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Betrayal in the Mines

Death and the Mines

by Brit Hume
Grossman, 288 pp., $7.50

An ancient English ballad relates that “Toil is the lot of a coal miner’s life, and tears are the lot of a coal miner’s wife.” The naïve might suppose that in the old age of the twentieth century and after the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Crusade, the New Frontier, and the Great Society, modern technology and a heightened reverence for life would have softened the toil and wiped away some of the tears, but it is not so. Brit Hume’s matter-of-fact book jars the reader with the inescapable conclusion that in the United States today the miner’s lot is astoundingly similar to that of his forebears who brought coal to the top of pits for George III.

Most American mining occurs in Appalachia, a situation that is changing as operators shift to the vast, newly opened deposits of the far West. Among the hills of Western Pennsylvania, in a tiny scrap of Maryland, in West Virginia, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and northern Alabama, and in bleak towns on the plains of western Kentucky and Illinois live the men whose labor and fortitude produce the coal that makes possible our much vaunted standard of living. They and their sad-eyed, apprehensive wives and generally reticent children inhabit a kind of industrial outback, a vast sprawling region where practically anything goes and into which much of the sophistication and many of the refinements of contemporary civilization have never penetrated.

It is still astonishingly laissez-faire, a land where absentee owners of immense mineral deposits and the mining companies to which they lease rule states and counties through puppet officials, commit with impunity every conceivable assault against the physical environment, and evade their tax liabilities so thoroughly that long tiers of pauper counties huddle broke and impotent atop vast mineral reserves and amid endless industrial activity. The corporations treat mining men with the same contempt a farmer might reserve for his mules and shirk virtually all responsibility to provide leadership for the communities they so ruthlessly dominate.

Death and the Mines is a catalogue of betrayal interwoven with and endlessly reinforced by other betrayal to the ruin of a huge region and most of its people. As the story unfolds one marvels at the never ending duplicities, the ineffectualness of government on the rare occasions when it is aroused to action, and, most of all, at the lonely courage of the men and women who sometimes struggle against the implacable phalanx that hems them in.

The Consolidation Coal Company is the nation’s biggest coal producer and operates a mammoth mine near a tiny hamlet called Farmington in West Virginia. The officials of “Consol” were proud of Number 9, whose sprawling network of tunnels extended over thousands of acres. It produced two million tons annually and would not exhaust its reserves for a third of a century. When it blew up in a series of titanic explosions on November 20, 1968, it was like the surfacing of a dead whale: it brought up wave after wave of corruption and death.

The struggles of coal miners under John Mitchell and other early leaders, which culminated in the violent and violently resisted organizing drives under John L. Lewis in the 1930s, were long since the stuff of American legend. Conditions had been terrible in the coal fields, but there had been dramatic improvement. The pits had been unionized, wages had risen to more than thirty dollars a day, and the United Mine Workers of America, most truculent and colorful of all the country’s unions, received forty cents a ton into its Health and Welfare Fund to pension old miners and their widows and to care for the halt and the lame. In 1952 Lewis and his faithful legions had hammered a reluctant Congress into passing a federal mine safety act that sent inspectors with enforcement powers to every working face. The public knew—or thought it knew—these things, and assumed that labor peace and a benign prosperity now gripped the coal fields.

The rumbling blasts in the tunnels of No. 9 started a chain reaction that showed how groundless were these suppositions. They snuffed out seventy-four lives and, as has happened after so many other Appalachian tragedies, brought to the smoking portal reporters for the country’s largest and best newspapers. They brought, also, the television camera to focus on bleak, cheerless towns, the sad faces of widows and orphans, once-forested mountains reduced by strip-mining to incomprehensible jumbles, and the lined faces of coal miners from which innumerable brushes with doom had drained every emotion except weariness. And the television and press began disclosing anew and bit by bit the old, unchanging tragedy of American coal. The book ends with a brutal murder thirteen months later, but the tragedy of coal continues unabated, as it threatens to do to the end of the Republic.

No industrial state has ever permitted such carnage in its mines as has marked America’s coal pits. The glittering dusty lumps the industry brings to the surface in such prodigious quantities—600 million tons in 1970—light and heat our homes, ease our aches and pains in aspirin and other medicines, brighten our lives with paints and dyes, and appear in our clothing as synthetic fabrics. Coal finds hundreds of places in our daily lives. It is our constant companion and benefactor—and virtually every lump is paid for with human blood and agony.

