Don’t go down in the mine, Dad,
Dreams very often come true;
Daddy, you know it would break my heart
If anything happened to you…
— in honor of 1907 South Wales mining disaster
I’ve never been down an American coal mine, among the least safest in the world, though have plunged thousands of feet into the dark bowels of British pits in Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland, the world’s safest until they were closed by politicians and bean counters.
I have a selfish interest in coal mining since it was English pit men who first opened up their world to me and encouraged my first writing.
Deep down in the hard-to-breath darkness at 2000 feet below the surface miners educated me how they’re aseparate culture, with its own taboos and permissions. At the coal face, hand-getting or machine-cutting, I saw them as skilled surgeons, or code breakers using logic to solve life and death problems underground, with super-sensitive ears for the faint early warning crack of a wall collapse or groan in a roof support.
Miners are a special, ancient breed whether in China, Poland or Appalachia; at their union’s strongest, which it’s not now, militant solidarity is bred in their bones. (See the Battle of Blair Mountain where massed miners shot it out with federal troops and even the US air corps for the right to unionize.)
Gradually I climbed into a social class where “coal” became a dirty word because the getting of the decayed vegetation with its high carbon content became synonymous with earth’s destruction and our asthmatic lungs.
You know, shaved mountain tops, poisoned rivers, massive health costs to miners (black lung, silicosis, injuries) and any of us who has to breathe in the fossil-fuel fumes. Not to mention the harm to climate change.
Gas powered electricity (fracking) is allegedly cheaper. Cleaner, more modern, more accessible. Anyway Appalachian coal is giving out, and privately owned coal companies – whose safety records are an obscenity – daily go bankrupt abandoning their workers’ health benefits. Right now Wyoming with its open cast strip mining produces more coal than traditional deep pit mines in the eastern mountains.
So what happens to the aging coal miners who voted for Trump on his promise to bring back jobs and restore coal which none of them believed but had hopes he would care for them in a declining industry?
One of the thousands of reasons Hillary lost was going to coal-mining West Virginia which she won in 2008 and telling them, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” in the drive for clean energy. The voting miners preferred Trump’s hopeful lie to Clinton’s blunt death sentence. Who wouldn’t?
The gods of coal are vengeful. Today, the 80,000 or so remaining miners, out of a 1970 high of 140,000 and a 1920s high of 700,000, are getting royally screwed by Trump’s rich Republicans. In a word they’re being sent on a fast ride to the cemetery by the people they voted for in such big numbers.
The Republican congress is twisting miners and their families in the wind by refusing, until the very last moment and maybe not then, to honor promised federal health benefits that are used to beef up the much used Medicare and Medicaid. The loss of this government money is literally the difference between life and death for men on oxygen or suffering other coal-related injuries.
A double kick in the face: Trump is also defunding the Appalachian Regional Commission and U.S Economic Development Commission set up specifically to cushion coal’s collapse.
An amazing number of people, still traumatized by Hillary’s defeat, say Trump’s betrayals are only what the miners deserve. Or as one NYT reader wrote from W. Virginia, “I have run out of patience and empathy for these people…They’re…ignorant… and generally not interested in anything but being a coal miner, shooting wild animals and each other, getting drunk or high, and qualifying for disability.”
Oh, have I run into such soured Democrats! They can’t forgive coal miners for voting the wrong way but above all for being the stubborn rednecks they are. Why can’t they be more like us, and vote the right way and stop being so damn poor?
The Republican agenda is clear. One by one knock off the most vulnerable then the least unionized then the rest of us, all in good time. The Appalachian miners are not our past but our future.
(Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset.)