Thursday, January 05, 2006

Hard work in a dark place

Did the men think the mine was unsafe?
A reporter asked that question of a family member outside the Sago Mine in West Virginia.
No, came the response, but slowly. They knew there were problems.
Miners know what's going on - they don't need an official report to be aware of gas problems, dust problems, machinery problems. We'll hear more about all those in the days ahead, (see this overview from MSHA), about the hundreds of violations, large and small, at a former Horizon then Anker mine that had been resurrected by Wilbur Ross - a familiar name here in North Carolina, where he is consolidating failed textile companies as he has coal and steel operations.
A certain amount of danger is implicit in this work, and miners accept that, with pride and stubbornness in doing a difficult job well, but also the sure and certain knowledge that you don't make $50 K a year in West Virginia doing much else. Mining provides a good life for the families of miners, but one they often try to keep their own children from choosing. Go to college, get a degree, work somewhere warm and safe and clean. But there is an attraction, heritage not the least. It's the feeling in military families, an honor code of sorts, of doing something valuable that most people won't do and can't do and really don't understand.
Check in at The Rural Blog for a look at what journalists closest to the community are saying.
There is, too, some of the same problem that affects all of us making considerably less than six figures.
Miners used to have more power in West Virginia and Kentucky, when deep mines were the rule rather than mountaintop removal - cheaper, easier, and you pay men to run a bucket instead of the specialized tasks of roof bolter and shuttle car operator and brattice-man. Miners had more power when there were more of them - the longwall mines that replaced roof-and-pillar operations are highly efficient, requiring many fewer workers to produce much more coal.
When mines were unsafe, United Mine Workers miners used to walk out - wildcat strikes. And those strikes disrupted the steady flow of coal to power plants, and they got attention.
Now there are fewer miners, fewer union miners, and wildcat strikes are part of a storied past, like picks and mules and "16 Tons."
Miners are more like other American workers today - they need to hang on to their jobs and their benefits. They squawk less and bear down more.
The same day that the bodies came out of Sago Mine, I heard business analysts trumpet the lack of wage pressure, how great it was that American wages were flat, flat, flat. Don't need to worry about inflation!
Corporate profits are up in most places outside the automakers, and executive bonuses sure aren't disappearing. But wages are flat, and health care costs more, and pensions are another part of the storied past.
I imagine the miners knew what the problems were. But they put on their helmets and steel-toed boots, checked their batteries and got in the man-trip. There was a job to do.

1 comment:

Eric2 said...

"But wages are flat, and health care costs more, and pensions are another part of the storied past."
Too true.