I grew up in Dickenson County, Virginia. Like many who were raised in the heart of Appalachia, I come from a long line of coal miners. My great-grandfathers, grandfathers, uncles and cousins all went underground to dig the coal that kept the lights on for communities across our country.
My family members, like thousands throughout coal country, took pride in their work. We stuck together and fought to make our jobs good jobs. In April 1989, the Pittston Coal Co. cut health care for mineworkers, and 2,000 miners walked out on strike. My pawpaw was one of them. When Pittston brought scabs in to work at lower wages and called on state troopers to break up the strike, the mineworkers, with their community behind them, didn’t back down — they fought harder. Through months of civil disobedience, blocking roads and mine entrances and holding public demonstrations, the United Mine Workers of America won the wages and benefits our families deserved in February 1990.
Close to 30 years later, coal country isn’t what it used to be. Corporate greed, mechanization and the rise of fracking have forced people in Dickenson County into lower-paying, less stable work. Now 25 percent of people in Dickenson live under the poverty line, and the average income is under $20,000 a year. There are not enough jobs to go around, and the jobs we can get pay next to nothing. Corporations are emboldened to cut wages and benefits with no regard for the working people who drive companies’ profits. Mineworker families have been forced to accept pennies because we don’t have another choice. My family was on welfare when I was a kid, and I’ve seen schools shut down and people lose their homes. I’ve seen neighbors lose their jobs and scrape by struggling to pick up work. Some people I know fell victim to addiction, others turned to selling drugs to survive. Meth and OxyContin have ravaged towns across the coalfields.
The good wages that my father and grandfather fought to win are gone. At 20, I’m working at Waffle House, getting $2.35 an hour and relying on tips to reach the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Our reality goes unmentioned but for every four years, when politicians start knocking on our doors and stumping outside old, shuttered mines and factories. But we don’t need empty promises about bringing back coal jobs. We need the jobs that actually exist in our towns to pay us wages high enough for us to afford basics we can live on.
My family has always understood that we can’t wait for a savior at the ballot box to shepherd in the change we so desperately need. If we want a shot at a decent life, working people must fight for it together. That’s why, last month, I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and went on strike, joining with tens of thousands of service workers in 340 cities to fight for $15 an hour and the right to organize unions.
In the run-up to the election and its aftermath, politicians, analysts, pollsters and pundits tried to divide the working class along the lines of race. Growing up in Dickenson County, in a community that is 98 percent white, all I knew was the struggle white working-class families faced. But when I joined the Fight for $15, I met people who work in restaurants in other parts of this state and learned how jobs that pay this little are taking a toll on working people in bigger cities, too. And many families in those larger cities face additional threats, like police violence and the risk of deportation.
White, black, brown — we’re all in this together, fighting for better lives for our families.
If the white working class gives in to the notion that the color of our skin makes us more politically valuable or our issues more pressing, we lose power against the very forces of rampant greed that wreaked havoc on Appalachia to begin with. I saw the power of working people with the UMWA victory that preserved my family’s livelihood in 1990, and I see it with the Fight for $15 today. Now more than ever, working people must come together and tackle our broken economy head-on. It’s time to go beyond voting to fight for higher wages so we can create growth and jobs in my county and across the country. This is the only way that we’ll create the kind of inclusive prosperity that boosts forgotten communities throughout our nation.
Smith is a Waffle House worker in Roanoke, Virginia.