Stanley Sturgill tells congressional hearing of attacks on coal miners

In June, Harlan County KFTC member Stanley Sturgill spoke at a congressional forum about poverty hosted by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep Elijah Cummings and coordinated with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

Senators and representatives who took part in this hearing included Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Dick Durbin along with Warren and Cummings, and Representative Barbara Lee.

Senator Warren opened the session by saying, “America is at a crossroads. Our safety net has a hole in it the size of a monster truck. Millions of Americans are without basic health care. Babies drink water laced with lead. Forty percent of US adults don’t have $400 to cover an emergency, and many have nowhere to borrow it. Over one in four Americans describe themselves as ‘just getting by’ or ‘struggling to get by.’ Nearly half of all Americans don’t have a single dollar put away for retirement. And all the while, corporate profits in America are sky-rocking. This is a moral crisis.”

The hearing featured testimony by Rev. William Barber, a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. He shared the opportunity to testify with about a dozen individuals from across the country, including Stanley Sturgill from Kentucky as well as speakers from Alabama; southwestern Virginia; Flint, Michigan; an Apache woman, an undocumented woman and her daughter, and many others.

Each shared their stories, and stories from their communities, to highlight intersecting issues related to poverty, racism, immigrant rights, indigenous rights, worker rights, environmental devastation, and voter suppression.

In his opening statement Reverend Barber declared, “The first goal of this movement is to change the moral narrative in this nation. Both parties have trouble even saying the word ‘poor.’ But these are not right or left issues. These are justice issues, love issues, moral issues that cannot be ignored…This is not a conservative or a liberal movement. It is a deeply moral movement. And the people who are hurting the most have linked up to say, ‘We won’t be silent any more.’”

Stanley Sturgill had the opportunity to speak after he was asked a question by Rep. Barbara Lee about the need for higher minimum wage and living wage laws. Stanley replied, “Right now there is a move on, especially in Kentucky, for this new “Right-to-Work” law. I’ve been a union member since 1968. I have black lung. I worked 41 years in the coal mines. And I’d say when they introduce laws like that, they aren’t looking to increase the minimum wage. They are looking at going backwards, not making progress.

 “The War on Poverty started 50 some years ago. We’ve got an old saying in the coal mines: ‘It’s rough at the face.’ Well, where I live in southeastern Kentucky, it is rough at the face. Because the poverty in our area hasn’t gotten better. It’s worse today than it has ever been.”

Stanley also thanked the members of Congress for listening. And he shared a story about another time he visited Washington, DC. “The last time I was here I was in my Fifth District Congressman’s office, Mr. Hal Rogers. I wanted to talk with him about coal mine safety, the health of coal miners, and black lung. He didn’t want to talk, so he had me arrested right there in his office. There was a whole group of us, and all we were doing was singing Amazing Grace. He didn’t like that and had us carted off to jail.”

“My message is, we’ve got to straighten some of these issues out – especially the pensions for the United Mine Workers that is on the table right now. My Senator Mitch McConnell says we’ve got plenty of time. Well, we need to light a fire under them and get them to take care of some of these things,” Stanley concluded.

“Your voices and your work will help us begin to close the gap as it relates to economic and racial inequality,” Rep. Barbara Lee of California said. “Thank you for your voices and your courage.”

When Rep. Cummings spoke he highlighted powerful statistics about the crisis of poverty in America. “On September 12, 2017, the U.S. Census bureau reported there are more than 40 million Americans living in poverty. Even as the stock market soars, we’ve seen an epidemic of so-called ‘deaths of despair.’ And life expectancy in the U.S. has actually fallen over the last two years.”

Another co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. Liz Theoharis, was unable to testify during this hearing because she was in jail. She and many others had been arrested the day before for praying on the steps of the Supreme Court building as part of a nonviolent direct action organized by the Poor People’s Campaign.