Senator: Coal mine owners treat workers as “property”

WASHINGTON (PAI)-The nation’s coal mine owners “so victimize” their workers that the workers “come as close to being property as anyone I can imagine,” a leading congressional advocate for the miners says.

In remarks Oct. 1 to the National Consumers League, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., added the only worse recent treatment by owners of workers that he could think of was “Jim Crow,” the anti-African American laws of the post-Civil War South.

Rockefeller’s comments came as the National Consumers League, the nation’s oldest consumer organization, and a strong backer of union workers, gave him a special Consumer and Labor Champion Award. NCL gave a second champion award to Senate Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a coal miner’s son, for his service to workers. Both veteran Democrats are retiring next year at the end of this Congress. Rockefeller chairs the Senate Commerce Committee.

Rockefeller touched on several subjects in off-the-cuff remarks. Unlike a set speech, both senators sat in dais chairs and passed a hand-held mike back and forth.

One was the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health care revision law that congressional Republicans are trying to trash – even by shutting the government.

Rockefeller related the ACA to treating black lung disease, which afflicts coal miners from their years underground, breathing coal dust. Rockefeller, who has fought successfully for years for devices to protect the miners, called it preventable. He noted Australia’s coal mine industry has virtually eradicated black lung.

By contrast, he added, examination of the bodies of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion and fire several years ago in West Virginia showed 17 of them already suffered from black lung. The dead miners were middle-aged or younger.

“So in the Affordable Care Act, there’s a presumption that if you worked under-ground (in mines) for 15 years, you have black lung” and are eligible for permanent, mine-company-and-government-funded federal health benefits, he said proudly.

“The salaries are fantastic” for miners in today’s mostly mechanized coal mines, Rockefeller admitted. “But the dangers are overwhelming. But if there’s ventilation in the mines, the dust is blown away.” Many operators, seeking to increase profits, don’t install adequate ventilation, the senator said.

“And the operators can smell a” federal Mine Safety and Health Administration

“inspector two miles away. They have ‘spotters,'” he added. Mines then get cleaned up, temporarily.

Harkin’s remarks were more general. “In the century coming up, there are all these battles” similar to the ones for a minimum wage, overtime pay and against child labor that NCL fought a century ago, he mused. “A lot of people are trying to come up to the middle class and having problems. We can make sure that our children have the promise and the fulfillment and the legacy of being in the middle class. That’s your legacy,” he told the NCL crowd.

NCL also honored pro-consumer crusaders with its annual Trumpeter Awards. Dana Wiggins, a Virginia anti-poverty activist, won one for her successful efforts to curb predatory payday and car title lending in the Old Dominion. She enlisted a conservative state senate Republican – the senate is split 20-20 – in the crusade.

Mignon Clyburn, the first woman and first African-American to head the Federal Communications Commission, where she is acting chair, won the other. The NCL cited her for pushing through initiatives to increase accessibility to advanced communications for the disabled and for prisoners and their families.

Photo: June 2010: Miners march to the candlelight vigil held outside Massey Energy headquarters the night before the Massey shareholder meeting. The vigil was held in remembrance of the 53 people killed on Massey property since 2000. As each name was read, a miner turned out his or her cap lamp. United Mine Workers Facebook page.




Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.