Miners and Unions

By Kipp Dawson

In an April 11, 2010 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Tawni O’Dell titled, “Heroes, Victims, Martyrs, Fools: Americans Don’t Know what to Make of Coal Miners,”1 regarding the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine run by owner Massey Energy that resulted in the deaths of 29 miners—the author says, among many other trite, condescending and hackneyed characterizations about miners that:

“They’re the last ones to speak up for their rights. Not because they’re stupid or afraid, but because they’re proud. They’re hard-working, hard-living, often hard-drinking men who have to deal with the constant physical threat of injury and death in their profession and also the constant mental stress of lay-offs and mine closings. They work at a job that receives attention and respect only when someone dies. They won’t ask for help because they equate it with asking for pity. And who else is going to speak up for them and fight the good fight against men with incredible wealth and political clout?

“Coal miners are not cute and helpless like baby seals. They’re not entertaining like dolphins. There will never be celebrity-studded protests and fundraisers organized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Miners. As a matter of fact, the animal rights groups in this country would have never allowed a crew of chipmunks with tiny tool belts to be sent into such an unsafe work environment.”

The comments in the article and what was left out of these comments prompted the following Letter to the Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by former miner, Kipp Dawson.


I most strenuously disagree with Tawni O’Dell’s characterization of coal miners in today’s column (“Heroes, Victims. Martyrs, Fools,” April 11).

While I did not grow up in a coal mining community, I worked as an underground coal miner for thirteen years. In the Washington County mine where I worked, and in my travels to coal mining communities around the U.S. (and in England and Wales) the miners with whom I shared that underground life had little in common with the stereotype she presents. While there were among these miners some who were “hard living,” a few who were “hard drinking,” there were far more among them who defied the picture she presents of being “the last ones to speak up for their rights.” But, then, these were union miners. In “my” mine, and in most I visited in the U.S., this means they were members of the United Mine Workers of America. Men (and women, among whom I was one) miners who for decades have been among the leaders of unionism in this country, and many others (Britain, South Africa, Australia to name a few) in exactly the opposite of what Ms. O’Dell proclaims—in standing up not only for themselves, but for one another.

The trouble in West Virginia is that this standing-up spirit has been crushed as the UMWA has been driven out of the state. The leading force in doing this? Massey. A company for which no holds were barred in the bitter, sometimes violent strike of the 1980s, where Massey won its goal. Get rid of the organization which makes it possible for miners to “stand up for themselves” and for one another. The union. Drive it out. And they did. Despite the efforts of many, many miners, both local and mobilized from around the country. I was on those picket lines. I stood outside the jails alongside the wives of the miners who were arrested for standing up for themselves—and for one another. That’s where I learned the words to all the verses of “Amazing Grace.” That’s where I learned to admire to the depths of my soul the standing-up and standing-together spirit of these miners and their families.

In a non-union mine, standing up for yourself, for one another, for safety, puts one in danger of losing that job. So every day, every hour, miners have to make a decision. Methane is here; do I stop work and take a chance of losing the only job in these parts, and my family’s only source of income? Get the picture?

These miners need the union that kept me and my coworkers and union sisters and brothers alive. Laws and enforcement of laws would help. The union makes it happen every day, every time there is a “bit” of methane showing up on that monitor, every time the roof looks like it’s going to fall. My heart and soul is with my brothers and sisters in West Virginia. They need more than that. They need our union.

Heroes, victims, martyrs, fools: Americans don’t know what to make of coal miners. And they don’t much care until they die, writes novelist TAWNI O’DELL, Sunday, April 11, 2010