The January 2 explosion at the Sago Mine killed 12 and has left one miner in a coma. Another coal miner was killed in Pike County, Kentucky, a week later when a section of the roof collapsed at Maverick Mining Co. With the deaths of the miners in Melville, the toll in U.S. coal mines is now 15 in the first three weeks of the year.
Rescue teams in the Melville mine fought the blaze for more than 40 hours in the area where the bodies of Don Bragg, 33, and Ellery Hatfield, 47, were found. Nineteen others escaped after carbon monoxide alarms went off in the early evening of January 19.
In response to these disasters, growing numbers of coal miners in this part of the country are speaking out about the need to unionize the mines to enforce safety. Thats what they need to do, get the union in there, said Brian Braham, a member of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local 1248, who is laid off from the Maple Creek mine in Pennsylvania, which closed in March 2005. If youre worried about safety, you need the union to see it through.
Meanwhile, as investigations at the nonunion Sago Mine get under way, the International Coal Group (ICG), the mines owner, refused to let UMWA representatives participate in interviews with Sago Mine employees. ICG did so despite the fact that several of the miners had asked the union to represent them. ICG has also threatened to not allow UMWA representatives onto company property to take part in the on-site examinations. Despite calls for public hearings, the Mine Safety and Health Administrations (MSHA) investigation into the disaster is slated to be held behind closed doors.
The cause of the fire at the Alma mine is reportedly a belt-drive motor. Fine coal dust and a buildup of coal spillage can create a highly combustible mix. Fires along conveyor belts can also result when misaligned rollers or worn-out bearings overheat.
Not the first such fire
This was not the first such fire, said one Alma miner, who was granted anonymity because he feared reprisals from his employers, reported the January 22 New York Times. I worked at the belt that caught fire and had to put out a fire at the same exact spot just a couple weeks ago when the sprinkler system didnt work, the miner said, referring to a fire he said occurred on December 23. I reported the fire to my supervisor, but he ignored it.
Last year, the Alma mines accident rate was a third higher than the national average. The mine was cited by MSHA 113 times for safety violations in 2004 and 91 times in 2005. The most recent citations were issued December 20, when the mine was hit with seven violations such as inadequate control of coal dust and other combustibles and ventilation.
Meanwhile, the big-business media has been running articles asserting the dangers in coal mining are inherent to the industry and that a certain number of on-the-job fatalities, which have declined compared to decades ago, are unavoidable. A January 5 Wall Street Journal editorial stated, Thanks to huge and steady investments in mine safety and technology, coal mining fatalities now average only about 30 a yeardown from 1,000 a year in the first half of the 20th century. Injuries have been cut to 4,000 a year from 60,000. Wayne Atwell, a metals and mining analyst with Morgan Stanley, told the Journal, Coal mining, by its nature, is extremely dangerous.
UMWA at Sago investigation
At the same time, the coal bosses are going out of their way to prevent union involvement in enforcing safety on the job. In a January 18 statement opposing UMWA participation in the Sago investigation, ICG asserted that the union had ulterior motives, and was seeking to exploit the tragedy…for their own purposes in an effort to revive organizing efforts that have floundered for more than a decade, and has no familiarity or knowledge of the Sago Mine that will benefit the investigation.
One mine foreman refused to testify in front of the UMWA representatives, whom government officials then kicked out of the room. The interviews then continued without UMWA or company representatives being present. West Virginia governor Joseph Manchin said his office had stepped in after ICG objected to the unions presence and that he backed the exclusion of both the UMWA and the company from the interviews.
Miners at the Sago mine have a right to designate the UMWA as their representative, and the union has a right to participate in the investigation, UMWA president Cecil Roberts said in a January 18 news release. He pointed out that the first thing ICG did was to try to find out the names of the miners who designated the UMWA as their representative. The truth is that when it comes to safety, we represent every miner in America and Canada whether he or she chooses to pay dues to this union or not, Roberts told the Charleston Gazette.
Many working people agree. Dell Maynard, who works at the union-organized Guyan surface mine, owned by Arclight and Arch Minerals outside Logan, West Virginia, told the Militant that he was glad to hear that some miners had asked the UMWA to represent them in the hearings. Right now is a good time for the rebirth of the union. At a union mine, a union rep goes with inspectors, labor is there, stuff doesnt get overlooked.
UMWA officials and other working people point out that it took 11 hours after the Sago explosion for rescue teams to enter the mine, while a timely response could have saved the men who perished there. Mine operators rely on rescue teams that are as much as two hours away, which union officials say is too far, reported the January 22 Washington Post.
UMWA communications director Phil Smith told the Militant that both the Sago and Melville mines were organized by the union about 20 years ago. The companies then punched holes in different locations of these coal seams and reopened them nonunion, he said. With the latest mine disasters, a lot more miners are increasingly concerned with the safety conditions in the mines, Smith said. We are seeing more interest in the union.
The union is an absolute necessity now, not a luxury, said Tom Samek, treasurer of UMWA Local 6290 in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania. It is obvious that the state and federal agencies arent doing their job mandated by law. No one else is going to stand up for safety of the miners. This is a good time to organize the union.
Tony Lane and Jay Ressler are coal miners in southwestern Pennsylvania and members of the UMWA. Paul Mailhot contributed to this article.
Unionize the mines! Build the UMWA!
No miner has to die! Workers need a union to enforce safety
Join effort to win 1,000 Militant sub renewals
Letter from the editor
Build support for Militant Fighting Fund
Safety violations rampant in western coal mines
Deaths on the job, racism sparked 1968 Memphis strike
Marxism, or why join the communist movement
New York event takes up contradictory development of labor vanguard
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home