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Susan Green

The Miners Make “Formidable” Demands

An Exposé of Bituminous Mine Conditions

(24 March 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 12, 24 March 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“All mine catastrophes are avoidable,” Marcus Ken, chief of the Ohio Division of Mines, is reported to have said. “All mine catastrophes are preventable,” say United Mine Workers officials. “There is no such thing as an ‘inevitable’ mine explosion,” says even James Hyslop, general manager of the Hanna Coal Co., in whose Willow Grove mine 72 men lost their lives last March in an explosion so violent that it blew off arms and legs and heads of the unfortunate victims.

Nevertheless, according to reports, more than 1,500 men were killed in coal mines in this country last year. There were a number of big explosions which buried 30 to 90 miners at one time. And there were numerous lesser disasters, fatal to a miner here, and to a few miners there.

Why? Because only SOME safety measures are enforced. MANY ARE NOT ENFORCED. State inspectors take their orders from the Coal operators.

Among the demands now being made by the UMWA is one for workers’ safety, with UNION inspectors empowered to halt work when dangerous conditions are found.

Other union demands, expounded by John L. Lewis, include a blanket wage rise of $1 a day, with proportional rate increases for men who do piece work; a guaranty of at least 200 days’ work a year for each miner; two weeks annual vacation with pay; general improvement of hospitalization and medical care systems in mining communities; elimination of wage differentials, including that between north and south.

These are the demands the United Mine Workers are making for a new contract to replace the one expiring April, 1941, and involving 450,000 miners. Negotiations are going on in New York between representatives of the miners and the eastern coal operators in, what is known as the Appalachian Joint Conference.

Industrial Serfdom in the USA

Charles O’Neill, speaking for his fellow coal operators, said they would need some time to ponder these “rather formidable demands.” However; without any pondering at all, he “generously” offered to extend the miners’ working day – in the interest of pay-triotism. This is about all the operators have offered the men so far.

What needs pondering by the workers of the country is the bankruptcy of capitalist production, attested to by Mr. O’Neill’s comment. If at this late date the workers’ demand for 200 days’ work out at 365 is formidable, if their demands for workers’ safety is today formidable what, in heaven’s name, can workers expect from the capitalist system!

A survey of the unbelievable conditions. existing in the bituminous mines will reveal the extreme reasonableness of the union demands.

If some people believe that in “democratic” America industrial serfdom does not exist; they have but to take a peep at Piney Fork, Ohio. This is one of the towns owned by Hanna Coal Co., which is the boss of four coal mines in eastern Ohio. Hanna Coal is a subsidiary of the M.A. Hanna Co., which has extensive industrial interests, including iron ore, shipping, oil, copper and the National Steel Co. of Weirton. It is an industrial plutocrat.

The families of Piney Fork live in company houses owned by the Hanna Coal Co. The fathers and sons working in Hanna Coal’s mine (when they are lucky enough to get work), are compelled to spend their pay in Hanna Coal’s store; and even to buy the fuel they themselves produce from Hanna Coal.

The school provided for the children of this company-owned town is an old wooden building. The kids have to run through snow and sleet fifty yards to and from the wooden outhouse. This has accommodations for only three children.

Hanna Coal smells up the town with the stink from the constantly burning slate and other refuse from the mines. Soft coal smoke darkens the air and fills the lungs of women and children. Even the clothes on the washlines bear evidence of the domination of a coal company over the people of a whole town.

This is how reporters describe Piney Fork, Ohio, which is interesting for other reasons. The Piney Fork mine was a hand-loading mine employing about 1,000 men. They have just learned that the company is going to mechanize the mine by Installing loading ma chines. The mine will also be put on a steady three-shift basis. This will greatly increase production – and, at the same time, allow the company to discharge 300 to 500 miners.

James Hyslop, general manager of the Hanna Coal Co. is not concerned about the fate of the men laid off and their wives and children. “Same thing as happens to any other unemployed,” he is reported to have commented.

No wonder the union makes its “formidable” demand for at least 200 days of work a year for each miner!

The union demand for a $1 a day wage increase for the miners looks “formidable” to the operators because it makes them drop the false cloak of pay-triotism behind which they have been hiding.

“We must help win the Battle of Production” read propaganda posters at the mine entrances. When the speed-up was first instituted for the so-called national emergency, the operators resorted to the bonus system. Then they dropped it. The explanation was given too reporters by a Willow Grove miner.

“Yep,” he said, “they abolished the bonus, all right – soon’s they got the men workin’ so fast they couldn’t work any faster. Now the straw bosses keep ’em up to that maximum speed, but the men don’t get paid any extra for it.”

