Thursday, April 8, 2010

What would Mother Jones say about the Upper Big Branch explosion?

Mary "Mother" Jones, the legendary labor organizer and "Miners' Angel" who lived to be a hundred and was once tagged "the most dangerous woman in America," spent many years fighting on the front lines for coal miners in West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, and in the West. It was in what she called "medieval West Virginia" where she found herself facing some of the toughest obstacles to workers' rights.

Her work on behalf of West Virginia miners during a violent strike in 1912 and 1913 led to a conviction for conspiring to commit murder and a twenty-year prison sentence. She was 83 years old at the time. Later released at the order of the governor, she went right back to helping miners. "I would fight God Almighty himself if he didn't play square with me," she said.

What would Mother Jones say today as the nation reels from the deaths of 25 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. The miners were killed after an explosion at the mine, which is owned by Massey Energy. Big, blustery Don Blankenship, Massey Energy's CEO known for his financial largess to favored politicians and judges, has the audacity to defend his company and his mine despite a disgusting record of safety violations too long tolerated by benign federal regulators.

The explosion, the latest of many tragedies in the nation's under-regulated coal mines, reminds us of the de-unionization of coal-mining companies over the years. Despite a storied history that includes the bloody battles at Matewan, West Virgnia, in 1921 and in Evarts, Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1931, the United Mine Workers union is struggling in what was once an Appalachian stronghold.

Not a single coal mining company in Harlan County, that "dark and bloody ground" that inspired Florence Reese's great labor anthem "Which Side Are You On?", is organized today. That's despite the great victory at the Brookside mine in the mid-1970s that was the subject of Barbara Kopple's award-winning documentary Harlan County USA.

We all remember the death of 12 miners in West Virginia's Sago mine in 2006, just one incident in a long tolling of the bell for unprotected miners.

Coal miners' best hope for good, save jobs and a decent life still lies with organized labor. They've been down before--in the 1920s, for example--and they rose up from the valley and became strong. The nation's president says he supports unions and believes the U.S. desperately needs them. Democrats in Congress have long looked to unions for support in their re-election bids. It's time they start putting action behind their words. Lives depend on it.

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