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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 70/No. 11March 20, 2006


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‘Safety now!’ say Alabama miners
(lead article)
Militant/Paul Pederson
Nearly 200 coal miners rally outside Alabama state capitol in Montgomery March 7 to protest unsafe job conditions and demand more federal funding for mine inspections. UMWA organized car caravan from Bessemer and rally in Montgomery.

MONTGOMERY, Alabama—The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) called a mourning day, a one-day work stoppage, March 7 at five of the state’s seven active underground coal mines. Nearly 200 miners assembled at the statehouse here to demand a substantial increase in state funding for mine inspections and to protest unsafe conditions in the mines.

Shutting down Interstate 65 as they made their way from Birmingham to Montgomery, the motorcade of miners stretched for over a mile. Upon arrival, they marched to the front of the statehouse, chanting, “Safety Now!” Chants continued until Daryl Dewberry, UMWA District 20 international vice president, began the rally.

“We almost had 300 coal miners subjected to disaster at the PinnOak and Shoal Creek operations,” Dewberry said. “I say no more!”

The decision to shut down the mines and assemble in the state capitol was announced at a February 21 meeting in Brookwood, Alabama, at the hall of UMWA Local 2245. The meeting came two weeks after federal inspectors ordered the Oak Grove mine, owned by PinnOak Resources, evacuated. Union members told the inspectors that management had sent three shifts to work after being informed that explosive levels of methane gas had been found in an area of the mine.

Three days after the meeting an explosion occurred at the Shoal Creek mine. According to UMWA international safety representative Tom Wilson, there were 140 people working underground at the time of the blast.

“In both of these examples, it was union workers that stepped up and forced the authorities to take action,” Wilson said.

“They said they had an ignition at 1:30 a.m., but it was 10 minutes to four before we got out,” said Richard Glasgow, a miner at Shoal Creek who was underground when the explosion occurred. “Instead of evacuating, they tried to keep the men working. The union called MSHA, which told the bosses to pull the men out.” After the evacuation, multiple explosions occurred inside the mine.  
Demand for more inspectors
Both the Oak Grove and Shoal Creek mines were inspected by the state Department of Mine Safety in the weeks before the near disasters occurred. In both cases, citing resource constraints, the inspectors did incomplete checks and did not venture into the areas where later problems originated.

“There are only three state inspectors protecting the lives of 6,000 miners in this state,” Dewberry told the rally. Lieutenant Governor Lucy Baxley, who addressed the rally, said the Department of Mine Safety has received only $499,000 in federal funding.

The UMWA has filed a lawsuit charging that “the health and safety of the coal miners in the State of Alabama are being compromised” by the lack of funding for inspectors. The union says that by its own admission, the state would need to spend between $3.6 and $4 million annually to carry out the necessary inspections. The state mine safety office is responsible for 550 mines and quarries, 50 of which are coal mines that are required by law to be inspected every 45 days.

When the mine inspectors do issue citations, the mining companies often ignore the penalties. PinnOak Resources, for example, was fined $476,561 for 776 safety violations at its Oak Grove mine in 2005, and has paid only $144,791.

Other speakers at the rally included state senators Edward McCain and Bobby Singleton, and state AFL-CIO president Stewart Burkhalter.  
Lack of training
“We need to teach the new miners safety, ’cause the company is not doing it,” T.C. Cole, who works at the Oak Grove mine, called out during the rally.

Many miners commented on how the bosses have whittled away at training new miners.

“If it wasn’t for these old timers the new miners wouldn’t know anything,” Chastity Farr, a new miner who worked previously in mine construction, told the Militant. She said the new miners classes here are inadequate. “There are many serious accidents among young miners as a result,” she said.

“When you get on that elevator, you don’t know if you’re going to make it back,” said James Davis, a miner who has worked at Shoal Creek for the past two years.

“It used to be that a new miner had to work in the mines for 90 days before they could be assigned to a job on production at the [coal] face,” Davis said. “My brother-in-law got a job at Shoal Creek and was sent to work at the face right away. He lost his leg in an accident three weeks into the job. Another miner from his training class, Ken Holliday, lost his foot with two weeks on the job in another accident.”  
‘Safety starts at union hall’
“Mine safety begins in the union hall,” called out Tom Wagner, a miner at Jim Walter No. 4 Mine. “The union is only as strong as its members.”

The need to strengthen the union to defend safety was a topic of discussion throughout the rally. Three miners from the No. 4 Mine discussed the union’s importance for them.

Frank Green, in his 20s with two years’ experience at that mine, said this was his first time being in a union, and it has taught him a lot.

Standing next to him, his co-worker Matthew Wright, who worked for 15 years in a nonunion mine, said the difference between a union and nonunion mine is sharp. “At the nonunion mines it’s work or go to the house,” Wright said. “The UMWA protects you from that. You have individual rights to stand up if something is unsafe.”

“The young people don’t know about the union,” said Jarrod James, who has worked for six months at No. 4.

“But we’re learning quick,” Green said.

Brian Taylor contributed to this article.
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