After a methane fireball killed 29 deep miners three years ago in Montcoal, W, Va., one thought kept coming back to me: What if the workers had owned that mine?
In fact, the Upper Big Branch mine was owned by Massey Energy, a company with a notoriously poor safety record. We have since learned that Massey's criminal negligence was responsible for the miners' deaths.
In the same year the miners died, Massey CEO Don Blankenship walked away from the company with $17.8 million and a compensation package close to $30 million. If the miners themselves had owned Upper Big Branch, would they have broken safety laws and put profits over their own safety?
The question is absurd, or course, but it set me searching for any Appalachian coal mine that might be worker-owned.
The closest thing I found was Himlerville, a company town in Martin County where, from 1917 to 1927, the miners were the only stockholders and they shared equally all profits, bonuses and stock dividends. The railroads drove Himlerville out of business and the town was renamed Happy, a grim irony given the Herald-Leader's recent reporting on the relentless poverty of Martin County.
Eventually, however, my research led to Cleveland, where I found an economic model that, I believe, would have saved the West Virginia miners and could go a long way toward reclaiming the foundering economy of Eastern Kentucky.
Five years ago, the CEOs of Cleveland Clinic, the Cleveland Foundation and some surrounding universities and hospitals decided they had to do something about the shuttered businesses and derelict neighborhoods that surrounded them. These "anchor institutions"— they weren't going anywhere and they had resources — realized they spent $3.5 billion on goods and services from outside the city. Why not try to redirect some of that purchasing power to create an economy that would employ men and women from the surrounding neighborhoods?
If only 10 percent of that $3.5 billion was redirected locally, it would inject $350 million into an area facing 25 percent unemployment, they reasoned.
So the anchor institutions helped create the Evergreen Cooperative, a collective of businesses that provides goods and services in three basic sectors: food, waste and energy. Today the Evergreen Cooperative runs, among other things, an energy-efficient laundry company, a company that grows hydroponic salad greens and a company that installs solar panels and LED lighting throughout downtown Cleveland.
After the Big Branch disaster, I drove to Cleveland and spoke with Evergreen Energy Solutions' CEO Steve Kiel who explained the concept. The company operates on a one worker-one vote management model. Kiel himself can never make more than five times the salary of the company's lowest earner. Workers buy into the company through a payroll deduction of 50 cents an hour. In three years, that adds up to $3,000, an ownership stake that will be worth $65,000 in another six years.
One of Energy Solutions' crew leaders, Mike McKenzie, told me, "You feel like it's part of your own, so you take it more seriously. People work better together because of the common goal. You share in the profits and you have some say in the direction of the company."
Such a model of worker-owned businesses provides an elegant solution to the heartless practices that have always ruled the coal industry. It also provides a model for moving forward, a way to, for once, put wealth in the right hands — the hands of those who earned it.
Kiel told me: "If you can collectively and cooperatively enter into an industry that is run for profit but practices some morals in that — community-based morals — you don't have to take everything and put it in the pocket of the one percent."
Eastern Kentucky and the east side of Cleveland have a lot in common: they each have too many people living in poverty, high unemployment, and plenty of anchor institutions like hospitals, colleges, government centers, even prisons that could benefit from local goods and services.
If Eastern Kentucky followed Cleveland's strategy of emphasizing food, energy and waste, the region would not only create a great many sustainable jobs.
In the long shadow of climate change, it would also cut supply lines and therefore reduce consumption of fossil fuels. More importantly, it would begin to put in place a post-coal energy economy that would replace lost mining jobs with work in energy efficiency, alternative energy and reforestation.
Such jobs would emerge almost immediately if the Kentucky legislature passed what Ohio already has — a protocol that mandates 60 megawatts of energy a year is generated from non-fossil fuel sources.
For 100 years, the coal industry has kept Eastern Kentucky poor and had kept the Don Blankenships of the world rich. Gradually, we have come to think of this as simply the inevitable course of events.
But there's nothing inevitable about the course of history, and anyway, as Wendell Berry has written, the world "inevitable" is for cowards.
It is time that we start to think much more radically. Expanding highways and high-speed internet isn't going to cut it. It is time that we put wealth where it belongs: in the hands of the workers.