Three events in the span of just over a month show just how deep and long the struggle for justice has been in the Appalachian Coalfields. In the last week of July, I attended the 30th anniversary of the Pittston Coal strike, with hundreds of UMWA miners and a handful of politicians (including Starla Kiser, candidate for Virginia’s 4th House District) gathering at the Russell County Fairgrounds in Castlewood. Having been very involved in the strike back in 1989 and 1990, it was great to recall that very difficult but ultimately successful strike, which won back essential pension and health care benefits the miners had been promised.
A couple of weeks before the Castlewood gathering, several busloads of miners traveled to DC to make the case for restoring funding to the Black Lung Trust Fund, funding which dropped by more than half at the end of 2018, due to the inaction of Congress. Bethel Brock, a Wise County miner and a leader in the black lung fight, told me of about the frustration they all felt when Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell spent less than a minute with the coalfields contingent, abruptly leaving the meeting after assuring them they’d be taken care of. With the Trust Fund dwindling every day, this assurance seemed hollow.
And in Harlan County, Kentucky, miners for Black Jewell took to the railroad tracks at the end of July, blocking a coal train and insisting that they won’t move until bounced paychecks and back pay are taken care of. This all started when Black Jewell declared bankruptcy and let go 1700 miners – from Kentucky and southwest Virginia – in the middle of a shift, without warning.
I recall a very similar thing in the mid 1990’s when the Louisiana Pacific Plant in Dungannon closed with no notice, sending workers home who had just arrived for the morning shift. And much more recently, Bristol Compressors suddenly closed its doors in the summer of 2018, leaving several hundred workers without a job, while reneging on severance pay. These kinds of calamities are all too common, not just in our region but across the US. They won’t stop happening until we level the playing field for workers, reduce the obstacles to forming a union, and begin enforcing anti-trust laws and other measures to reverse the concentration of corporate power in our nation.