Unchain the 
Power of Labor

charleston five
Charleston Five longshoremen arrested for defending picket lines against cop attack (January 2000).
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South Carolina clay miners appeal for solidarity in fight for their union (October 2001). 
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January 2006    

Murder in a Non-Union Mine – Blood for Profits

Sago mine in Upshur County, West Virginia on January 2, when blast cut off 13 miners. While company
officials delayed, 12 died. The mine had hundreds of safety violations and should hav been closed.
(Photo: Bob Bird/AP)

JANUARY 12 – While most of the country was sleeping off New Year’s Eve parties and New Year’s Day bowl games, at 6:30 a.m. on January 2 two teams of workers at a West Virginia coal mine were headed down into the shaft. Suddenly a huge explosion sent sheets of mud, coal and chunks of rocks hurtling with the force of a hurricane, blowing down concrete barriers set up to direct airflow. The second team was able to don respirators and grope along the wall back to the surface and safety. But the advance team of 13 miners was cut off by the blast, and sought to take refuge in an isolated corner of the mine, putting up plastic sheeting in an attempt to keep out the deadly carbon monoxide as they waited for rescuers. Forty hours later, rescue teams finally reached the crew, all dead but one, who remains in critical condition.

Those miners did not have to die. This was not an unforeseeable accident but cold-blooded murder for coal company profits. For all the talk of a high-tech economy, the country runs on energy, and as King Cotton was built on slavery, King Coal runs on workers’ blood. Just as it did back when Rocky Mountain miners and their families were shot down by Rockefeller’s gun thugs and state troopers in Ludlow, Colorado in 1914. Just as it did when the Appalachians were wracked by the coal mine wars like the 1920 Matewan massacre.

Sago was a non-union mine, and everyone knew it was unsafe: the mine owners knew it, the government knew it (they cited it for hundreds of safety violations), and the miners knew it – but they went to work anyway, because they feared for their jobs. Up to the 1970s, miners in the United Mine Workers (UMWA) union had the right, won through hard class struggle, to simply walk off the job if they considered conditions to be unsafe. Not so today. The worst West Virginia mine disaster in almost 40 years is the product of the destruction of labor unions and shredding of union gains throughout the U.S., and particularly of the downfall of the UMWA. And that is the direct result of the lack of a revolutionary leadership of labor with the program and determination to take on and defeat the bosses in the unrelenting class war.

The murder at Sago mine poses fundamental issues for the entire working class, not least New York City transit workers who courageously struck over issues vital to all (health care, pensions) only to be sold out by their union leaders who vainly sought reach an accommodation with billionaire bosses and politicians who were out for workers’ blood.

Twelve miners did not have to die. They could have had hand-held radios with antennas in the shafts, like at the Willow Creek mine in Price, Utah, where miners were alerted to escape when a fire broke out in 1998. Military imaging technology which today is used to detect and murder Iraqis could have been used to locate the trapped miners. New technology could be developed to replace oxygen canisters and ventilation equipment that haven’t changed in 20 years. Century-old technology could be used to wipe out debilitating diseases like “black lung” which still takes 1,500 miners’ lives a year. But this won’t happen under capitalism, which extracts its profits from workers’ blood. Always has and always will. We need a revolution.

Sago: A Death Trap Mine

Members of rescue team prepare to enter Sago mine, January 3, more than 24 hours after the explosion. Company officials held back rescue teams for almost 12 hours.
(Photo: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)

The Sago mine disaster quickly became notorious as millions around the country watched the unfolding tragedy on television. We saw the callousness of the mine bosses and state officials, who reported that 12 miners were alive, even claiming they were being examined by doctors, and let this go uncorrected for hours after they knew the report was false. While the families were singing “Amazing Grace” full of hope and preparing dinners for their loved ones, the CEO was holed up in the company offices plotting “spin control.” When he finally emerged to announce that there had been a “miscommunication” and the miners were dead, anguished family members cried out “liar” and “hypocrite.” One woman lunged at the company president, who was quickly spirited out the door by state police.

