Workers Vanguard No. 957

23 April 2010


Organize Non-Union Mines!

Industrial Murder in West Virginia

It was a devastating blast, collapsing walls, twisting iron rail tracks like pretzels and, in the words of one of the survivors, engulfing miners as if they were “right in the middle of a tornado.” All told, the lives of 29 miners, ages 20 to 61, were claimed on April 5 at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, the largest death toll in a single U.S. mine disaster in 40 years. This massive explosion, likely caused by a lethal combination of ignited methane gas and coal dust, was outright industrial murder by the Massey Energy coal bosses with the complicity of the state and federal governments. Conditions in the mine were so unsafe that one victim, Carl Acord, who had worked in the mines for 34 years, told his family he was worried about going to work that Monday. Another victim, Josh Napper, whose shift was sent home from work on the Friday before the explosion because of ventilation problems, wrote a goodbye letter to his fiancée, daughter and mother that weekend in the expectation that he wouldn’t live long working in that deathtrap.

For distraught family and friends, grief mixed with revulsion for Massey CEO Don Blankenship. When he and other company officials showed up outside the mine in the early morning hours after the explosion, the crowd hurled invectives—and a chair. Blankenship was sent scurrying into a quick exit under police escort. In a bid to defuse outrage, Governor Joe Manchin later called for all underground mines in West Virginia to halt production on April 16 to “evaluate safety practices.”

What should have happened is a national work stoppage by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in memory of the non-union Upper Big Branch miners and as a statement of the union’s intent to launch an aggressive campaign to organize the unorganized mines across the country. But such a course of action would require some elementary impulse for class struggle, as opposed to the craven appeals of the UMWA bureaucracy to the bosses’ government. Had the UMWA tops unchained the union’s power in any one of a number of strikes against Massey over the past 20 or more years, this disaster might have been prevented.

The deaths of the Upper Big Branch miners are a warning to workers everywhere that the forging of a class-struggle labor movement is a matter of life and death—not just in the mines but in meatpacking, public transport and throughout industry. To the capitalist bosses, the lives of workers are expendable in the service of the bottom line. The only way to establish and enforce safe working conditions is through mobilizing labor’s power. The pro-capitalist union bureaucracy sacrifices the interests, and the very lives, of workers on the altar of class collaboration, hamstringing labor’s power through its reliance on capitalist politicians and government agencies. The union tops’ class collaboration is exemplified by their overwhelming fealty to the Democratic Party of Barack Obama, of which they are an integral part.

No less than the Republicans, the Democrats are a party of and for the capitalist class—the difference being that while Republicans make no bones about oppressing working people, the Democrats do the same while proclaiming themselves “friends of labor.” Whereas George Bush tapped company executives to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Obama appointed Joe Main, a former safety official for the UMWA, to the post. UMWA head Cecil Roberts enthused, “The workers have one of their own running this agency right now.” But what difference did that make to the miners at Upper Big Branch?

The capitalist rulers are waging an unrelenting war on the right of workers, the poor, immigrants and black people to live any kind of decent life. In the face of a global economic recession, itself the product of the irrational capitalist profit system, the capitalists who have looted the economy rake in hundreds of billions in government bailout money while the working class and the poor are driven into deeper deprivation, homelessness and misery. Accepting the capitalist profit system and acting as enforcers of class peace, the labor bureaucracy has overseen the precipitous decline of the UMWA and other unions. Meanwhile, the capitalist rulers are using the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression to further attack the unions—already at their weakest point since the 1920s—and to push through deeper cuts in wages, benefits and pensions.

The fight to mobilize the unions in struggle against the employers must be based on the elementary understanding that the interests of labor and capital are irreconcilably counterposed. Labor must be mobilized independently of the bosses, their parties and their government. The capitalist government, from the local and state to the federal level, is nothing other than the executive committee of the capitalist class as a whole. What is necessary is a political struggle to replace the union misleaders with a leadership dedicated to the political independence of the working class and the fight for a society in which those who labor rule. As we wrote after an earlier mine disaster that killed twelve workers at the Sago mine in West Virginia in 2006 (“West Virginia Mine Disaster: Capitalist Murder,” WV No. 862, 20 January 2006):

“Only when the working class rips the means of production out of the hands of the corrupt, obscenely rich capitalist class and establishes a planned socialist economy can the health and safety of every person be ensured. That requires the forging of a multiracial workers party, leading all the exploited and oppressed in the struggle for socialist revolution.”

