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Workers Vanguard No. 862

20 January 2006

Organize the Unorganized!

Mobilize Labor's Power Against Death Traps!

West Virginia Mine Disaster: Capitalist Murder

“I just went to sleep,” read coal miner Martin Toler’s heart-wrenching note describing his last moments to his loved ones. A massive explosion had ripped through the Sago mine in West Virginia on January 2 as Toler and 12 others were entering to help reopen it the morning after a three-day New Year’s break. One miner died instantly while the others were trapped deep underground and forced deeper still to find shelter from the poisonous air slowly suffocating them. All except Randal McCloy, who is still in a coma, perished during the 41 hours awaiting rescue.

The complicity of the mine officials in the miners’ deaths was compounded by their deceit. Scared for their own skins, they let three hours pass before correcting their initial false reports that 12 miners had been found alive. During this time, a police SWAT team was put in position outside the church where the miners’ families were gathered. In the hours following the explosion, West Virginia’s Democratic governor Joe Manchin tried to explain away the accident by citing the “inherent risks” of underground mining. But no set of excuses can disguise the coal operators’ criminal neglect. The Sago mine is a death trap, pure and simple—it has no exhaust airshaft to remove deadly gases and smoke, and no escape route.

And just as the U.S. government—under both Democratic and Republican administrations—knew for decades about the dangers facing New Orleans but did nothing to replace or reinforce the city’s inadequately built and crumbling levees, rarely does it enforce its own mine and workplace safety rules, even in the face of repeated life-threatening violations. The profit-hungry bosses have sacrificed the blood of over 100,000 miners killed since 1900 to the bottom line. Democratic politicians have pushed for Congressional hearings on mining safety, which would amount to a smokescreen for the malicious indifference of the bosses’ government. The only way to establish and enforce safety is through mobilizing labor’s power. Any real measure of protection workers have gained in U.S. mines—or elsewhere in industry—was won through hard struggle by the unions.

The Sago mine was non-union, reflecting the drastic decline in unionization of the coal industry. In the mid 1970s, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) organized some 70 percent of the industry; today it represents barely one-third, including in West Virginia. The workforce as a whole has been massively slashed from over 260,000 in 1979 to 108,000 in 2004. A major factor in that decline is the expansion of surface strip-mining, which is more efficient, cheaper and requires fewer workers than deep underground mining. And as the bosses close down union mines, they open new, non-union operations, often in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and other areas far from Appalachia. But like many other Appalachian mines, the Sago mine was union until it was closed, bought out and, in 1999, reopened without the union.

The Sago deaths should be a clarion call for the UMWA to launch a drive to organize the unorganized mines. The difference between the union and non-union mines is recognized by unorganized miners, who often are reluctant to speak out about unsafe conditions out of fear for their jobs, which are among the better-paying in poverty-stricken Appalachia. The UMWA contract provides for memorial days that can be used to shut down mines in response to such disasters and be a springboard for union organizing. Union safety committees have the right to “red tag” unsafe mines and shut them down. Without aggressive organizing, the union will keep losing ground, leaving more non-union miners at the mercy of ruthless coal profiteers.

Miners have enormous potential power in the economy. As prices of oil and natural gases have skyrocketed, coal is expected to provide over half the energy for U.S. electrical utilities this year. Last year alone, 69 mines opened or re-opened in Appalachia. But the pro-capitalist UMWA leadership hamstrings the union’s power through its reliance on capitalist politicians and government agencies and its renunciation of the class-struggle methods that built the union. UMWA president Cecil Roberts’ January 4 statement on the Sago disaster barely even notes that the mine is non-union and makes no reference to the need for workers themselves to control safety conditions. Instead, Roberts calls for the government to “investigate.”

With the overwhelming majority of U.S. workers unorganized, what is desperately needed is a class-struggle fight to organize the unorganized—from Appalachia and the West to the notoriously anti-union South. Unionizing the viciously racist, “right to work” South exemplifies the need for the labor movement to fight against the racial oppression long used by the capitalists to divide workers and weaken labor.

Capitalist Profiteering and Industrial Murder

It was capitalist profiteering that led to the deaths of the 12 miners. The Sago mine was so dangerous that Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors, who are normally in the coal operators’ hip pocket, issued 208 violations last year, half of which were deemed “significant and substantial,” such as failure to properly ventilate the mine. Ventilation is essential to prevent the dangerous buildup of methane (the principal component of natural gas) and flammable coal dust. Amplifying the danger was that four natural gas wells lie in close proximity to the Sago mine, including one adjacent to the area of the explosion. There were 19 roof collapses at the mine in the last year. A mine collapse in eastern Kentucky killed Cornelius Yates, a 44-year-old miner, on January 10.

