The UMW Battlefield Moves
Beyond the Coal Field
A dispatch about one of Illinois labor's lost causes
Like so much of my early work, this piece is more valuable today as history than as journalism (which is to say that it is probably more valuable now than then). An industry that once loomed very large on Illinois’s industrial landscape today employs only a few more than three thousand people. Downtown Chicago probably has more parking lot attendants.
Illinois Issues introduction: To protect the interests of its members, the UMW fights battles on several fronts—some of them a good distance from the coal fields. The union's challenge is to maintain economic benefits while meeting its obligation to see that working conditions are as clean and safe as possible.
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The dangers of mining coal for a living are well-known, but injury and early death are not the only threats to the well-being of miners. Unemployment, seasonal layoffs, low wages, and pensionless futures have been equally crippling. Disarming both the physical and the economic threats to their membership has been the main goal of the United Mine Workers (UMW) since its founding in 1890.
In the last 90 years the union has survived scandal, power struggles, depressions and encroachments from rival unions. In 1979 the miners of Illinois (the UMW's District 12) numbered 19,660—down from its peak of some 100,000 in the 1920's but still a sizable presence in the state since the UMW mines about 96 percent of the coal dug in Illinois.
The UMW's mandate may be reduced to two issues: money and safety. Of the two, safety often has taken precedence, perhaps because higher wages are meaningless if one is not alive to spend them. Indeed, the United Mine Workers deals with issues that may mean life or death to its members in a way that may be unique within American trade unions. Coal mining remains one of the most dangerous ways to make a living. The records of the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals (IDMM) list more than 8,700 miners who died and 90,000 who were injured in Illinois mines between 1882 (when statistics first were kept) and 1978.
Prior to 1969, mine safety in the U.S. had been left largely to the states, although the UMW had been writing safety measures into its national contracts for years. But the union regards safety as ultimately a matter for state and federal governments. As one Illinois union official put it, why "use the few chips we have" in bargaining with owners for what miners regard as something that should be theirs as a matter of right?
As evidence of a historical disregard for miners' welfare, union officials also point out that while there has been federal mine safety legislation on the books since 1910, it wasn't until 1969 that federal mine inspectors could even enter a mine, and then only if invited to do so by its owners.
The results of this laissez-faire philosophy can be measured in accident statistics. In Illinois, the first mine safety laws were passed in 1872, though the protection of miners was left to the counties. Elaborations on this theme followed, in 1877 and 1879. In 1883 a state Bureau of Mines and Minerals was organized, and in 1899 the state law was rewritten to make it the equal of any in the nation; in 1917 the bureau was elevated to one of nine new code departments and given expanded authority over such crucial safety items as ventilation and emergency exits. Fatality rates plummeted in the face of these reforms.
Measured against any but the most relative standards, however, such laws offered scant protections, even when they were strictly enforced, which they seldom were. The awful irrelevance of the state's mine safety program was proved on March 25, 1947, when an explosion ripped through a mine at Centralia. One hundred and eleven miners died in the blast; it took three days for rescuers to haul all the bodies from the mine.
The Centralia disaster stunned the nation. But it took another 119 deaths—this time in a similar explosion at West Frankfort, four days before Christmas in 1951—before the present Illinois Coal Mining Act was approved in 1953. That act set out stringent new standards for Illinois as well as a program of inspection and training (to be administered by the IDMM). It also set up a State Mining Board comprised of two miners and two operators to administer the act.
IDMM records indicate that the rate of fatal accidents per 1,000 miners employed dropped from 2.5 in 1947 (not counting the Centralia victims) to 1.4 in 1954, the first full year after implementation of the 1953 Coal Mine Act. But, the question remains: Do mine safety laws really make mines safer? A downward trend in fatal accident rates was evident in Illinois for several years before Centralia. The nonfatal accident rate, for instance, which was 30.8 per 1,000 miners before Centralia, had already slipped to 18.5 in 1952 — the year before passage of the tougher 1953 Coal Mine Act.
There are reasons to believe that the improvement in Illinois's safety records after 1953 were as much the result of new equipment and new mining techniques as of stepped-up inspections. Many of the innovations which have made underground mines safer (such as using roof bolts instead of wooden timbers as mine roof supports) were adopted because they made mines more efficient.