The unfolding tragedy was broadcast as a real-life “reality TV” show, with Fox’s Geraldo Rivera invading the sanctuary of the Sago Baptist Church to shove a microphone in the faces of the miners’ families, CNN’s Anderson Cooper trying for a repeat of his emotional Hurricane Katrina coverage and anchor Paula Zahn interviewing the local pastor in the aftermath saying that it was all part of “god’s plan.” No, it was part of a company plan, to boost profits by cutting costs. “It’s not an act of god, it’s an act of guys – guys exploiting other guys!” spat out labor chronicler Studs Terkel (Chicago-Sun Times, 6 January). What about the couple hundred safety violations at the mine last year, he asked, for which the company was fined between $60 and $440 each? “It’s like 2 cents” for a big corporation like the International Coal Group – chicken feed. Miners’ deaths? They call in the insurance adjusters.

All down the line, safety measures that should have been taken weren’t. Miners were not equipped with potential life-saving equipment. The company was a notorious asset-stripping outfit specializing in gutting and reselling formerly unionized plants. But beyond the specific abuses, neglect and crimes of the mine owners, the West Virginia miners were victims of a criminal system in which workers’ safety and lives are sacrificed to bolster the companies’ bottom lines, and the government is there to back up the murdering bosses. Like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where 100,000 overwhelmingly black poor people were left to die; like the U.S.’ imperialist war and occupation of Iraq, which has slaughtered tens of thousands of Iraqis, the Sago mine disaster laid bare the workings of capitalism, which feeds off the misery of its victims and mercilessly exploits those who produce the wealth.

Look at the Sago mine disaster in detail and you will see how capitalism kills.

For starters, Sago had no rescue team. Under the Mine Safety Act of 1977 there must be two qualified rescue teams at every mine. Too expensive, whined the coal bosses. So subsequent regulations permitted mine owners to contract out. By the end of 1999, of the 921 working mines in the United States only 80 had even one rescue team. The rest made arrangements with one of these mines, with a state-sponsored team or a private contractor. Although it is now legally required that there be a qualified rescue team within two hours of every mine, the first unit didn’t arrive at Sago until four and a half hours after the blast. Even then, they were held back by company officials and rescuers did not enter the mine until almost 12 hours after the explosion, by which time almost all of the trapped miners had died.

Moreover, Sago mine was cited hundreds of times for serious safety violations by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, some 208 times in 2005 alone, 96 of them judged “serious and substantial.” That’s on top of 144 violations listed by state inspectors. On 18 occasions, inspectors issued withdrawal orders, stopping production in parts of the mine. In 17 cases, the MSHA citations were for “unwarrantable failures,” the most inexcusable cases, which the main operators were aware of but hadn’t fixed. The latest one, on December 14, found coal in piles of six to eight inches deep along the walls and roadways, accumulations of highly explosive coal dust, and inadequate spreading of limestone to prevent it from igniting. “The operator has shown a high degree of negligence for the health and safety of the miners that work at this coal mine by allowing the conditions to exist,” the MSHA inspector wrote (Charleston Gazette, 11 January). It is possible that on January 2, coal dust was ignited by escaping methane gas set off by a spark or a sudden drop in barometric pressure due to a lightning storm.

Safety citation against Sago mine by MSHA inspectors over coal piled in passage ways and presence of explosive coal dust.

Under federal statute, a “fire boss” has to inspect the mine shafts before every shift. Twelve times last year, inspectors found pre-shift examinations of the Sago mine were inadequate. In addition, more than a dozen times in the last six months the mine reported accidental roof falls, an alarming rate. These frequent accidents produced an injury rate of 17 injuries per 200,000 hours worked, almost triple the national rate of 6.54 for similar mines (Charleston Gazette, 10 January). Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News, noted that several comparable underground coal mines in West Virginia (Kingston Mining No. 1, Mountaineer Alma A, Robinson Run, Blacksville No. 2, Loveridge No. 22) had rates ranging from 1.21 to 5.62, all below the national average, and that despite MSHA citations, things got worse at Sago in 2005.