The federal law of 1952 was enacted in response to a mine explosion at West Frankfort, Illinois, four days before Christmas, 1951. It, too, started a period of national questioning. From 1839 (when the official death count began) to that disaster, 114,000 men had perished in coal mines. An average of 119 men—the death total at West Frankfort—had died every seventeen days since 1900.

The act that emerged from Congress was highly touted by the Solons, but honest Harry Truman denounced it for what it was, “a sham.” The lawmakers had betrayed the coal diggers and the act did not apply at all to small, deadly mines with fewer than fifteen employees. It authorized US agents from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Mines to deal only with conditions that might lead to a “disaster”—a term defined as an accident killing five or more men. Thus it was established as a public policy that the national government was not concerned about the demise of coal miners so long as they died singly or a few at a time. Congress would prevent only the big, dramatic calamities that wiped them out in headline-catching hecatombs.

Such murderous conditions were not foreordained by destiny, as had been amply proved in Europe. For example, in ravaged West Germany in the years after World War II the death rate per one million underground man shifts ranged from 0.77 in 1948 to 0.61 in 1955. In Great Britain the rate was 0.44 in 1947 and 0.24 in 1954. Belgium reduced the death rate to 0.32 in 1955 and the sturdy Dutch brought the figure far lower to 0.15 in 1955. In the United States, by shocking contrast, the death rate ranged from 1.22 in 1947 to 0.84 in 1952.

Notwithstanding, West Virginia’s governor, Hulett Smith, his heart bleeding for the poor coal company with its stricken profit sheet, told a crowd assembled as a death watch near the portal of No. 9, “We must remember that this is a hazardous business and what has happened here is one of the hazards of mining.” A hack politician like Smith could be expected to voice such drivel, but the theme was taken up by a federal stalwart, J. Cordell Moore, an assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior. As smoke bellowed from the mouth of the mine and new explosions rumbled deep beneath their feet he intoned, “The company here has done all in its power to make this a safe mine. We don’t understand why these things happen but they do happen.”

His wonderment might have been abated had he asked the opinions of the miners. One veteran summed it up in terms even the governor or assistant secretary might have comprehended. It was, he said, “a lousy mine and filled with gas.” As a matter of fact eight million cubic feet of deadly methane seeped into the tunnels every day. On the doomed “cat-eye” shift of November 20 one or more fans stopped, gas built up and exploded.

Most surprising, however, were not the opinions of government officials, for they can generally be expected to leap to the defense of industry. The real shocker came from W.A. “Tony” Boyle, president of the UMW of A, successor to the toga of John L. Lewis, leader and spokesman of 116,000 coal miners. “As long as we mine coal there is always this inherent danger,” he cautioned. Consolidation was “one of the best companies to work with so far as cooperation and safety are concerned.”

Yet the record showed that No. 9 had been cited repeatedly by federal inspectors for violation of anti-explosive procedures, and in the industry as a whole 220 men had been killed in the preceding year and more than 6,000 had been maimed.

Boyle spoke for a union that had grown rich while most of its members remained poor. More than a hundred million dollars reposed in its treasury and its Health and Welfare Fund held even larger assets. Nearly twenty years had passed since West Frankfort when Lewis had spoken of blackened corpses, corporate negligence that had “made dead” hundreds of coal miners, and an “abominable record of slaughter unequaled in the civilized world.”

Then things changed rapidly. In 1947 and after a long strike Lewis wrung a welfare fund from the industry, to be financed by a royalty of five cents on the ton mined by union labor. It grew to thirty cents, then forty cents to the ton and scores of millions accumulated for pensions and medical benefits. Assured of dues by a company-managed payroll “check-off” system, the treasury of the union grew at an equally spectacular rate. Then came an abrupt change. A poor union has nothing to lose; a rich one watches its ledger sheets and is wary of law suits. The old truculence of Lewis and his lieutenants evaporated and they became “labor statesmen” who pursued cooperation with the operators rather than advantages for the dust-blackened men in whose name they spoke and acted.

