Previous
Next

Which side are you on?

April 7, 2010, 9:59 am

Over at B’s place, taddyporter has a post up today about the West Virginia mine disaster that I’m going to steal in its entirety (except for a photograph):

The handsome gent at the center of the photo on the left, the one with the impressive soup strainer, is Bennie Willingham, a coal miner at the Upper Big Branch coal mine and an employee of Mr. Blankenship.

Mr Willingham has been swept away by the gigantic methane explosion at the Upper Big Branch. He is lost to family, gathered around him in the photo, and friends.

Mr. Willingham regularly worked 12 hour shifts 1000 feet below the ground at the Upper Big Branch. He moved tons of coal for the Massey Energy Company.

We don’t know what Massey Energy paid its miners since it is not a party to collective bargaining with the United Mine Workers of America. If it were a party, Mr Willingham would have been paid $22.42 per hour in the final year of the contract, 2014.

Mr Blankenship, who, so far as anyone can tell, hasn’t dug a teaspoon of coal for Massey Energy, was paid $40 million dollars for the two year period ending 2007, the last year for which I’ve been able to find any figures for his wages. I’m not sure what that comes to per hour. Its clearly a better deal than he would have got from the UMWA contract. And, he works in a nice office, ten stories above the ground. So, you know, its a good deal.

Still, you have to wonder who is more valuable to the shareholders of Massey Energy; the people who actually dig out the commodity that pays the bills or the bosses who run up the bills? Apparently, there is an inexhaustible supply of the former and a nearly pinched out premium supply of the latter, if we assume that the vaunted free market in coal determines wage costs in the coal fields.

These explosions have got to be damned expensive. The order to focus on nothing but running coal has resulted in an absolute halt to running anything. It turns out that protecting workers, operating a safe workplace, mitigating hazards, is good business. Who knew?

After the Sago mine outrage, the UMWA investigated and released a report on causes and corrections. You can read it here.

We won’t know for some time what caused the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine but the UMWA report gives some items to look for. The top three conditions I’m looking for in news reports are as follows:

1) were the abandoned areas of the mine sealed off with permanent bulkheads or temporary foam barricades?

2) were lines of communication between surface and underground armored or were they run through plenum?

3) is the mine’s safety and rescue team an outsourced contract team, unfamiliar with the Upper Big Branch operation or is it a standing team of workers who know the Upper Big Branch mine?

Its reported that when Mr Blankenship visited with miner’s families and loved ones Tuesday morning, he was escorted by more than a dozen police officers. Evidently, no expense public or private, is spared when it comes to Mr Blankenship’s safety.

Perhaps this principle could be extended to the operations of his mines. What if Mr Blankenship’s office were located 1000′ under the roots of the West Virginia mountains instead of ten stories above the commerical district of Richmond, Virginia? What if Mr Willingham and Mr Blankenship shared the risks of their business, even if they didn’t share the rewards?

I bet you if that were the case, you could eat off the floor of that mine. And Mr Willingham would be home with his family, right now.

I always feel a bit embarrassed when I fall hard for this kind of man-the-barricades, tug-at-your-heartstrings, aimed-at-red-diaper-babies prose. But that’s probably because the narrowing Overton window with regard to discussions of class inequities long ago choked off the oxygen feeding my basic decency.

This entry was posted in history and current events. Bookmark the permalink.