Sunday, January 22, 2006

Working for the Enemy

Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield toiled in dangerous conditions to provide food, clothing, shelter and Christmas toys for their children. Unfortunately, their employer was their enemy. Their employer placed profit above the safety coal miners and the miners died as a result.

The two miners died in the Alma mine in West Virginia. This tragedy follows on the heels of 12 other miners deaths in West Virginia who died in an explosion.

Class Conflict

The governor of the state is busy making proclamations that mine safety will become a priority - starting now. Politicians and owners always make such proclamations after workers deaths. What else are they going to do? Part of the problem is defined in the question; Why do miners work in such dangerous conditiuons in the first place? Mines are inherently dangerous, yes. But there is no need for deaths in coal mines. Death is preventable.

The problem is essentially this. The more owners have to pay attention to health and safety for employees, the less profit they make. It is in the interests of owners to ignore safety. A safe mine requires inspections, equipment that is working properly, and a particular kind of culture. That culture is a culture of safety and that includes the safety to report dangers with no fear of reprisals. A culture where managers actually want workers to report safety problems.

Unfortunately, the culture of profit has an inherent fear of bosses built in. If managers cut the most coal with the fewest stoppages for maintenance and safety problems, they will be slapped on the back by their bosses and congratulated. On the other hand, if a manager is always complaining about cutting coal too fast or overheated bearings or bad roof conditions, he will not be a manager for long.

Evidence of this is apparent in an interview with an anonymous miner in the New York Times (Ian Urbina, Jan.22) who asked for anonymity out of fear of reprisals from his employer. He said that he had put out a fire in the same place on December 23rd and reported it to his boss who ignored it. This is the crux of the matter. The miner lives in fear. Not only the fear of being killed in the mine, but he lives with the fear of losing his livlihood. Not only miners know this oppression but many other workers that face danger at work can understand exactly the plight of this double and conflicting fear. If they say anything about what they can see that might kill them, they will be out of work. If they lose their jobs, not only do their wives and kids face destitution, they also face the stigma and the direct pain of poverty.

In the very narrow frame of reference within American economics and politics, there are no choices. From that perspctive it is the profiteer that is God and the provider of wages and security. It is the same force that is forcing you to risk your life for bread that has created the job in the first place. Either you work for the owner or you take your chances at Wal Mart or on welfare.

The mine owners have state and federal politicians on their side. The politicians will not impose legislation that will affect profits because politicians and profit makers are working in their own best interests. The only way the miners get anything out of it is that they are granted the privelige of risking their lives to make profit for the owners who bribe politicians and often know them personally.

The governor said that he will impose legislation on Monday to improve mine safety. But as Democrat Nick Rahall (another local politician) suggested, "...every coal mine health and safety law on the books is written with the blood of miners". This again reflects the reality that no safety or regulations are put in place without force. Any safety measures or regulations run against the tide of neo liberal, free wheeling, unbridled, capitalism. Anything goes; the bosses are feudal lords. For the governor to remin a good governor in the eyes of his lords, he will shuffle this off until the heat dies and let it go. Either that or he will get a bill through that has no teeth.

The Enemy

The mine is owned by the Massey Energy Company, a rabid privateer with a strong anti union bent. The mine is actually operated by Aracoma Coal which is owned by Massey. It is part of Massey's operating strategy to use subsidiaries to avoid the extra expenses (wages, safety rules, etc.) that a union would force upon them.
Massey Energy fought hard against unions in the past and has shut down mines to then re open them under the name of a subsidiary. Massey energy is well connected, not only to local and state politicians but to the Bush administration as well. It is no surprise that there have been cutbacks to federal safety mechanisms such as mine inspectors under Bush's reign. As losely regulated as it is, the Alma mine still manageed to receive over 100 warnings from the federal mine and safety body (MSHA) in the past year.

West Virginia tragedies are not isolated incidents. Miners have gone for too long down into mines they knew would kill them and yet, to feed their families, did it anway. In coal mines and many other workplaces, workers face living with dangerous conditions and keeping quiet about it or face loss of wages. This double layered oppression is unacceptable and cruel. Miners should not have to live in constant fear and neither should any other worker. They often find themselves in an enviornment where speaking up would mean not only the risk of being fired but also of social ostracization as a trouble maker or rabble rouser.

Today and tomorrow miners will continue to travel down into the bowels of the earth, fishermen will go out to sea on poorly equipped ships, and workers will force themselves into plants run by petty tyrants. They are torn between their very rational fear of being killed and the smiles on their wives faces trudging home with Christmas presents for the kids. They are torn between the social acceptance that goes with being a worker and the rejection and stigma that goes with not having work. They are torn between pride and fear of death. And each time the miners look up and see that round diminishing hole of light at the surface disappear into a pinhole and then into blackness they have to wonder whether they will ever see sunlight again.

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