger set up entourage.

S8: I love it.

S7: All through the summer. Men women kids. They’ve been living here. You can find videos of them on Facebook and Instagram dancing to Old Town Road in the middle of the tracks feeding their babies listening to bluegrass. It’s like a digital reality show that doesn’t have a final episode yet.

S6: For a rancher you ain’t got much choice other than a coal mines.

S9: I mean unless you are a politician or a lawyer a doctor. I mean you don’t have no other job here. I used to work in coal mines or work at a fast food reactor.

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S6: I’ve been in coal mines for 24 years and you never know for a coal mine to shut down on you and you being out of work not looking for another job. This is the first time one’s ever shut down and took her last paycheck.

S7: That’s like Harlan County isn’t the only community fighting big coal miners all over have seen their livelihoods and communities slipping away before their eyes. Today on the show. We’re going to talk about why mistrust and broken promises have stalled the path to a future without coal. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

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S1: Black jewel that company that Gary worked for. It’s actually the third coal company to file for bankruptcy this year.

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S10: So if you’re a coal company you have a lot of debts bankruptcy court is good for you because it’s going to help you get rid of your debt.

S1: So you’re winning Ken Moore Junior has been following these cases. He writes about the coal industry and coal communities for ProPublica and The Charleston Gazette mail. He says while bankruptcy is maybe good for the coal industry they can be terrible for workers.

S10: If you’re a coal miner and you’re counting on that coal company that’s in bankruptcy court for example to provide your health care you’re losing because that bankruptcy court is going to wipe out your contract and wipe out the requirement that that company pay for your health care. Coal communities certainly are not winning when these really good jobs are disappearing.

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S1: So over the last year coal miners have been coming to D.C. asking legislators to intervene especially to shore up the United Mine Workers of America pension plan which after all these bankruptcies is at risk of collapse.

S11: First of all let me say coal is not back. Nobody saved the coal industry.

S1: Just last week the president of the mineworkers union a guy named Cecil Roberts gave a speech at the National Press Club.

S12: He explained where workers are at most pretty bleak and now people are saying it’s going to be better. We’re passing legislation it’ll be just like that. It’s not going to happen. We want our pension plan saved. We want our health care plan saved. And if you can’t do that and it’s been 10 years how do you think we’re going to believe that you’re going to be able to give us a just transition from the coal industry to some other employment. With that I want to thank the press club for this opportunity.

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S13: Ken Ward was watching to understand what’s happening with the pension fight in the United Mine Workers of America. I can go back to when I met Cecil Roberts 30 years ago I was an intern working at the Charleston Gazette and Cecil and the United Mine Workers were on strike against a company called Pittston Coal. And the big issues in that strike really had to do with Pittston wanting to break out of the UMW national contract with the coal industry which established pension and health care benefits for working miners and retirees and and wanted to not have to pay into those back in 1989 with Pittston Coal.

S1: The workers were trying to save their health care benefits in their pay and their pension. But the way they did that sounds a lot like what’s happening right now in Harlan County Kentucky.

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S14: And so the mine workers would show up and 1000 of their members and supporters would lay down in the road to block the coal trucks and Virginia State Police would have to come and arrest all of them and they sent so many people pouring into the to block the roads and block these coal shipments that they clogged the court system in these little communities in Virginia.

S15: And the strike led to passage of federal legislation that was intended to to shore up the health care funds for the UMW.

S10: It worked to some extent but the coal industry continued to try to find ways to to avoid paying into these health care plans. And when you fast forward to today that’s that’s it. On some level was still the fight that the UMW is is is having to fight.

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S16: So tell me a little bit about what the fight is now.

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S17: Well the NWA has a pension fund that covers about 82000 retired miners. They have another 10000 or so who are vested in that plan and that plan is like a lot of Americans pensions plants is is facing financial collapse and the UMW has some legislation that it wants passed that would protect these pensions and these were pensions that the coal miners who work among the most dangerous jobs and put their lives on the line for the country to provide steel brought electricity were promised. And because of the changing nature of the coal industry and because of coal companies finding ways to get out of the paying into these funds these pension funds are now on on the verge of financial collapse and the UAW has legislation that it’s been trying for several years and is back walking.

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S15: Coal miners wearing camouflage shirts are back walking the halls of Congress trying to get Congress to pass this legislation to protect protect its pension plan. And so that’s the number one issue on the UMW plate. Anything else is really kind of a distant second in Cecil Roberts as mod and Cecil Roberts was pretty blunt in the speech.

S16: You know he says coal’s not back. Nobody is saved the coal industry. And when he says that he’s not pointing his finger at Donald Trump or he is a little bit. But he’s also pointing his finger at Democrats you really get the sense of profound disappointment with the entire system.

