June 13, 2017

Coal miner: ‘We need to get together and build a huge movement for a better future’

Coal miner: ‘We need to get together and build a huge movement for a better future’

 Editor’s note: Chuck Nelson, a retired 4th generation West Virginia coal miner, speaks with the People’s Tribune about the struggle for life itself in coal country.
People’s Tribune: Chuck, what did Congress do about the retired miners benefits?
Chuck Nelson: We won a permanent fix on healthcare, but many in Congress don’t want to give the miners their pensions. They’re afraid non-union miners will say, ‘You gave it to them, what about us?’ Joe Manchin (Democrat, WV) is facing reelection and is worried about that. Any credit he can grab out of this he will. He had an opportunity when he was governor to help the miners, but didn’t. He always caters to the industry. Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senator from Ohio, played a big role in getting the healthcare bill passed, but Manchin wants all the credit. We need to keep fighting for the pensions.
PT: Tell our readers about work in the mines.

Chuck: After 29 years as a union miner, I lost my job and worked with Massey Energy. Massey came in and bought all the union companies, busted the union, and reopened them as non-union. The difference between union and non-union mines is unreal. When I was a union “fire boss,” I made sure my coworkers were safe before going in the mine. In non-union mines the company does the inspections. The ventilation system (that protects against breathing coal dust and dilutes the methane) can interrupt production if kept installed. So they take all the curtains down and put them back at the end of the shift in case the inspector comes. I worked under these conditions. You couldn’t say nothing or you’re fired. You work until they say you can go home, 14-16 hours. It’s right back to where it was before there was a union in the 1920s. You’re going to see more of what happened with the coal dust explosion that killed the 29 guys in 2010.
Massey ended my mining career because I spoke out over what happened in my community. My house was close to the mines. The coal dust settled on our community. You clean the house, return home after work, and have ¼-inch layer of dust on the coffee table, even in the refrigerator. You don’t see the dust you breathe—it’s fine particles laced with chemicals used in the coal cleaning process. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut while people were poisoned. When I stood up with my community, they took my job and blacklisted me. We relocated. We’re near where they blow the mountaintops off. The dust and toxins get in the air and streams. The scale of people sick here is unreal. It’s horrible what they get by with to maximize profits.
PT: Why did Trump carry the state? What’s next?

Chuck: They were shutting down the mines before the elections and laying off. People were desperate. Hillary came in saying, ‘we’re going to put the coal companies out of business and take your jobs.’ Trump came in saying, ‘we’re going to put the miners back to work.’ So it’s not hard to figure out. People blame WV for Trump’s election but we only have five electoral votes. We’re getting a bad deal. It’s rough to organize people when payday counters their understanding. The industry makes it look like it’s a war on coal. It’s told to our kids in public schools. By third grade, they’re talking about how good coal is. It’s brainwashing. That’s how these corporations divide and conquer. But once you sit down and talk with people about the facts, they start getting concerned.
We need to get together and spread information state to state and build a huge movement.
And we need to get certain individuals out of office if there’s going to be a better future. That’s what Paula Swearengin’s campaign is about: a better future and a change from the same old political elites. Paula, a coal miner’s daughter, fights for the working class. Please give her your support. Visit paulajean2018.com/

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