My family tree is littered with black lung and union politics. My grandmother grew up in a West Virginia hollow (pronounced “holler”), and watched her brothers and male cousins’ lives go down that mine. My grandfather grew up in central Missouri, a center of “soft” coal mining. When he was ten, his father died in a mining accident. My grandpa went to work at the mine at that tender age.
My grandmother can’t speak of “the company” without venom in her voice. My grandfather fought to organize the Kansas City firefighters when he made it out of coal country. I grew up listening to my dad belt out Tennessee Ernie Ford’s hit, “Sixteen Tons,” with real feeling. My mother explained credit cards to me by saying, “Jenny, those are nothing but the company store.” I grew up the daughter of bookkeepers, but mining was part of our family history.
So it is with great perplexity that I encounter the yearning for mining on the Iron Range. “You trust the company?” I want to ask, “Since when?” The labor fights on the Range were every bit as hard and bitter as they were in the Appalachians. Every single benefit that came with those mining jobs had to be prised out of the mining corporations’ greedy maws. In these days of waning union power, why do some Rangers seem to assume that it is those secure, well-paying jobs that are on offer from the likes of Twin Metals and PolyMet? If I learned one lesson from my family’s history, it is that the company will squeeze your community dry and skip off with the profits. You’re left with a ruined mountain, a dead “crick,” and a blighted economy while the Rockefellers go build things in New York City. It’s a bad deal.
Unfortunately, it’s the deal American men—mostly white, working- and middle-class men—made with the captains of industry: we will follow your rules, divorce ourselves from affect and intellect, and turn ourselves into productive machines for your industries. In return, American men expected to become breadwinners and providers, capable of bringing him home enough “bacon” to support the nuclear family[i]. What’s now become glaringly apparent is that the captains of industry never had any intention of sticking to this bargain. As soon as they found cheaper, more exploitable labor, they were gone daddy gone.
At the January 28 hearing on Polymet’s mining proposal, you could see this bad deal embodied again and again: union leaders (virtually all of them white, working-class men) proudly announced their union memberships and then ceded their time and their voices to multinational corporations, chambers of commerce, and mining lobbyists Iron Range politicians. One after another, those blue collar men in hardhats stepped aside for white collar men in suits who are betraying them through a combination of strategic bankruptcies[ii], right-to-work-for-less laws[iii], and tax kickbacks rebates[iv]. As a metaphor, it’s beautiful. As a reality, it’s heart-breaking.
Those men have stepped aside for the very forces which are stepping on them. Yet they seem unable to recognize the source of their oppression. Instead, they blame environmentalists, feminists, “Twin Citiots,” and everyone else who refuses to dance with the company men.
The pro-extraction crowd keeps insisting that it is environmentalists who are being “too emotional,” even as they roar their anger, shout about jobs, and shake their empty brown paper bags (again, a metaphor that is almost too-perfect for all that unions have lost to the company men)[v]. Where they see emotion, I see cold, clear-eyed, rational analysis. The company doesn’t want to create jobs, improve the economy, or protect the environment. The company wants to make money and it will use any means at its disposal to do so. I hope the men in hard hats turn around soon, because the company men behind them are sharpening their cost-cutting measures.
[i] As sociologist Michael Kimmel notes, “the social contract that enabled self-made men to feel that they could make it, even if they somehow failed to realize their dreams, has indeed, been shredded, abandoned for lavish profiteering by the rich, enabled by a government composed of foxes who have long ago abandoned their posts at the henhouse. […] Many white men feel they have played by the rules and expected to reap the rewards of that obedient responsibility. It’s pretty infuriating not to get what you feel you deserve” (203). Kimmel, Michael. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. New York: Nation Books, 2013. Print. See also Tavis Smiley’s interview with Michael Kimmel.
[ii] The Freedom Industries chemical spill in West Virginia is just one example of how resource extraction companies use bankruptcy as a way of cutting business costs.
[iii] While the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce took no official position on the “right to work” legislative push in the 2012 session, Chamber President David Olson did tell the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, “The business community has a long history of support for ‘right-to-work’ legislation; now is no exception. Our members believe workers should have the right to choose whether or not they belong to a union and/or pay union dues.”
[iv] “I go to IRRRB meetings and I can assure you they work tirelessly to rebate tax dollars to right back to the mining companies — in the last 20 years, more than $200 million. They’ll do it again this year unless we embarrass them enough, and it takes a lot to embarrass a mining company,” testified retired miner Bob Tammen at the St. Paul Polymet mine hearing.
[v] “One of the loudest moments came late in the evening, when former DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina challenged mining opponents to leave their cell phones and iPads containing the debated metals in paper bags at the door. Mining supporters at the back of the vast room held up paper bags and shook them in the air,” as reported by MPR’s Elizabeth Dunbar.
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