Thursday, March 05, 2009

Powershifting in Appalachia

by Jake Blumgart

Four years ago the environmental movement was declared by some as sterile, calcified, dead. The issues were no longer sexy. The ruling administration was rolling back what advances had been made, and there was nary a protestor in sight. But last weekend’s Powershift ’09 conference proved the post-mortem premature. Environmentalism is back, reanimated by sweeping Democratic victories and the looming danger of climate change. The revived movement is full of vigor, and the energy is focused on one challenge in particular: King Coal.

Coal was the target of the mass action that blockaded the Capitol Hill power plant on March 2nd. It was specifically mentioned by movement visionary Van Jones in his speech, and it was the subject of multiple panels and workshops. Although many attendees had conflicting views on movement ideology and tactics, no one even played devil’s advocate for “clean coal”. During one panel, a speaker asked the packed room, “Who here believes in clean coal?” Not a hand went up.

The panel “The Story of Coal: Past, Present and Future”, drew a huge crowd Saturday morning. Late comers had to be turned away by harried events staffers, and the overflow sat on the floor around the podium, entranced by the moving speakers who spoke of the devastation coal has brought to their Appalachian communities. While coal mining has had an impact on other areas of the United States, few have been dominated so completely and so brutally by the coal industry as Appalachia, and with so little tangible benefit for the surrounding communities. A soundbite advanced by business interests has tried to equate coal with jobs and prosperity, but Kathryn Kraisse, who lives on the Kentucky-West VA border in Harlan County, upended the myth. “In Harlan County, 30% of the people live in poverty. They say coal enriches the land, but we are living proof that it doesn’t.”

To make matters worse, the local populations have little say in the maneuverings of the coal companies. Michael Tomasky, a West Virginia native, described the immense power of the companies in a recent New York Review of Books article, “[West Virginia] is a company state. Local judges who dare challenge the industry are voted out of office, and bureaucrats who attempt to uphold the law are reassigned. Democrats or Republicans, it doesn’t matter — they all bow down to one industry.” The same is true of communities all over Appalachia, which makes it virtually impossible to get any regulatory laws passed.

The region is ripe for action, but in the past environmental movements have been pitted against Appalachian workers who depend on the coal industry for work, to the detriment of both. In recent years, with more of the jobs becoming mechanized, and the United Mine Workers losing much of their power, the parasitic intent of the coal companies has become obvious. (According to Kraisse most of the non-union workers are only paid $10 an hour.)

Today, the will to change is there amongst the working people of Appalachia. “We have had everything that gave us dignity taken away from us,” Kraisse told me after the event. “The coal companies are laying people off, alienating them. People are wanting to be empowered again.” Van Jones made special note of this in his speech, declaring that the environmental movement needed to work with and for the coal miners and their families, rather than at cross purposes with them.

The workers are already aware of coal’s negative impact. “People in Appalachia aren’t stupid, they know the effects coal has on their health, their kids, their community,” said Kyla Jagger, an activist who went to Ohio to help embattled community organizers after graduating from Oberlin College. “They have to weigh their choices very carefully. Most of them conclude that some kind of income is better than no kind of income.” The trick for the environmental movement will be providing a worthwhile incentive for workers and local communities to join the fight against coal. In short they will need jobs, and preferably unionized jobs, to break the grip coal companies have on the region’s economy.

There are already several groups devoted to providing alternative economic solutions for Appalachia, and the environmental movement will need to ensure that they work with these groups, rather than over them, in the coming struggle. The fatal flaw of past incarnations of the environmental movement has been a perceived condescension, and even disregard, for the interests of local workers and their families (which has led to some bruising conflicts with the labor movement). But labor rights and environmental rights are intrinsically linked, and both have been brutalized over the last quarter century of Reaganomics, neoliberalism, and the predatory capitalism of the Bush Administration. Both movements have the same enemies and similar interests, thus providing a relatively solid foundation for an alliance. Indeed, there were signs of a burgeoning friendship between the movements at Power Shift. In addition to Van Jones’ shout out to coal workers, the AFL-CIO was represented on several panels and a number of workshops dealt with labor issues and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Such an alliance could bring King Coal to its knees, with the help of sympathetic legislators, of course. Such a victory would go a long way towards fighting global warming, and it would show the world that environmentalism is back and here to stay.

Jake Blumgart is a guest blogger for YES! and an editorial intern for The American Prospect and Campus Progress Magazine.


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