Whether it was because of a better-than-average state mining law or because of improvements in mining equipment and technique, Illinois's record of fatal accidents during the 15 years after implementation of the 1953 state law was nearly twice as good as that recorded during the 15 years before the act.
Even so, some 15 men a year were dying in Illinois in the late 1960's. In 1969, Congress passed a mine safety law of its own, spurred (as the Illinois General Assembly had been some 16 years earlier) by mine disasters. The new U.S. Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was the toughest yet, and soon state inspectors were joined by federal inspectors, and the fatal accident rates per 1,000 miners dropped through the 1970's until it reached a historic low of 0.20 in 1976.
But again questions remain as to which of the several factors affecting coal mining deserved the credit. Partly in response to the new federal initiatives, state inspection forces were expanded during this period. Federal inspectors were untrained and inexperienced, according to some veteran state mine safety experts, and the companies complained that most of the new regulations made it harder to mine coal but not that much safer.
Black lung costs
And more expensive. Under a provision of the 1969 act, coal mines are required to meet stringent dust standards to reduce the future incidence among miners of debilitating pneumoconiosis, or black lung. But federal inspectors seldom cite dust violations, and there's little incentive for mine owners to control dust levels. Black lung disability benefits were awarded to more than 480,000 miners or their survivors since 1970 at a cost, as of last October 1, of $8.3 billion. These benefits are financed by a flat per-ton levy paid by coal companies (and deductible from their federal tax liabilities) whether they run clean mines or dirty ones.
Coal companies and others have also complained about the apparent duplication of effort. UMW officials explain that the state law is less forgiving in some key respects, so that abiding by the federal law alone would leave miners less safe than they are at present. Besides, they argue, twin inspection agencies are only a protection against error or malfeasance.
Even after a century of progressively stringent state rule-making, the UMW still regards safety as an item of unfinished business. In 1975, for example, the union lobbied hard for changes in the Coal Mining Act. District 12 president Kenneth Dawes spoke in Springfield on behalf of the reforms, noting that 321 Illinois miners had died since the passage of the 1953 act. "Those 321 men who have been dying in one's and two's are just as dead as the victims of Centralia and West Frankfort," he told legislators. The union wanted the act expanded to protect surface miners since surface mining has become as dangerous as deep mining. Of the six miners killed in 1978, for instance, three worked in surface mines. The union also wanted the State Mine Board membership expanded and the board given subpoena power.
These reforms were eventually adopted but with some modifications. Because of such safety legislation, miners are less likely to die on the job than ever before. However, mining is still dangerous, even if it is less frequently fatal. In 1978, for example, 22 of every 1,000 miners (1,070 in all) were hurt seriously enough to miss at least a week's work; 276 miners were out 30 days or more. Statistics over the three-year period of 1975 to 1978 show an especially alarming fourfold jump in accident rates.
The causes are unclear. Some state safety inspectors note that the influx of young miners into the pits (there are 70 percent more miners working in Illinois in 1979 than in 1970) has led to accidents caused by inexperience. Some coal company executives have blamed carelessness by miners. Union officials, while admitting that inexperience is a factor [text missing] jobs. (A key provision of the 1978 national UMW contract requires minimum company training for new miners.) The union also claims that the apparent rise in accident rates since 1975 is not due to any failures by the miners but to failures of state safety officials in the past to make accurate accident reports.
Discrepancies between the number of official accidents reported and the number of injury claims filed with District 12 during the Walker administration led the UMW to complain about accident reporting, with the result, the union says, that since 1975, official reports more accurately reflect mining's real toll.
Safety is only one of the issues that historically have made relations between labor and management in the coal industry among the worst in the U.S. Generations of mistrust have led miners to rely on unauthorized or "wildcat" strikes rather than formal grievance procedures as a means of settling local disputes over safety, contract provisions or money. Indeed, in the 1970s, "wildcat" and "UMW" came to be synonymous in some coal states, with the result that strikes became not just a means of settling issues but an issue themselves.
