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The True Cost of Coal

By Geoffrey Frost - Industrial Worker, June 2005. 

Several Wobblies in Pittsburgh and in Appalachia are working to support Mountain Justice Summer. Mountain Justice Summer is a campaign to stop Mountaintop Removal (MTR) mining, an environmentally devastating mining practice.

Mountaintop removal is what it sounds like: coal companies blast off the tops of mountains to get at thin seams of coal that are hauled off to fire the power plants. MTR is how the power companies provide "cheap" energy to the rest of the United States. Of course, it doesn't really come cheap. Mountaintop removal is the neoliberal vision fulfilled: a handful of poorly paid, non-union workers destroying one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth to fuel power plants that spew out yet more pollution upon the usually poor working-class communities around them, all the while stoking the furnace of global warming that causes the deaths of thousands upon thousands of working people each year and is only growing worse.

This is the cheap energy that dooms our children to asthma, mercury poisoning, and perhaps no future at all. This is the "cheap" energy demanded by our government.s financiers to fuel their uninhibited accumulation of wealth at the expense of all else.

Organizers with Mountain Justice Summer have already begun organizing against this outrage. They are building a coalition with community organizations throughout Appalachia to confront MTR in the coalfields and in the boardrooms. Their vision is to rekindle the spirit of Mississippi Freedom Summer and Redwood Summer, the solidarity amongst diverse people needed to shine the spotlight on an ugly problem hidden from the eyes of the world. The IWW made a major contribution to Redwood Summer in 1990 through its representation of lumber workers and focus on workers. safety in strengthening the environmentalist movement, and its presence is needed once again in this movement. Why should workers be interested in this campaign? Because the same boss driven to destroy the earth is the boss hell-bent on beating down the workers. This is the same boss who talks about "union-free" workplaces, who ships in workers from out-of-state so they don't know whose town blowing up, then ships them out again once the work is done. When they're done in Appalachia, they.ll be looking elsewhere to quickly extract more coal, perhaps in a town near you.

Central and Western Pennsylvania Wobblies have been having problems in their own communities with strip mining and mine collapses. Many workers are unorganized, or .misorganized. through contracts that focus on a mine by mine, or company by company basis, instead of organizing all the coal industry workers together. This method is failing . the unions are fighting a battle they can.t win, and are being forced to accept bad contracts, unsafe conditions, and the destruction of their own communities in order to keep the jobs they have. When organizing on a mine by mine basis, mining companies threaten to close the mines and open up non-union somewhere else, running quick and dirty operations with the goal of mining the most coal at the fastest rate, and no concern for workers. safety or protection for the environment. As it stands, even the union miners are working themselves right out of a job.

The strength of the bosses is enormous, and the best chance we have of winning is through solidarity amongst all the people affected by the outrages of the companies: the miners, the coalfield communities, the environmentalists, and even the city folk who have to breathe the sooty air from the coal power plants. We hope to learn from what our fellow workers further south are doing to organize against mountain top removal mining, and bring those lessons back home.

Mountaintop removal is an absolute tragedy for Appalachia. It is destroying one of the most beautiful places on earth, and it is enslaving the workers. Quick and dirty strip jobs on the tops of the mountains of West Virginia means a few workers with tons of dynamite, a lot of big equipment, and a few drivers. Since the onset of MTR, coal mining jobs have dropped by 75% even as more coal comes out of the mountains. The more desperate folks get, the more the bosses push the false choice "jobs or the environment" upon us. And when their kids are starving, most folks will take the jobs over death.

But that.s where the IWW is needed. Because choices like that are how the bosses of this world continue to divide us. They say to accept pay cuts here or the jobs go overseas. They say it.s either work more or make less. They say we have to choose between health care or more pay, jobs or the environment. They talk a lot of lies to keep us making the choices that give them power over us.

The real choice is between workers. power and power for the boss. If workers had any power in the coalfields, we wouldn.t choose to wreck the place where we live, we wouldn.t choose to mine coal so fast we put ourselves out of work in a year or two, we wouldn.t choose to give all our wealth to the company and be satisfied with the scraps. Maybe we wouldn.t even choose to mine for coal at all. Maybe we.d choose to work less, or to develop sustainable alternatives that didn.t expose us to coal dust, toxic sludge and heavy metals.

These are all distant hopes, for sure, but they represent the only hope that we have. Because as long as the bosses are in control, they make all the choices that continue their wealth and power at the expense of everything and everyone else. Our world, our future, our children's future, all are expendable in their great game of capitalism. But this is a chance to take them on, to strike at the heart of no-future capitalism and win a victory for working people . both directly for the lives of those in the coalfields of Appalachia and for the rest of the world being choked to death by our country.s insatiable greed for energy. The odds are tremendous, and to win everyone must stand together in solidarity against King Coal. Environmentalists, residents and coal workers together is the only way our power can match theirs. IWW members in Western PA are working with a local group, "Canaries in the Coalfields," to host a conference called the True Cost of Coal, to be held in Pittsburgh June 5, and a demonstration and speak-out at the "National Coal Show" industry convention Tuesday, June 7, where those affected by mining will come from across Appalachia to share their experiences.

In the spirit of Redwood Summer, we hope to see you in the coalfields. You can read more about Mountain Justice Summer at