Therefore the union demand for the $1 increase is not only to meet the skyscraping cost of living; but also the vicious speed-up in the name of pay-triotism.

Reports are current that the government is definitely on the side of the operators in the matter of miners’ wages. The excuse is that coal is a basic commodity, the price of which must be kept down. The operators, of course, will not be expected to curb their war profiteering. But the underpaid miners are expected to make sacrifices – or else!

Sacrifices – not only by submitting to extensive robbery of the wealth they produce – but also needless sacrifice of life and limb. The last Congress adjourned without passing the Neely-Keller mine safety bill. This bill would have given inspectors of the US Bureau of Mines the right to go into coal mines and make their findings public. The coal operators’ lobby in Congress succeeded in ditching this bill. They have state inspection under their control and want it to remain that way. A similar bill is pending before the present Congress, which will perhaps be too busy giving “aid to Britain” to give any to the coal miners.

In the meantime the coal operators wantonly kill off hundreds of miners each year. In the case of the Willow Grove explosion, referred to above, state inspectors were in the mine two days before the disaster. They found quantities of gas and not enough ventilation. Yet they allowed the men in.

In the Nelms Mine of the Ohio & Pennsylvania Coal Co., which blew up last November, explosive gas was found on Wednesday in the tunnel where 31 men died on Friday. But nothing was done about it. After the explosion; the company put in a new ventilating fan. The old ventilating equipment had been more than 16 years old.

When the federal mine inspectors went into the Nelms mine after the explosion, they had difficulty determining whether the fatal spark had come from the electric cutting machine or the electric drill. Both machines were in what is described by mining men as “non-permissible” condition.

In mines where explosions have occurred practices continue which inevitably cause new disasters. Cutting machines are operated without water tanks to lay the dust. “Big dust,” the most combustible of stemming materials, is used for blasting, Other practices denounced by the US Bureau of Mines as hazardous go merrily on.

Often, the miners can foresee danger ahead. Mike Polocy, one of the 72 men caught in the Willow Grove explosion, who is in the hospital, a human wreck, not expected to live, warned of the coming calamity. Here is his own story, as reported in the newspaper PM:

“I tol’ boss something’ goin’ happen. I raise hell with big boss all time. I brattice man. I know mine. He tol’ me I crazy. He say: ‘You min’ you business, I min’ mine.’ He say: ‘You get coal, we take care of gas.

“Boss always raise bell, ‘You step on gas.’ Always hurry up, hurry up. I scared. Have one little explosion, two little explosion, ’bout month before. I know something gon’ happen. Night before it come, I go home, I no eat supper. I so scared. I cry, no eat. I no want to go in mine.”

But Mike did go into the mine the next day. Now he is a burned, crippled, bloodless, dying bundle of misery. But when he warned the boss of the coming explosion, he was told to mind his own business.

The men go into the gas-filled mines, miles from sun and air and the chance of salvation, because they can’t help themselves. Work has been so scarce for the bituminous miners. Poverty drives them into the jaws of death.

There is Carl Sterling, with a family of four. He told reporters that in 1939 he worked a grand total of 56 days. In 1940, 4 days: So far in 1941 – to February 20 – he worked all of 10 days, He is supposed to be working for the Fremont mine of Rase Valley, in the eastern Ohio district. The mine operated only when there were orders for coal. Sterling could go to no other mine in an effort to get more work. The mechanization of coal mining has thrown thousands of miners out of work. Each big mechanized mine has its own preferential list of former employees.

There WAS Ben Mazeroske, trackman in the Nelms. mine, 25 years old when he was murdered with 30 others, His young widow, 23 years old, told reporters:

“He was afraid of the mine. He didn’t talk much, but I knew he was afraid: Everybody knew it was a gassy mine, and dangerous; I know the union asked the federal mine inspectors to come inspect it last April after Willow Grove blew up. But the state inspectors wouldn’t let them come in.”

Mazeroske remembered when he had been out of work for seven solid months in 1938. That drove him into the death trap that finally got him. You can now understand why coal operator O’Neill calls the union demand for a minimum of 200 days employment a “formidable” one. Men might refuse to go into gassy mines. You can also understand why the union demands union inspectors.

And These Demands Are “Formidable”

Ask the miners’ wives what they think of the union demand for two weeks’ vacation with pay – these women who at thirty look fifty – who daily stand at their doors and watch their men leave them to earn a living in the bowels of the earth. Will they come back at night? Will the mine cave in and crush them? Will gas explode and snuff out their lives? Will the more treacherous coal dust explode and blow them into atoms?

Do these men and women need two weeks each year of blessed safety, two weeks of absence of fear? To the coal operators this is a “formidable” demand.

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