Monday, April 12, 2010

American Judas

American workers are expendable. Always have been. Collectively, we are in a constant state of war with our bosses. Problem is, most of us don't even know it. Some of us are lucky. We work in the manor house. We're treated kindly by the Squire. We have no inclination to side with the peons out in the fields. We prefer to identify with our betters because we'd like to be them someday. A lucky few of us will make it. Most will not.

When a resistance springs up to fight for better treatment from their employers, their biggest threat comes from within. There are always informers who want to make points with the higher-ups by playing the Judas role.

I was part of trying to unionize a plant once. Behind closed doors, the collaborators reported to management who was in favor of a union in return for promises of favor and favors when it was over. The pro-union workers suddenly found themselves assigned to the hardest, dirtiest jobs. They were written up for the smallest of infractions. Their vacation requests were denied. All of these actions were against the law, of course, but in order for laws to be effective, there have to be enforcers. In our case, the company won and the union was voted down.

The workers who fought the hardest and the longest for a decent standard of living are held in contempt by those without the courage to do the same. Who do the people on the assembly line making minimum wage hate the most? Is it their employers who see success as paying low wages, shirking on safety, providing minimal health care benefits? Nope, jealously, they reserve their hostility for their better off brethren, like the Auto Workers.

We shouldn't be surprised that management wages an on-going campaign to break the unions but what should surprise us is the enthusiasm with which our fellow laborers join in. Remember how we roared in support of Ronald Reagan when he destroyed the Air Traffic Controllers? Ronnie was the hero of the house slaves when he put down the rebellion of the field hands.

Our bosses tell us what to say and we happily repeat it? Like, "it's the Auto Workers' (et al) own fault for pricing themselves out of the market with their demands." Okay, then did the low-wage textile workers price themselves out of the market? Did I price myself out of the market when I was making minimum wage soldering transformers and the company moved our jobs to Mexico? How low do you have to go not to price yourself out of the market? Do we have to match the slave labor of China and Singapore not to price ourselves out of the market?

Now, American labor has gone from almost 30 percent unionized to about 8 per cent. How's that workin' out for us? E Pluribum Unum might be the motto of our country but it's certainly not the slogan of our working class. Whenever we have a chance to support one another, we turn on ourselves instead.

Do we not realize that the goals of the corporations for which we work are the exact opposite of ours? They want a labor force that is submissive and accepting of whatever they deign to offer. Lower wages and higher expectations. Minimal health insurance and longer hours. Holding us in the limbo of temp status rather than giving us full-time benefits. Threatening to move our jobs overseas.  We are shocked to discover promises reneged on, like insurance benefits that last past retirement and supposedly guaranteed pension plans.

And now we have another mine disaster, the worst in America in 40 years, although certainly far from the only one. Twenty-nine miners killed.

"We will conduct extensive reviews of the (Upper Big Branch Mine) accident to ensure that a similar accident doesn't happen again,"  So said Richmond, Virginia-based Massey Energy Co, in a press release issued last Friday. To which I say - "yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever." These mine owners probably keep a card in their pocket with this statement printed on it so they can pull it out at a moment's notice because it's the same thing we hear after every mine disaster.

We usually also hear a litany of violations against whatever mine where the disaster took place. In the case of the Upper Big Branch, Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors ordered all or part of the mine closed due to serious safety hazards 61 times in the last 15 months. The mine had ventilation problems. It was notorious for coal dust accumulations on conveyors (coal dust being 10 times as flammable as methane). The Upper  Big Branch had 50 unwarrantable failures in a year. Unwarrantable is defined as the most serious type of violation, issued when the threat can cause injury or death and the mine operator is aware of the problem but failed to act.

President Obama has issued a call for a thorough investigation. West Virginia governor Manchin has demanded a thorough investigation. State and Federal officials have promised a thorough investigation. Congress is going to hold thorough investigatory hearings.  All this is pretty much what happened after 12 miners were killed at the Sago mine in 2006....and after every other mine disaster. I say, "yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever."

And the rest of us? Well, we'll feel terrible for the miners and their families for about 15 minutes and perhaps we'll honor them with a moment of silence. Then we'll go on with our business, never seeing that occurrences like this, which could have been avoided if anyone cared enough, are just one more defeat in the perpetual war between workers and bosses.


  1. I do agree about the history of lip service during these mine disasters but I can tell you as a WV resident of a town about 40 miles northwest of Upper Big Branch, things feel different this time. I have never seen so many local residents so angry at Don Blankenship and Massey. People have placed him in the same category as former head football coach/traitor, Rich Rodriguez. And if you know anything about that story you know that Rodriguez has to creep back into WV under cover of darkness in disguise if he wants to visit his parents. I think a grassroots (hate that overused word) is needed to change the mining situation and it feels like that is what is happening. People are as bitter as I've ever seen. And that is really saying something because we WVians specialize in bitter. Maybe the unions have another chance after all. Out of our grief hopefully something good can happen.

  2. I hope you're right, Christine. Seems like I've seen things happen so many times and after the initial hand-wrenchings, it goes back to business as usual. The corporations stick together. They're on one another's boards, scratch each other's backs. Working people don't do that. The machinist doesn't see himself as one with the miner whose at one with the nurse whose at one with the cop......We have more votes, and as a result, more clout if we ever used it collectively but we never seem to do that.