by Mitch Troutman
Matt K. is in a bind. He has psoriatic arthritis, a chronic disease which requires regular injections that cost $60,000 per year without insurance. “I mean, that’s nothing compared to cancer meds, which can cost millions,” he says. He qualifies for medicaid as long as he is unemployed, but would be on his own if he got a full-time job. The way Matt sees it, the medical system is actively stopping me from being a “productive member of society.” Like the rest of us, his problems are compounded by many others, like student debt.
MJ, an NEPA native, helped launch a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter in the Lehigh Valley during college. It was a really positive experience: “I left before it really picked up, but that starting energy was just so impactful, I wanted to see if I could bring it to NEPA. I also remember leaving after meetings feeling less alone and more important than capitalism makes you feel.” After graduation, MJ moved back to Wilkes-Barre and is doing just that. They announced a local meeting on social media for anyone interested in starting a DSA chapter. One of the people who came was Matt, who has time available and wants to do something meaningful with it.
The two agree that even though people in the coal region have a reputation for being blunt and standing up for themselves, there is still a strong undercurrent of defeat. Set to the background of our culm banks, strippings, and empty storefronts, many simply believe that we can’t have nice things. Young people, instead of trying to make things better, leave for greener pastures. As Matt puts it, “People look at their communities and say, ‘oh our communities aren’t that great’ and think they’re responsible. But we had all this wealth, mineral wealth, and that went away. And now we can’t afford things. Is that our fault? I don’t think so.”
The recent rise is socialist politics is largely the product of the 2008 recession and the so-called “jobless recovery” that followed it, which bailed out the financial sector while leaving the working class in recession-like conditions. The ideas of socialism, though, flourished during the popularity of the 2015-2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. The biggest successes have been in getting socialists elected, including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and two socialists from Western PA in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. But DSA is a “big tent” organization, and local chapters are independent all across the board. With 175 chapters from North Texas to Southeast Alaska, local campaigns take on rent control, labor organizing, municipal internet, car repair clinics, disaster relief, and more. DSA members played a key role in the 2018 West Virginia teachers strike, which ignited similar strikes in four other “red” states. Most recently, DSA chapters have given widespread support to GM and other strikes.
Believe it or not, the coal region actually has a long history of socialist activity. The Knights of Labor, for example, was founded by coal miners in Scranton and was among the first large socialist organizations in the United States.
MJ says, “If you’re only interaction with DSA is through Twitter and the national committee, then you have to get involved with local work. The real work and impact comes from the locals across the country.”
NEPA DSA has some skepticism of electoral politics. They believe the Bernie campaign is hugely positive, lead by very active and motivated people (especially in NEPA), but they want to build an organization that lasts beyond elections. They are much more interested in running direct, local campaigns. MJ sees power especially in combining mutual aid projects with political demands to build a long-term movement. They are interested in medicare for all and fighting a non-rehabilitative prison system (something that carries a special weight in the land of Cash-for-Kids). Still, they welcome other projects as long as people have the capacity to work for it. They are looking for like-minded people to join them. They are in the process of applying to become a DSA chapter.
“We welcome anyone, no matter what your political beliefs. We don’t need to agree on every single thing in order to work together,” says MJ.
Mitch Troutman is an organizer, writer, and educator based in Central PA. He is currently writing a book on the history of bootleg coal mining.
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You can follow NEPA DSA on Twitter (@NEPA_DSA) or send them an email – firstname.lastname@example.org – if you’re interested in getting involved.
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