More than Shovels and Black Lung: Miners and Factory Workers Deserve Real Assistance

Written by Laurie Hess, Warwick Township . This piece was first published here, theLancasterSpeaksUp.com blog, on March 10, 2021 with permission from the author. It has been submitted to LancasterOnline/LNP for consideration as an Opinion Editorial. 

Salina Zito, a columnist for the Washington Examiner, wrote a recent article in LNP featuring the story of two miners. In it, Ms. Zito laments the decline of the mining industry and the resulting hardships visited on the two miners and their families.

I can remember traveling to West Virginia to visit my Uncle Dave and Aunt Lucy when I was a child. Riding in the back of my parents’ Chevy Impala, I would watch the wild, beautiful West Virginia countryside slipping by.

Uncle Dave was my dad’s brother. They grew up with their 10 siblings on a hard-scrabble farm in Little Britain Township during the Great Depression. When Uncle Dave married a West Virginia girl, they moved there to be close to her people.

Dave became a coal miner. It was the only game in town. Uncle Dave was clever and resourceful, hard-working and proud.

Ms. Zito scoffs at the idea of retraining miners so they can transition to other jobs, showing special contempt for President Biden’s suggestion that displaced miners can learn other skills, including coding.

Instead, she paints the miners and the mining industry as victims. Describing how the local newspaper blames mining for everything from “the growth of the deer tick population to last year’s mild winter.”

Zito seems to advocate keeping the miners employed in mining because they deserve our sympathy, but that is not how capitalism works. We didn’t prop up Photomat when digital photography became popular so Photomat workers could keep their jobs. Nor did we subsidize blacksmiths when we transitioned from using horses for transportation to automobiles.

Changes in energy economy reduced the need for mining jobs, not the liberal elite.

Ms. Zito  seems to indicate her support for the government to step in with financial aid for the ailing mining industry. Isn’t that a hallmark of socialism – government-subsidized businesses?

She writes about the populist political movement both miners in the article support. She believes the movement was not started by former President Trump, but it did help him win the presidency in 2016. She states, “if you always thought [the movement] was about Trump, you never understood who they were and why they vote the way they do.” 

Trump did not initiate the populist movement. He merely co-opted its objectives. Trump is the politician most closely associated with its growth. People who work in the mines, on the assembly lines, and in other jobs requiring manual labor have largely cast their political lot with Donald Trump. 

Maybe they see their well-deserved sense of grievance reflected in Trump’s frequent airing of grievances. Maybe they were first attracted to Candidate Trump because he promised to bring back manufacturing and mining jobs. Maybe Trump’s mistrust and contempt for liberal intellectuals appealed to them.

Whatever the reason, by supporting Trump and other Republicans, they championed candidates who actually made their situation worse, not better. Campaign promises to the contrary notwithstanding, the Trump administration did not institute economic policies that benefitted most U.S. workers.

Even before the pandemic, there were fewer coal miners employed in February 2020 than when Trump took office, during a time when 6.4 million jobs were added to the economy. Between January 2017 and July 2020, manufacturing jobs decreased by over 200,000, and nearly 30,000 factories closed in the U.S.

But here is the good news. By rebalancing trade agreements instituted by the previous administration, investing in infrastructure, and (yes, sorry Ms. Zito) clean energy, the current Biden administration has the opportunity to rebuild the American economy. These moves could provide good jobs, begin to shore up the eroding middle class, and initiate the reverse of the growing income inequality that exists in America today.

Biden’s proposed “Buy American” clauses would help prevent many benefits of the proposed investments from drifting overseas. 

We have the opportunity right now to implement policies that could actually help workers facing job loss in mining and manufacturing. We can’t do it, however, by clinging to outdated technologies and environmentally damaging energy sources, no matter how much empathy we may have for workers impacted by the transition.

My Uncle Dave died more than 30 years ago of black lung disease. His death was slow and torturous. I believe he would have preferred a good-paying job in an office with comfortable surroundings and clean air.

Even if it involved coding.

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This website is maintained by the founding members of Lancaster SPEAKS Up. All writing and art contained on this blog post represent the thoughts and opinions of its author only.

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