In 2010, an explosion tore through the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine in West Virginia, leaving 29 miners dead. It was the worst mining disaster in 40 years, roiling Appalachia, which has the misfortune of dealing with the perils of mining. In the wake of the explosion, caused by ignited methane gas and coal dust, federal investigators began to review the accident and the corporate hierarchy of Masey Energy, which owned the UBB mine, with a fine-toothed comb. What they found was a culture so entrenched in disregard for worker safety and the law that it festered like an open wound upon the rolling hills of the Appalachian landscape and a CEO, Don Blankenship, who regularly disregarded safety regulations and conspired to deceive federal officials. These discoveries led to criminal cases against Blankenship and several others within Masey.
This was a shocking development, as the prosecution of a “coal king” in a coal-dependent state like West Virginia would have been nearly impossible prior to UBB. The West Virginia District Attorney, however, demonstrated a commendable commitment to justice in bringing serious charges against several members of Masey, and exposing a corporate culture that couldnʼt care less about the safety and well being of its workers. The investigation revealed that, among other violations of the law and even basic decency, mine operators kept separate log books of pre-shift inspections (a truthful one and a “sanitized” one for federal safety officials), warned miners about “surprise” inspections by regulators, and in one particularly damning instance, a mine superintendent testified that he was ordered to turn off methane monitors within Masey mines.
Blankenship has been a longtime opponent of federal safety regulations, environmentalists, and the right of workers to form a union, so his blatant disregard for the safety of Masey Energyʼs employees isnʼt surprising. Blankenship even rose to prominence in Masey partially because of his work in destroying the power of the United Mineworkers Union in West Virginia, a group he has accused of “greed” and “evilness” on his website. (He is apparently unaware of the cosmic levels of irony here.) While the indictment of such a “coal king” and a longtime supporter of the Republican Party is surprising, Blankenshipʼs behavior after being forced out of his position at Masey (which was sold soon after his departure) is typical of the insensitive, boisterous, cantankerous persona he has cultivated.
Blankenship has launched his own website called “American Competitionist,” where he attempts to humanize himself while sharing articles and videos that support his libertarian and social Darwinist views. He has also begung visiting meetings of libertarian activists and organizations to promote his own agenda and products, including a documentary about his idea that we are in a “regcession”; a term he coined to describe an economic recession brought on by an over abundance of state and federal regulation.
Although the irony of a man who willingly ignored the law complaining about the law is enough to offend most audiences, what is most offensive about the film is the way he shamelessly uses images of the 29 miners who died at UBB to present himself as a “tireless advocate of mine safety,” words his attorney has used to describe him. (The reactions of the deceased’s families can be found on the website of ABC News, and are worth watching for their emotional impact.) For his part, Blankenship has done several interviews with ABC and other news sources, claiming that his indictment is merely an attempt to “blacken his reputation,” which he claims wonʼt help. Yes, his arrogance and aloof sense of superiority are really something to be seen to believe.
However, the point here is not to go through all the readily available facts and quotes regarding the mine explosion, which was labeled as “easily preventable” by investigators, but to explain why — conviction or no conviction — there will be more Don Blankenships.
In order to understand how this is possible — how the callous disregard for human life, environmental safety, and the rule of law is systemic amongst the bourgeoisie and not just the isolated case of one sociopathic CEO — one has to understand the logic of capitalism.
In his quest for ever-higher profits, Blankenship launched a holy crusade to expropriate more surplus value from mine workers. He may have broken various laws and cast morality into an abyss, but he did so in a pattern of action consistent with his own interests. While the workers in the mine — the people creating actual value instead of occupying the space behind a desk while playing with figures — had the simple goal of getting home safe after selling their labour. the people to whom they sold their labor had very different goals: The goal of Masey Energy was to make as much profit as possible. Destroying the right of workers to unionize is one way to do that, lowering wage and benefits afterwards is another, and ignoring federal safety regulations became the next tactic.
To understand why there will always be more Don Blankenships, we also have to understand the nature of class struggle. For those who already do, the example of Masey Energy and the UBB mine explosion provides a clear example of divergent interests between the workers and the owners, or between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, if you prefer. If you are working in the mine, if you arrive with nothing to use to provide for yourself and your family except your own ability to work, it is in your own best interest to want to be able to collectively bargain with your fellow workers, to want the highest possible wages, and to want to take every measure to ensure that you come out of the mine every day alive. If you are Masey Energy and their loud- mouthed CEO Don Blankenship, it is in your best interest to make sure none of that will come to pass. Workers seek safety on the job and better rewards for their work; owners seek the maximum amount of cost-cutting and expropriation without completely breaking the mental and physical wellness of workers. What this example shows us is a real example of the idea of class struggle, and it is glaringly obvious whom the antagonists of “class warfare” are.
The class struggle always has and always will claim its victims. At UBB, 29 people with names, faces and families unwillingly joined others who have died at the hands of capitalism. For all the reactionary talk of the “evils of socialism,” we stand faced with the willful murder by negligence of 29 workers. The people who made themselves rich off the mine were willing to gamble with the lives of their workers every time those workers stepped foot into the mines.
Although mine work has always been and always will be dangerous, it should chill any member of the working class to think that they are viewed as expendable components of a profit-making machine that has an endless appetite. After you are suitably horrified, take the time to recognize the reality of class struggle — and to take your place beside fellow workers who are fighting for their best interests and who are fighting for socialism.
The bourgeoisie are organized and fighting their own offensive against the working class, as they always have been. Itʼs time to organize ourselves.