Thursday, February 22, 2007

"Be Careful, Buddy"

They got you fightin' white against colored, native against foreign...when you know there ain't but two sides in the world - them that work and them that don't.
Matewan, 1987

I watched Harlan Country, USA today, and damn near wept through the whole thing. This documentary, which won the 1976 Academy Award in that category, takes an intimate lens to the coal miners of Harlan County Kentucky and their decision to join the United Mine Workers union. UMW Boss Tony Boyle had his reform opponent, his opponent's wife and their daughter murdered in their beds. Three rank-and-file union members then mounted a successful campaign to clean up the UMW. On the crest of this wave, the miners of the Brookside mine in Harlan become the reformed UMW's first effort at "organizing the unorganized."So the film crew journeyed to Harlan. There, they documented the struggle of miners and their families as they endured a 14 month strike, trying to win a union contract. The entire film ripples with the tension of a community bucking a corporate siege. These Kentuckians are stripped raw, fighting Duke Energy's gun thugs and trying to hold together a brittle front of solidarity. The power of their love and desperation is irresistible, even looking down 30 years.

The primary concern of the miners is not their pay. They were poor, but so was everyone else in Harlan county. But working conditions at the Brookside mine were horribly unsafe. The miners and their families lived in company-owned shacks with no hot water, no baths, no toilets. Needless to say, healthcare for themselves and their families was totally lacking. Blacklung, officially denied by Duke Energy, hung over every man.

Looming in the background is the terrible tragedy of the Mannington Mine explosion. 78 men were burned alive in the 1968 explosion that led to the 1969 Coal Mine Safety Act. Mannington underscores the stakes for these men and women, fully aware that they are but grist for the mill. The backbone of the union fight are the wives and daughters of the miners--not subject to the operator's court injunctions and struggling to raise children amid the grinding but matter-of-fact poverty of Kentucky Appalachia. There's violence. There's a murder.

The bare determination of the people of Harlan hits with brute force throughout. They eventually win the union contract from Duke, but sacrifice the right to strike in the process. As in life, there's no neat bow around the ending. The fight continues as the credits roll and the miners go back to their low tunnels underground.

What kept me wracked throughout was the memory of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia. Back in 1968, the Mannington mine was inspected 16 times by Federal inspectors and was given 16 extensions to comply. Then the mine blew up. The Mine Safety Act was passed.
In 2005, the [Sago] mine was cited by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) 208 times for violating regulations, up from 68 in 2004. Of those, 96 were considered significant and substantial. Additionally, West Virginia's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training issued 144 citations over that year, up from 74 the previous year. (Wikipedia)
Then the mine blew up. The records of the subsequent investigation have been blocked from release by the International Coal Group in spite of pressure from the UMW and 2 US Representatives (one Dem and one Rep). Ameliorative legislation was submitted in the House, the Senate and the State of West Virginia almost immediately. But there were already plenty of laws on the books.
Sadly, in the way mines are often run, the $24,000 in fines paid by the Sago managers last year constituted little more than the cost of doing business. In the Appalachian routine, miners balking at risky conditions down below can quickly forfeit their livelihood if they have no union protection.

Political figures from both parties have long defended and profited from ties to the coal industry. Whether or not that was a factor in the Sago mine's history, the Bush administration's cramming of important posts in the Department of the Interior with biased operatives from the coal, oil and gas industry is not reassuring about general safety in the mines. Steven Griles, a mining lobbyist before being appointed deputy secretary of the interior, devoted four years to rolling back mine regulations and then went back to lobbying for the industry. NYTimes
ICG built itself by buying up bankrupt mines. But only the non-union bankrupt mines. They even waited-out a bankruptcy proceeding to be sure that the union contracts of their targeted purchases would be dishonored before they made an offer. No surprise, then, that Sago was a non-union mine.

Right after the disaster, the response of MSHA was to change the FOIA requirements pertaining to its investigations, making it impossible for the families of the miners ever to find out the results of the investigations. ICG followed suit.

In Huntington, Utah in 2003-04 mine workers went on strike for better wages and benefits. At the time, they were getting $7 per hour. Union workers in West Virginia were, by that time, making $17 per hour. The Kingston family fought tooth and nail against the miners before giving in -- sort of. It took the support of unions throughout the mountain west and the pressure of the community of Huntington and the Catholic church (but not the Mormons) before they would even rehire the striking workers, never mind sign a union contract or give those men a raise.

