UMW Journal

One of the reasons I wanted to blog on occupational safety and labour studies was to try to compile all of the resources I’ve been using into one place. At the moment my hard drive is a mess of files, newspaper articles, official reports, photographs, songs, etc. I’d like to build a website from scratch, as a digital history project maybe, but I don’t really have the skills to do that at this point in time.

One thing I can do right now is compile a list of links to some of these resources, most of which I’ve found in various corners of the internet. The United Mine Workers Journal is an important one, and the UMWA have kindly hosted several issues on their servers, from the current issue going back nearly five years to January-February 2006. The current issue is available here. These have been indispensable to me for understanding the union’s outlook and positions over this period. I haven’t been able to find older issues anywhere online, except for the occasional single issue on eBay, but this is a really useful source of information for research on coal mining in the 2000s. I’m really grateful to the union for making these available online free of charge.

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Upper Big Branch Investigation Transcripts

The Upper Big Branch mine disaster of April 5th, 2010 was the catalyst for my interest in mine safety, and I’ve spent much of the 14 months since reading about earlier disasters, mostly the 2006 Sago disaster. The transcripts of interviews with the Sago miners, part of the investigation by federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety, and Training officials, are really the most interesting and revealing sources for understanding Sago. They’ve largely been the focus of my research, and they go into great detail not just on the aftermath of the explosion and the rescue attempt that followed, but also into the jobs that each worker did before the disaster.

MSHA and the WV OMHST have been carrying out a similar investigation into the Upper Big Branch Disaster, and a month ago released its report, which can be found here. J. Davit McAteer, who was head of MSHA during the Clinton presidency, led both the Sago and UBB investigations, so there are a lot of similarities between the ways in which both gather evidence from miners working at the two mines at the time of the disasters.

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette covered MSHA’s release of some of the interview transcripts from the UBB investigation, released at the same time as the report. I haven’t had the chance to go over these fully yet, and at the moment the released transcripts are of interviews with mine rescue team members, not Massey/Performance employees who worked at UBB in the time leading up to the disaster.* They’re still incredibly interesting in revealing how these team members understand their jobs

The parts of these interviews, and of the Sago ones, that I like reading the most are the first few pages where the interviewee details their employment history. Some of them are guys with long careers, literally covering the whole span of mining history that I’m trying to understand, working at companies that don’t exist anymore, or ones that have been swallowed up by larger competitors. Hoy Keith at Sago for example, began his mining career in 1962, before working as an auto worker in the late 60s and early 70s, then coming back to coal mining  in 1976. Here’s Mike Shumate, an MSHA resue team member at UBB, describing his 40 year career path:

Well, before —MSHA, [I] was a production foreman with U.S. Steel, Pinnacle operation, in Pineville. Before that, Maben Energy, as a foreman and a belt man. Wolf Creek Collieries before that in eastern Kentucky as a production foreman. The Eastern/Associated/Peabody Coal at numerous locations as safety inspector. And Westmoreland Coal Company as a production foreman and as union worker, and Island Creek Coal Company as a union worker.**

West Virginia Inspector-at-Large Bill Tucker’s 34 year career is just as interesting:

I started out at a little punch mine, Ellis Creek Coal Company, right there by the old Marsh Fork High School. Worked there a year and a half and then went to work for — then it was ARMCO Steel. Worked for them until Peabody Coal Company bought them out, until ’91. Then I went to work for the [WV] Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.***

These descriptions are mini-histories of the coal industry since the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed in 1969. They don’t go into the economic and regulatory forces which have shaped the industry in that period, but you can tell from Bill Tucker’s timeline some of the broad trends of the late twentieth century, the collapse of the steel industry in the late 1980s, and the short lifespans of small, independent mines that went bust within a year or two after mining out as much coal as they could. It’s fascinating to me. I wish there was more of this kind of information available from people who have lived through the 1968-2010 period.

* I should add that some of the interviews posted online by MSHA are with Massey Mine Rescue team members.

**from Testimony of Michael Shumate, June 22, 2010, pp.11-12

*** Testimony of William A. Tucker, May 12, 2010, pp. 10-11

Blogging Troubles

I’ve been putting off writing a second post on Lordstown for a month now. I really wanted to talk about the actual work that Lordstown’s autoworkers were asked to do by General Motors; the structural changes to their jobs on the production line. Stanley Aronowitz’s book, False Promises, describes a lot of these changes, and I’ll link to a good passage below. I haven’t had time to finish Aronowitz’s book and I honestly can’t say when I’ll have time to get back to it. I’d kind of felt as though I’d committed myself to looking at Lordstown, and it was stopping me from blogging about other things that I’ve spent the past month reading about. So, for the time being I’ll compress my Lordstown post into this one note and get back to some other topics.

