The Clash Between Labor and Capitalism

Today the CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, will appear before a Senate panel in order to answer questions about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which occurred on April 5, 2010. Twenty-nine miners perished in the explosion, whose immediate cause is still unknown. High methane levels may have been a contributing factor.

The following exchange was part of NPR coverage about Blankenship’s appearance in front of a Senate panel:

STEVE NEARY (anchor): And what has Massey been saying about all this?

FRANK LANGFITT (reporter): Well, they insist over and over again that they really care first and foremost about safety, not about coal production. I can tell you, I’ve talked to a lot of the miners who work for Massey. They say it’s the exact opposite. They don’t want to say this on tape because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. Massey pays extremely well, so it’s a great opportunity for people in southern West Virginia.”

The Associated Press also reported on Blankenship’s appearance:

“Massey does not place profits over safety,” Blankenship said in his first appearance before Congress since the April 5 explosion at the West Virginia mine. “We never have and we never will.”
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., took strong exception, saying the mine had “an alarming record” of serious infractions.
“I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while at the same time boasting about its commitment to the safety of workers,” said the 92-year-old senator, speaking hesitantly but forcefully from his wheelchair.

Massey had been cited for safety violations numerous times in recent years; they also made headlines when they refused workers time off to attend the funerals of the 29 dead miners.

And what on earth does this have to do with the history of Issaquah?

Issaquah owes its first period of rapid growth and expansion to coal mining. Between 1892 and 1904, Issaquah’s mines averaged more than 100,000 tons annual production. It was no coincidence that the same time period saw the rise of labor unions in mines all over the area. There were fewer incidents of death and injury than there were in places like Black Diamond and Roslyn, but mining was inherently dangerous. Large scale disasters aside, injuries were not uncommon, and many of them resulted in permanent disabilities. Labor unions sought to secure fair pay and safer working conditions. Safety measures cost money and ate into corporate profits. And so the balancing act began.

One of hundreds of items on exhibit at the Gilman Town Hall is a certificate of membership in the United Mine Workers of America, dated 1907. The text reads, “Miner’s Record. This is to certify that Andrew Hendrickson was admitted as a member of the United Mine Workers of America in Local Union No. 2362, District No. 10 located at New Castle State of Washington on the 19th day of July 1907.” The certificate is in full color and features drawings of mine workers on the job, men leaving home for work, returning home with a disabled brother, and at a union meeting (“In Union there is strength”). There is also a sketch of “Pay day for the miners, doctors, and agents,” as well as a large picture of posh homes and well-dressed people labeled, “Homes of the Operators.” This is an interesting statement on a poster that otherwise focuses on the hard work of the miners – a pointed reminder that all their hard work profits those who own the mines.

Today coal mining is still one of the most dangerous professions, and still an industry where workers and management struggle over the balance between profitability and worker safety.