For its violations, ICG was fined a pittance – $24,000 last year, compared to profits of $15 million in the first three quarters of 2005. They just write it off as a cost of doing business. Other coal operators don’t even bother to pay. According to federal records, since 2000 some 84 mines have not paid any citation against them exceeding $10,000, but nothing is done about it. In Pike County, Kentucky Midgard Mining has had more than $350,000 in accumulated fines since 1996; they paid $700 in 1998, and since then nothing. When asked why potentially life-saving technologies were not used, the head of safety for the National Mining Association replied cavalierly that it was not their responsibility to develop safety equipment: “We’re not in the self-rescuer manufacturing business” (quoted in the New York Times, 11 January).

A long-time mine safety inspector and expert, Tony Oppegard, told the Charleston Gazette that the violations at Sago were so flagrant that they “should be referred to the U.S. attorney for possible criminal prosecution.” Another expert, Jack Spadaro, who was head of the MSHA National Mine Safety and Health Academy in Beckley said the Agency should have closed down the mine for the egregious pattern of safety failures. MSHA chief Bob Friend said that it would require many months to establish a pattern of violations. The ICG is hiding behind the claim that it only completed its takeover of Sago mine last fall. Yet Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. established that ICG owner Wilbur Ross has effectively controlled the mine since 2001, when he acquired 47 percent of Anker Coal Group, the previous owner. But to expect the bosses’ government to shut down the coal bosses is to sow dangerous illusions.

Mine Owner, a Notorious “Vulture Investor,” Is a Democrat

The story of this death trap mine in Upshur County, West Virginia leads straight from the Appalachian hills and hollows to Wall Street, the heart of international finance capital. The boss man at Sago is Bennett Hatfield, but the ultimate owner, Ross, is a New York billionaire and “vulture investor.” He specializes in buying up bankrupt or near-bankrupt plants, stripping their assets, dumping pension plans, slashing wages, cutting safety measures and then selling off the now “profitable” company at a huge mark-up. Ross was notorious as the “bankruptcy king,” as Fortune magazine labeled him in 1998, or the “bottom feeder king,” as New York magazine called him in 2004. The ICG was formed in 2004 as a holding company, which now owns 21 mines, all non-union. (Sago used to be unionized when it was owned by Pittston.)

Before forming the International Coal Group, Ross organized the International Steel Group, put together out of the Cleveland steel mills on other assets of the bankrupt LTV Corp., in the process eliminating pension and health benefits of 82,000 retirees. Later he added Bethlehem Steel. In 2003, he formed the International Textile Group by acquiring the bankrupt Burlington Industries and Cone Mills in North Carolina. An article by Andrew Pollack on “The Man (and the System) Behind the Mining Murders” that appeared on Monthly Review’s MRzine (6 January) notes:

“Some may see Ross’s story as one of a particularly avaricious man savaging the workforces of one industry after another. More accurately, however, it is a story of the system whose cyclical nature creates the need for men (and women) like Ross, who drive its component parts through inevitable reorganization required by the destruction of old, and the creation of new, capital (concentrating and centralizing it in the process).”

The “robber barons” of the late 1800s – J.P. Morgan in rail, John D. Rockefeller in oil and coal, Andrew Carnegie in steel – used similar and even more energetic methods, snatching up bankrupt companies to build their industrial empires.

Wilbur Ross and ex-wife Betsey McCaughey, holding up Democratic Party registration card, September 1997. (Photo: Marty Lederhandler/AP)

Various Democratic Party liberals, labor reformists and pseudo-socialists have sought to portray the West Virginia mine murders as basically another crime of the George W. Bush regime. “George Bush’s cutbacks and the greed of Wilbur Ross killed them,” declares the International Action Center. This is also the editorial line of the Charleston Gazette. Former Clinton administration mine safety officials have been scathing about the deterioration of conditions in recent years. The Bush administration has certainly done its best to gut miners’ safety, notably by putting mining industry officials in charge of the MSHA, slashing mine inspectors’ jobs and dropping a mine rescue improvement initiative in 2002. Up to a few years ago there was an Agency rescue unit available in nearby Morgantown, for example, but no longer. Yet the assault on occupation safety is a bipartisan effort by the capitalist parties. The United Mine Workers has been bitterly complaining about the “depletion” of the rescue units since 1995, when the Democrats controlled the federal government.