Last August, for example, 480 miners at the Freeman United Crown II mine at Virden walked out for four days in a dispute over the time allowed to transport sick or injured miners. The company told the press that it had not been told of the complaint before the walkout. The Freeman United walkout was preceded by a walkout over job bidding by 550 miners at Freeman United's Orient No. 6 mine in Jefferson County in April; that same month, wildcatters closed down five of Peabody Coal's Illinois mines for a time, idling some 2,600 miners in protest over implementation by Peabody of new absenteeism policies the miners claimed were in violation of the current contract.
The Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA), the national industry bargaining group, has claimed that the incidence of wildcat strikes increased threefold between 1970 and 1977, so that in 1977 mines were closed down an average of one working day out of every ten. When the BCOA's negotiating team sat down at the table with the UMW at the start of the 1977 contract negotiations, it insisted that the new pact give companies the power to fire wildcat organizers and fine miners who refused to cross wildcat pickets.
That provision did not survive, but the new contract did offer improved mechanisms to settle disputes at the local level without strikes. Wildcat strikes were costing both miners and companies money. It has often been alleged that it is freedom from disruptions, not the costs of union wage or benefits packages, that makes the non-UMW western mines so attractive to coal companies, and since the signing of the current contract in March of 1978, Illinois union and industry have both worked to limit them. And the number of wildcats has dropped.
The new reasonableness being shown in Illinois may be nothing more than prudence; historically, work disruptions diminish in slack times when both workers and owners share what one industry official described as "a joint preoccupation with survival."
The classic causes for strikes, however, are still economic, in part because many miners, such as those in southern Illinois, work where there are few other jobs to be had, so that layoffs are feared as much as injury. And miners have fought to protect their paychecks. The coal wars of the 1930's, for example, began when the rank and file refused to accept a reduced wage rate negotiated by the union leadership after competition from cheaper coal mined in nonunion states had undercut Illinois markets, leading to overproduction and layoffs.
Overproduction and layoffs in Illinois caused by out-of-state competition is still a problem a half-century later. Only today that coal is taking over Illinois's market not because it is cheaper but because it is cleaner. According to UMW figures, 590 Illinois miners had been laid off as of November 30, 1979, and another 1,081 miners had been placed on shortened work weeks. Such statistics have caused many Illinois miners to regard clean air bureaucrats and the rate-makers at the Illinois Commerce Commission as bigger threats to miners than their traditional antagonists in the coal industry.
The union thus finds itself addressing issues that lie at a bewildering distance from its accustomed place -beside its members in the coal fields. For example, the UMW organized a one-day work stoppage last March to protest the use by Illinois electric utilities of low-sulfur western coal as an anti-pollution strategy, and the union's list of recommendations recently submitted to the Governor's Commission on the 1977 Clean Air Amendments dealt with such arcana as PSD (Permissable Significant Deterioration) air pollution rules and "transportation 'pass-throughs.'"
One of the biggest threats to Illinois coal miners comes from other miners. More and more of the nation's coal is being mined in the West, and the West remains barren ground for UMW organizers. This unhappy fact affects District 12 in two ways. One, as the share of the nation's coal supplied from the non-UMW West rises, the UMW's economic clout shrinks. At present only about half of U.S. coal is dug by UMW miners. That statistic isn't wholly reliable; UMW officials insist that because the energy value of UMW's coal is so much higher than its western competitor, the union actually controls as much as 75 percent of the country's coal energy. Even so, the UMW's relative share is declining, as is its once formidable presence in the marketplace and at the bargaining table.
Two, the losing of the West has more direct effects in Illinois. During the marathon 110-day strike that began in December 1977, the Central Illinois Public Service Co. had to reduce its power output by some 5 percent in some service areas to preserve a coal reserve which had dwindled from its usual 150,000 tons to 35,000 tons. The reason CIPS' customers' TV screens only shrank slightly instead of going black was that in February the utility had 100,000 tons of non-UMW coal shipped in from Wyoming. Such tactics by coal consumers nationwide kept the strike from causing more than occasional local inconvenience—and helped keep miners on the picket lines.
In Illinois, however, the UMW has virtually no competition. The state has been UMW territory since it swept the field from the rival Progressive Mine Workers of America during the mine wars of the 1930s. But if today's Illinois miners share their grandparents' allegiance to the union of John L. Lewis, they are different from them in nearly every other way. For one thing, Illinois UMW miners in 1979 are much younger than ever before (average age early thirties), and increasing numbers of them (some 200 of them by one estimate) are female. These changes are of more than demographic interest. As noted, the inexperience of young miners is a factor in many mining accidents. In addition their backgrounds—many of them with college educations, reared in the Vietnam era of activism, with no tradition of mining in their families— make them less docile and more questioning than the men who helped make the union such a dominant national force in the 1930s and 1940s—men who, it should be noted, occupy many leadership posts in the international union.
