In Memory of Mark Haller: Union Brother, Autistic and a Lifeline for Many

Mike Elk

Mark Haller stands with young activists on a march to stop ecologically devastating mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. (John Thompson)

On Sun­day, one of the most kin­dred spir­its I’ve met in my 27 years in the labor move­ment died of a sud­den heart attack. Mark Haller, 54, was a GE loco­mo­tive work­er in Erie, Pa. and a mem­ber of the mil­i­tant Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) Local 506. My father, Gene Elk, was his union representative.

In addi­tion to my dad bail­ing us both out of a lot of trou­ble over the years, Mark and I were UE Broth­ers, proud autis­tics and foul-mouthed yinz­ers” from Pitts­burgh — which meant we got along per­fect­ly. Like me, Mark found that the only way he could per­son­al­ly deal with the voice­less­ness and sense of iso­la­tion caused by his Asperger’s Syn­drome and depres­sion was to stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty with others.

And by stand­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty, I mean Mark was every­where: march­ing along­side fel­low activists at labor actions, snap­ping pho­tographs of them with his ever-present cam­era and, in one instance, lit­er­al­ly haul­ing their excre­ment up and down a moun­tain to help them avoid arrest. 

Help keep this report­ing pos­si­ble by mak­ing a dona­tion today.

No, real­ly. In June of 2011, labor and envi­ron­men­tal activists embarked on a five-day, 50-mile hike on pub­lic roads through West Vir­ginia to save Blair Moun­tain, the site of a 1921 labor bat­tle in which more than 100 strik­ing min­ers were killed, from moun­tain­top removal, an eco­log­i­cal­ly dev­as­tat­ing method of min­ing. The obvi­ous logis­ti­cal issues of address­ing bod­i­ly func­tions on a five-day hike were only fur­ther height­ened by the poten­tial threats of arrest from West Virginia’s police force. But Mark solved the prob­lem by rig­ging up a trail­er to the back of his truck and putting portable toi­lets on it, haul­ing them along the route so that activists could relieve them­selves with­out wind­ing up in the slammer.

As a long­time union mem­ber born in the foothills of the Appalachi­an Moun­tains in West­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, Mark was pas­sion­ate about bridg­ing the ties between the orga­nized labor and envi­ron­men­tal com­mu­ni­ties. In July 2012, Mark, along with 50 oth­er pro­test­ers, marched against the Hobet moun­tain­top removal mine in Boone Coun­ty, W.Va. Though the action report­ed­ly faced fierce resis­tance from union­ized min­ers work­ing at Hobet, what struck Mark the most about the march wasn’t the cli­mate of intim­i­da­tion — he’d expect­ed that, after all. What did sur­prise him were the 16-foot-high Cater­pil­lar dump trucks that stood on top of the mine.

Walk­ing in there, I knew all that shit was mine,” Mark said, refer­ring to the equip­ment used by the min­ers at Hobet. If they were made while I was work­ing at [GE in] Erie, I prob­a­bly had some­thing to do … with every frick­ing one of those coils in those diesel engines. It’s my job on the line as much as [min­ers’].”

Still, despite the fact that Mark real­ized get­ting rid of coal min­ing might ulti­mate­ly endan­ger his own employ­ment, he thought it was impor­tant to stand up against unsus­tain­able and harm­ful fuel sources. 

As much as I hate to admit it, we got­ta get rid of coal [as an ener­gy source], and I know my union broth­ers who are coal min­ers real­ly don’t like hear­ing that,” Mark once told me. Those bas­tards that are doing the min­ing down [in Appalachia] are the per­fect peo­ple to put roads to the tops of moun­tains so we can get some wind­mills up. It could be min­ing the wind instead of the earth.”

Mark was also will­ing to sac­ri­fice him­self phys­i­cal­ly to stop the destruc­tion of the moun­tains he loved so much. When pro­test­ers returned to their camp­site dur­ing the anti-Hobet trip in 2012, they feared being attacked by dis­senters. That night, Mark stood watch so that the oth­er activists could sleep.

