by Bill Onasch / February 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper
Nearly 48 hours after a conveyor fire broke out at Alma No. 1 Mine in Melville, West Virginia, rescuers recovered the bodies of two missing miners. These victims brought the total of American coal miners killed on the job during the first three weeks of January to 15. This figure exactly equaled the number of GIs killed in Iraq over the same time span.
While conditions in underground mines can never be controlled as well as those in a factory or office, there is no acceptable reason for this level of workplace carnage. As Anne Feeney’s song says, “We just come to work here—we don’t come to die!” Many have said that these men were killed as a result of corporate greed. Certainly the avaricious appetite of the mine operators has been whetted by the recent spike in coal prices. Coal moves in lock step with gas and oil and has benefited from the disruptions in the supply of those other fossil fuels by the Iraq war and damage from Katrina.
Increased demand from the steel industry has also contributed to the more than doubling of coal prices over the past year or so. That’s been a great incentive for the coal bosses to speed up production, cutting corners in the process. They are also digging deeper and returning to older mines once furloughed because they were unprofitable when prices were lower. Certainly, this drive heightens risks for those who dig the coal.
The Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 at the Sago mine in West Virginia could have been contained in the abandoned part of the mine where it occurred had traditional concrete barriers been in place. Instead, the operator, pinching pennies, had used a foam barrier—which failed, allowing the deadly contamination to spread.
About a week after the Sago disaster, Cornelius Yates, 44, was killed at the Maverick Mine in Pikeville, Kentucky, when a section of roof, measuring approximately 20 feet wide, 4 1/2 feet thick and 10 feet long, fell on him. Like many small mines in that part of Kentucky, the operator tried to get by without the expense of reinforcing cracking roofs.
The Alma No. 1 Mine used its conveyor belt to draw fresh air to the working face below. That’s a cheap solution but when a fire breaks out on a belt–as happened at Alma No. 1—the belt tunnel can carry flames and deadly gases directly to the miners’ work area, or to vital evacuation routes.
But greed alone doesn’t explain the upsurge in accidents. Greed is a constant factor in every
capitalist enterprise but is often confined by restraints that the workers have put in place through struggle over the years. Historically, coal miners have relied on their union and government regulation for safety and health protection. But both institutions have been seriously undermined by the bosses and their politicians. When those constraints are weakened, runaway corporate greed turns deadly. It’s worth reviewing some of the history of the industry, the union, and the government institutions they deal with.
Steam was the engine of the Industrial Revolution and coal was its fuel. To ensure supplies at a predictable cost, the railroads and steel mills had their own “captive” mines to keep the locomotives and coke ovens running. Other operators supplied bituminous coal for other industrial customers and to electric utilities. Ultimately, most of these formed the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA), which negotiated a master agreement with the union. Anthracite mines produced coal for residential and commercial heating. Prior to World War II, it was a labor-intensive industry, employing hundreds of thousands, with only incremental changes in technology.
After the war there were drastic changes both in the coal market and in mining technology. By the end of the 1950s, diesel-electric traction virtually eliminated the coal-burning steam engines on America’s railroads. Residential heating was almost totally converted to gas or oil, knocking anthracite mining for a loop.
Technology hit the coal work force with a vengeance as huge equipment was developed for strip mining, and long-wall and high-wall shearing by giant machines decimated jobs under ground. Later came mountaintop removal, devastating to the environment and dangerous
to nearby communities.
With the adoption of the Clean Air Act, the demand by electric utilities for low sulphur coal (coal fired plants produce half of U.S. electricity) attracted capital away from Appalachia to the strip-mine paradise: Powder River Basin in Montana/Wyoming. Steel and rail companies spun off their coal-mining operations, and there were other big shifts in mine ownership, ultimately leading to the breakup of the BCOA.
United Mine Workers of America
Miners have fought for relief from harsh and dangerous conditions since the first mines were opened. The Molly McGuires were one such early struggle popularized in film.
Several localized currents came together to form the UMWA in 1890. At a time when most craft unions excluded Blacks from membership, the miners had Black delegates at their first convention and African Americans made up about 20 percent of the membership in 1900.
A prominent early leader was Richard L. Davis, a Black socialist who counseled his brothers, “I would advise that we organize against corporate greed, organize against the fellow who through trickery and corrupt legislation, seeks to live and grow fat from the sweat and blood of his fellow man. It is these human parasites that we should strive to exterminate, not by blood or bullets, but by the ballot…”
But bullets were all too common as the union had to battle company thugs, police, and state militias during organizing and collective bargaining campaigns. Nineteen Pennsylvania miners were killed, and 50 wounded by sheriff’s deputies in the 1897 Lattimer Massacre. Wives and children were among the 20 killed in the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, when a private security force directed a coordinated attack with the Colorado state militia, machine gunning and burning a strikers’ camp.
The chief architect of the bloodshed in Colorado also unleashed a 1920 reign of terror against miners in Matewan, West Virginia, (also the subject of an excellent movie) but was himself killed by the town chief of police while trying to illegally evict miners from their homes. History shows the mine operators have never shrunk from killing their workers to protect their profits.