Indeed, the rank and file in recent years have seemed as often at war with their own leadership as with coal companies. The unprecedented 110-day holdout in 1977–78 revealed unexpected reservoirs of determination among union members. Even after the longest strike in the union's history, Illinois miners only barely ratified the second contract negotiated on their behalf in Washington after they rejected the first. That intramural skirmishing involves the District 12 leadership as well. One of the people who helped arrange that second pact was Illinois UMW president Kenneth Dawes, a man widely assumed to entertain thoughts of higher union office.
However, the strike also revealed that union coal, though important, no longer is vital to either the state's or the nation's economies. It was true that an Illinois Coal Strike Task Force appointed by Gov. James R. Thompson in the spring of 1978 estimated that the coal strike cost Illinois coal companies some 14 million tons of lost production worth $236 million; that the average number of unemployed in Illinois during the strike was 14,900 who cumulatively lost wages of $100 million; that another $100 million in wages was lost indirectly because of reduced consumer spending; that the state lost some $7 million in income and sales taxes. But it was also true that most of these effects were temporary. The lost coal production was made up after the strike as utilities refilled spent stockpiles—and refilled state tax coffers as well.
There were some 4,900 layoffs among non-miners attributed to the coal strike, but that was hardly a crippling blow to the state's economy. There were no disruptions of electric service, no mass layoffs in other industries. A long strike is no longer feared by either public or government, and because of that the real losers in the strike may have been coal companies and union alike.
The current UMW contract expires in March 1981. It is not a date that either the industry or the union looks forward to. In May the Consolidation Coal Co., or Consol, announced its withdrawal from the 130-member BCOA. The company, which employed more than 1,400 Illinois miners in 1978, is the largest employer of UMW miners in the nation. It plans to seek separate contracts with the UMW (whether on a state, regional or national basis has not yet been announced) because of what the company regards as the failure of national bargaining. Consol will not be the first company to pursue what it calls an "independent course" with the UMW in Illinois, however. Just prior to the 1977 national negotiations, the Ziegler Coal Co. had withdrawn from the BCOA also. Because of that, a separate district union negotiating team (headed by Ken Dawes) worked with the company in drafting a separate contract between the company and the six union locals working at Ziegler mines in Illinois.
A healthy UMW?
The UMW would prefer that the example of companies like Ziegler and Consol not be followed nationally. It would mark a return to the balkanization of the industry which enabled coal companies to play one state or region against others at contract time, a balkanization which national negotiation finally halted more than 30 years ago.
Until last fall, the international UMW seemed ill-equipped to fend off a determined effort by the industry to divide and conquer the union. After the successful reform movement which, in 1972, ousted the corrupt regime of W. A. "Tony" Boyle, the national union has been beset by indifferent leadership, factionalism, a declining share of the nation's coal production, organizing troubles in the West, and restlessness among a rank and file which accused UMW international president Arnold Miller of having betrayed their interests in the last two national contract talks.
But Miller resigned unexpectedly because of ill health in November and was replaced by union vice president Sam Church. At the national UMW convention held a month later, Church won approval for a multimillion dollar selective strike fund which would support locals striking Consol out of a $25-a-week assessment paid by miners working for other BCOA members—a plan the New York Times called "an innovative squeeze on Consol" and one which marked the first change in the UMW's 30-year tradition of industry-wide strike strategy.
The question remains then, whether the UMW can remain whole enough to negotiate health and safety measures for its members while it struggles to meet the economic demands which loom ever larger as each contract is negotiated. Given the industry's traditional erratic attention to miners' safety, the unions have a growing obligation to see that working conditions are as safe and clean as possible. Even a crippled giant may help prevent crippling accidents, for, as one Illinois UMW official has put it, the men and women who work in Illinois coal mines "are the best union people there is." And if they act in their own best interests, they may achieve greater physical and economic security in the turbulent future that lies ahead for Illinois coal. ●