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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Report: Mine where 29 died 'doesn’t appear to have changed its tune.'

In Coal Country, a Culture of Fear
Massey Intimidates Workers, Families Into Silence

Charleston, W.Va. — Two weeks after the horrific explosion that killed 29 coal miners in southern West Virginia, it’s business as usual for the owner of the project.

Massey Energy, the Virginia-based coal giant that runs the Upper Big Branch Mine, has denied time off for miners to attend their friends’ funerals; has rejected makeshift memorials outside the mine site; and, in at least one case, required a worker to go on shift even though the fate of a relative — one of the victims of the April 5 disaster — remained unknown at the time, according to some family members and other sources familiar with those episodes. In short, the company might be taking heat for putting profits and efficiency above its workers, but it doesn’t appear to have changed its tune in the wake of the worst mining tragedy in 40 years.
“They told my husband, ‘You’ve got a job to do and you’re gonna do it,’” said the wife of one Massey miner, referring to the funerals he’s missed this month for friends who died in the blast. “What else are we gonna do?”
Such anecdotes aren’t easy to come by. Massey — the top coal producer in Appalachia — has built a reputation of intimidating its workers into a type of lock-step compliance that most often takes the form of silence, particularly when the subject revolves around safety in the company’s mines. The reason is clear: Massey is the economic engine in parts of West Virginia, and there’s a lingering fear among many workers that any grumbling could leave them unemployed. Some former employees said this week that the reluctance of Upper Big Branch miners to discuss the conditions inside those tunnels prior to the blast is no accident.
“I guarantee it: Massey’s already told these guys, ‘Hey, don’t say nothin’. You’re not talking to no reporters. You’re not saying nothin’ about our safety record — or you won’t have a job,’” said Chuck Nelson, a former Massey miner who’s since become an environmental activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “That’s the way they operate.”
Jerry Massie, field representative for the United Mine Workers of America’s District 29 branch in Beckley, echoed that message this week, saying that Massey miners are well aware of the company’s response to recalcitrance: “Take your dinner pail and get out.”
That threat of job loss — be it spoken or simply understood — has created a culture of fear in some corners of Southern West Virginia, where coal is the only real industry, and Massey is king of the hill. Indeed, in certain areas there’s simply no queen.
“The bad thing here is that Massey owns [the Upper Big Branch] mine, and they’ve got a lot of subsidiaries — little tiny outfits just all down the river,” said Denny Tyler, an electrician who has contracted with Massey and now runs a website advocating for the end to mountaintop removal. “If you get fired from one, you’re not working anywhere on Coal River. … Its a fear thing.”


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