“…waiting at the gate, we are waiting at the gate…while the miners’ kids and wives wait at the gate…” Woody Guthrie
From 1900 until 1950, over 95,000 US workers were killed in coal mines, nearly as many as died in World War I and exceeded only by military deaths in the Civil War and World War II. Millions more were injured in this period. While records were not required, a conservative claim by the Bureau of Mines estimates that 140,000 miners were injured in 1914 alone, roughly 18% of all miners employed. Millions more went undiagnosed with black lung disease and severe arthritis. As recently as the 1990’s, over 21,000 injuries occurred annually in coal mining, despite far fewer employed at that time in the industry.
Outside of the war-time military, no occupation has suffered nearly the rate of fatalities and injuries as has coal mining, including law enforcement. Yet there are no national memorials to mourn those losses.
Throughout this period, annual coal mining deaths averaged between two and eight a day. Yet there are no national days of remembrance.
During the early decades of the twentieth century, coal mine employment drew thousands of newly arrived immigrants speaking little or no English – mainly from Eastern Europe and Italy – who were drawn to rural coal mining towns throughout the US. They account for more than their share of those killed and maimed in the mines. Often the native-born were promoted to working above ground, replaced underground by newly arrived immigrants. This brutal story is lost in the current debates over immigration, a debate smothered by the same crude bigotry suffered by the immigrant miners of the twentieth century. Sadly, too many of the descendents of these immigrant miners have joined the chorus of vulgar nationalism that pollutes the discussion.
US coal operators were notorious for their callous disregard for safety and abuse of workers. Despite employing 40% more miners, the British coal industry experienced half as many fatalities in 1914 – a fairly typical year for fatalities in the first three decades of the twentieth century. The rate of deaths per thousand workers in the US was higher that year than that in the Union of South Africa, where workers were virtual slaves.
While the industry has changed dramatically, underground mining remains the most dangerous occupation, made especially dangerous by the relentless drive for production and profits by the coal operators and their corporate masters. The recent death of 29 miners at Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia reminds us again of how little regard owners and managers have for the lives of coal miners. The Upper Big Branch mine is a non-union facility owned by Massey Energy whose CEO is an out-spoken supporter of right-wing causes, an opponent of environmental protection, and notorious for “buying” the Supreme Court of West Virginia. He ranks with the most profit-crazed and corrupted coal baron of the past century.
The mine was cited 458 times last year for safety violations, 50 of them severe. The US Mine Safety and Health Administration closed the mine 61 times since the beginning of 2009. Workers were required to work in four feet of water and suffer other “aggravated conduct” on the part of the operator. Clearly, the Massey Energy subsidiary had no regard for safety, only production and profits.
The media speaks of an accident, a tragedy where they should be condemning a crime. But the crime rests not only with the operator, but with politicians, regulatory agencies, and opinion-makers who take little interest in the conditions and safety of working people. When the curtain of neglect is occasionally pulled back by some dramatic loss of life, our leaders wring their hands in remorse. At all other times, they are blind to the tens of thousands of injuries suffered by those working everywhere from Wal-Mart to auto production.
While discussing the deaths at Upper Big Branch, my sister reminded me of the fear for her father’s safety that entered her mind every night at bed time, dreading the mine whistle or a phone call; he worked twenty-seven years in the mines and left with black lung and crippling arthritis. She reminded me of our grandfather’s death in the mine and his daughter’s hearing from a passerby: “Your dad was killed today in the mine.” He had to work until he was 67 - past retirement age - because of his activism.
For most of the twentieth century the most militant, class-conscious miners called for nationalization of the mining industry. Without the brutal, life-crushing drive for profits, tens of thousands of miners might have lived to enjoy their grandchildren.