We were on edge because ear­li­er a counter-pro­test­er had fired some shots into our camp sign at the end of the road,” wrote activist Louis C. Mar­tin on a memo­r­i­al Face­book page set up in Mark’s hon­or. Around 6 a.m., my imag­i­na­tion start­ed to get the best of me, and I told Mark, I’m a ner­vous wreck, man.’ He said, Go get some sleep, Louis.’ I said, Are you sure, Mark?’ He said, I’ll be fine. If they take some shots at me, I’ve got plen­ty of padding on the front here.’”

Mark wasn’t afraid of vio­lent resis­tance because he wasn’t afraid of him­self. Despite the social cop­ing mech­a­nisms he’d devel­oped that would have allowed him to pass” as neu­ro­log­i­cal­ly typ­i­cal, Mark didn’t want to hide his autism. He want­ed to live open­ly and embrace the eccen­tric­i­ties that made his mind so unique. And in turn, his per­son­al strength gave younger activists the courage to be them­selves and stand up for what they believed in.

I remem­ber last year while we were leav­ing [Hobet Mine], we walked for more than two miles, through a gaunt­let of hell,” remem­bered Dee Frost­but­ter on the memo­r­i­al page. Peo­ple chased us in their trucks, yelling racial, homo­pho­bic and trans­pho­bic slurs. They threat­ened us, threw bot­tles and rocks, shot at us with paint­ball guns and tried to run us off the road with their trucks. Mark saw that I was quick­ly falling apart. He came over and put him­self in between myself and the shit­heads. He talked to me, kept me safe and kept me going. I couldn’t have done it with­out [him].”

But Mark didn’t lim­it his ges­tures of sol­i­dar­i­ty to labor rights or envi­ron­men­tal­ism. Just like the young activists at the Hobet Mine march, Mark tried to keep me safe when I felt like I was falling apart, too. Just last week, a Wall Street Jour­nal writer pub­licly mocked me on Twit­ter by claim­ing that I was hav­ing a men­tal health break­down. As some­one who has had my share of them, I don’t find the sub­ject of emo­tion­al break­downs par­tic­u­lar­ly fun­ny, espe­cial­ly as a way to derail pro­fes­sion­al or polit­i­cal dis­agree­ments. Out of the blue, I got a note from Mark telling me to hang in there. It made a big dif­fer­ence to me, because I knew he under­stood what it felt like to be so vul­ner­a­ble to per­son­al attacks.

Nev­er stop fight­ing for what you believe in,” Mark was fond of telling peo­ple in doubt. It will one day make you great.”

In an email to In These Times, Ari Né’eman, who was appoint­ed in Decem­ber 2010 to the Nation­al Coun­cil on Dis­abil­i­ty as the first open­ly autis­tic White House nom­i­nee, offered the high­est praise of the role Mark played in the autis­tic community.

Mark spoke up for his beliefs and argued for try­ing to make the world a bet­ter place for all those he was con­nect­ed to. You can’t help but respect and admire some­one like that,” said Né’eman. Mark saw the autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty’s strug­gle as part of the larg­er move­ment for social jus­tice — we would live in a bet­ter world if there were more peo­ple like him in it.”

It makes me sad that I could­n’t make it to Mark’s memo­r­i­al in Erie, Pa. on Thurs­day night, as I was attend­ing a Town Hall for group of auto work­ers stuck in a tough union fight at Volk­swa­gen in Chat­tanooga, Tenn. Though I wish very deeply that I could have been there, I’m sure that Mark would have encour­aged me to skip it.

Well Mike, I’m dead. Hey, when you are in the labor move­ment, some­times you got­ta skip your friends’ funer­als,” I can imag­ine Mark telling me with a laugh. Besides, funer­als aren’t near­ly as much fun as union rallies.”

My dad and I will miss him dearly.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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