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How King Coal Killed the Union Man
Date 10/05/24/17:50
How King Coal Killed the Union Man
by Lauri Lebo

"The Mine War On Blackberry Creek" Tells Story Of Massey Energy Boss Blankenship

ON A SOMBER TUESDAY MORNING IN MID-APRIL, pews were filled in the tiny chapel of Pax Advent Christian Church. Behind the sobbing women, men wearing jeans and pressed shirts stood together, the nails of their calloused hands scrubbed clean of black dust. With red buds blooming outside, the pastor spoke of hope for a future not here on Earth, but in the afterlife through salvation in Jesus Christ.

Rex Mullins was one of 29 men killed in the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. He was 50 years old when the congregation at Advent Christian came together for his funeral. For three weeks last month, similar scenes played out again and again in the narrow hollows of southern West Virginia, as communities gathered to return the bodies of these men to the same coal-rich dirt that had claimed their lives.

The village of Pax sits along Paint Creek, in a lush green stretch of West Virginia once dotted with company-owned coal camps scarred by violent union wars in the first part of the 20th Century. During the 1912-1913 strike, at least 50 men were killed and others starved in what was largely a battle for company acceptance of organized labor and an acknowledgement of workers' constitutional guarantees of free speech and peaceable assembly.

Today, these communities seem less angry and more defeated, and a far cry from the days when miners went to war to shut down mines. "Death is part of life here," said Joe Barnett, a retired miner from Clear Creek, who attended the funeral. "It's part of the coal-mining way of life."

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST—Following the tragedy, Rush Limbaugh demanded to know why the United Mine Workers of America wasn't there looking after the miners. Upper Big Branch, just as virtually all Massey Energy mines, was non-union. UMWA had tried to organize there three times, but each time, Massey threatened to shut down the mines. Limbaugh's exploitation of the tragedy to attack organized labor was a bit late in coming. Massey Energy and its CEO Don Blankenship had pioneered a far more successful attack against the United Mine Workers 30 years earlier.

In organized labor's heyday in the fifties and sixties, 90 percent of all coal miners belonged to UMWA. Today, the union estimates that its membership hovers around 25 percent. It used to be that the only non-union mines were the "punch holes," little independent operations too tiny to bother organizing. Everybody else belonged to what was once one of the most powerful unions in the country. Then Ronald Reagan sent a message to big business in 1981, when he fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.

Coal companies paid heed. In 1984, Massey, led by a young Don Blankenship, refused to acknowledge the Bituminous Coal Operators Association agreement—a working arrangement between coal companies and union workers that had set the standard for wages and benefits throughout the industry since the Depression. Massey insisted that the union bargain individually with Massey's 14 different subsidiaries, arguing that they were independent companies.

A vicious two-year strike ensued at Massey mines in West Virginia's Logan County. In the 1986 documentary of the strike, The Mine War on Blackberry Creek, Blankenship makes clear that his motivation to drive out the union is simply survival of the fittest. "Unions and communities are going to have to learn that from a business viewpoint, capitalism is survival of the most productive," he said.

After that, the number of union mines dropped precipitously. By 1994, the number of union coal miners had dropped to 43 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Today, it's only about 25 percent.

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