UMWA sign

When Massey Energy bought the bankrupt mine in Cannelton Hollow, West Virginia, it replaced the union miners with non-union workers.
Southern West Virginia Coal Fields

To: Mr. Future President ““ Obama/McCain
From: Betty Dotson-Lewis

Mr. Future President:

There is a lot of buzz about Presidential candidates not giving much attention to Appalachia ““ rural folk. I believe West Virginia coalminers fit in that category ““ the working class. The West Virginia coalminers are an important and integral part of this nation and deserve an audience. They have a lot to offer. They know a lot about hunting and fishing, fiddlin’, skinning a deer, raising a garden and mining coal. They dug enough coal to fuel the Industrial Revolution more than a century ago, and here in the 21st Century they are still digging coal to keep this nation powered up.

My name is Betty Dotson-Lewis. I am from a small, rural coalmining town in West Virginia. I don’t have any first-hand experiences myself to draw on about meeting presidential candidates or other high ranking politicians. One time I ate fried chicken with Jesse Jackson. That was the closest I have come. In 2004 he scheduled a stop at Scarboro Loop at the New River Medical Clinic/Black Lung Clinic. I went over. He rolled in on board a big bus with the campaign slogan “Reinvest in America, Put America Back to Work.” He was with United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts. Jesse wore a navy blue jumpsuit ““ to represent the blue collar worker, I think. A big crowd showed up. He climbed up on a picnic table and made a fiery speech, a very good speech, but it didn’t work. He was backing John Kerry. (We had fried chicken afterward in the dining hall.)

But the point is he came to the coalfields of West Virginia.

Back to the West Virginia coalminer. Frankly I don’t know how he does it with all the struggles encountered along the way including health issues like black lung, slate falls which cripple you or getting mashed to death by a big piece of machinery, but the biggest problem he may encounter is his employer.

This story seems timely as we watch and listen to how our government is bailing out one big business after another with our tax dollars. The ones we are not bailing out, government-legislated public policy is making it simple for them to absolve their debts through bankruptcy leaving employees jobless, uprooted, with no healthcare or retirement. Yet the companies reemerge bigger and better.

Such was the case in the West Virginia coalfields on the eve of the 2004 Presidential election.

cannelton store

The company store at Cannelton Hollow, c. 1919
Photo: Courtesy W. Caldwell

On September 28, 2004 approximately 250 miners, operating the most productive coal mine in the United States, located in Cannelton Hollow, West Virginia, lost their jobs, healthcare and pensions forever when Horizon Natural Resources filed bankruptcy. Horizon Natural Resources was this nations 4th largest coal producer and coal mining in Cannelton Hollow dates back to before the Civil War.

Another 3,800 union coal miners and their dependents in West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana lost their health care when this bankruptcy was upheld. Those suffering from cancer, strokes, MS, and high blood pressure, as well as children with illnesses were suddenly out in the cold ““ no health care coverage.

The mine in Cannelton Hollow owned by the Addington brothers, multi-millionaires out of Ashland, Kentucky alleged their debts outweighed their profits. Kentucky Judge William S. Howard in Lexington, Kentucky signed a document in agreement. The Addington brothers were given relief through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. However, a buyout was already in the works prior to the bankruptcy proceedings.

The wealthy New Yorker Wilbur Ross, known for purchasing sinking companies and making a profit off them, purchased Horizon Natural Resource in turn selling to Massey Energy.

Horizon sold its mine to Massey Energy without securing job rights or benefits for its employees, forever changing the climate of a warm, friendly, multi-cultural coalmining community in the hills of West Virginia.

The union mine reopened as nonunion. Armed guards manned the entrance where grandfather, father and son had previously earned their living and supported their community in a friendly, non-violent environment. The unemployed miners and their families were treated no better than when Jim Crow stalked the south from 1876 to the mid '60s. Intimidation and hostility became the norm.

On October 21, 2004 a rally was scheduled by the UMWA at Valley High School in Smithers, West Virginia, a nearby community, to support, console and try to figure a way out for this community that had been devastated big business and a political maneuver of public policy ““ bankruptcy.

I traveled the 42 miles after work to attend. I remember driving down the winding road. I was familiar with every curve. I knew when and where to pass the overloaded coal trucks. Jagged rocks on the steep banks hung out over the road in places and spring water dripped down making wet spots on the windshield. It was almost dark when I got there, and the rally began at 7:00 p.m.

UMWA Cecil Roberts

UMWA President Cecil Roberts attended the 2004 rally at Valley High School gym, Smithers, WV
Photo: Betty Dotson-Lewis

Traffic lined the highway. I followed, making the turn across the railroad tracks onto school property. Flaggers with flashlights parked the vehicles. A Warren McGraw campaign vehicle was parked near one entrance. He was running for re-election for the State Supreme Court against Massey Energy CEO’s candidate, Brent Benjamin. (Blankenship contributed over 3 million to Benjamin’s campaign.) My neighbors were there.

I spoke to UMWA President Cecil Roberts, one of the keynote speakers.

Members of the Fayette County Black Lung Association were in attendance. This organization and others sent down canned food and money collected for the miners and families who were hurting.

The rally was packed with men, women and children. Babies cried as we sat in the hot, school gym, waiting and listening for a plan of action to save this community of coalminers. I turned my handheld recorder on to record what speeches I could.

