American Serfdom

The backward coal industry

The recent coal strike didn't settle everything. Miners feel that a generation of social progress has passed them by; they feel betrayed by everyone from the White House to their own union. If the nation is truly to depend on coal, the author argues, it must listen more closely to the men in the mines.

On December 6, 1977, the 1974 Bituminous Coal Contract expired and, true to a "no contract, no work" tradition enunciated by John L. Lewis nearly fifty years ago, members of the United Mine Workers of America left their jobs. Steel and utility companies had laid in enormous stocks of the fuel and their spokesmen, as well as those at the White House, hastened to assure the public that the work stoppage was expected to have "little impact." After all, the 160,000-member union was a pale shadow of the industrial giant of 480,000 once ruled by the legendary Lewis, and half the country's coal now comes from nonunion operations. The President would maintain a lofty hands-off attitude, stockpiles would tide consumers past a few weeks of collective bargaining, then the men in their ghastly Appalachian hollows and in trailer towns strewn from Pennsylvania to Utah would go quietly back to work. The energy debate would drone on in Washington and all would be well.

Forces long at work combined to ruin this optimistic scenario. The President, coal state governors, the news media, coal operators, the tens of millions of electricity-dependent people ambled blithely into an industrial bear trap of awesome dimensions. Innumerable warning signals had been ignored for years-warnings of deep discontent among miners and their families.

Last year 2.5 million man-days of work were lost -- principally in the Appalachian field -- to spontaneous "wildcat" strikes at the local level. These strikes, unsanctioned and vigorously opposed by the UMW's national leadership represented ten times the strike rate in other industries.

The slow and cumbersome grievance arbitration procedures mandated by the National Labor Relations Act and the union's contract with the operators have come to be viewed by the miners as a device to delay justice and to compel men to work against their will. By the spring of 1977 the "right to strike" over local matters was an issue on which the operators were not inclined to yield. They took the understandable position that industrial discipline requires workmen to labor on all days contracted for while disputes are settled by arbitration under the established processes. With this, however, they combined an antediluvian attitude toward their workhands that would have been perfectly in accord with that of the overseers who constructed Cheops's pyramid. The wildcat strikes lasted ten weeks, cost the average miner about $3000, hit the affected corporations for millions in lost earnings, humiliated the union leadership, and failed to enhance the reputation of the federal judge who issued an injunction against the West Virginia participants. When he suggested that if the miners returned to work the fines and civil penalties he-had levied against their organization would be suspended, the rebels ignored him. One gnarled veteran of many roof-falls other hard knocks dismissed His Honor with, "We didn't pay no attention to that old judge when he was makin' orders and we shore as hell ain't going to pay no attention to him now, when he is 'makin' suggestions!"

Between reflective puffs on his pipe, Energy Secretary James Schlesinger has called coal America's "black hope." To a nation with a trade deficit approaching $3 billion a month owing to its colossal oil imports, the expression is apt. But there are many problems.

Labor relations in the hills have been bloody and brutish since the first coal was "lifted" from the ground in Pennsylvania. The early minemasters were generally Scots or Welshmen who sought to apply in America the same autocratic methods they had enforced with noose and bayonet in Great Britain. In the New World coal diggers expected a little more and. fought back, sometimes with arson and assassination. In Pennsylvania in 1877, twenty members of an Irish secret society, the "Molly Maguires," went to the scaffold when miners from the "old sod" were checkmated in a covert war against parsimonious and ruthless mine owners.

Trouble in the coalfields is endemic and perpetual, like the "war" in Ulster and the timeless turbulence between Arabs and Jews. Coal operators will not treat their employees as human beings, government will not compel them to do so, and the workmen will not always accept the status of industrial serfs. They rebel often, and each time they do so the nation views with alarm and points with indignation.

At the same time, the industry has been dogged by an appalling lack of safety in its operations, leading to major disasters over more than a century. And the carnage continues. In 1971 the death rate in U.S. deep mines was six times as high as in Holland. In 1977 the death toll was 142, and the death rate in U.S. strip mines was twice as high as that the Dutch sustained in their vast operations under the floor of the North Sea. In 1976 the number of man-days lost owing to acci-dental injuries sustained in all major U.S. industries per million man-hours worked amounted to 10.9. In the coal industry the rate was 33.8. Since 1906 more than 92,000 men have died in the mines and at least 1,660,000 have been disabled.

The episode at Oven Fork, Kentucky, in 1976 involved two methane explosions two days apart. The source of ignition can only be guessed at, but the evidence points to a spark-producing brake compressor on an electric mine locomotive that was manufactured in -1916. J. B. Holbrook, who died in the second explosion, was a machine repairman with absolutely no experience as an underground miner. Notwithstanding his ignorance of mining, the Blue Diamond Coal Company sent him and twelve others (three of them federal safety officials of the Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration) to shore up the sagging roof in an area devastated by an unexplained blast forty-eight hours earlier. All but two of this party of "roof bolters" were promptly cremated by a second gigantic detonation of accumulated gas.

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