No Reliance on the Feds!

West Virginia was once UMWA country. Just 30 years ago, 95 percent of West Virginia miners were unionized, compared to under 25 percent today. It is no mystery why the Appalachian mines today increasingly resemble ticking time bombs. Hard-fought, and often bloody, class battles won union safety committeemen the right to shut down unsafe mines. But workers in non-union mines have no organization to defend them and so risk losing their jobs merely for speaking out against dangerous conditions. Of the 48 mines that the Feds have deemed most dangerous, 44 are non-union. Without aggressive organizing, the union will keep losing ground, leaving more non-union miners at the mercy of the mine owners.

A major factor in the sharp decline of the mining workforce over the past three decades is the expansion of surface strip mining, which is more efficient, cheaper and requires fewer workers than deep underground mining. And as the bosses close down union mines, they open new, non-union operations, often in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and other areas far from Appalachia. Nonetheless, coal miners still have tremendous potential social power. Coal provides half the electricity in the U.S. and is an export. This power, though, is kept in check by the pro-capitalist UMWA leadership. In an April 15 statement lauding “Obama’s demands for improved mine safety,” UMWA head Roberts subordinates the union to the bosses’ government, offering: “The UMWA stands ready to do all we can to assist [Labor] Secretary Solis and Assistant Secretary Main in their effort to keep our miners safe.”

In the aftermath of the Sago, West Virginia, mine disaster four years ago, capitalist Democratic Party politicians pledged to overhaul safety procedures and demand greater accountability from the mine owners. A flurry of “investigations” and Congressional hearings followed, and the Miner Act of 2006 was passed.

Now the Democrats, including Governor Manchin and President Obama, are again wringing their hands over mine safety while preparing another whitewash and cover-up response. The truth of the matter is that government officials knowingly give the coal barons free rein to run the mines as deathtraps. Despite the many documented dangers at Upper Big Branch, federal inspectors just went about business as usual, issuing citations and fines knowing full well that mine operator Performance Coal, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, would continue to flagrantly violate safety standards. The simple truth is that government outfits like MSHA do not exist to protect workers. While occasionally giving the employers a slap on the wrist, they serve to breed faith in the agencies of the ruling class as a substitute for union struggle.

Safety Held Hostage to Profits

Massey Energy, the nation’s fourth-largest coal company, made $104 million profit in 2009, in no small part by eliminating 700 jobs and slashing wages and benefits. At the same time, the company has ramped up production of high-quality metallurgical coal, used for steel production, in its Appalachian mines. Prices for this kind of coal have been climbing, driven by high demand from steelmakers in China and India. With the output at Upper Big Branch tripling in 2009, miners reported working 18-hour shifts, with no recourse for refusal short of leaving the job.

Compounding this dangerous speedup, the coal seams at the mine are naturally “gassy,” with up to 2 million cubic feet of methane released into the mine every 24 hours. Ventilation is essential to prevent the buildup of methane and coal dust. But in the name of nonstop production Massey executives brazenly violated safety rules. The mine racked up more than 1,300 safety violations from government inspectors since 2005, a rate several times the national average. Of 129 federal violations this year, 32 were related to dust, ventilation or combustible materials. In January, the mine was cited for having a ventilation fan that ran in reverse for three weeks, blowing dirty air into a mine tunnel. Accumulation of explosive methane gas was so pronounced that the mine had to be evacuated several times in recent months.

