Set in a wooded valley between the Tug Fork river and the Mate creek, Matewan, West Virginia was the site of the 1920 Matewan Massacre, a shoot-out between pro-union coal miners and coal company agents that left 10 people dead and triggered one of the most brutal fights over the future of the coal industry in US history.
The coal industry in Appalachia is dying – something that people there know better than anyone. Some in this region are pinning their hopes on alternative solutions, including rising Democratic star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.
“Coal is over. Forget coal,” said Jimmy Simpkins, who worked as a coal miner in the area for 29 years. “It can never be back to what it was in our heyday. It can’t happen. That coal is not there to mine.”
A coal production forecast conducted in 2018 by the University of West Virginia estimates coal production will continue to decline over the next two decades. Over 34,000 coal mining jobs in the US have disappeared over the past decade, leaving around 52,000 jobs remaining in the industry, despite several promises made by Donald Trump throughout his 2016 election campaign that he would bring those jobs back.
“A lot of guys thought they were going to bring back coal jobs, and Trump stuck it to them,” said 69-year-old Bennie Massey, who worked for 30 years as a coal miner in Lynch, Kentucky.
The town was at the center of the American labor movement in the early 20th century. At the peak of the coal industry in the 1920’s, about 500,000 miners were union members. As the coal industry declined, so did union membership, and now the town’s local miners’ union, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local 1440, consists entirely of retired miners.
Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner in Harlan County, Kentucky, who worked as a union organizer for 14 years, said people in Appalachia need to start moving away from relying solely on the coal industry as an economic resource for the region.
“What we’ve been doing is trying to transition into the 21st century and get on past coal,” he said.
Those transition efforts are still being impeded by the coal industry, as Shoupe says the majority of property in the area is still owned by coal companies and they have denied his efforts to develop solar panel fields.