This week, Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, WV, was the site of the deadliest mining disaster since 1984, with at least 25 miners killed and others still missing. The disaster was caused by an explosion of contained methane gas, which caused a similar incident at the Sago Mine — also in West Virginia — in 2006.
As Brad Johnson has pointed out, the Upper Big Branch Mine, which is owned by Massey Energy, has been cited for thousands of safety violations, including 638 since 2009. More than $2 million in fines have been assessed against the mine. Massey is run by CEO Don Blankenship, who just last year complained about “nonsensical” safety rules set by the federal government to protect miners. Not only that, Blankenship has said that “unions, communities, people, everybody’s going to have to learn to accept” that “capitalism from a business viewpoint is survival of the most productive.”
To that end, Blankenship has made a concerted effort to not only flagrantly flaunt a safety code that might have cut into his profits, but also to prevent unionization at his company’s mines. In a 1986 film documenting his role in crushing striking miners at Massey operations in Appalachia, Blankenship was frank about his goals to destroy unionization, in order to “sell coal cheaper”:
What that means is that non-union competitors have a tremendous advantage and therefore they sell coal cheaper and drive union coal operations out of business.
To date, Blankenship has largely succeeded in purging union members from his company’s ranks. Only 1.8 percent of Massey’s workforce is unionized. One miner who was employed by Massey for 25 years said that working for Blankenship was “like living under a hammer. It’s all about the bottom line, we all know that.” In 2007, the National Labor Relations Board determined that Massey’s refusal to hire union workers was illegal.
But if the Upper Big Branch miners were unionized, there’s a greater likelihood that the mine would have been safer. Since 2002, less than than one-fifth of the total mine worker fatalities have occurred at unionized mines. And the reason is simple: workers at a unionized mine are not afraid to report unsafe working conditions. “I can absolutely say that if these miners were members of a union, they would have been able to refuse unsafe work…and would not have been subjected to that kind of atrocious conditions,” said United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard.
Also, unions have the right to accompany mine inspectors on their rounds, providing accompanying documentation and testimony, so it’s not simply the inspector’s word against the company’s. But Blankenship has made it clear that he considers the safety and health of his workers as secondary to squeezing every penny out of his mines that he can.