Mr. Future President, I invite you to read Rev. Paul Rose’s opening prayer. His talk with God reveals many of the troubles in the West Virginia's coalfields.

October 21, 2004 UMWA Rally, Valley High School, Smithers, West Virginia

Rev. Paul Rose: Y’all bow your head and we will pray.

Lord God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, we come to you tonight in this place asking your presence and guidance to be with us.
We come in your name. The name that is above every name that has been named in this world or the world to come. That’s the name of Jesus.

Every knee should bow and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God the Father.

We ask your blessing upon this assembly; community, family and friends. We ask you, Lord, to bless our nation, our state, our community, the union leaders, our Union President Brother Cecil Roberts. We ask you to let them seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.

We ask you, Lord, to bless our men and women in uniform, especially those in harm’s way. We ask you to keep them safe and bring them home soon to their family and friends.

We ask you, Lord, to remember the Chinese miners we just received word about. A mine disaster there, 52 dead, 92 still missing in China.

We ask you, Lord, for healing and comfort for those who have been stricken with cancer and illnesses among our union families tonight. We ask you to remember Carl D. White’s wife, Carol, and we ask you to remember George Seeker's wife, Larry Bradford’s wife and many others who need healing among us.

We ask you not only provide the necessities of life to our sisters and brothers who have lost their jobs and health care but give them strength in this time of need that no matter how dark it may seem, that you, God, are light and in You is no darkness at all.

prayer before cannelton rally

Rev. Paul Rose, at podium, led the miners and their families in prayer, Oct. 21, 2004
Photo: Betty Dotson-Lewis

Remember those in this nation in the labor force who have their hopes and dreams destroyed because of corporation corruption and greed and yet there are those bankruptcy laws that have taken away the fruits of our labor. You said in your Word that the laborer is worthy of his hire. We know without labor that nothing will prosper – hard work and labor in this country was built upon. We ask you Lord to be our strength and refuge in this time of trouble.

We seek not vengeance. You said that vengeance belongs to you. We do not ask for malice toward anyone because we know in malice is evil work. We ask for forgiveness for our weaknesses and our failures. We ask for forgiveness for those we trespass against and for those who trespass against us. The Bible says, “Let us lay aside every way and the sin that beset us and let us run with faith this race” and it is a race that is before us….

We got a good number here, but I have heard Brother Cecil Roberts say it only takes a little spark to start a fire and that is what we are trying to do here tonight, unite with each man in this endeavor to get what we have worked for so hard all our life, so that we will have what is coming to us. I am not a politician, a great lawyer or speaker ““ just a coal miner for 33 years in underground coal mines.

I am 58 years old, my grandpa came here from Italy when he was 12 years old and worked in the mines until he died in 1949 from silicosis. My father was a coal miner, raised on Cabin Creek where Cecil Roberts, President of UMWA, was raised. We was raised together.

So, I know about the coal mines. I know about the union. I know about labor and hard work. And my grandfather came here looking for a better life. He was looking to have those things we all look forward to.

Tonight we need to get involved. I apologize. I asked God to forgive me. Now, I ask those around me to forgive me for my failure to do all I can for the working people of this whole nation. Get involved. Lend a helping hand. You think to yourself, I am only one but still I am one. I cannot do everything but still I can do some things. I will not refuse to do the something I can do. God bless you.

I spoke to Rev. Rose by phone on Saturday, September 20, 2008. I asked him about the negative impact of this bankruptcy on Cannelton Hollow and surrounding communities. He told me the negative effects of the Horizon Natural Resource bankruptcy reached every corner of the community by uprooting the coalminers who had a stake in their surroundings. They had history and heritage in Cannelton Hollow. School funding went down. Businesses closed and miners had to drive long distances to work or wait in the unemployment line. Miners had to depend on friends and neighbors for food and clothing. Four years later they have not recovered.

Rev. Rose told me the miners appealed this decision; however, it has taken an administrative law judge three years to render a decision. The coal company has appealed this decision, and a resolution could take up to twenty years. Rev. Rose said by that time many of the miners will be dead.

Rev. Rose told me that under Massey ownership, the mine has dropped drastically in production, from 35 tons per employee to 23.4 per employee in 2006. Massey employed many red hat miners. The average age of the miner under Horizon was approximately 50, which was good because the miners were experienced and able to produce a lot of coal.

Rev. Rose said it was proven in court that the mine had been running efficiently under Horizon.

During the bankruptcy proceeding, UMWA President Cecil Roberts was handcuffed and jailed for protesting in front of the courthouse in Lexington, Kentucky.

Rev. Paul Rose was among many witnesses on October 21, 2004 in that gym. A disabled retiree told the crowd he was informed that as of September 27, 2004, the State of West Virginia would be picking up his medical costs. Horizon’s obligation was shifted to the taxpayers of West Virginia. A local college student told the crowd she might have to drop out of college due to lack of funds because her daddy lost his job.

I believe it was Mother Jones who said when she got to Heaven she was going to talk to God about West Virginia coalminers. There must be a communication problem or a travel problem.

Mr. Future President, Rev. Paul Rose, after talking to God, made a pledge to do more for the working class of people in America. What is your pledge?

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