Friday, November 17, 2006

John L. Lewis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jesus

Must-read article in the Washington Post today about the difficulty the United Mine Workers are having organizing young miners in today's "second coal rush."

The older miners understand the value of retirement benefits like health insurance and pensions, as well as the job protections that come with unionization.

Middle-aged union supporters say younger workers are naive to think they won't face supervisors who underestimate danger or play favorites in assigning work, or try to deny their rights if they are injured or lay them off without explanation. They say they've seen all this and more.

The younger workers, on the other hand, are so pleased with the good money they're suddenly making that they don't want to rock the boat. That and high unemployment in the coal fields puts them a world away from the older miners:

The miners here come not only from different generations but different worlds. Those in their 50s mostly began mining as union men from union families, following grandfathers, fathers and uncles.

Their towns erected memorials to men who died in mine accidents alongside memorials for fallen soldiers. They relied on the union to protect them in a dangerous workplace and were raised to revere John L. Lewis, the longtime UMWA president.

"I have three pictures side by side in my house: John L. Lewis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jesus," said Jack McReynolds, 70, a retired miner eating lunch recently at Lola's Uptown Restaurant in West Frankfort, once home to seven coal mines, all now closed. "I draw Social Security on account of FDR. I draw a pension on account of John L. Lewis, and I'm going to Heaven because of Jesus."

The UMW's current stuggle to organize Peabody coal is symbolic of the problems the union is having. In the 1980's Peabody was 80% union. Then the highly unionized eastern mines close as mining moved to the non-union west. Now that the eastern mines are reopening, Peabody is 85% "union free." They pay union wage, provide 401(k) plans and pay generous bonuses.

With all that, union organizers have their work cut out for them:
Back at Lola's Uptown Restaurant, [27 year old Carl "Bubba"] Vincelette recalled that he had listened with an open mind when a UMWA organizer visited him recently. The organizer said union coal miners elect safety committees that have authority to shut a mine if they judge it unsafe. But Vincelette said he trusted Peabody to be vigilant about safety.

The organizer also said that with 20 years in a union mine, Vincelette would get retiree health insurance for life. But 20 years sounded like an eternity.

"The way everything's going -- wars and stuff like that -- it's hard to think long term," he said.

McReynolds, the retired UMWA miner with John L. Lewis's picture in his living room, listened from across the table in pained silence.

When the young miner left, McReynolds rose slowly from his chair and straightened his Mason's hat bearing a UMWA pensioners' emblem and a gold pick-and-shovel pin the union gave him. "That young man has no idea what he's talking about," he said.
More on the Justice At Peabody organizing campaign here.