A HAINT is stalkin’ the mountains–the living memory of a century of class struggle in West Virginia.
Some people might have been surprised when West Virginia workers staged one of the most militant labor struggles in decades. Mostly “white” and hailing from a region branded alternatively as “Trump Country” or “Coal Country,” mountaineers are often depicted as poor, racist and reactionary.
But the West Virginia wildcat strike has renewed interest in the mine wars and other high points of Appalachian workers’ struggles. These rich traditions, both recent and historical, are one aspect of the militancy seen in the teachers’ strike.
Another is the deep social crisis, underway for decades in the region, that affects every aspect of mountaineers’ lives. Ecological destruction, compounded by a catastrophic public health disaster, are two important components to include in the background to the teachers’ strikes.
The bitterness produced by more than a century of underdevelopment and neglect in Appalachia–overseen by both Republicans and Democrats–is what underlies the appeal of a demagogue like Donald Trump, who had his greatest popular vote margin over Hillary Clinton in West Virginia.
But this anger can also be an ingredient for explosive working-class rebellions like the teachers’ wildcat strikes–which can change the political environment for the left very quickly.
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The Effects of Ecological Catastrophe
Two years ago, West Virginia experienced a terrible “one in a thousand-years” storm. Flooding took the lives of 24 people and destroyed hundreds of homes. Then-President Obama declared West Virginia a major disaster area, and the National Guard was deployed for cleanup. Many families are still recovering.
Mountainous topography is naturally prone to flash flooding, but the 2016 storm had a man-made aspect: Climate change causes abnormal extremes when it comes to rainfall, from drought to the torrential rains that caused the massive flooding two years ago. Combined with the coal companies’ destructive practices of mountaintop removal and surface mining, erosion, landslides and catastrophic floods are much more likely.
Moreover, flooding disasters in West Virginia aren’t just about water. There’s also the coal, the sludge and all of the processing chemicals used by the mining industry that wreak ecological devastation.
The worst example of this remains the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster in Logan County, West Virginia. A Pittston Coal Co. dam burst and flooded the area with 132 million gallons of coal waste. Some 128 people were killed people, and thousands were left homeless.
Just four years ago, Freedom Industries leaked 10,000 gallons of poison into the Elk and Kanawha Rivers. The spill of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, a chemical used for cleaning coal, affected 300,000 West Virginians and sent hundreds of people to the hospital. It was the third major chemical accident in the Kanawha River Valley in five years.
Meanwhile, gas companies are destroying forestland and mountaintops to expand their system of pipelines.
The sheer level of ecological pollution and destruction in the Appalachians can only be understood as a result of the capitalist system. Massive energy corporations, in conjunction with their investment partners, have conspired with national and local politicians to get the energy industry deregulated, so they can increase their profits. Environmental considerations and the health and safety of West Virginians always come last.
But this destruction hasn’t taken place without a fight. Protesters have occupied land, sat in trees and gone to jail to protest pipeline contruction and mountaintop removal. This legacy of resistance–as seldom talked about in the mainstream media as labor battles are these days–is another ingredient in the volatile mix that produced the teachers’ wildcat.
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A Many-Sided Health Care Crisis
The extraction of profit from Appalachia doesn’t just destroy the land. It also destroys people.
In 2010, 29 miners lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in southern Raleigh County. They were, of course, only the latest in a long list of miners killed for coal company profits, dating back to the 1907 mine explosion in Monongah, West Virginia–the worst mining disaster in U.S. history–and long before.
The owners of the Upper Big Branch mine–Richmond, Virginia-based Massey Energy–shirked any responsibility. CEO Don Blankenship, the most hated man in West Virginia, was sentenced to a single year in prison for his role in the cover-up and conspiracy. Fresh out of jail, Blankenship recently bought up another energy corporation–and filed to run for senator of West Virginia this November.
Explosions aren’t the only hazard in the mines, of course. Black lung disease, caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust in the mines, has a long and cruel history in West Virginia. Tragically, the disease has reappeared in startling numbers among miners across the region–right at the moment when the Trump is planning to eviscerate regulations meant to protect miners from black lung disease.
As with environmental issues, there is a history of struggle over health care. The danger of black lung disease was confronted head-on in a post-Second World War strike wave and the later rank-and-file rebellions in the coalfields.
The United Mine Workers union embarked on an ambitious plan to create its own health care system for miners and their families. The Miners Memorial Hospital Association (MMHA), as it was known, eventually crumbled when the union’s membership went into decline because of mechanization and organizing setbacks. The “nonprofit” Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH) system acquired some of the MMHA’s hospitals, while others, like the Man Miners Memorial Hospital, were left to rot.
In 2007, certified nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses (LPNs), housekeepers, and maintenance and clerical workers, represented by the United Steelworkers union, staged a month-long strike against ARH. That was followed some months later by a three-month strike of registered nurses, members of United American Nurses, which has since joined National Nurses United.
In addition to linking the causes of labor and health care justice, ARH nurses invoked the history of miners’ struggles by wearing the red bandanas that gave rise to the term “redneck.”
While these strikes won important concessions regarding staffing, the region’s health care crisis has since spiraled out of control.
Particularly devastating right now is the opioid crisis. Addiction is concentrated in former industrial strongholds like West Virginia, both because of the history of corporate neglect of workers’ health and safety and the despair caused by unemployment and poverty.
Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, flooded Appalachia with opioids that it claimed weren’t addictive. No other region of the country has experienced the same devastation–there are counties in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky where the death toll from overdoses has risen between 5,000 and 8,000 percent.
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The Opportunities for Socialism
While the mainstream media acknowledge that West Virginia hasn’t always been a “red state,” rarely is the rich history of mountain socialism discussed.
The Socialist Party organized in West Virginia in the early 20th century and grew significantly. By 1906, Eugene Debs was campaigning vigorously among mountaineers. Frederick A. Barkey’s book is the best examination of the socialist movement in West Virginia. Sharon Smith’s Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States–soon to be reissued in an updated edition–is another valuable resource.
This history has echoes of the social justice questions that figured prominently in the teachers’ strike. For example, Don “Few Clothes” Chain–a Black socialist famously depicted in John Sayles’ movie Matewan–was a prominent leader in the early years of the mine wars, underlining the essential role that Black and immigrant workers played in the fights against the coal bosses and the politicians that serve them.
Now a new generation of West Virginia workers has written another chapter of labor history. As in the past, their struggle was driven not only by economic concerns like wages and benefits, but all the social issues that are bound up with public education–and wider ones raised by the social crisis that West Virginia has suffered through.
The left will benefit from understanding how this background, both past and present, contributed to the rebellion of the West Virginia teachers.