Moreover, International Coal Group owner and “vulture investor” Wilbur Ross is no Bush Republican but a prominent Democratic Party money man. Ross was a big-time contributor for Bill Clinton, and is friends with John Kerry. He also funded the campaign of his (now ex-) wife, Betsy McCaughey, who ran as the Democratic candidate for governor of New York against Republican Pataki in 1998. Not only that, Ross was able to use his ties with Democratic Party union leaders to leverage his way into buying up the bankrupt steel and textile mills. United Steelworkers (USWA) chief Leo W. Gerard said that he found “a breath of fresh air” from Ross. “Wilbur and his people actually cared about what we had to say” (Business Week, 22 December 2003). UNITE HERE president Bruce Raynor was even more effusive, gushing: “I really think the future of domestic manufacturing is people like Wilbur Ross.”

Labor “Reformers” Chained UMWA to the State

So the bankruptcy king promises to deliver a few hundred union jobs (after thousands were laid off), with big cuts of wages and benefits, and the bankruptcy king gets thumbs up from the pro-capitalist labor fakers. (The USWA was so “flexible” that at Ross’s ISG, workers went for more than a year without a union contract.) But in coal, Ross insisted on shutting down union operations. When the ICG and Massey Mining carved up Horizon Natural Resources in 2004, they eliminated medical coverage for 1,000 active miners and 2,300 retirees, mainly in Kentucky. The Sago mine murders are a result of this union-busting offensive, and miners know it. John Bennett, whose father James was killed in the mine, told Matt Lauer of the NBC Today (4 January) show, “It’s not just the men that go down there every day that know the mines is unsafe…we have no protection for our workers. We need to get the United Mine Workers back in these coal mines, to protect [against] these safety violations, to protect these workers.”

That is certainly true, and every class-conscious worker has to ask: why isn’t the UMWA in those mines now? The steady string of union defeats over the last three decades is a direct result of the sellout policies of the leadership. Instead of waging hard class struggle against the bosses, their politicians and their government, the labor bureaucracy which presides over the unions subordinates the workers to capitalists like Wilbur Ross, to the capitalist state in general and to the capitalist Democratic Party in particular. What’s more, various supposed socialists and self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” who posed as alternatives to the hidebound bureaucrats helped tie the workers to sectors of the ruling class. In the UMWA this came to fore in the early 1970s with the rise of Miners for Democracy (MFD) and the victory of its candidate, Arnold Miller, in 1972.

The MFD arose in response to the corrupt and gangster-ridden regime of Tony Boyle, who had ordered the mob rub-out of his union rival Jock Yablonski when he ran for UMWA president in 1969. Boyle was a real pal of the coal operators, praising Consolidation Coal for its “safety-mindedness” right after the 1968 explosion at the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington, West Virginia when 78 miners died. What was called for then was to build a powerful class-struggle opposition against the Boyle gang among rank-and-file miners. Instead, advised by Democratic Party lawyers, the MFD asked the government (in this case, the Labor Department under President Richard Nixon!) to overturn the Mine Workers election and order a rerun. This is crossing the class line, bringing the bosses’ government into the workers movement. We say: Labor must clean its own house!

<>When the courts ordered a new election and “reform” candidate Miller was elected, the result was to place the union under even more direct government control. The vast majority of the left at the time supported the MFD, including the Communist Party, Socialist Workers Party and others. In no time, Miller was sabotaging miners’ struggles, such as the bitter 1973-74 strike at the Brookside mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. (Miller’s betrayals are shown, but not explained, in the movie Harlan County, U.S.A.) Soon after, Miller was clamping down on huge wildcats involving up to 80,000 miners that swept through the West Virginia coal fields in 1975-76 demanding the right to strike over local grievances – in particular, safety issues. Prior to the ’74 contract, miners’ Health and Safety Committees had the right to make unannounced mine inspections and workers had the right to walk off the job over dangerous working conditions. (We raised the demand for union safety committees with the power to shut down unsafe operations in last month’s NYC transit workers strike.)