As the man calling the shots at Massey, Blankenship acts every bit like a feudal aristocrat lording it over his serfs, a reflection of the barbaric values of the U.S. ruling class, which drips with the blood of working people and the oppressed everywhere. For years, he has openly campaigned against mine safety regulations, including through court suits, and defied them with impunity. In an internal company memo that became public in 2006, Blankenship instructed mine superintendents to place coal production ahead of safety, complaining, “We seem not to understand that coal pays the bills.”

When miners are killed on the job, as 49 have been at Massey-owned properties since 2000, it is written off as a “statistically insignificant” cost of doing business. Blankenship reportedly had a special phone installed at Upper Big Branch so that he could call managers to protest whenever production slowed. One longtime Massey miner told ABC News (8 April) that working for Massey was “like living under a hammer. It’s all about the bottom line, we all know that.”

Blankenship earned his stripes at Massey as a vicious union-buster. In the case of Upper Big Branch, he flew in by helicopter to personally shower workers with empty promises if they voted out the UMWA when Massey acquired the mine in 1993—and to threaten them with closing it down if they did not. After the first vote ended in a tie, Blankenship brought miners to concerts and handed out gifts to successfully sway the second vote in his favor. Then almost overnight, production was jacked up, shifts were increased to 12 hours and bonuses cut. Over time, the union supporters were driven out of the mine.

To this day, Blankenship has continued his crusade against the UMWA. Last September, he held an anti-union “Friends of America” rally and concert to counter the union-organized Labor Day rally. Literally dressing himself in the red-white-and-blue of racist U.S. imperialism, Blankenship railed against mining safety regulations. That the labor bureaucracy peddles the same flag-waving chauvinism is a prime example of how it subordinates the interests of its membership to those of the capitalist employers.

While Massey and its CEO are particularly vicious, they are not aberrations. The other big U.S. mining companies in Appalachia all have abysmal safety records. By the same token, the coal barons are an important component of the capitalist class as a whole. The bourgeoisie, a tiny minority that owns the mines, factories and other means of production, derives its wealth from the exploitation of labor and is backed by all the institutions of the state. In the aftermath of the explosion at Upper Big Branch, the market and stock analysts remained bullish on Massey, judging the mass death of workers as a small bump in the road to greater profits.

Democrats, Republicans: Class Enemies of Workers

Ever since the disaster, bourgeois liberals and the trade-union misleaders have pointed the finger at the Bush administration for its accommodation of the coal operators. While Bush did his level best to help line the pockets of his corporate cronies, his model for MSHA was the Democratic Clinton White House’s “New OSHA” (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), defined by its “partnership” with business based on “voluntary compliance.” Elected with the support of Illinois coal interests, Obama has to date continued the same collusion with the industry magnates as his predecessor.

Soon after Obama appointed him to head MSHA, Main backed off an initiative announced by the administration in May that would have lowered the legal limit on coal dust levels in underground mines. Federal and state standards for controlling coal dust in underground mines date back nearly a century, and are not adequate to prevent explosions in modern, highly mechanized operations, according to government research that regulators have never acted upon. Exposure to coal dust also is the cause of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, known as black lung disease. One sure sign of the waning power of the UMWA is the resurgence of this slow killer, which has felled more than 10,000 miners in the past decade, increasingly including younger miners.

In its 32-year history, MSHA is not known to have ever shut down an unsafe mine. Under Main, MSHA still allows mines to operate despite hundreds of safety violations and ample warnings of imminent catastrophe—as evidenced by its treatment of the Upper Big Branch mine. On the heels of the disaster, Obama has pledged more inspectors, stronger federal laws and more persistent investigations. These measures are a smokescreen for further sacrificing the health and lives of workers to the corporate bottom line.

For a Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions!

