Posts Tagged ‘coal’

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There hasn’t been a war on coal in the United States. There’s been a war by the coal industry on coal miners.*

The modern peak of coal employment was in 1984, when 177,848 miners (about .16 percent of the national labor force) were employed by the coal industry. Since then, coal production grew but mining employment decreased. Thus, by 2011, the coal industry employed only 88,000 miners (about .06% of the labor force), a decrease of 51 percent, while producing 22 percent more coal than in 1984.

Here’s the decline in total mining employment in the United States:

coal employment

The coal industry’s modern war on miners has consisted of two major shifts: one technological, the other geographic. The switch to surface mining meant an increase in labor productivity (many fewer miners are required to extract each ton of coal with mountaintop removal and other forms of surface mining). The move to the west—within and across states—has meant a sharp decline in coal production and employment in old coal regions (such as Appalachia) and an increase in production (with some increase in employment) in newer regions (such as western Kentucky and Wyoming).

The fact is, the coal industry won the war on miners. And there’s no hope that a revitalization of the coal industry will do anything more than line the pockets of the owners of the coal mines.

 

*Actually, the mining industry has engaged in a permanent war on miners: early on, it involved an attack on miners’ pay, safety, and unions (think Blair Mountain and Harlan County); since the mid-1980s, it’s been a war on miners’ jobs.

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A man lays carnations at the Miners Monument in central Soma, a district in Turkey's western province of Manisa

Turkish unions have called for a national strike today in response to an explosion in a coal mine in the west of the country that has left at least 282 workers dead.

According to Erinç Yeldan,

One of the greatest work-crimes in mining industry occurred in Soma, a little mining village in Western Turkey. At noon-time on Tuesday, May 13, according to witnesses, an electrical fault triggered a transformer to explode causing a large fire in the mine, releasing carbon monoxide and gaseous fumes. (The official cause of the “accident” was still unknown, at this writing, after nearly 30 hours.) Around 800 miners were trapped 2 km underground and 4 km from the exit. At this point, the death toll has already reached 245, with reports of another 100 workers remaining in the mine, yet unreached.

Turkey has possibly the worst safety record in terms of mining accidents and explosions in Europe and the third worst in the world. Since the right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power in 2002, and up to 2011, a 40% increase in work-related accidents has been reported. The death toll from these accidents reached more than 11,000.

Many analysts agree that what lies behind these tragic events is the unregulated and poorly supervised attempts of a corrupt ruling government to push through hasty privatizations and a forced informalization of labour. The Soma mine itself was privatized in 2005. In the heyday of an anti-public sector campaign, the new owners of the plant proudly declared a decline in production costs from the US$120-130 range under the public ownership of State Coal Inc. (TTK) to US$23.80. It was not very long before it became clear that what actually facilitated this ‘miraculous market success’ was the determined evasion of safety standards. On that front, the president of the private company Soma Inc., Mr. Gürkan, was heard boasting, “You can ask ‘what changed in the mine?’ The answer is ‘nothing.’ We simply introduced methods of the private sector only.”

Over this process of “introduction of the methods of the private sector,” average gross daily pay of the miners hovered at 47 TL (approximately US$20), while the existing mine tunnels were extended from 350 m to more than 2.5 km. The dissolution of the Council of Public Inspection by government decree in 2011 was clearly instrumental in reducing the role of formal inspections to no more than friendly visits to the company headquarters, with no attention paid to the actual working conditions in the tunnels.

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