Unions Necessary for Miners’ Safety

by Tyler Murphy

In the 1980 film “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – inspired by Loretta Lynn’s indelible ode to the Eastern Kentucky coalfields – Lee Dollarhide ominously reminds Loretta’s husband, “If you’re born in Kentucky you’ve got three choices: coal mine, moonshine or move it on down the line.” Not much has changed since way back then (no pun intended) for too many families in Eastern Kentucky, where the coal industry has served as an integral part of the economy and the primary means of earning a living for decades.

The use of coal to meet our energy needs generates heated debate for both environmental and economic reasons. While less costly compared to alternative forms of energy, burning coal produces excessive amounts of pollution. In addition, mining coal – especially through mountain top removal – destroys natural habitats, and coal is a fossil fuel whose supply is quickly being depleted.

These debates primarily center on the environmental determinants versus the economic benefits of coal, but there is something that is often forgotten in the midst of them. This is the plight of coal miners and their families, who often have no other way to make a living than through coal mining. The recent tragic deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia – the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1970 – and of two miners in Western Kentucky’s Dotiki Mine are painful reminders of this fact. They also exemplify the desperate need for more stringent, enforced regulation of coal mines and the billion-dollar corporations who often place profit over the lives of their employees.

In the year preceding the deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, the mine’s operator, Massey Energy, was fined $384,000 by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for numerous “serious unrepentant” safety violations. In the month before the accident, Massey was cited with an additional 57 separate infractions. On April 4, 2010, the day before the explosion, regulators cited Massey with two more citations. In total, Massey received 1,342 safety violations in the five years prior to the explosion. Yet company and Massey CEO Don Blankenship found it more profitable to pay fines than actually to address the safety concerns. The price for such blatant and inexcusable disregard was the lives of 29 miners and immeasurable pain to their families and community.

Yet their neighbors in Raleigh County, W.Va., and all throughout the coalfields continue to wake up long before dawn and make the dark, harrowing trip into the coal mines six days a week because they have no other choice. They have to provide for their family and don’t have the means to “move it on down the line.” Companies like Massey have tied the hands of those who know they deserve better working conditions and better treatment yet have no alternative and limited power to fight billion-dollar interests.

These tragedies remind us of the need for organized labor and the United Mine Workers of America, which provide a voice to otherwise voiceless miners and their families. Both the Upper Big Branch and Dotiki Mines, however, were nonunion facilities. In fact, a total of 35 miners have been killed this year in job-related accidents, all of which have been at nonunion mines. In January 2006, the Sago Mine disaster claimed the lives of 11 miners and, again, this was a nonunion facility. This is not a coincidence. A strong union presence is crucial in pushing for the enforcement of mine safety. And unions serve as important watchdogs to ensure that mines are actually abiding by MSHA standards and alert both employees and regulators of any problems.

But unions cannot act alone. They need the support of robust federal regulators who hold companies like Massey and profit-hungry CEOs like Don Blankenship accountable for their actions, regulators who take proactive measures to protect the safety of miners and do not merely react after a tragic disaster.
So while the debate on the environmental concerns of coal mining is necessary and important, and although coal is an industry in need of modernization and cleaner technology, the lot of those who see coal only as a way of life – a means of survival – must not be ignored. I’m proud to be a coal miner’s great-grandson and I am proud of the sacrifice these men and women make each and every day. We should reflect that pride in rhetoric and regulatory policies that demonstrate a respect for and an understanding of their struggle.


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