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David Coolidge

Miners Stay Out of Pits,
Demand Safety Actions

(14 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 15, 14 April 1947, pp. 1 & 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The coal miners have been through their week of mourning for the Centralia dead. This protest of the coal diggers over the Centralia slaughter brought out the fact that the overwhelming majority of the coal mines in the United States are unsafe. The miners remain out of the pits until assured they are safe.

The Secretary of the Interior closed 518 mines under federal control because they were “believed dangerous.” When did Mr. Krug discover that these 518 mines are probably dangerous and should not be operated? If he knew this before the Centralia slaughter, why didn’t he close them? If their unsafe condition was discovered after the 111 were wiped out in the Centralia explosion, just what is wrong with mine inspection that this was not discovered through the routine inspection? There are federal inspectors and state inspectors. What do they do with their time? How do they while away the hours?

Of all the mines in the country only two were discovered which were considered completely safe by federal inspection standards. A glorious record for the coal operators and the federal government which now has the mines placarded with the information that the mines are “U.S. Government Property!” This means that with the exception of these two mines, an explosion might happen any day in any mine in the country.

Dispute at Investigation

In the “investigation” there was a dispute over whether the explosion was caused by dust or by the discharge of a large amount of powder. If the explosion was caused by the accidental firing of a large amount of powder, it is claimed that this would absolve both the Centralia Coal Co. and the Federal Bureau of Mines Administration of responsibility. H.C. Niermann, assistant superintendent of the mine, testified that the smell of powder was very “noticeable in the mine. However, the mine manager, who had not heard Niermann’s testimony the day before, testified that he detected no powder smoke in the return (exhaust) air. The operator of the hoist at the bottom of the mine said that he had noticed no powder smoke. The night foreman gave the same testimony. The coroner, who examined the bodies said there was no powder burns on the miners. Thus all the people who worked inside the mine, and not in the company office, had no knowledge of any powder having been set off to cause the explosion.

This attempt of the coal company to escape its responsibility for operating an unsafe mine and for ignoring reports of competent and conscientious inspectors, is nothing new of course for capitalist corporations. They always try to place the blame for the killing, maiming and slaughter of workers on the workers themselves. Capitalist corporations maintain lawyers, big legal staffs and company doctors for the purpose of “proving” that the company had no responsibility for the killing and injury of its employees.

Mr. Krug states that “coal mining is a dangerous business.” During the past forty-six years there have been “an average of 129 deaths every month.” But Krug is hopeful and thankful that “for each month since the Coal Mines Administration began its operations, ten miners have lived who would have perished had the death rate of the six preceding years continued.” This is certainly some thing for the miners to be thankful for. In one month only 111 miners were killed; that was eighteen less than the monthly average for the “six preceding years.”

The infamous John D. Battle, executive secretary of the National Coal Association, accuses Lewis of a “sickening exhibition of mock heroics,” of launching a campaign “of hysteria and emotional sensationalism.” Battle was talking about Lewis’ statements and attitude before a House Labor Sub-Committee. It is evidently Battle’s opinion that there is no hysteria in Centralia or if there is, it was caused by Lewis’ explosion in Washington and not by the actual explosion which took place in Centralia, Ill., after the killing of 111 real producers of coal.

Battle fears that the coal industry will “be at the mercy of a labor dictator on the one hand and timid politicians on the other.” This will be a calamity of course because it will not promote mine safety nor bring any other benefits, but on the contrary will be a deadening blow to the national economy and the ultimate ruin of all.” Here are the ravings of a hirling of the coal operators: a blatherskite trying to make it appeal that he is somebody and he knows something. We do not know the size of Battle’s feet but we are certain that he, like Krug, wears a “size 5 hat.”

The coal companies and steel companies which have had mines closed by Krug expressed great surprise. They did not know that any of their mines were unsafe. U.S. Steel, Jones and Laughlin and Republic Steel were really dumbfounded when told that one mine of each corporation had been ordered closed. U.S. Steel, wasn’t worried much about the closing of one of its mines because it produced only 2,300 tons daily and this is “negligible” said a company official.

The vice-president of the Western Pennsylvania Coal Operators Association said that Krug’s closing order “came as a shock to us.” This gentleman is convinced that Pennsylvania’s mining laws are “very strict and well-enforced.” Why? “Because the inspectors are under civil service and are not political appointees.” But Pennsylvania is dominated by the coal companies, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Mellons, who incidentally control the biggest coal company in the state.

This is the kind of capitalist tripe and slush the miners and other decent people are being asked to believe these days. This will bring the 111 Centralia victims back or give aid and comfort to their families. This is considered great solace to the miners who have a seven hundred thousand dollar fine over their heads and 111 dead in Centralia.

What do Mr. Chief Justice Vinson and the rest of the Supreme Court majority think? They characterized the. strike of the miners as defiance of public authority and “one who defies public authority and willfully refuses his obedience does so at his peril.” Suppose the miners refuse to work in unsafe mines under government control? Will the Supreme Court consider that a “defiance of public authority?” How will the miners discover whether or not the mines are safe to return to? Will they go back and test the safety of the mine by waiting for another explosion. Or will they in states such as Pennsylvania, depend on the vigilance of the Civil Service Commission.

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