Coal miners were among the first sections of the American working class to organize into unions. Moreover, the UMWA was among the first major unions to be racially integrated, beginning in the late 19th century, with blacks serving as local officers, not just rank-and-file members. Time and again, miners displayed great courage and sacrifice in bloody class battles, such as Matewan and Harlan County. It was the struggle to organize the miners in Harlan County in the 1930s that gave rise to what became the American labor movement’s anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”

Yet time and again, the miners’ combativity came up against the pro-capitalist policies pushed by UMWA leaders. Former UMWA president and current AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka exemplifies this class collaboration. Trumka got his start in the UMWA bureaucracy as a lawyer on the staff of Arnold Miller, who invited the government’s Labor Department to intervene in the union against his bureaucratic rival in a 1972 election. In contrast to much of the left, we told the truth: “Labor Department Wins Mine Workers’ Election” (WV No. 17, March 1973). Our warning was borne out as Miller, in cahoots with the government, sought to stifle union struggle. Government out of the unions!

Miller repeatedly tried to shove sellout contracts down workers’ throats. The 110-day coal strike of 1977-78, in which miners defied a Taft-Hartley back-to-work order issued by Democrat Jimmy Carter, was carried out in defiance of Miller. The UMWA ranks shut down non-union mines while scab coal was dumped on the highways, coal barges were burned on the rivers and railroad bridges on coal spurs were blown up. The strike, joined by 80,000 miners, shut down half of U.S. coal production. But they were ultimately forced back to work by the union misleaders. The hated Miller was forced to resign in 1979. Posturing as a militant, Trumka returned to become head of the UMWA in 1982 after coal miners rebelled against a sellout contract brokered by Miller’s successor.

In 1984, Massey, at the instigation of Blankenship, who then ran the Rawls mine, refused to participate in negotiations for the national coal agreement, insisting that each mine have a separate contract. Trumka broke with the union’s tradition of national strike action, instead calling “selective,” isolated strikes and relying on support from “friend of labor” Democratic politicians. Backed up by the state police and the Reagan administration, Massey pulled out all the stops, hiring a private paramilitary army, including mercenaries fresh from killing workers and peasants abroad in Central America and elsewhere for U.S. imperialism. The company’s strikebreaking arsenal included attack dogs and M-16s, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and an armored locomotive. After 15 bitter months, the UMWA misleaders signed a sellout contract that gave Massey’s mines separate contracts. By 1988, Massey had closed down or sold most of its union mines, usually reopening them as non-union operations. Today, all of Massey’s mines are non-union.

During the 1989-90 Pittston strike, a strategic coal preparation plant was occupied, and 50,000 additional miners walked out in solidarity with the more than 1,500 striking Pittston miners. But Trumka and Cecil Roberts herded them all back to work. Rather than extending the strike or making any effort to stop scab coal, the UMWA tops pushed “civil disobedience” stunts and “Corporate Campaign” lobbying. Trumka again signed a secret sellout deal that allowed Pittston to buy out of the health care fund.

The bankruptcy of the UMWA misleaders is shown by their refusal to mobilize the union in defense of its own militants. When the Feds arrested five Kentucky miners in 1987 in connection with the Massey strike, framing them up on charges stemming from the shooting death of a scab, Trumka refused to allow the union to defend these class-war prisoners. They were convicted and sentenced to 35 to 45 years in prison. While three of the miners were finally released, Donnie Thornsbury, who was UMWA Local 2496 president, remains in prison. Labor must demand: Free Donnie Thornsbury! Nor did the union tops do anything to defend Jerry Dale Lowe, a safety committeeman from Logan County, West Virginia, who was framed up for the shooting death of a scab contractor during a bitter strike and spent eleven years in federal prison. Actively involved in Lowe’s defense was the Partisan Defense Committee, a class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization associated with the Spartacist League.

The profit-hungry capitalists exhibit a depraved indifference to the lives of those they exploit. Across the country, an estimated 177 workers on average die every day from work-related causes—13 of those as a result of workplace accidents, the equivalent of an Upper Big Branch disaster every two days—and many more are injured. Only when the working class rips industry from the hands of the capitalists and establishes a planned socialist economy will safety govern working conditions. This task, in turn, requires forging a revolutionary workers party that will unite the struggle of the multiracial working class with the cause of the downtrodden masses in the ghettos and barrios and of those oppressed by U.S. imperialism. Remember the Upper Big Branch miners! Organize the unorganized!