It just never ends. I would never have thought myself a radical. But the business world proves again and again that they will do nothing without being forced. As someone in Harlan County said, "Behind every dime they give you is a fight." The men and women of Harlan literally paid in blood first for the right to health care and better working conditions and later, to win back their right to strike -- a right which they had to give up just to get benefits in the first place. Now, 30 years later, courts are giving away everything the unions fought for. The right to contract apparently only runs in one direction: you have the right to sign away your life and be held to that promise. But the corporations will be held to no such promises.

The year the miners of Harlan won their 4% raise (1975), the cost of living was up 7% and the profits for Duke Energy were up 170%. Now almost all the coal fields are owned by the oil companies. The same oil companies who are posting profits so immense that only governments recognize what they mean. And union participation is at a post-war low. And the ratio of wages to CEO compensation is worse than it was during the Gilded Age.

There's something we need to get back to in this country. It's the idea that those men are your brothers. It's the recognition that unless you're in the top 1%, this system is designed to squeeze you until there's no blood left, then suck you dry of all moisture. If you punch a clock, hell, if your income is greater than your capital gains, you need to see that this isn't working.

We aren't capitalists in this country by Constitutional mandate. There's no reason we can't abandon it for something else. I'm not advocating that. But I am saying that unless we see about making sure that capitalism works for everybody, there will come a time in the near future when it will work for nobody.

As the movie "Harlan County, USA" begins to close, a group of miners get in the car that will shoot them under the ground. Once there, they'll spend the next ten hours on their knees in the midst of a constant racket of machinery, sucking coal dust into their lungs and not thinking about the roof of rock above them and the methane gas collecting at their feet. A miner slides the door closed and the camera focuses on a sign stuck to the glass: "Be careful, buddy."

Good advice.


Jim said...

Some thoughts that didn't really fit in the post:
1. Yes, I know W.Va. coal miners make pretty good money right now--average is about 60K a year. That's good. But for every guy in a mine making 60k, there's a guy somewhere else (like, say, Utah) strip-mining for 7 bucks an hour, getting no benefits and getting blacklung (an entirely preventable condition).

2. Coal is not clean. Don't even come to me with those arguments because I will toast you. Yes, it is cleaner than it was, but it is still dirty as hell--when they bother to scrub which, thanks to Bushie, no one really does anymore. And that's not even considering the environmental degradation taking off the top of a mountain entails.

3. "Harlan County, USA" was the partial inspiration for the John Sayles movie "Matewan". Matewan is about the coal-fields wars of the 1920s (Mother Jones, etc.), which, incidentally, some of the older folk in Harlan Co. actually remember--to the point of cautioning restraint. Matewan stars Chris Cooper and James Earl Jones. I can recommend it, especially if you have the patience for longish, character-driven stuff like the stuff Sayles makes.

4. The music in the movie blows me away. Old-time bluegrass. It rips me right down.

Tally-ho. said...

I'd been meaning to watch that documentary ever since reading about it in The Nation a while back. The dead coal miners were written off in the news cycle so fast...I can't imagine a more thankless lot in this life than being an American who got fucked over somehow...unless you're a mess of bones and torn flesh on the side of the highway, nobody even bothers to look, let alone empathize.

You get the same answer from staunch Republicans now...coal mining is dangerous...war is dangerous...

Not if you're a shareholder profiting from it.

Jim, have you watched Deadwood on HBO?

Jim said...


Thanks for all the comments, man. You're my most loyal listener. I've not seen Deadwood (cable-less and even when I was cableful, I didn't get HBO), though I've heard the good news about that. I've been meaning to rent/netflix it, that and "The Wire" which gets rave reviews from a friend of mine Who Knows About These Things.

As to the 'fucked over' in the USA: yes. The idea seems to be that you're in the land of opportunity. So if there's not a pot of gold under your rainbow, well, it certainly isn't because there was no rainbow. Obviously these miners just aren't working hard enough.

In re HST: I'd love to see what you have. Shout to me sometime at jkgooch(at)gmail(dot)com and we'll exchange particulars. I know I'm not alone, but there's so much about him that grabs my attention. Not just his prose and not just his insight or his humor or outrage, but his unwavering self-belief. He must have been a sonofabitch to be around. I probably would've been completely pissed off at him most of the time if I'd known him.