They began to live and act like capitalists rather than miners. Boyle had a fresh rose in his lapel each morning and drew a salary of $50,000 a year, plus an unlimited expense account. Each of his fellow international officers drew $40,000 plus expenses. Nepotism became—and is—the order of the day, with Boyle’s brother receiving $27,000 and his daughter Antoinette coming in for a comfortable $23,000 yearly for giving legal counsel to the miners of Montana. Another union chief who drew $35,000 had his brother on the payroll at $16,000. To make things even more comfortable for themselves they set aside—without even notifying their members of the fact—$850,000 of the Health and Welfare Fund to finance their retirement at full salary after a mere ten years of service.

The union’s National Bank of Washington was the depository of funds intended to finance medical and retirement benefits for sick and worn-out miners—at no interest. At one time more than forty million dollars lay idle and unproductive, losing enough interest to have pensioned 1,500 miners at the rate then prevailing of $1,385 a year. In a flagrant conflict of interest Boyle sat as president of the UMW of A, a director of the bank, and a director of the Health and Welfare Fund. Cash was handed out in lavish sums for travel expenses and lodgings, without itemization or verification. Some officials claimed expenses for every day, including reimbursement for lodgings in Washington hotels only a few miles from their homes.

While the chiefs lived like monarchs the miners fared like peons. Neither the union nor the federal government enforced the safety laws and regulations. In fact, the UMW’s safety section was a one-man affair. Coal dust swirled through the tunnels and working rooms, covered timbers and coal ribs, settled in gritty layers on sweat dampened clothes, reddened eyes, and, with complete foreseeability, entered lungs and coated their membranes with suffocating folds. A pestilence spread across the coal fields of America and wheezing gasping men, their faces pinched and drawn by suffering and dread, appeared everywhere. A hundred thousand men suffered disability from the inhalation of coal dust, yet the welfare fund sponsored no research in the prevention and relief of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. Men sat up all night coughing and sucking frantically for breath, but their plight never reached the attention of their union chiefs.

Eventually other men, however, reacted with anger. A prominent heart specialist, Dr. I.E. Buff of Charleston, led off with an outraged—and perhaps outrageous—attack on the coal companies and politicians who were robbing his state and killing its people. A couple of other physicians joined him, as did eventually one of the nation’s most unusual politicians. Ken Hechler, a New Yorker and best-selling author turned West Virginia college professor and congressman, mounted a campaign for a new and effective mine safety law with federal cash benefits for disabled miners. A few newspapers gave coverage to their efforts, they picked up recruits, and a measure of relief if not reform culminated in 1969 in still another federal mining law.

In West Virginia something of a true folk movement developed as outrage against government, the coal industry, and the union closed all the state’s coal mines for several weeks. Under such pressure the legislature yielded something to mere miners and passed a law that provided workman’s compensation payments to coal diggers whose health had been ruined by breathing coal dust.

Nor was that all. A lethargic government eventually bestirred itself to indict Boyle and his henchmen, and a suit by coal miners produced a judgment that Boyle and his fellow trustees—and the old demigod of labor, John L. Lewis himself—had been guilty of fraud on a grand scale.

The saddest figure in Brit Hume’s sorry account of life in modern Sodom is diminutive Joe Yablonski. A lieutenant of the corrupt and odious Boyle who had been unstinting in his Führer’s praise, he became nauseated by it all and decided to try to defeat Boyle in a race for the presidency. He had few funds and the incumbent had unlimited money, a sycophantic house organ, and numerous muscle men. Yablonski made a valiant race and lost far more than the election. A few months after the ballots were counted in an incredibly crooked election, three men crept into his house and murdered Yablonski, his wife, and daughter. Tracked down and captured by the FBI, one of them confessed and said they did the job for a mysterious “Tony” who promised them $5,200.

The story never ends. President Nixon appointed Rogers Morton, a blue-blood and no devotee of labor, Secretary of the Interior. Hacks continued to staff the Bureau of Mines, and a few days before Christmas, 1970, a mine blew up in Leslie County, Kentucky, and killed thirty-eight men. The foreman had allowed the use of “prima cord,” an illegal blasting material, and state and federal investigators found evidence of gross negligence and mismanagement. Soon thereafter the foreman was taken on as a mine inspector.

At the end of the tale of betrayal and revolt nothing appears to have changed. On October 1 the bureau disclosed that the death rate in US mines for the first nine months of 1971 was 0.94. In Kentucky’s small mines it was a whopping 3.47. Officials of the states and the federal government were reported to be “studying the situation.”

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