April 6, 2010

Mine Blast--Workers Pay Again! [Updated]

Two days ago, Benny Willingham was 62, and five weeks shy of retirement from the Upper Big Branch-South coal mine near Whitesville, WV. He planned to celebrate by taking his wife Edith on a cruise to the Virgin Islands. Yesterday, the mine blew up.

Benny and at least 24 co-workers were killed in the blast. Four are missing. They were killed by an economic system built on profit and “cheap” energy.

The moment I heard the news, I heard in my mind’s ear a couple lines from the old IWW poem “We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years”:

There is never a mine blown skyward now,
But we’re buried alive for you.
There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now,
But we are its ghastly crew.

The poem explains in simple, bitter language that the wealth of the high and mighty is purchased with the blood of working people. It is as true today as it was the day it was written by An Unknown Proletarian, over 100 years ago (and as it was when my friend Mat Callahan set it to music almost forty years ago).

Now come the predictable investigations and hearings. Don’t expect
to learn much. Benny Willingham worked for Performance Coal Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Massey Energy. Massey is notorious for its anti-union stance, its hatred of safety standards and its contempt for the environment.

Massey was cited for safety violations by federal regulators 57 times in March alone--including for failure to develop and follow a ventilation plan. For Massey, such citations and the pitiful fines that accompany them are just a cost of doing business--amounting to a couple hundred thousand bucks a year (for a company that cleared $29 million just in the last quarter of 2009, a recession year). Of course, if a fine--or more likely a court judgment--is large enough, Massey Energy will lawyer up, or just refuse to pay.

This is typical for an industry with executives in a revolving door with lobbyists and government regulators. Bush’s first head of the US Mining Safety & Health Administration had earlier in his career been the safety executive at a mine in Utah when 27 workers died in a fire! Massey CEO Don Blankenship buys and sells West Virginia politicians. The US Supreme Court recently ordered a WV state supreme court judge to recuse himself from rehearing a case against Massey. Why? Massey had financed his $3.5 million election campaign in 2004!

I’d love to see Massey shut down. I’d love to see Don Blankenship spend the rest of his un-natural life in a federal pen for murdering Benny Willingham and his fellow miners. I’m not holding my breath. Blankenship was running Massey in 2000 when it perpetrated the Martin County Sludge Spill--one of the worst environmental disasters in US history. It didn’t slow him or Massey up a bit. Don’t count on this being much different.

So what can we do? In the short term, do our level best to ensure that the name Massey Energy stinks in the nostrils of every decent person and to encourage regulators and elected officials to grind them into the dirt. And point out that had Benny Willingham and the others at Upper Big Branch-South been working at a union mine, the standard United Mine Workers contract mandates union safety officers--and gives miners the right to walk the job when faced by unsafe conditions.

In the long term, dig deep and work just a little bit harder to overthrow the capitalist system and its profit drive and to see that the working class goes on to build a world that we have bought and paid for, as the poem says, with our very blood.


April 8, 2009

I wanted to include the names of the other victims of this--let's call it a crime, shall we, and not "a tragedy"--along with those of Benny Willingham, whose story was in some of the earliest reports. Many have not been released yet, and four miners are still unaccounted for. (For more personal information on our working class brothers, the human beings whose lives, whose stories, whose nets of human relations were so brutally severed by greedy coal bosses, click here).

Deward Scott, 58
Gary Quarles, 33
Howard "Boone" Payne, 50s
William Roosevelt Lynch, 59
Steve Harrah, 40
Timmy Davis, Sr., 51
Cory Davis, 20
Josh Napper, 25
Robert E. Clark, 41
Jason Atkins, 25
Carl "Peewee" Acord, 52

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