Massey Energy: Making the case all over again for unions and regulation

Two weeks ago, twenty-nine West Virginia men died in an explosion at a Massey Energy mine. It was the worst mining disaster in 40 years and it was no accident. Mike Lillis at the Washington Independent this week traveled to the site of the disaster, Massey’s Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in Boone County. He’s there after most of the rest of the national media moved on from the story.

As Lillis discovered, the Big Branch tragedy is not really about the explosion. It’s about the monopoly culture Massey established in the region that defies safety rules and that is sustained by intimidating the men who mine the coal that feeds Massey’s profits, men who fall in line and say nothing about blatant safety violations for fear of losing their jobs and any chance at working at any mine anywhere within hundreds of miles– for all the mines are owned by Massey.

Read Lillis’s latest dispatches here and here.

Gary Quarles, 33, killed at the Massey mine. (Herald Dispatch)

It’s now business as usual for Massey… The company has denied time off for miners to attend their friends’ funerals; has rejected makeshift memorials outside the mine site; and, in at least one case, required a worker to go on shift even though the fate of a relative — one of the victims of the April 5 disaster — remained unknown at the time, according to some family members and other sources familiar with those episodes. In short, the company might be taking heat for putting profits and efficiency above its workers, but it doesn’t appear to have changed its tune in the wake of the worst mining tragedy in 40 years.

“They told my husband, ‘You’ve got a job to do and you’re gonna do it,’” said the wife of one Massey miner, referring to the funerals he’s missed this month for friends who died in the blast. “What else are we gonna do?”

Such anecdotes aren’t easy to come by. Massey — the top coal producer in Appalachia — has built a reputation of intimidating its workers into a type of lock-step compliance that most often takes the form of silence, particularly when the subject revolves around safety in the company’s mines. The reason is clear: Massey is the economic engine in parts of West Virginia, and there’s a lingering fear among many workers that any grumbling could leave them unemployed. Some former employees said this week that the reluctance of Upper Big Branch miners to discuss the conditions inside those tunnels prior to the blast is no accident.

“I guarantee it: Massey’s already told these guys, ‘Hey, don’t say nothin’. You’re not talking to no reporters. You’re not saying nothin’ about our safety record — or you won’t have a job,’” said Chuck Nelson, a former Massey miner who’s since become an environmental activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “That’s the way they operate.”

…It wasn’t always this way. Before Massey rose over the last several decades to become the predominate coal operator in the region, most of the area’s miners belonged to the union, affording them certain protections not enjoyed by Massey’s workers, most of whom are non-union. UMWA members didn’t fear losing their jobs, for example, if they reported a safety hazard.

“When we were all union, if there was something that came up, it wasn’t no problem at all to shut that mine down until everything was fixed.” said Nelson, who worked for nearly 20 years in union mines before Massey took over. “Non-union [workers], they ain’t got that right.”

The debate surrounding Massey is a complicated one in a coal-rich region where the balance between work and workers’ rights is nothing if not delicate. Indeed, even as some Massey families grumble about the company’s dubious safety record and cut-throat business ethic, other employees fly company flags and do the mowing in their Massey uniforms. For many, Massey is mining — and there’s an intense pride in both.

Still, Massey’s history of safety violations — including hundreds racked up at its other Appalachian projects in the last two weeks alone — has raised plenty of eyebrows in Washington in the wake of this month’s disaster. The White House, which had responded to the blast by vowing to reinspect the country’s most problematic mines, released a list of those projects Wednesday. At least eight of the 57 mines are Massey-owned.

A commenter at one of Lillis’s stories asks if Massey took out life insurance policies on their miners. As Wall Street has made clear, shorting against your own bad business practices is the best way to do business in the deregulated era.

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