The Sago mine operators were rolling the dice with miners’ lives. The mine’s injury rate was three times the national average—and the safety record of the mining industry as a whole is abysmal. The bosses’ murderous greed creates conditions that ensure that deadly “accidents” happen with appalling regularity. A wide range of recently developed technology, from radio communication to vibration and pressure sensors, exists to make mining far safer than it is. But as a New York Times (10 January) exposé noted: “Throughout the industry, the oxygen canisters, the telephones, the ventilation equipment and almost every other piece of safety equipment are nearly identical to those used more than 20 years ago.” More than 1,000 people die from black lung annually, although the technology to prevent it has been available for almost 100 years.

The coal companies don’t want to update the equipment because it would cut into their profits. Many mines still dislodge coal with explosives rather than machines. The coal barons often do not even keep maps of abandoned mines, which nearly spelled death for nine Quecreek, Pennsylvania, miners in 2002, when they unknowingly drilled into an old flooded mine. Most mine operators do not maintain one, much less two, rescue teams on site. Twelve critical hours were lost assembling the mandatory two teams for the Sago mine rescue.

Nationwide each year, thousands of workers lose their lives doing their jobs, and millions more are injured. To the capitalists, the death of a wage slave is just business as usual. Many times more working-class Americans have fallen victim to industrial murder than have died as cannon fodder in the wars of U.S. imperialism. According to a 2004 census report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 10,000 fatal work injuries occurred in the first two years of the bloody imperialist occupation of Iraq.

Following the Sago mine disaster, the New York Times (5 January) sanctimoniously editorialized about the particularly dangerous working conditions of non-union mines. But when New York City transit workers defied the anti-union Taylor Law and went on strike last month to defend their benefits, livelihood and safe working conditions, this same capitalist mouthpiece (21 December 2005) condemned Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 for holding the city “hostage.” In the last two decades, 22 NYC transit workers have died on the job. Shortly before the strike, train operator Lewis Moore lay dying on December 1 while the MTA transit bosses delayed getting him medical care for a critical 20 minutes. The TWU stated that the MTA Control Center did not want to disrupt service by rerouting the train to a nearby local station only a block from an ambulance. After the train finally got to a station, Moore was declared dead. As Local 100 president Roger Toussaint bitterly put it, the MTA will stop trains for a dog but not for a worker.

Workers in the TWU and Amalgamated Transit Union collectively face some $40 million in fines for their December strike (see article, page 2). In contrast, for Sago’s “significant” violations, the capitalist government issued fines between $60 and $440, totaling a mere $25,000. Last November, the operator of an Alabama mine where 13 miners were killed in a September 2001 explosion saw its fine reduced from $435,000 to $3,000. Paying the fines is less expensive than observing safety guidelines. Some coal companies do not even bother to pay, and are still allowed to continue operations.

Democrats, Republicans: Parties of the Bosses

As part of a muckraking series on workers’ deaths, New York Times writer David Barstow pointed out in a 22 December 2003 article, “U.S. Rarely Seeks Charges For Deaths in Workplace”: “When Congress established OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] in 1970, it made it a misdemeanor to cause the death of a worker by willfully violating safety laws. The maximum sentence, six months in jail, is half the maximum for harassing a wild burro on federal lands.”

Even this slap on the wrist is rarely applied. As Barstow documented, referring to roughly 100 workers killed each year by their companies’ willful disregard of safety: “Every one of their deaths was a potential crime. Workers decapitated on assembly lines, shredded in machinery, burned beyond recognition, electrocuted, buried alive—all of them killed, investigators concluded, because their employers willfully violated workplace safety laws.” Yet from 1982 to 2002, OSHA investigated only about half of these horror stories and in 93 percent of the cases refused to seek prosecution!

The Bush administration—not one to shy away from helping to line the pockets of its corporate cronies—has accommodated the coal barons by slashing funds for MSHA, eliminating inspector posts and installing former mining bosses to run the agency. The administration has even tried to take money away from black lung victims. But it’s not just Bush. The Democratic Clinton White House redefined the “New OSHA” by stressing “partnership” with business and “voluntary compliance,” the model for MSHA today. Overall mining death totals for Clinton’s first five years in office were 208 versus 149 during the first five years of the current Republican administration.

Sago’s owner Wilbur Ross is not only a capitalist parasite but a longtime Democratic Party supporter. This billionaire financier specializes in the takeover of bankrupt steel, textile and coal companies, in the process slashing jobs, dumping pension and health care obligations and tearing up union contracts. Admired within bourgeois circles for running a “growing empire of the damned” (Business Week, 22 December 2003), Ross was a major fundraiser for Clinton and is personal friends with John Kerry.

