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West Virginia Protest March Will Link Campaign to Stop Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining and Labor Solidarity

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Posted May 25, 2011

Interview with Larry Gibson, "Keeper of the Mountains" in West Virginia , conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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From June 4 through 11, hundreds of people will march from the town of Marmet, W. Va. to Blair Mountain, 50 miles away in Logan County to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain. The battle was the largest insurgency in U.S. history after the Civil War, and pitted some 10,000 West Virginia coal miners against the coal bosses, their private army -- and eventually, the U.S. military -- as they fought for the right to join a union.

During their march, activists will be demanding protection for Blair Mountain as a national historic monument, which would also safeguard the area from mountaintop removal coal mining that is already encroaching on the historic battlefield. Other demands include the abolition of all mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, national labor solidarity in the face of some of the worst attacks on the rights of working people in 75 years -- and sustainable jobs in Appalachia.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Larry Gibson, known as the “Keeper of the Mountains” for his fierce opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining. Gibson opposes all coal mining, maintaining it destroys the lives and health of people in Appalachia and across the country. He talks about the union heritage of those living in coal country and the need for working people to come together.

LARRY GIBSON: I am wholeheartedly in support of this march, encouraging the working stiffs of America to come in and support this march simply because of the most well-known mountain in West Virginia, for the battle it held for the working man to have the right to organize for decent pay for a decent day's work, and health and safety. The term 'union' was the glue that held my family together, but that's not the only symbol we have. All our working stiffs in America didn't belong to a union, but they had to struggle the same way and work very hard for a day's pay. So I guess that's why I'm encouraging people across America -- no matter what creed they are, what the ethnic groups they are, it doesn't matter -- just the working stiffs of America to come together in one common cause -- to save a mountain that gave so much and supported so many people when they come together to fight the battle of life, and freedom and for choices that have now been taken away from them.

The working man's pay has been cut; they started giving concessions back in the '70s, and they've done gave too much. No more concessions should be given to the corporations, whether coal or anybody. The working man has already gave their life so the wealthy people can own more stock, and all the working man's getting is a paycheck, and that paycheck is not enough to allow a decent living for these people. Now, in order for the working stiff to provide a living for the family, they have to get the whole family a job, like at Walmart.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you think about the fact that the United Mine Workers Union is not supporting the march? President Cecil Roberts says the union supports protecting Blair Mountain as a national historic site, but is not supporting all the other demands of the march.

LARRY GIBSON: The people in place now, including Cecil Roberts, has his comfortable, cushy job because of what happened that day on Aug. 21, 1921. Because of all these men who paid the ultimate price, Cecil had a comfortable job, but yet the United Mineworkers, for so few jobs that they represent, will not come out and support a march in order to stop mountaintop removal. And as you know, the United Mineworkers have endorsed mountaintop removal, so they won't come out and try to protect and save the most well-known piece of land in West Virginia because of what they are enjoying today.

BETWEEN THE LINES: A spokesman for the mineworkers union actually told me that the union thinks the march is divisive, because of its demand to end mountaintop removal mining.

LARRY GIBSON: I have been fighting well over 25 years for the abolishment of mountaintop removal. Everybody knows my stand on coal -- it needs to be abolished, okay? But during this march, during this week, I will speak nothing about coal or the abolishment of it. What I'll be doing is concentrating on saving Blair Mountain and stopping mountaintop removal. Now, if I'm asked my opinion on the march, I'll give it, but at this point in time it's not about union or non-union. It's about the working man. I'm more on the march beside a union man on my right and beside another man on my left who don't have a union card, simply because we're marching for a common goal, to save the most well-known mountain in the state's history, and that's Blair Mountain. It's about trying to save the symbol, a symbol of the working class, of working men around this country and anywhere else where they got to sweat and not knowing what they're getting into, and not knowing if they're coming home -- the working people, who have to work and give everything they got just to feed their families, that's all. And this mountain has not asked for anything else. It gave us a reason to fight before, so now we should at least give it back life instead of death. In other words, this mountain should be saved from destruction.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Larry Gibson, one of the other demands of the march is sustainable jobs for the people of Appalachia. I thought that meant jobs on wind farms instead of digging coal, but you have a different definition.

LARRY GIBSON: The meaning of sustainable is that it's life giving. You can make a living without destroying your own back yard. The jobs they have today, when you have to destroy your own back yard, that's not life-giving; that's not sustainable. In other words, you still got to struggle to live in the mess that you're creating yourself in working for the man that's paying you. These people, if given a choice, they wouldn't be destroying their backyard. Sustainable jobs? Sure. Jobs that have quality and sustainability, where you can live with it and not end up dying because you're doing it.

Larry Gibson is an anti-mountaintop removal coal mining activist in West Virginia and a supporter of the March on Blair Mountain scheduled for June 4 through 11. For more information on the march, www.appalachiarising.org/.

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