Pity the Miner


Where it’s dark as a dungeon damp as the dew
danger is double pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls the sun never shines
It’s a dark as a dungeon way down in the mine

–Merle Travis

Dark and deadly. That’s the life of a coal miner. The recent deaths of eleven miners in Tallmansville, West Virginia confirms this fact once again. Even in the best of mines where the fresh air is pumped in at a better than is required by law minimum and where the gases associated with the work are quickly pumped to the surface, it is a deadly job. Back in 1974 and 1975 I spent a little time with a DC area leftist group trying to organize among the miners in West Virginia who were than engaged in a series of wildcat strikes against various mine operators attempting to push the miners even harder than normal. Not only were the strikes against this company, they were also against the wishes of the national office of the United Mine Workers (UMW). The UMW had undergone a transformation earlier in the decade, finally getting rid of the corrupt labor boss Tony Boyle and electing a slate of reformists whose primary directives were to insists that all future contracts would include:

1) the local right to strike,

2) the separation of income from productivity,

3) miner-enforced safety regulations, and

4) district autonomy.

By the time of the 1974 contract however, the national seemed to have forgotten these. The aforementioned wildcats were in response to the national’s attempts to “modernize” relations between the union and the mine operators. What this meant in practical terms was that miners would lose their right to strike over local issues–an important right given the varying levels of safety and other labor practices at different mines; instead of keeping the right of a group of miners to walk off the job until the situation was fixed if they felt a mine shaft was unsafe the new contract would require the miners to continue working while the safety issues were being arbitrated. Indeed, one local was fined $30,000 dollars for striking over a safety issue at a mine in southern West Virginia. Furthermore, the rights of the workers’ Health and Safety Committees were curtailed. In fact, they could no longer make unannounced inspections of mines, having to arrange a visit with management instead. this, of course, allowed management to clean up its act before the union local inspectors arrived. The power of management to fire sick workers was expanded. This led to an increase in unreported illnesses and injuries, which in turn increased the danger levels for the other miners. Salary structures were tiered according to seniority. This practice, which is more or less standard in most industry contracts today where unions still exist essentially pits older workers against younger ones and, in the process, can prevent them from unifying against management when such unity is needed. These were but a few of the problems the more militant miners had with the contract negotiated by the national office. To add insult to injury, it was the militant miners operating under the name Miners for Democracy that had elected these officers. Now, those same officers were telling them that this new contract was the best ever in the history of the UMW. By the middle of 1975, more than 80,000 miners had participated in wildcats to show their disagreement with that appraisal.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to West Virginia, but it’s a hard place. Like the song says, it could easily be “almost heaven.” Almost, except for the open pits where huge machines extract coal and empty the associated waste into the creeks and rivers downstream. Almost heaven except for the sales tax on everything–a tax that is regressive in every aspect, hitting the poor (of which there are many) every time they take out their wallet or use their food stamps. Almost heaven, except for the pitiful wages paid by the casinos that seem to crop up wherever the US has a high percentage of poor people who need work. Almost heaven, except for the approximately 19% poverty rate (US Census Press Release 8/26/2004). Almost heaven except for the removal of mountaintops by mining operations so that they can remove coal without as many workers as traditional mining requires.

None of this would be the case if the energy corporations didn’t own the state. It is also unlikely that those miners would be dead Indeed, if the labor unions had done the job that the wildcatters wanted them to do back in 1974, chances are that this mine would not have been open January 2nd, 2006 because of its safety record. According to US Labor Department statistics, the mine was cited for a total of 208 federal safety violations last year, up from 68 in 2004. Even the UMW was led to say that the fines imposed on mineowners are so small that it is more profitable for them to ignore the federal warnings and citations than spend the money required to fix the violations. The ownership group, International Coal Group Inc., told the media that it was working on safety improvements, but that it had only acquired the mine last year. In fact, International Coal Group has owned the Tallmansville mine since it bought the Anker Coal Group Inc. in an all-stock transition valued $173.25 million plus assumption of $25 million in debt, according to an ICG press release on April 1, 2005. International Coal Group is itself owned by multi billionaire investor Wibur Ross, who is known in the world of investments as a “vulture investor.” According to a Business Week profile from December 22, 2003, vulture investing is “a corner of the finance world dominated by big personalities who rise to prominence in times like these, the bust after a boom.” Those involved in this type of investing are not usually interested in long term involvement in their investments preferring instead to get improved returns and a fast exit by reselling the “distressed” companies at a profit. The improvements usually involve some form of restructuring of the purchased companies: new management, cutting corners so that profits will increase, or new sales strategies are the favored “improvements.” After these so-called improvements are made, vulture investors then sell their investments for a profit, usually to even larger companies. As the Business Week article puts it, “ultimately he (Ross) makes money from others’ misfortune.”

One has to wonder if the failure to address the safety problems at his company’s Tallmansville mine will be chalked up as one more example of this practice. There are twelve families now dealing with their misfortune. Will Mr. Ross address that?

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net


Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com