CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Bees are to honey as miners are to coal. Our town and union hall have been a buzz. It seems that our UMW president along with several miners and their backers were arrested once again.
"Mine it union or leave it in the ground!" can be heard in the hollows and on Main streets. Posters and signs declaring "Fighting for Fairness" are plastered in shop windows, on telephone poles and along the road in people's front lawns all over Southern West Virginia. The government stepped in and stopped the protests for now. The court awarded the company the right to nullify a rank and file coal contract that allows the company to reorganize beginning July 1.
A letter sent to employees in June includes a chart outlining the difference in the court-authorized contract and the enhanced contract to be implemented. In other words, the company is saying, "Take it or leave it. We could have made deeper cuts, so you should count yourselves lucky."
Miners and coal companies are embroiled in a bitter battle mounting in an all out war. Miners are protesting unfair wages and lost benefits. Sounds like an interesting piece of 1920's coalmine history doesn't it? Well, it isn't. This is a battle being waged right now in 2013, between Patriot Coal Company and the United Mine Workers in the Southern West Virginia coalfields.
History does indeed repeat itself. Why are miners so obsessed with history? Have you ever been confined in a rock-hard, totally black space, 1,300 feet underground, 36 inches high, crawling on calloused hands and bloodied knees, guided only by a small gas light in your low vein fiberglass hardhat? Have you ever been there when 12 inches of that was filled with blackened slate water and mud? Have you ever been there listening to the top creak, crack and fall? Have you ever been there and been dependent upon the tiny beating heart of a once bright yellow canary to signal the presence of deadly mine gas?
Have you ever been there and given a raise only to see the prices at the company store rise to offset what the mine lost to wages? Have you ever been there and been cheated on your cribbage, or the weight of the coal you mined, paid with scrip and put in mandatory overtime only to realize that you're even further in debt to the company store than you were your last payday? Have you ever been there and had to lease your mining tools and pay house rent to a coal baron?
Have you ever been there and handed a pink layoff slip with the right hand and a Christmas card with the left wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year with no end of the layoff in sight? Have you ever been there and gotten fired after being injured on the job where you were being forced to work in unsafe conditions, or fired for complaining about those unsafe conditions only to return home and find that your wife and children, like orange bags of garbage strewn along the highway, were thrown out of that home by hired company thugs who beat you and kept all of your family's belongings because of that debt to the company store?
Have you ever had to stand and watch your buddies or family members be crushed by machinery, buried alive by falling roof tops, or blown up by methane gas explosions? Have you ever been there and coughed handkerchiefs full of blood from blackened lungs and been denied compensation because of the company doctor's diagnosis?
Have you ever been there and witnessed a murder on the Courthouse steps or attacked by federal troops (with whom you once served)? Have you ever been there and been threatened with Army Martin MB-1 bombers for demanding just treatment through safe working conditions, healthcare and fair wages? Miners have.
Yes, mining conditions have improved since the mine wars of the early 1900's, but why? Did the big coal company barons suddenly have a change of heart, decide to fire the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and the Don Chafins of this world and magnanimously grant miners better working conditions, healthcare and fair wages to show appreciation to the hardworking men and women who had made them extremely wealthy?
No, those advances all came about through blood, sweat, and tears of the "Heroes of Coal," -- miners who died in work related accidents, Kanawha County's Paint Creek-Cabin Creek miners, Mother Jones, Sid Hatfield, Ed Chambers, Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney, Bill Blizzard, James E. Wilburn, and the "Rednecks."
Stand with the Friends of Coal and demand that promises not be broken and that history not repeat itself. With all the modern 21st century technology we have at our disposal today, the canary in a coal mine (Patriot Coal) is still a clear and present signal of danger to us all as history threatens to repeat itself.
Huffman is a Wyoming County teacher whose husband is an employee of Patriot Coal.