Yet it is these capitalist politicians that the union tops promote as “friends of labor,” chaining workers to the capitalist class enemy. The UMWA tops preach reliance on the likes of West Virginia’s Democratic Senators Robert Byrd, a former Klansman, and Jay Rockefeller, the heir to Standard Oil and beneficiary of a wealth acquired over piles of workers’ corpses, such as at Ludlow, Colorado, where 20 miners, their wives and children were massacred in 1914. Accepting the capitalist profit system and acting as enforcers of class peace, the labor bureaucracy has overseen the precipitous decline of the UMWA and other unions. Labor needs a leadership based on the policy of class struggle, mobilizing union power independent of the capitalist government and politicians. Break with the Democrats! For a workers party that fights for a workers government!

Unleash Labor’s Power!

West Virginia is synonymous with the struggles of the coal miners, for years the shock troops of American labor, including in the building of the CIO industrial unions in the 1930s. Miners have more than once turned strike bans into scraps of paper, including in the 1943 national strike during World War II when they defied Franklin D. Roosevelt’s back-to-work order. Democrat Jimmy Carter found out the hard way when he slapped a Taft-Hartley back-to-work order on the UMWA in the 110-day strike of 1977-78. The UMWA ranks shut down non-union mines with their militant tactics while scab coal was dumped on the highways, coal barges burned on the rivers and railroad bridges on coal spurs were blown up. A year earlier, a federal judge fined Local 1759 $300,000 but changed his mind after 80,000 miners joined the “anti-injunction” strike and shut down half of U.S. coal.

The 1977-78 strike was carried out in defiance of UMWA president Arnold Miller. Epitomizing the subordination of the unions to the capitalist state, Miller won office in 1972 through an election run by the Labor Department in the name of fighting “corruption” in the union. Miller was one of many union “reformers” who acted as tools of the bosses’ government, whose only purpose in intervening into union affairs is to stifle labor’s ability to engage in class struggle.

In place of hard class struggle, the UMWA leadership has increasingly resorted to impotent “corporate campaign”-style boycotts and endless civil disobedience arrests. In an interview with WV, Larry Bartram, a retired West Virginia UMWA safety committeeman and local union officer, aptly described civil disobedience as “just a show.” He continued, “If you really want to stand up for what you believe in, you go a lot farther than just sitting down there in the middle of the road, and then when state troopers or federal marshals walk up and say, ‘OK buddy, let’s go,’ you get up and put your hands behind you.” Union leaders have also demoralized the membership by bowing to a court order, issued following a 1984 strike, that workers watch “strike training” films produced by the government warning them about using “illegal” strike tactics.

The bankruptcy of the UMWA misleaders is shown by their refusal to mobilize the union in defense of its own militants, such as safety committeeman Jerry Dale Lowe, who was framed up on false charges stemming from the shooting death of a scab in a bitterly fought 1993 strike in Logan County, West Virginia. As a result, Lowe spent eleven years in federal prison.

Fight for a Workers America!

The capitalist rulers are waging an unrelenting war on the right of workers, the poor, immigrants and black people to live any kind of decent life, whether you’re on the job or unemployed, whether you’re a kid trapped in a prison-like public school or an old person warehoused in a barracks-like nursing home. Pensions and whatever health care workers have are being ripped up. More than a quarter of those who sought workers’ compensation due to their involvement in the cleanup at the World Trade Center following September 11 have had their applications denied.

In the U.S., race and class are inextricably intertwined with the cold statistics of poverty and death. Hurricane Katrina revealed again American capitalism’s racist bedrock, the legacy of slavery, as thousands of poor people, mainly black, were abandoned to die. The government’s open racist cruelty toward the helpless population outraged millions. Today, months later, thousands of the survivors are dispersed across the country in conditions of squalor, homeless and jobless, their former homes callously bulldozed as businessmen scheme about making a profit off the disaster. So cheaply were these peoples’ lives held that we still don’t even know how many died.

Only when the working class rips the means of production out of the hands of the corrupt, obscenely rich capitalist class and establishes a planned socialist economy can the health and safety of every person be ensured. That requires the forging of a multiracial workers party, leading all the exploited and oppressed in the struggle for socialist revolution.


Workers Vanguard No. 862

WV 862

20 January 2006


Organize the Unorganized!

Mobilize Labor's Power Against Death Traps!

West Virginia Mine Disaster: Capitalist Murder


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