Blasted in a West Virginia Mine

When hundreds of miners are trapped in pitch black waters 5 kilometers below the surface in China — the U.S. media has a tsk-tsk tone that suggests how little human life is valued “in the Orient,” and that (subliminally) reminds the viewers that this cheapness of life and labor in China has sucked the manufacturing out of the United States.

And it is said (over and over) that “if only” the Chinese had regulation and inspection (read: like the U.S.) then this would be averted.

Then comes the devastating mine blast at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia. At least 25 dead. An ignition of methane gas and coal dust sent a shockwave sweeping through the tunnels with a force that wrenched railroad rails from the ground and left them twisted in its wake. Mere human beings were simply incinerated or shattered. And then the tunnels were left silent and dark, filled with smoke and the deadly carbon monoxide that follows explosions like this. After the counting was done, four men were still missing. And outside, the families of the grieving and those worried sick.

Few human activities are as regulated as mining in the U.S. The books of law and procedure are massive. After many thousands of deaths and injuries, after waves of technological invention — it is well known how to avoid disaster. The methane, even in a gassy mine, can be blown out of the workings by directed air flow. Sparks can be denied explosive materials. Coal dust can be sprinkled with water (as it flies in the air), and removed (when it falls to the ground).

And yet, there it is: at least 25 dead in a deadly and horrifying blast.

Theater and Lies

Once again the officials will call for new regulations. Governors, senators, and mine officials will step before the cameras with solemn faces and embrace the newly-made widows. Some laws will pass. Miners will be required to attend lectures. And so on, and so on… The system will display concern and paper reform.

I watched Homer Hickam, Jr., author of Rocket Boys, appear on CNN as a mining expert, and heard him explain to the world that “every miner has the power to shut down the mine, at any time, without fear for his job.” Sure they do, you liar and fool.

The simple fact is that Massey’s Upper Big Branch (like in the flooded Wangjialing coal mine) is governed by capitalism. And the rules and laws will be ignored over and over again. Those who report violations will be targeted and often fired. (I’ve been there personally, including for refusing to keep silent about an unreported gas explosion that licked us with flames.)

The routine of everyday life will (loosely, loosely) conform to a minimum of safety — but it will always break down under pressure of production.

The simple rule of capitalism is that, ultimately, human social production is privately owned. Society is shattered into competing centers of profit. And that competition (especially in raw material like coal) is not about packaging, or advertising, or unique features but cheapness and efficiency of production. The drive for production is refracted through a thousand decisions at a dozen levels — from the board rooms to the working mine face. And the daily result is crippled workers, exhausted bodies, diseased lungs and then in shocking moments that long line of blackened bodies lifted from below, passing by their heart-sick and angry families.

And that story — of capitalism’s role in this — will simply be suppressed or denied, as the media (once again) focuses on the religious faith of mining communities (made quaint urbane TV anchors) and the practiced outrage of indifferent officials (who are wholly owned by energy monopolies).

Here is an example of media suppression:

I have (as you can imagine) watch the coverage of Upper Big Branch. I was heartened as over a hundred miners were lifted half-dead from Wangjialing. I watched endless discussion of Massey’s safety violations.

But if you had sat alongside me following those news report, you would not have known what every single miner in southern West Virginia knows:

Massey was the national flagship of union breaking.

Until the 1980s, southern West Virginia was the heartland of the United Mine Workers. It was unthinkable that a non-union mine could operate there (as they did in the fringes of the coalfields, in Harlan county Kentucky or in the far West). But as the combination of government, police, strip mining and exhaustion broke the miners’ movement of the 1970, Massey dared to open a mining complex in Raleigh County, in the heart of the UMWA’s stronghold.

When I passed through there (as a journalist in the 1980s) I literally could not believe that just outside of Beckley there was a massive non-union operation. There were waves of strikes there over this outrage. I visited the pickets who kept vigil at those Massey mine entrances. I heard how Massey was hiring as other mines closed, and how they (craftily, craftily) paid some above union scale…. And I saw the worry and anger in the eyes of union men and women who understood too clearly what it would mean, for their region, for themselves, for the future dead, if this was allowed, and if their generations of struggle were reversed.

There are (of course) also disasters in union mines. There were three dead carried out of the Keystone mine where I worked in the 1970s. There are violations daily, and dangers constantly. But it has to be said that the rise of non-union conditions is part of the transformations that have touched everyone — and worsened conditions generally.

But more to the point: Look at the news coverage. Think about what it took to avoid reporting this simple history of Massey’s militant anti-unionism. Think of how many people told each news reporter that Massey was hated as a spearhead of de-unionization. Think of how decisions had to be made in the news organizations NOT to feature that fact, or draw the simple conclusions.

The news media repeatedly described how working people in this area have nowhere else to go but underground — but who describes how that captivity has been reinforced and exploited (for generations!) by those ice-cold masters of finance?

Conditions in the mines are caused by capitalism.

Even the de-unionization is tied to that famous free mobility of capital (that freedom which shifts investment from militant costly underground mines and into the “problem free” obscenity of strip mines).

Capitalism is at fault in China and it is at fault Upper Big Branch.

And more horrors and disasters of capitalism are happening a stone’s throw from wherever you sit, reading these words. And where you sit, wherever that is, there are blinding truths and profound interconnections that are actively suppressed and denied — all so that the profitable death and routine discarding of human beings seems normal and permanent.

When working people are trapped and killed underground, I often cannot sleep. I often can’t even find my way to this keyboard until the initial emotions have quieted, and those first tears are dried.

But I want to say something simple and perhaps obvious (in the wake of Upper Big Branch and Wangjialing — and in the wake of drone murders in Afghanistan, and police murders on countless streets of America):

We must raise our voices more forcefully and skillfully to expose the workings and nature of this capitalist system, we must find the ways (together!) to break through the cunning white noise of the media machinery, and to honor our dead while defiantly indicting their killers.

MIKE ELY is participant of the Kasama Project who was an activist in the miners wildcat strike movements of the 1970s. Mike has written repeatedly on miners and radical politics — and those essays were recently gathered here