On May 10 West Virginia will hold its presidential primary. Contenders Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have all visited the state looking for working class votes.
All three contenders have a vision for the future of West Virginia’s economy. Republican Trump wants to bring back “Clean Coal” and protect industry jobs. Democratic candidates Sanders and Clinton want to transition the region beyond coal and create sustainable industry in the region. These approaches seem at odds, but they hold one very important factor in common: Washington.
The economy is of great importance to West Virginians. The state has significant poverty, some of the worst in the United States. But, when these candidates say they are going to “bring back clean coal,” or that they are going to make “coal jobs go away,” it is important to remember they are vying for power — power over human labor and the West Virginia (even global) environment. No matter what position one tends to agree with, pro-coal or no-coal, championing any of these candidates empowers Washington.
This is alarming, for it has always been social power, often in confrontation with state power, that has built markets and achieved human liberty in the coalfields.
Transition is coming to the valley and ridge, however, as coal industry profits, wages and employment continues a sharp decline. Instead of listening to those who seek power let’s instead hear the stories of those working to better their communities.One such organizer is Carl Shoupe of Harlan County, Kentucky. Shoupe is a former miner who is now an organizer with the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. The local is quoted in The Nation, saying, “the time to build a new economy that is good for all people — not just a wealthy few — is now,” he then called for the transition of Appalachia’s economy away from coal while at the same time “keeping our promises to the coal miners who powered this country.”
Shoupe’s statement is important. Coal is king in Appalachia, and for many, mining coal is what keeps food on the table. Coal mining itself has romantic cultural roots throughout the region. Mine workers are being lied to by politicians and industry suits as the mechanization of coal costs thousands of miners their livelihoods. Working people are replaced with machines, explosives and specialized, outsourced labor. The promise of a new Appalachia, beyond coal, beyond strip mining, is a promise to liberate all individuals from economic centralization — the very centralization candidates wish to maintain.
An alternative to state organization can be found in the modern Appalachian labor movement. Take the Labor Network for Sustainability (LN4S), a group advocating democratic energy — locally sourced power generation as opposed to conspicuous consumption. The group Coal River Mountain Watch has held off a massive strip mine in West Virginia by doing just this — they are actively organizing a wind farm on the mountain because it is slated for mountaintop removal. It is locals at the heart of transition, not politicians.
These local groups are of course open to outsiders. It’s an open market. We all carry different skill sets, resources and tactics for achieving mountain justice. In my own work in the coalfields, taking water samples and listening to stories, I have always been welcomed, thanked and invited back. I’ve made some great contacts and met wonderful people. I’ve made friends along the way. It’s just important to remember to respectfully take direction from local leaders. It is their community after all. This is a lesson that Donald, Bernie and Hillary will never understand. It isn’t about them, it’s about Appalachia.
Come November, the Liar-Elect will not care about local organization. But, Appalachia is rising. The transition is coming. State and industry power are being challenged. The movement is awake and in it for the long haul.