ON A SOMBER TUESDAY MORNING IN MID-APRIL, pews were filled in the tiny chapel of Pax Advent Christian Church. Behind the sobbing women, men wearing jeans and pressed shirts stood together, the nails of their calloused hands scrubbed clean of black dust. With red buds blooming outside, the pastor spoke of hope for a future not here on Earth, but in the afterlife through salvation in Jesus Christ.
Rex Mullins was one of 29 men killed in the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. He was 50 years old when the congregation at Advent Christian came together for his funeral. For three weeks last month, similar scenes played out again and again in the narrow hollows of southern West Virginia, as communities gathered to return the bodies of these men to the same coal-rich dirt that had claimed their lives.
The village of Pax sits along Paint Creek, in a lush green stretch of West Virginia once dotted with company-owned coal camps scarred by violent union wars in the first part of the 20th Century. During the 1912-1913 strike, at least 50 men were killed and others starved in what was largely a battle for company acceptance of organized labor and an acknowledgement of workers’ constitutional guarantees of free speech and peaceable assembly.
Today, these communities seem less angry and more defeated, and a far cry from the days when miners went to war to shut down mines. “Death is part of life here,” said Joe Barnett, a retired miner from Clear Creek, who attended the funeral. “It’s part of the coal-mining way of life.”
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST—Following the tragedy, Rush Limbaugh demanded to know why the United Mine Workers of America wasn’t there looking after the miners. Upper Big Branch, just as virtually all Massey Energy mines, was non-union. UMWA had tried to organize there three times, but each time, Massey threatened to shut down the mines. Limbaugh’s exploitation of the tragedy to attack organized labor was a bit late in coming. Massey Energy and its CEO Don Blankenship had pioneered a far more successful attack against the United Mine Workers 30 years earlier.
In organized labor’s heyday in the fifties and sixties, 90 percent of all coal miners belonged to UMWA. Today, the union estimates that its membership hovers around 25 percent. It used to be that the only non-union mines were the “punch holes,” little independent operations too tiny to bother organizing. Everybody else belonged to what was once one of the most powerful unions in the country. Then Ronald Reagan sent a message to big business in 1981, when he fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.
Coal companies paid heed. In 1984, Massey, led by a young Don Blankenship, refused to acknowledge the Bituminous Coal Operators Association agreement—a working arrangement between coal companies and union workers that had set the standard for wages and benefits throughout the industry since the Depression. Massey insisted that the union bargain individually with Massey’s 14 different subsidiaries, arguing that they were independent companies.
A vicious two-year strike ensued at Massey mines in West Virginia’s Logan County. In the 1986 documentary of the strike, The Mine War on Blackberry Creek, Blankenship makes clear that his motivation to drive out the union is simply survival of the fittest. “Unions and communities are going to have to learn that from a business viewpoint, capitalism is survival of the most productive,” he said.
After that, the number of union mines dropped precipitously. By 1994, the number of union coal miners had dropped to 43 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Today, it’s only about 25 percent. The underground labyrinths have turned out to be a company’s best defense at keeping out unions. If workers unionize, the company closes, a new subcontractor punches into the mine through a different hole, operations resume and the union has to start over again.
Barnett, a former president of Local 1460, said, “a great gulf existed” once between the union and non-union workers. “But somewhere along the way, people started to realize that the non-union people were just trying to feed their families. They’re scared to organize and sign union cards. They’re scared they’ll get fired.”
The Upper Big Branch Mine is operated by Performance Coal Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Massey Energy. That it had numerous safety violations is well known. In the past 15 months all or parts of Upper Big Branch were ordered closed 61 times. The investigation into the explosion is not yet completed, and officials say it could be months before they know what caused the worst American coal mining disaster since 1970. But President Obama, in an April 15 speech, did not mince words about who bears the burden of responsibility for the deaths of the miners: “…There’s still a lot that we don’t know. But we do know that this tragedy was triggered by a failure at the Upper Big Branch mine—a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue.”
TRADITION OF SACRIFICE—At the funeral, the pastor at the tiny church and a coal miner himself eulogized Mullins, calling him a good provider and hero to his children. A recording of a BlackWater Outlaws song played during the service: Like his daddy and his daddy before him / He’s doing all he’s ever known, He came back from the service / Got a hat and a light and went straight underground.
Phil Smith, a UMWA spokesman, says the media has helped perpetuate this narrative of the coal miner willing to lay down his life for his family. But he said that with today’s technology, mining doesn’t have to be deadly.
Of the 284 miners killed in the United States since 2002, only 30 of them were at union mines, according to UMWA figures, based on information compiled by the Energy Information Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Or, to look at it another way, even though about 25 percent of coal miners belong to the UMWA, only 11 percent of the fatalities occurred at union mines.
Union mines have a safety inspector on every shift, who is authorized to conduct safety inspections as state and federal inspectors do. If the inspector finds a serious safety violation, he can direct the miners to withdraw from the mine. In non-union mines, workers do not have a right of safety withdrawal and can be fired for calling in safety inspectors.
More stringent regulations for non-union mines are important, but they alone won’t improve conditions, Smith said: “Safe mines depend on four elements: strong laws; a company willing to follow those laws; a government willing to enforce those laws; and a workforce willing and able to stand up and say ‘I’m not going to work here if it’s not safe.'”
With national unemployment hovering around 10 percent, southern West Virginia has been drawing people from around the country looking for work and attracted by the $60,000 to $70,000 annual salary that miners earn. Non-union miners make more in cash than union laborers. But they work longer hours and receive fewer health and pension benefits, seniority rights and vacations, and have less job security. And they live with safety standards that put their lives at risk.
But as the recession drags on, West Virginia remains an employers’ market. In a non-union mine, Barnett said, “if you don’t want to work, someone else will.”
Lauri Lebo is the author of the Devil in Dover.