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Vol. 78/No. 46      December 22, 2014

Massey Energy boss indicted
in 2010 W.Va. coal mine blast
Union buster’s rise to prominence linked
with UMW decline
(feature article)
Donald Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, was indicted by a federal grand jury Nov. 13 on charges related to the deaths of 29 miners from a massive explosion in April 2010 at the nonunion Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. Safety conditions at the mine were horrendous, as the indictment details. But the story not being told is how this notorious union buster rose to prominence as head of one of the largest coal operations in the country and its interconnection with a decades-long drive by coal bosses to push back safety rights and deal blows to the United Mine Workers union in their drive for profit.

Blankenship is charged with conspiracy to violate safety laws, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and securities fraud. The first count, a misdemeanor, carries a potential prison term of up to one year, while the security fraud count of lying to investors has a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. The trial has been set for Jan. 26.

The indictment says that Blankenship fostered “the practice of routine safety violations” to “produce more coal” and “make more money.” Between January 2008 and April 2010 the mine was cited 835 times for mine safety violations, including inadequate ventilation. Miners were forced to work and travel through unsafe areas, including an area more than 100 feet long and 20 feet wide where most of the mine roof had fallen in and a section filled with up to four feet of water. Blankenship ordered his supervisors to stop doing “construction jobs” and instead “run coal.”

“The carnage that was a recurring nightmare at Massey mines during Blankenship’s tenure at the head of that company was unmatched,” stated UMW President Cecil Roberts in a Nov. 13 news release. But the assault on miners’ life and limb developed over many years, the result of Massey mines becoming largely nonunion under Blankenship’s management. And union membership at other major coal operations also has steadily declined.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued more than 7,000 notices of coal dust and ventilation violations at underground mines this year, reported the Los Angeles Times. In their pursuit of profits coal mine bosses routinely violate workers’ safety rights, knowing full well that it’s cheaper to pay the minimal fines imposed by MSHA than to slow down production and take steps necessary to mine safely.

Miners for Democracy
In the early 1970s a fighting union movement emerged in the coalfields determined to get rid of a union leadership that looked the other way from employer safety violations and bargained away miners’ rights in every contract. This movement, known as Miners for Democracy, revolutionized the United Mine Workers of America. Miners won the right to read proposed contracts in advance and vote on them. Union safety committees were empowered to shut down production in response to unsafe working conditions. Union democracy and working-class solidarity marked the miners’ union. “No contract, no work” was the rallying cry of the union.

The revolution in the union was coupled with a social movement in the coalfields to beat back black lung, a debilitating and often fatal disease caused by breathing coal dust. Actions like a 23-day strike by 45,000 coal miners in 1969 and a series of marches on the West Virginia state capitol in Charleston pressured the federal government to pass the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and set black lung benefits.

In 1984, A.T. Massey Coal refused to sign the national contract agreement between the UMW and Bituminous Coal Operators Association. Instead of “no contract, no work” and organizing the entire union membership to take on the union-busting gauntlet thrown down by the company, the union leadership organized a 15-month “selective strike” that ended in defeat. Some 2,500 Massey miners went out by themselves and returned to work at the end of 1985 without a contract after a debilitating and isolated strike.

Blankenship rose to prominence leading A.T. Massey’s attacks on the union, becoming company head five years later. “The union and the communities are just going to have to accept” the company’s drive to increase profits, Massey point-man Blankenship says in the video “Mine War in Blackberry Creek,” the Militant quoted in a review in its July 4, 1987, issue.

The government teamed up with coal operators in a further blow against the UMW. In 1985 a federal court fined the union $1.3 million in a lawsuit filed by Massey over picketing at one of its mines.

In August 1987 Donnie Thornsbury, president of UMW Local 2496, along with David Thornsbury, James Darryl Smith and Arnold Heightland from eastern Kentucky were rousted from their beds by the FBI and Kentucky police SWAT teams. The four miners, who had been on strike against Massey two years earlier, were convicted in federal court in December. They were framed up on charges of killing Hayes West, a nonunion truck driver, during the strike. The UMW national leadership refused to mount a campaign in their defense and they spent more than two decades in prison.

In February 1988, Pittston Coal Co., following Massey’s example, refused to sign the industrywide contract negotiated with the BCOA. The following April, UMW officials called a selective strike of 1,700 miners against the company. But this time mine workers and thousands of other union stalwarts, including Machinists on strike against Eastern Airlines, responded by mounting solidarity actions. Some 30,000 miners in 11 states walked out two months later, determined not to suffer another Massey-like debacle.

Both the number of coal miners and the proportion who are members of the UMW has declined dramatically over recent decades. Only about one-quarter of working miners are members of the UMW today, down from 43 percent in 1994. Today there are 73,160 active miners, down from 175,000 30 years ago. Black lung is once again on the rise, particularly among younger miners.

The new generation of miners increasingly works in nonunion mines. Future Upper Big Branch disasters can only be prevented by growing working-class resistance out of which a strong mine workers union can be rebuilt. What’s needed is to organize the mines and use union power to enforce safety on the job, and fight the Blankenships and his kindred spirits who run the coal industry.
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