But these murderous attacks failed to break the spirit of the miners. Joe Hill’s admonition, “Don’t mourn—organize!” was picked up and popularized by Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. This remarkable woman became a full-time advocate for worker causes at an age when most retire. Though also a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and an activist in the Socialist Party, she is perhaps best remembered for the work she did with the UMWA.
She helped bring the truth about the miners’ struggles to the broader working-class public. For example, she exposed the shameful practice of child labor in the mines with the 1903 “Children’s Crusade”—a march from a working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia to Oyster
Bay, N.Y., the home of President Theodore Roosevelt.
When she died in 1930 at the age of 93, she was buried at the Union Miners Cemetery in Illinois, next to victims of the Virden, Ill., mine riot of 1898. Her funeral was attended by thousands of mine workers. But the miners didn’t mourn the passing of Mother Jones—they kept organizing, bringing most mines in the Eastern United States under union contracts. More than that, the UMWA was the principal driving force in the launching of the CIO, leading to the greatest labor upsurge in our history.
The UMWA won decent wages for their members and went on to establish health-care networks in the rural areas where most mines are located. They came to enjoy good pensions and vacation time. But workplace safety and health issues remained an ongoing challenge. There were still occasional major accidents underground; there was also the deadly occupational disease that became known as Black Lung.
As they say in the union’s official history, “Because of the dust created in coal mines, the UMWA was forced to become expert in occupational lung diseases such as silicosis and pneumoconiosis.
In 1969, the UMWA convinced Congress to enact the landmark Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. That law changed a number of mining practices to protect miners’ safety and provided compensation for miners suffering from black lung disease. Perhaps most important, it was the first time that Congress mandated the elimination of a man-made occupational
disease. Despite reductions in coal-mine dust concentrations, after 25 years this mandate still has not been fulfilled—coal miners still suffer from black lung.”
In 1977, the union won another major victory with the 1977 Mine Safety and Health Act, which for the first time established enforceable regulations and put substantial numbers of inspectors into the field—similar to what OSHA did for general industry. But the structural changes in the industry have steadily weakened the union in numbers and bargaining
power. Between automation, bankruptcies, ownership changes, and some major lost strikes, the UMWA today has only about 15 percent of the membership level it had at the end of World War II; only about seven percent of mine industry workers are under a union contract.
The three mines where the January disasters took place are all nonunion.
MSHA, like its emaciated cousin OSHA, has taken a real beating at the hands of the present administration. Since Bush took office 170 staff positions at the agency have been eliminated. The 2006 budget slashed MSHA funds by another$5 million.
Worse yet, mine rescue teams have been cut in numbers and scattered geographically. One of the teams eliminated was at the MSHA office in Morgantown, W.V., just a few miles from the Sago mine—where it took 12 hours for the first team to arrive.
The Bush MSHA not only deep-sixed proposed new improved regulations pending when they took over; they also reversed some long-standing ones. Most important was dumping a 36-year-old rule that there must be separate ventilation and conveyor tunnels in underground mines. As we have already noted, the conveyor belt fire at Alma No. 1 spread deadly smoke
and gas precisely because it doubled as a ventilation source.
Current acting MSHA director David Dye was asked to testify before a Senate hearing about mine safety. After reading a prepared statement, and before any questions could be asked, he abruptly arose, announced he had business elsewhere, and left. An assistant explained he had to check on a mine fire. It turned out the fire was in an abandoned mine, had been
burning for two months, and the strategy was to let it burn itself out.
Bush has nominated a new permanent director, Richard Stickler, a former coal boss. UMWA president Cecil Roberts said, “America’s coal miners don’t need a coal company executive in charge at MSHA. We need a person who understands safety from the miner ’s point of view, and is committed to making the health and safety of the miner the agency’s first priority once again.” The union has, at least so far, won a victory of sorts in the investigation of the Sago disaster. Several families of the victims asked the union to be their representative in the investigation and hearings—something they are entitled to do under the law even though the union isn’t certified to bargain for the miners. At first, company guards physically blocked the union representatives entrance. Later, a judge ruled they must be admitted and they are
participating in the investigation while the company appeals.
What can be done?
Coal is dirty and needs to be replaced ultimately with alternative fuels. But that’s not going to happen as long as we have a market-driven economy. In the meantime, there are steps that can be taken to prevent the kind of disasters we saw in January.
1) Enough rescue teams standing by to be on the scene of an accident within an hour’s time.
2) Equip miners with more substantial breathing devices. Currently they have only an hour supply.
3) Electronic locating and text-messaging devices, in use in about 40 American mines today and in every Australian mine, to supplement hard-wired communication that is often knocked out in accidents.
Of course, prevention is always preferable to response. Not only are strong regulations needed—they must be enforced.
Union mines are safer mines. In the past the miners generously helped others to organize. Today we need to build solidarity to help them organize the death-trap nonunion mines.
We can’t count on government regulators when the employers’ twin parties appoint coal bosses to police coal bosses. This is another strong argument for building a party of our own to take power to defend our interests. It’s no accident that the United Mine Workers is an early and ardent affiliate of the Labor Party.
No blood for coal!