As an Industry Faces Destruction, It Grows a Voting Coalition
FRIEDENS, Pennsylvania -- Imagine if you had a job. A good job, one that required skill and critical thinking and had a broad impact in the community where you lived. A job you didn't just show up to do. It was a job you were good at, and because of it, you were able to provide a roof over your family's head, put your children through college or help pay for their wedding, and once a year, it gave you the ability to carve out a week or two to take the family on vacation.
Now imagine that job becomes the center of political debate, one far removed from the Laurel Mountains, where this town sits. Within two decades, your profession goes from being championed by the Democratic Party and labor officials to one that they want to destroy.
John Fisher and Harvey Charles were standing outside of the Acosta Mine mechanic station here in Somerset County. Both still had traces of coal dust on their hands and faces. Both had just finished their shifts and were cleaning up themselves and their equipment. Fisher works in the mine; Charles transports the coal.
Fisher has been doing this job since 1989, when he returned home after serving four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. The 52-year-old says he travels 67 miles one way every day from his home in Cherry Tree in Clearfield County to do his job at the mine.
He describes his day, which begins not with walking into the mine, but crawling.
"I get here, what? 4:30 a.m. Make sure everything's running. Then, I go underground and fix what's broken. All over, in the pots, in the slop, in the bad roof, in the good roof." He explains all the vulnerabilities that exist in a mine that require monitoring and daily repairs.
Here, metallurgical coal gets mined. It is used exclusively for the steel production that supports the construction of bridges, roads, highways, homes, factories, distribution centers, churches and other businesses supporting the country's infrastructure and economy.
Fisher explains the core business here is producing and selling metallurgical coal to domestic and international steel and coke (a porous fuel) producers: "It's a good living. I like what I do, or I would not be doing it."
So does Charles, who says he's been in the industry since 1987. "Right out of high school, I followed in the footsteps of my father and grandfather."
"I used to be the maintenance foreman. Now I'm just a truck mechanic," he said of his job to make sure all of the massive dump trucks used to haul the coal out of the hollow are in working order.