Can Labor Unions Make Coal Mining Safer?

Massey Energy's Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where 25 miners died in a methane explosion Monday, is a lot like most mines in the area: it had received hundreds of citations in the past year, including six for inadequate ventilation plans, and it wasn't unionized.

The unionization of coal miners has a long and particularly storied history, the bloody details of which most West Virginia coal miners can still recount (a shootout with federal agents, a mayor gunned down in broad daylight on the courthouse steps, and countless violent clashes between union members and company bosses). By some accounts, the warring that began in 1890 has never stopped. But as the coal dries up, and the work itself changes, critics say the company bosses are winning.

Until recently, mining was pretty straightforward (albeit dangerous) work—men tunneling deep into mountains with little more than their bare hands and a few simple tools to harvest the bounty of coal beneath. But after 150 or so years of mining, the Appalachian coal beds have dwindled noticeably (the United States Geological Survey expects them to dry up completely in the next 50 years or so). And as the layers of minable coal grow thinner and harder to reach, mining itself has become more sophisticated and more environmentally destructive. In the 1970s and '80s, coal companies began peeling off the sides of mountains, a process called strip mining; by the mid-1990s, they were blasting off the tops. Today, even traditional underground mining requires a liberal dose of explosives and machines that boast 10- to 20-story-tall appendages—all of it needed to access slivers of coal that are now too thin to be culled by human hands.

As machines have replaced men, traditional miners have found themselves competing for fewer and fewer jobs, for which they are less and less qualified. Once upon a time, employment levels in Appalachia rose and fell with the rate of coal extraction. That's not the case anymore. In 1950, 130,000 coal workers extracted 160 million tons of coal. In 2000, it took just 20,000 workers to extract 180 million tons. Today, those workers include mechanics, electricians, hydraulic specialists, and demolition experts—many of whom earn more than $70,000 a year and enjoy full medical and dental insurance, obviating at least some of the incentives to unionize. Skilled laborers also make organizing more difficult because many of them qualify as supervisors, and under Massey's rules, only nonsupervisory employees are allowed to unionize.

While above-ground equipment operators enjoy safer working conditions, underground or deep miners—like those killed in Monday's explosion—still face a daily litany of dangers, and many of them insist unions still have a role to play in keeping them safe. "A union mine is a safer place, period," says Chuck Nelson, a volunteer community organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington, W.Va., and a former unionized deep miner. "Union miners have representation; they have a voice. They can report problems, file grievances, and look out for their union brothers."

Activists and area miners say Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has a stern reputation for union busting: firing union workers in some cases, and shutting down entire mines that were unionized in others, a charge the company has denied. In 2007, the National Labor Relations Board determined that the company's refusal to hire union miners was illegal.

Monday was not the first time Massey miners have died on the job. Last year the company pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges and agreed to pay $2.5 million in criminal fines for a 2006 fire that killed two miners. That same year, responding to a string of fatal mining accidents at Massey and elsewhere, federal regulators strengthened mine-safety laws for the first time in three decades.

But Nelson says those laws haven't been well enforced. "There are enough laws out there to protect miners, and there are miners and inspectors that want to do their jobs, but mine bosses and higher-ups seem frankly corrupt," he says. "Companies see violations as a cost of doing business. They contest the fines and sometimes don't pay them, and the government agencies just seem to go along with that.

"This mine did have some of the newly required safety chambers, but in methane explosions those are practically useless." What would not have been useless is a ventilation plan: adequate aeration of underground pockets, usually with large fans, that can prevent methane from reaching explosive concentrations. The coal seam where Monday's explosion occurred was known to emit large amounts of methane, and the Big Branch mine has been cited six times since January of this year for lacking an adequate ventilation plan.

"Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families," said Massey Energy in an official statement. "We are working diligently on rescue efforts and continue to partner with all of the appropriate agencies."

One environmental manager who works for a subsidiary of Massey and spoke on the condition of anonymity said yesterday that while the site received a large number of violations, most of them were minor. "Safety inspectors are in most mines practically every day," he said. "They are expected to write some violations, just like people would think that a state trooper who never wrote any speeding tickets wasn't doing his job." He argued that taxicab drivers and construction workers have higher fatality rates per hour worked than miners do. "It's not as dangerous as the media makes it sound," he said. "But something happened here that was unforeseen."