S18: So to kind of understand the context of how certainly the United Mine Workers and People in coal country and coal miners see these things you have to understand for example in 1968 coal mine in Farmington West Virginia blew up and it killed 78 workers. And the following year Congress passed federal health and safety legislation. And in that health and safety legislation Congress declared it is the policy the United States that we will eliminate black lung disease that no coal miner should ever get black lung from working underground in a coal mine. And here we are now all of those years later and black lung has come back with a vengeance in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. And it’s because regulatory agencies and the coal industry haven’t lived up to that promise. That was in that law. So I think at some point when when you look at the history of the coal industry and you know a thousand one hundred thousand coal miners have died on the job in this country. And since that federal law was passed that was supposed to eliminate Black Lung something like 75 76000 coal miners have died from black lung disease. So if you’re a coal miner at some point you wonder well how long do I have to compromise like my health for whatever the nation’s other goals are. And that’s I think where that mistrust comes from in the mine workers is that is that that history of being promised things and the promises being unfulfilled yet a certain point I guess you got to wonder and my compromising or am I being compromised. Exactly.

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S1: What frustrates Ken is that right now when we talk about coal and coal country a lot of people want to talk about Trump what he’s done wrong here.

S15: I’ll get phone calls from people in the national media who want to come here and do a story and what they really want is is what they what they finally kind of kind of sputter out if they’re being honest about it is. Well you know could you take us to a diner and introduce us to a coal miner who voted for Donald Trump who now doesn’t have a job because Donald Trump didn’t save the coal industry like you said he would. And I mean I’m kind of exaggerating for effect there but that’s kind of almost what some folks in the national media want to do with with the place where I live.

S1: But Ken thinks Republicans and Democrats share blame for what’s happening now. They have for years. Sure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to intervene and fix the coal miners pension plan. But having Democrats in charge didn’t seem to make that much of a difference.

S10: President Obama made a priority of trying to find lots of different ways to address climate change and reduce the United States contributions to global climate change. And that was something that EPA and other agencies were working on for a long time in his administration but not until almost the end of his second term. Did Barack Obama and his White House propose something to try to help coal communities find other ways to have diverse and successful economies. And that’s pretty laid in a two term presidency to be rolling out you know what is essentially a not insignificant government program that was going to spend public money to to help a particular area of the country. And you know you have to wonder what would the politics of places like southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky been like if as rolling out the Clean Power Plan and efforts to do to to improve the performance of our energy sector and reduce its contributions to global warming.

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S16: What if along with that had been right from the beginning some sort of just transition for coal communities you know co-workers and people like Cecil Roberts they talk a lot about something called a just transition. I’m wondering if you can explain what that means.

S19: Well just transition is just kind of I mean it is it is more philosophy than a particular set of prescriptive policy proposals. It’s the idea that in this case with with coal communities it’s true Senator Joe Manchin likes to talk about how coal from southern West Virginia helped fuel the Industrial Revolution helped electrify the country and helped to win a couple of award wars and defeat fascism. And he’s right when he says those things. And so the people of southern West Virginia and Northern West Virginia for that matter the people that have mined coal and the communities that have mined coal here have contributed a lot to the success of the United States as a nation. So if a set of policies is needed to address the global climate crisis is going to be implemented. It seems only just since we have contributed so much to the country if in order to save the planet’s climate and make the planet livable for the human race we need to reduce the use of coal.

S14: You ought to provide some just transition whether it’s job training and money for infrastructure money for economic development programs educational funding things that will help communities that have traditionally relied on the coal industry to lift themselves up.

S16: It’s interesting you talk about a just transition and I feel like someone like Alexandra Ocasio Cortez would be like I got your just transition right here it’s called the Green New Deal. But Cecil Roberts was so suspicious in his speech about anyone on any side saying we’ve got your jobs and we’re going to fix it. It made me wonder what it would take to who really convinced this community that someone’s got their backs.

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S19: Well I think that she is actually very wisely said and she had a meeting with with CeCe Roberts and some some of his members about these issues and she very wisely said publicly afterward I believe that one way to start moving the ball forward on these things would be let’s fix their pension plan. Let’s hey Congress let’s pass this pension plan and Cecil Roberts has said we think that would be a great first step.

S4: But securing that pension it’s just a start. I was struck by something Ken said when we first started talking about the real problem with the coal industry.

S20: Unlike a lot of other sorts of jobs the more efficient you are if you’re a coal miner the faster you work yourself out of a job because the coal is gone. And once it’s gone it’s gone.

S4: But even when the coal is gone the workers are still there. That Kentucky mine where the protesters are camped out on the train tracks. It might open back up again. Under new ownership. I asked Gary that Harlan County miner about it. You know there’s there’s talk of there’s talk of another company it’s going to take over the mine and open up again. I wonder if you want a job in that mine.

S21: Yeah yeah. Like it doesn’t like it but most likely I was going back to work for. Him. I mean not now we’ve been too much. I mean just waiting and waiting and waiting you think paying the bills. We need it. We need a job back. I mean we might we might just lose three weeks pay. But as long as this carries out we’re losing a lot more.

S4: Gary Lewis is a coal miner in Harlan County Kentucky. Ken Ward Junior is a reporter at ProPublica and The Charleston Gazette mail.

S7: All right. That’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Jason de Leone and now drumroll please Daniel Hewett and Morra silvers. Awesome right. OK we’ll catch you tomorrow.