Cops battle striking West Virginia miners in Charleston, 25 August 1975.
(Photo: Charleston Daily Mail)

Even after the combined efforts of union misleader Miller, the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) and the courts barely managed to defeat of the ’75-’76 wildcats, and another two-month strike in the summer of 1977 over the BCOA’s elimination of company-paid medical cards, the miners kept fighting. The battle came to a head in the 110-day coal strike of 1977-78, when mine workers twice voted down sellout agreements negotiated by Miller, faced down murderous company gun thugs and defied back-to-work orders under a Taft-Hartley injunction from Democratic president Jimmy Carter. Militant miners burned the contracts and burned Miller in effigy. A sign declared, “If this so-called contract is ratified it will destroy us and the UMWA.” Only after almost six months on strike (counting the earlier wildcat) were the bosses able to defeat the miners, above all for lack of a class-struggle leadership adequate to the task of defeating the capitalists, their courts, their politicians and their puppet Miller.

Recently, an ex-New Leftist and a Maoist who were active organizing among West Virginia coal miners in the early to mid-1970s have posted articles about the Sago mine disaster on the Internet (CounterPunch, 4 and 7 January). One noted that the breakdown of safety conditions can be traced back to the elimination of the right to strike in the ’74 contract negotiated by Miller:To add insult to injury, it was the militant miners operating under the name Miners for Democracy that had elected these officers.” True enough. He might have added that the fake-leftists, including the Revolutionary Union (forerunner of the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party), also gave “critical support” to Miller and the MFD. The Trotskyists, in contrast, including the founders of the Internationalist Group, refused to call for votes to the MFD which chained the once-powerful union to the bosses’ government.

Oust the Bureaucrats, Break with the Democrats,
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!

Leon Trotsky, co-leader together with V.I. Lenin of the Bolshevik Party which led the Russian October Revolution, underscored in his last, unfinished essay on “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (August 1940) the need for a revolutionary opposition in the unions:

“The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state. This means a struggle to turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labor aristocracy....

“The second slogan is: trade-union democracy. This second slogan flows directly from the first and presupposes for its realization the complete freedom of the trade unions from the imperialist or colonial state....

“The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

The Internationalist Group fights to build a genuine a class-struggle opposition in the unions, based on a revolutionary program for the working class to break from the stranglehold of the capitalist parties and forge a workers party that fights for a workers government.

Back in the 1940s, the United Mine Workers stood up and fought against the government. In World War II, when the American Trotskyist leaders (and leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters) were jailed for their opposition to the imperialist slaughter, long-time UMWA leader John L. Lewis defied the wartime no-strike pledge to wage bitter and successful coal strikes. After the war, shortly after Congress passed the union-busting Taft-Hartley Act outlawing “secondary strikes” and purging “reds” from union leadership positions, Lewis defiantly ordered a six-day walkout over the 1947 disaster that killed 111 miners in Centralia, Illinois. But Lewis was at bottom a pro-capitalist labor bureaucrat, and after first lining up with Democrat Franklin Roosevelt when the militant Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was founded in 1936, he later broke with Roosevelt only to go over to the Republicans.

The fact that the mass opposition to the corrupt pro-company UMWA leadership under Tony Boyle was channeled into building a “reform” movement that was tied to the capitalist government was what crippled the miners union. The right to strike over safety was eliminated, and today the UMWA is a shadow of its former self, barely existing in West Virginia where its membership has fallen from 120,000 to a few thousand miners at most. Most mines, even in this heartland of coal field unionism, are today non-union. The mining companies do as they please, chopping off the tops of mountains, polluting creeks and rivers, and running mines like Sago that are literal death traps. Now the Democrats are calling for investigations by the Congress and the West Virginia state legislature, which will predictably go nowhere.

Sago miners were victims of the bosses’ war on the working people and the oppressed. This is the same war that is slaughtering Iraqis, and black poor people in New Orleans. We have to defeat this bosses’ war, both abroad and “at home.” Only by directly taking on the coal companies, the Democratic Party politicians like phony “friend of labor” West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller, and the bourgeois state from George Bush on down will it be possible to prevent new Sago disasters. The struggle for a revolutionary workers party is key. n

To contact the League for the Fourth International or its sections, send an e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com