Love’s Labor’s Lost

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital,” said Abraham Lincoln. “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if Labor had not first existed. Labor is superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

This is a quote I found in an article in “The Nation” about the efforts in recent years to stymie the adoption of more stringent safety legislation in the coal mining industry. The article also touches on the ability of coal producers to successfully fend off enforcement of what laws and regulations already exist.

It also touches on the ironic history of the labor movement in the sense that the champion of miners, John L. Lewis, was a Republican, as, of course, was Lincoln. And whereas Democrats are now generally considered the party most favored by unions, and vice versa, many Republicans were in the fore of promoting earlier protective legislation.

However, I do not wish to argue partisan politics here. I do wish to suggest that it is perhaps time for West Virginia, after a long, frequently tumultuous, marriage to King Coal, to seek a divorce on the grounds of domestic abuse, abandonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

For over 120 years coal has been the primary economic engine driving The Mountain State. Reflecting on this history in light of this week’s news from Upper Big Branch leads me to conclude this is simply the latest episode evidencing the unhealthy relationship between the state and coal, that has been tolerated, facilitated and enabled by the people of West Virginia.

Thousands of miners, working men; fathers, brothers, sons and nephews, have been killed working in our mines. Untold others have been maimed, maltreated, humiliated, disdained, developed debilitating illnesses, and had their families uprooted and destroyed. And yet, like an abused spouse, those same workers, in the end, keep returning to their abuser.

At times like these,  the tendency is to romanticize the survivors and their families. A common thread in news stories is how wonderful these men are, how dedicated they were to their work, and that remaining miners, for the most part, will be returning underground because mining “is what they do”.

And of course miners and their families are depicted as hard-working, god-fearing, and humble. Omitted is the reality that all miners are not saints and their life expectations are bereft of chances for or interest in educational opportunites that would lessen the allure of the mines.

But to keep going down into the ground again is to ignore history. That action serves to deny the fact that mining, a necessarily dirty and dangerous business, has done nothing to provide a consistent level of substantial livelihood.  Sometimes for the need of income they exchange the protections of union membership for the uncertainties of safety that are tied to those paychecks.

Undoubtedly conditions are different than 100 years ago. No longer prevalent are company towns and stores, private police forces, corruption of public officials, and harsh unforgiving attitudes of the bosses that led to the industry becoming dominant in the first place.

Gone are the days of midnight evictions from company houses. Nevermore the jailing  or worse of union organizers. No more the need to take up arms, either in reaction to perceived threats or in unjustified violent retaliation for reprehensible offenses and oppression by the owners and their enablers. No more Matewans or Blair Mountains. No more deployments of the National Guard.

But typical is the attitude of the woman whose husband had a heart attack in a  mine and who has 21 year old son working. on why he won’t quit

We have no choice but to accept death,” she said. “And when it happens to other families, my heart just drops.

That such attitudes prevail is akin to an abused wife staying with her vicious husband.

A divorce will not be easy It will be traumatic. It most surely will mean new attitudes, new dedication to education, and an all-out commitment to developing other avenues for business, industry and employment.

I’m tired of reading about the latest diseaster. I’m tired of watching memorial services for dead miners. When President Obama is here for such a service this week, please entreat him to use all his power to assist us in pursuing our divorce. End the abuse. The people of W.Va. deserve better.

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