Disgraceful History

West Virginia Coal Mine Owners Have Blood on Their Hands

The bloody history of mine workers in West Virginia is truly as dark as any dungeon, but the recent indictment of a mine owner suggests that maybe the tide has turned.

02.05.15 10:45 AM ET

When a federal grand jury recently indicted Donald L. Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, for willfully violating government safety regulations in order to maximize coal production, it seemed possible that a top corporate executive might finally be held accountable for miners killed on his company's property. Twenty-nine miners were killed on April 5, 2010 in an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. This tragedy was a direct result of safety violations at the mine, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The loss of life in the Montcoal explosion was the coal industry’s worst since 1970, but in a long view it fit a pattern going back more than a century. The indictment of Blankenship and two of his subordinates is rare in the history of American coal mining, and if convictions follow, it may signal a welcome break in the bloody history of corporate irresponsibility that has characterized West Virginia’s coal industry.

After a mine at Red Ash blew up in 1900 and snuffed out the lives of 46 men and boys, the state’s Republican governor declared, “It is but the natural course of mining events that men should be killed and injured by accidents.”

The Mountain State was home to some of some of the most rapacious coal operators in the nation: men like “King” Sam Dixon, an Englishman who controlled Fayette County’s mines, newspapers, and Republican officials. When two of his mines exploded in 1906, 135 miners died. Even though the Gilded Age coal baron had violated mine safety laws, county coroners’ juries placed the blame on “human error.” It was no wonder that King Sam escaped indictment: he had handpicked the jury members largely from the ranks of coal company officials and political cronies.

Dixon could have been a role model for Don Blankenship, who poured more than $3.5 million into a 2004 state supreme court election, a contest won by his hand-picked candidate, a Republican who, as a judge, refused to recuse himself in cases involving the Massey company.

In 1907, the slaughter in West Virginia’s mine finally pricked the national conscience when 361 miners, mostly immigrants, perished in the massive Monongah mine explosion. President Theodore Roosevelt and industry leaders felt compelled to do something after this, the worst industrial disaster in our history, but the federal Bureau of Mines, created in 1910 and controlled by leading industrialists, had no regulatory or enforcement powers of any kind. By this time, American coal miners had learned the hard way that they could only rely on themselves and their labor union, the United Mine Workers of America, to protect them while they toiled underground. 

In West Virginia, however, coal operators hired spies, “gun thugs,” “scabs” and deputy sheriffs to crush the organizing efforts made by mine workers who wanted safer working conditions, living wages, civil liberties, freedom from company stores, and an end to rampant wage theft. 

Mountaineer miners had to fight a virtual war against their employers in 1912 and 1913 in order to organize several thousand miners and free them from company tyranny. Thirteen union miners died in this first mine war; during these two same years more than 500 men and boys perished in the mines, but not a single coal company was charged with any mine safety violations.

A second mine war erupted in 1920 when union miners attempted to unionize the rest of the state’s mines. The offensive reached a climax in 1921 when more than 8,000 armed workers marched across the state, and fought a four day battle with company forces around Blair Mountain, a standoff that ended only when the U. S. Army intervened. This uprising, the largest armed insurrection in modern American history, failed to advance the union cause, and Mountain State miners had to suffer through more than a decade of hard times before New Deal labor reforms opened the gates for union organizers in 1933.

In the years that followed, the UMW’s presence in West Virginia’s coalfields helped reduce mine deaths by one third. The pattern persists. Since 1995, 330 non-union coal miners have been killed at work, as compared to 88 UMW members, according the union’s health and safety department.

Blankenship’s lawyer claims that he has been “a tireless advocate for mine safety,” but his actions tell a different story, one that harkens back to the dark decades. In all the largely negative publicity Don Blankenship has received lately, only a few commentators have noted that he led an all out assault on the UMW in West Virginia and that he broke the union at his Upper Big Branch property a few years before it exploded. Anti-unionism and unsafe mining have gone hand in hand in West Virginia.

History will be made if a jury convicts Blankenship in federal court and finally brings a West Virginia coal baron to justice. But even if this comes to pass and Blankenship is made to pay for his crimes, thousands of miners will continue to work without the protection of a union contract in mines where productivity trumps safety. They will have only their bosses’ good faith and federal safety regulations to rely upon. History tells us that won’t be enough.

James Green’s book on the West Virginia mine wars, The Devil is Here in These Hills, is published by Grove Press this month.