Coal Tattoo

Hey folks, I’ve been out for a few days and am catching up on things. I wanted to make sure Coal Tattoo readers didn’t miss this commentary from United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, published first on the Perspectives page of the Sunday Gazette-Mail:

When my great-uncle Bill Blizzard marched up the side of Blair Mountain with several thousand other coal miners in the late summer of 1921, he wasn’t thinking about the coal that lay within the mountain. He wasn’t thinking about whether the streams along the base of the mountain ran clear or not.

He was thinking instead about the murder of his friend Sid Hatfield by Baldwin-Felts thugs just a few weeks before. He was thinking about the near-slavery conditions coal miners and their families were forced to endure. He was thinking about how to make their lives better.

It’s important for Americans to remember the events that occurred on the slopes of Blair Mountain those fateful days, for it is a compelling and historically significant story of struggle against oppression. That story cannot be told nearly as well if the mountain is not there.

Blair Mountain is as close to sacred ground as there is for the UMWA. Though we may not physically own the mountain’s land, its legacy is ours. We strongly support its preservation, for it represents the power ordinary people have when they decide to stick together and take up common struggle for the benefit of all. That is the essence of who we are as union members.

Today, West Virginians are still thinking about coal miners’ jobs, and about how to make their lives and their communities better. But we are also thinking about the coal under Blair Mountain and surrounding ridges, and what ought to be done with it. And we are thinking about whether the water runs clear, not just for the fish, but for the people as well.

These are critical times in the coalfields. For coal miners, our families, our relatives, our friends and our neighbors, the decisions we make and the actions we take will determine not just how we live, but how our descendants will live for generations to come.

We must do our best to make the right decisions. And as we do, we must also realize (just as those miners did so many years ago) that although we may not agree on everything, we are all in this together. Failure to do so puts us at the mercy of those who would use our differences to divide us, allowing them to reap their own, selfish rewards at our expense.

So let us start.

Let us start by recognizing the dignity of work, and the fact that those who mine coal, by whatever method, do so because they seek to provide for themselves and their families. And let us also recognize that when the UMWA represents any workers anywhere, we have a duty to defend every one of their jobs and make them the best jobs they can be.

Let us start by recognizing that coal operators have a responsibility to make the jobs of their workers as safe as possible. And they have a responsibility to respect their neighbors and do all in their power to minimize any damage that may be done to the environment as a result of their operations. And they further have a responsibility to repair any damage they do cause.

Let us start by recognizing that if the operators do not fulfill those responsibilities, then someone has to make them do so, most often the federal or state government, or both. The last thing any of us in the coalfields should desire is to go back to the days when coal operators were allowed to do anything they wanted with no consequences. That’s how Bill Blizzard ended up at Blair Mountain, after all.

Let us start by recognizing that the government has a critical role to play, because for too long, far too many coal operators have not respected their workers, not respected their neighbors, not cared about the damage their operations may have done and not cared to repair that damage once it was done.

Let us start by recognizing that whatever role government does play, it has a responsibility to take into account the impact of its actions on all concerned. And government has a responsibility to seek ways for coalfield residents, including miners and their communities, to benefit, not suffer, from its actions.

Let us start by recognizing that there will be changes in the way our nation and our world generate electricity over the next century. We don’t yet know what form this change will take, nor how fast it will happen. We do know that there are not currently enough other sources of energy (whether other fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear, biofuels or anything else) to replace the energy we create from coal to feed a growing demand in America, much less the world.

Let us start by recognizing that at some point in our future (perhaps decades from now, perhaps centuries from now (the coal will run out or will become too expensive to mine. Between now and then, it is our task to do all we can to develop ways to use coal responsibly and cleanly to power our nation and our world.

And let us start by reaffirming that all God’s children have a right to prosper in a safe and livable environment (at home and on the job) where they can thrive without fear of sickness, disease or injury caused by the irresponsible actions of corporations motivated solely by profit at any cost.

I believe that, working together, we can develop an environmentally sound and economically secure way forward for those who live and work in the coalfields of central Appalachia, one that does not merely celebrate the heritage of coal but embraces its future. If we are to live by the lesson of Blair Mountain, standing together to create a better future for all our children and grandchildren, we really don’t have any other choice.