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Mike Elk

Mike Elk

Posted: August 28, 2009 11:41 AM

Stop the Teabaggers, Give Them Green Jobs: Lessons From the Coalfields of West Virginia


West Virginia shows us how we could easily win over this key segment of society, working class whites, with a New Deal-style industrial policy. Currently, 85,000 people in the United States are employed by the wind industry; Slightly more than the 81,000 in the United States working as coal miners.

On election night 2000, the biggest shocker for me wasn't Florida, but that West Virginia had voted for a conservative Republican presidential candidate for the first time in nearly 70 years.

For decades, West Virginia, with one of the highest rates of unionization in the country, regularly voted for progressive candidates, even being one of only nine other states in 1988 to vote for the epitome of a Massachusetts liberal -- Michael Dukakis. To know the story of West Virginia is to know why the progressive movement is failing to win over white working class voters. Because of their primary concern: jobs.

Driving around West Virginia as a young union organizer with Marshall University labor historian Gordon Simmons, I quickly learned that underneath its beautiful mountain lay a history of exploitation, broken promises and economic degradation. Despite being "the Saudi Arabia of Coal," West Virginia is engaged in a yearly neck and neck race with Mississippi for being the poorest state in the country.

As a result of coal mining, West Virginia has a cancer rate that is nearly 70% higher than the national average . Every day more than three million pounds of ammonium nitrate explosives (a highly carcinogenic substance) are exploded in mountaintop removal. This is the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb worth of explosives being dropped on West Virginia every month. Over 100 billion gallons of toxic sludge are contained in poorly regulated, coal sludge reservoirs from mountaintop mining contaminating local water supplies, leading to mind boggling rates of cancer.

A fact that is equally startling as the destruction of the mountains, is the destruction of jobs in West Virginia. Coal mining jobs have gone down by 75% with the shift to the highly mechanized, mountaintop removal. In the early 1950's, there were 145,000 miners employed in West Virginia; in 2004 there were just over 16,000 miners employed. While employment has decreased in coal mining, coal production has actually increased dramatically as a result of the environmentally destructive procedures of mountaintop removal.

Clearly, West Virginians would prefer jobs that didn't destroy their communities and health, but are forced into coal mining because few other jobs exist. As a result, West Virginians desperately fear losing these jobs. The fossil fuel lobby exploits this fear to kill investments in clean energy jobs.The industry uses events like the upcoming free concert called "Friends of America" hosted by Sean Hannity, which has press materials implicitly attacking clean energy legislation, hysterically warning, "we must keep these [coal mining] jobs from being regulated out of existence".

These industries always say that regulating them will cost jobs -- even when it is proven that jobs will be created. This is because they have created a situation where people are hanging on by a thread, paid so little that they desperately cling to what they have and other people are starving in front of them.

The ability of these AstroTurf groups to mobilize people fearing the loss of their jobs led to the dramatic weakening of the Waxman-Markey climate bill and quite possibly health care. We often make fun of teabaggers showing up at town halls, but fail to realize that the reason they are motivated to rebel against change because all change has ever meant to them is job loss and the destruction of their communities.

West Virginia shows us how we could easily win over these key segments of society with a New Deal-style industrial policy. Racial tensions and prejudices in West Virginia have long been as severe as in other places in the South. However as a result of heavy unionization, West Virginians learned to look beyond race to take on the true oppressors -- big corporations. West Virginians also remembered the importance that the New Deal played in transforming their lives. It gave them jobs, electricity, roads, and helped to bring the region into the 20th Century.

As result, West Virginians stuck firmly with FDR's Democratic Party and voted consistently for Democrats for the following five decades. While the once solid Democratic South became the Republican South after passage of Civil Rights legislation, West Virginia -- despite its strong racial tensions -- remained an island of Democratic support, until 2000.

In the 1990s, the generations that had survived the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War Two began to die out, and a Democratic president forged the job-killing NAFTA trade deal. Support for Democrats in West Virginia suddenly began to weaken. All the new generation knew was rising unemployment and broken promises at the hand of liberal politicians promising them jobs, but instead taking what jobs they had away.

The failure of the progressive movement to advocate for the improvement of the economic conditions of the white working class created a vacuum that allowed right-wing demagoguery to flourish. West Virginians turned to conservative Republicans who promised to protect their country, their most cherished recreational activity - hunting, and the churches at the center of their communities because no one else seemed to be protecting their communities.

In 2000, Republicans in West Virginia portrayed environmentalist Al Gore, who played a key role in passing NAFTA, as a job-killer who would destroy West Virginia's coal-based economy. Ever since then, West Virginia has voted consistently Republican in presidential elections, while at the same time continuing to elect Democratic Senators and Congressman who promised to protect coal producing jobs and fight to keep manufacturing in West Virginia.

In response to the shifting winds against progressives in West Virginia, local activists have called for New Deal-style projects like the Coal River Wind Project which seeks to create a sustainable, green economy economy not based on the boom and bust cycles of coal. Recent studies show that Appalachia will be mined out of coal in 20-30 years. In contrast the wind energy is sustainable industry that is here to stay and could create far more jobs.

It's estimated that only a $30 billion investment through Senator Sherrod Brown's IMPACT Act would create 2.5 million jobs -- many of them high, paying manufacturing jobs. The IMPACT Act could help replace the nearly 2 million manufacturing jobs that have been lost since the recession began in December 2007.

A New Deal-style industrial policy is crucial as well for winning over the politically elusive, white working class. The New Deal was successful in creating a lasting political coalition because it created lasting political constituencies. As a result of the wide range of people it helped: Social Security for seniors, labor unions for workers, subsidies for small farmers, and jobs for the unemployed, these groups were brought into the Democratic party and stayed there for nearly forty years.

However, a recent poll of non-college educated white males, showed that only 35% approved of Obama's performance . Some liberal commentators like Ron Brownstein of the Atlantic Magazine claim that we don't need the white working class to build a lasting progressive movement. Some argue that we shouldn't waste our effort to reach out to them because we can build majority built simply based upon minorities, women, college educated professionals, and youth.

To that I simply say is if the progressive movement wants to have a lasting impact we should include everyone as the New Deal coalition did. By advocating for New Deal - style industrial policies we can bring in the white working class as part of our movement, help with efforts at racial healing, and could create a lasting political movement that could last for another forty years. Such tactics were successful in the past in bringing the white working class into the party and will be successful in the future.

If the progressive movement put as much energy into advocating for a New Deal-style industrial policy as they have attacking and debunking the teabaggers, there wouldn't be teabaggers at these town hall meetings.

Yes, New Deal-style industrial policy will bring people into the progressive movement. But the real reason we why we need an industrial policy is similar to the one we had under the New Deal: it was the right thing to do. The New Deal helped people. made their lives better, created the middle class, set up regulations that protected people ,and created the solid foundations for the economic revival and amazing growth that followed.

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