Impunity, part 1

An Act

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. That this Act may be cited as the “Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977”.


SEC. 2. Congress declares that–

(a) the first priority and concern of all in the coal or other mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource–the miner;

I’d like to keep updated reports on my progress as I write this paper on safety regulations. Each time I sit down to work, I find something new that contributes to my ire as well as to my paper’s framework, and I think it would be helpful for me to share those thoughts as they come.

Today I’m working with a book called Coal River that’s written by Vanity Fair reporter Michael Shnayerson. It focuses largely on mountaintop removal in the Coal River Valley, but I was absolutely shocked to read his discussion of the Upper Big Branch mine in the second chapter. This section is meant to frame Don Blankenship’s role in forcing the union out of Massey mines, but it’s an ominous set of pages considering what’s happened at UBB since this book’s publication in 2008. According to Shnayerson, when Massey acquired the mines at Montcoal in 1993, UBB was a union mine. Massey’s policy is that the union is disbanded when the company gets control, but miners are allowed to put unionization to a vote – which many thought they’d win because a significant number of those formerly unionized miners were rehired after Massey bought the mine. After a series of anti-union propaganda efforts, however, miners at UBB voted not to unionize, and as far as I can see there hasn’t been another vote.

Now, I won’t say that the United Mine Workers of America is a perfect specimen of unionism, not by any means, and of course I can’t say that the explosion at UBB wouldn’t have happened if it had been a union mine. I am just truly appalled at the overall lack of knowledge about the mine’s union status in the recent events and of how Massey circumvents union accountability in both underground and mountaintop mines. Maybe the UMWA is like MSHA (Mine Safety & Health Administration) in that it really can’t do much to protect miners simply because the coal companies are so much more powerful – so maybe the union status of this mine is pretty insignificant. But I’m still troubled by Massey’s systematic destruction of union mines in West Virginia as it expands its control over the state’s mines – this is not unlike some of the techniques used the 1910s and 1920s in West Virginia when miners were fighting for their right to unionize. And now that they have it, the union has been rendered impotent. It’s all part of the culture of impunity within which the coal companies work – neither the government nor the national union can do anything about their practices. What’s the point of having either, ultimately, if they can’t counter King Coal?

2 Responses to “Impunity, part 1”

  1. Kathi Says:

    Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I think people generally have the idea that all mines & miners are unionized – like the auto workers. Turns out, they’re not. Massey knows exactly that they’re doing. Exploitation.

  2. Footenotes » Blog Archive » The Round-Up I Wrote While You Were Watching ‘Lost’ Says:

    […] Appalachian Anthropology had another post up this week.  I really love blogs like this that annotate a larger work in process.  Although I might not ever get to read the final work that comes out of the process, it’s such a pleasure to watch someone have really personal experience with their research and share that over the course of project.  I feel like this is the best way to use a blog in some sense, not so much as a public journal, but at as instrument to record the ways in which the self becomes integrated into the fabric of their own efforts. […]

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