Here’s the section of Aronowitz’s case study on Lordstown workers which interested me:

At Lordstown, efficiency became the watchword. At 60 cars an hour, the pace of the work had not been exactly leisurely, but after GMAD* came in the number of cars produced almost doubled. Making one car a minute had been no picnic, especially on a constantly moving line. Assembly work fits the worker to the pace of the machine. Each work station is no more than 6 to 8 feet long. For example, within a minute on the line, a worker in the trim department had to walk about 20 feet to a conveyor belt transporting parts to the line, pick up a front seat weighing 30 pounds, carry it back to his work station, place the seat on the chassis, and put in four bolts to fasten it down by first hand-starting the bolts and then using an air gun to tighten them according to standard. It was steady work when the line moved at 60 seconds an hour. When it increased to more than 100 cars an hour, the number of operations on this job were not reduced and the pace became almost maddening. In 36 seconds the worker had to perform at least eight different operations, including, walking, lifting, hauling, lifting the carpet, bending to fasten the bolts by hand, fastening them by air gun, replacing the carpet, and putting a sticker on the hood. Sometimes the bolts fail to fit into the holes; the gun refuses to function at the required torque; the seats are defective or the threads are bare on the bolt. But the line does not stop. Under these circumstances the workers often find themselves “in the hole,” which means that they have fallen behind the line.

*GMAD stood for General Motors Assembly Division, which was the new efficiency program GM was testing at Lordstown Assembly to try to compete with foreign competition in the early 1970s.

What’s interesting to me about this is just how much GM’s ability to compete with Japanese cars was reliant on the willingness (and capability) of Lordstown’s workers to go along with this intensification of the production line. It says a lot about why the workers’ reaction to this, the “Lordstown Syndrome” that the media latched onto, seemed such a threat to the auto industry, and to the United States’ economic power in the 70s.

Aronowitz’s book, False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness, is a broader New Left critique of organised labour, but the first chapter focuses on Lordstown, mostly through Aronowitz’s own interviews with autoworkers. Aronowitz argues that labour unions are inherently conservative and restrictive to any real working class power. That’s quite a significant part of New Left thinking, and it’s very relevant to reform movements within the United Mine Workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Black Lung Association and Miners For Democracy both formed out of dissatisfaction with the UMW. Like in the quote above though, what’s really significant to me about this critique of labour is the focus on the types of job and the physical and mental content of work. The disconnection of the AFL-CIO, or of Tony Boyle’s UMW administration, from their members’ labour is really the starting point for looking at work and the labour movement in the 1970s.

“Lordstown Syndrome” and the American Workplace, pt.1

Lordstown workers assemble a Chevrolet Vega in 1971. Image from Wikipedia.

In 1971, General Motors began production of the Chevrolet Vega at their Lordstown Assembly plant in northeast Ohio. The brand new production line was the fastest in the world, cranking out 100 cars per hour. Lordstown workers protested the speed of the line, and the lack of control they held over their own work. As Jefferson Cowie describes, “The workers balked at the speed and discipline by working strictly to rules, letting production slip by unfinished, pushing absenteeism and turnover to new highs, taking drugs and alcohol on the job, and engaging in a wide array of sabotage on the job.”* The situation led to a long strike, beginning in March 1972, and the press coined the term “Lordstown Syndrome” to cover the dissatisfaction many American workers felt toward the quality of their jobs in the early 1970s.

In January 2010, six months after General Motors had filed for bankruptcy, The New York Times returned to the Lordstown Assembly, where GM now produce the Chevrolet Cruze. Interviewing local United Automobile Workers officials, the Times found no signs of the radicalism and discontent of 1971-72. Mike Ramsey, a forklift driver and 25 year veteran at GM, told the interviewer, “Your main focus is to keep a job and work toward a pension, […] I don’t think that animosity is there anymore. We all realize we have to do our part to keep the company going.”

The change in attitudes among workers at Lordstown is not surprising, considering the near collapse of GM in 2009, but the stark contrast between how auto workers see their jobs  in 1971 and 2010 is hard to ignore. What I’m trying to do here is to get a handle on the events and forces which have convinced American workers that holding onto their jobs outweighs most other concerns about the actual quality of their working lives. Of course, in many cases, this isn’t true, but in coal mining and many other industries, workers have been forced to abandon issues on which they would have fought management and their own unions tooth and nail in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The 40 years since the Chevy Vega went into production have reshaped the workplace for every American worker, in terms of the work they do, their relationship with their colleagues and employers, and in the value they and others place on their labour. I’ll try to explain how some of this happened in future posts.

* Cowie, Jefferson. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. New York: The New Press, 2010. p.46