Massey Under Fire
Last year I stood outside of Richmond’s Jefferson hotel as Massey Energy held its annual shareholder meeting. There were a mere half dozen of us holding signs protesting the devastation caused by the company’s mountain top removal coal mining practices.
One year later, we were joined in protest by nearly a thousand people – for an entirely different reason.
On April 5th of this year, the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years took place in Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine. Twenty-nine men were killed 1,000 feet beneath the earth’s surface when a methane buildup exploded. The revelation that the mine had been cited for 495 safety violations in the past year alone has left the country questioning Massey’s priorities. The FBI is now looking into the incident.
This is certainly not the first time CEO Don Blankenship and the company have been accused of criminal negligence. A Massey subsidiary pled guilty, in fact, to 10 criminal charges that caused the deaths of two Logan County coal miners in a January 2006 fire. The company had not provided a proper escape tunnel out of the underground mine, not conducted required evacuation drills, and faked a record book so it appeared the drills had been done.
Three months before the fire, Blankenship sent out this personal memo to all deep mine superintendents:
If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal… you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills.
Some groups cite this as clear evidence that safety takes a back seat to profits at Massey. By the time the case was actually resolved in 2008, an additional 1,300 safety violations had been racked up there and at Massey’s nearby Hernshaw mine.
In all, 52 people have died in Massey mines over the past decade. It was with this human toll in mind that the United Mine Workers of America and other labor groups descended on Richmond this week.
The night before the shareholder meeting, miners and their supporters gathered in the rain outside of Massey headquarters downtown to hold a vigil for the dead. The streets were full of glowing candles and umbrellas, the tone somber, but still defiant.
The outside of the building was lined with workers in their lighted helmets, The names of the 52 fallen miners were read aloud, and with each name, a light was extinguished.
The vigil was kept short. After 40 minutes or so, the attendees headed back to their homes and hotels. They would be getting up early the next morning.
The Massey shareholder meeting began at 9:00, but the demonstrators began congregating in Monroe Park an hour earlier. By 8:30, they were marching down Franklin toward the Jefferson Hotel.
As Massey shareholders congregated for the meeting inside, they were suddenly disrupted by two members of the group DC Rising Tide who dropped a 10-foot banner off the second floor that read, “Massey – Stop Putting Profits Over People!” The individuals were immediately arrested.
Meanwhile, hundreds of protestors had surrounded the north and west sides of the hotel, which was being protected by a dozen police. The demonstration was loud – megaphones were not in short supply. Neither were the blasts of car horns as passing Richmonders showed their support.
Some folks from Mountain Justice, a group that has been working against Massey’s mountaintop removal for some time, showed up to play some Appalachian music for the demonstrators. Their instruments were backed up by the sounds of hundreds of people chanting.
The message of all this was simple: “Don Blankenship has to go.”
By 10:15, the head of the United Mine Workers had come out of negotiations with the Massey shareholders. The attendees cheered his approach. Everyone wanted to know what had happened. “How long till they hang him?” one man asked.
It turned out that Don Blankenship had not been fired. The shareholders had heard the complaints of the miners and promised that changes would be made, but were unwilling to overthrow their CEO. In this sense, the events had been a loss. To be sure, everyone would have liked to see a change in management at the company.
On the other hand, the demonstrators knew what kind of power they were up against. Massey is the country’s 4th largest producer of coal, and Blankenship has influence on the national political scene. The Supreme Court was forced to enact new legislation after he spent about $3 million in 2004 to elect a justice to the West Virginia Supreme Court – a justice who would soon cast deciding votes in 3-to-2 decisions throwing out a $50 million jury verdict against Massey. The chances of staging a coup against someone with such political clout may have been unlikely.
But all it took was one look around the streets to realize a few things that made all this time and effort had been worth it.
– National Media Attention
The vigil and protest were swarming with it. And in front of every camera was a union miner who knew exactly why they were there and why unionism is so important for the safety of their fellow workers. These messages went out nationally, and are being spread even as you read and forward this article.
– Showing Muscle
As a friend of mine said, the UMWA showed this week that the labor movement still has teeth. They organized not just miners to converge on Richmond, but miner’s families and friends and supporters. They came out in force and made sure their voices were heard, setting an example for other labor groups in the process with clear messages and a meaningful ceremony. Perhaps most importantly, they served to assure the Massey miners that they have friends and allies.
With the attention the disaster and these events have received, Massey will be forced, at least for a while, to make safety a higher priority and make sure people know they’re doing so. If this saves one life, everything expended has been worth it.
This is not to say that the future is necessarily bright. Massey workers are still without a union, and therefore without a way to collectively bargain for their own safety and well being. Only time will tell what will happen inside the embattled company – both in the board room and in the mines themselves.