By Berry Craig
Professor of history, West Kentucky Community and Technical College
Tim Miller doesn’t buy the coal industry’s claims that nonunion mines are as safe as union mines.
He survived a 1989 methane gas explosion and fire that killed 10 other miners at the nonunion William Station No. Nine Mine in his native western Kentucky. Miller helped recover the bodies.
All 10 men were more than fellow miners. “They were my good friends,” says Miller, now an international representative for the Mine Workers (UMWA).
From 1979 to 1997, Miller dug coal 1,000 feet underground at the mine and can’t forget the human toll: 28 fatalities in 18 years.
We finally organized that mine in 1997. It was bankrupt then. But it lasted almost seven more years under the UMWA banner. There wasn’t a single death from the time we organized the mine until it closed.
Pyro Mining Co. owned the mine, and so the deadly explosion is sometimes called the Pyro Mine Disaster. “I’ll carry that with me for the rest of my life,” says Miller, 50.
His office is in Madisonville, the Hopkins County seat. His desk is about 27 miles from the Pyro mine site and about 10 miles from the Dotiki Mine in Webster County, where two miners died last month in a roof fall. “Dotiki is also nonunion,” Miller says.
The double fatality followed an April explosion at the Massey Energy Co.’s nonunion Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that left 29 coal miners dead. The blast was one of the worst mining disasters in years.
Inspectors had cited the Upper Big Branch and Dotiki mines for multiple safety violations. Ultimately, the Pyro mine superintendent pleaded guilty to hiding hazardous conditions at the mine and attempting to cover them up.
Admitting he hadn’t looked at mining accident statistics recently, the vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association told the Beckley, W.Va., Register-Herald he wasn’t “aware of any measurable statistical difference between” union and nonunion mines.
Miller says his experience and a mountain of data prove the coal industry is dead wrong: Union mines are much safer than nonunion mines.
In a UMWA mine, you have a real say when it comes to safety issues. Members of our safety committee that are elected by their fellow union workers travel with mine inspectors.
Because they are in the union, safety committee members can point out problem areas the company hasn’t addressed and not fear retribution from the company, Miller said. Also, any UMWA miner can leave a work area he or she feels might be dangerous, again without having to worry about retaliation, he added.
I know the law says you have the right to withdraw yourself from an unsafe area. But in a nonunion mine, you know if you do withdraw, or if you speak out about safety problems, your days on the job are numbered. The company might not fire you right away. But they’ll get you in one of those bogus layoffs. So people are scared to speak out—scared they won’t have a job if they do.
Miller was 19 when Pyro hired him. He ended up at the William Station Mine, which is in Union County. Union, Webster, Hopkins and Muhlenberg counties are the heart of Kentucky’s western coal field.
The nonunion coal operators paint the picture that MSHA [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] is the enemy and the UMWA is the devil that tries to take money out of your pocket.
He’d been mining coal for about three years when he witnessed a retirement “ceremony” for a veteran miner in his 60s. It helped make Miller a union man.
About 15 minutes before quitting time they gave the old fellow a little going away cake and the superintendent handed him a pocket watch. The old fellow had tears in his eyes. But he wasn’t getting a pension or health care. All he had was his Social Security. From that point on, I knew what I had to look forward to without the union.
Miller embraced the UMWA. He helped in organizing drives that eventually resulted in the mine going union.
But it was too late for his 10 buddies, who lost their lives on Sept. 13, 1989.
Miller says he was working in another part of the mine when the blast occurred. Thick smoke made it doubly difficult for rescue teams, including Miller, to search for the miners, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
One of the guys had a pulse when he was found. They did CPR on him, but he didn’t make it.
Miller said he and the other would-be rescuers had to wear heavy oxygen tanks, which made recovering the bodies even more arduous. “But I was thinking if that was my body down there, I’d want somebody to get me out.”
Miller and his mates sewed makeshift body bags from wing curtains, heavy cloths that are draped in shafts to improve ventilation.
We cut the curtains off, wrapped them around the bodies and pinned the curtains with nails. We put them on a flat car and carried them out—about seven miles. It was a long way.
Berry Craig is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon & Burgoo and Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War. He is a member of a member of AFT Local 6010.
Posted May 5, 2010 at 8:00 am, in From the News