You are here

Capital Blight: The Two Bums

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 15, 2016

It may seem like King Coal has suffered a couple of bad weeks in a row.  Consider the following:

Six years and a day after Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch Mine exploded, killing 29 men, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger issued former Massey CEO, Don Blankenship, the maximum allowable sentence for for willfully conspiring to violate mine safety standards: one year in prison, one year of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.

However, when broken down, this only roughly figures out to $8621 and 12½ days per dead miner. Perhaps that's why Tommy Davis, who lost his brother, son, and nephew in the explosion (while he was working in another section of the mine that day) shouted at Blankenship as he left the courthouse,

"You don’t have a heart; you don’t miss your kids like we miss ours...I hold a picture, I hold a tombstone; you hold nothing."

He further elaborated, in response to Blankenship's (no doubt well scripted) "apology" spoken in response to the sentencing

"It didn’t mean nothing, and it still won’t mean nothing...He never come to me in six years, never come to me, never come to my mom, my dad who’re gone now. They grieved themselves to death. He never come to apologize to us. He never said nothing."

This also likely explains why Annette Workman, who lost her husband, Ricky, in the incident angrily shouted, “Did you ever go down in that mine?” at the soon-to-be imprisoned (though not for long) erstwhile CEO.

Clearly this sorry affair reveals just how unfair the capitalist system really is. Any working class individual who'd caused the equivalent amount of death and mayhem would have been given the death sentence, but as long as such activity is done in the persuit of profit, it falls under the presumed innocence of capitalism and is thusly rarely charged more than a slap on the hand. One should not blame Judge Berger for not meting out harsher judgement. By law, she can only slap so hard. 

More Background

News of Blankenship's sentence has since been overshadowed by the bombshell dropped by Peabody Energy.  According to the Washington Post:

In the starkest sign yet of declining fortunes in the coal industry, St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, the largest and most storied U.S. coal company, announced early Wednesday that it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company cited an “unprecedented industry downturn,” which it attributed to a range of factors including an economic slowdown in China, low coal prices and “overproduction of domestic shale gas.” In the United States, cheap natural gas, driven by the shale-gas boom, has been steadily eating into coal’s share of electricity generation.

But Peabody was also weighed down by debt from its poorly timed $5.2 billion acquisition of MacArthur Coal of Australia in 2011, near the peak for coal prices there as Peabody underestimated rival coal supplies and overestimated the growth of Chinese coal consumption. “The debt-laden capital structure became unsustainable as cash flows worsened and access to capital markets evaporated,” Fitch Ratings said Wednesday.

At first glance this may be seen by some as a sign of progress in transitioning from a fossil fuel based economy to a post carbon economy--and to be sure, some good has already come of this development, as noted by Elliott Negin of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who declared:

[T]he company’s court-ordered disclosures are likely to yield hard evidence of Peabody’s direct links to climate science denial. After all, that’s what we learned from the bankruptcy filings of two other major U.S. coal companies, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources. The companies’ lists of creditors accompanying their chapter 11 bankruptcy filings both cited known climate science deniers. So far, the bankruptcy cases have not revealed the details of these financial relationships. But there is now no doubt the coal companies contracted with these groups and individuals to either make a donation or pay for services.

...but on closer look what Chapter 11 Bankruptcy also does is allow the capitalists that run Peabody to socialize the costs they cannot cover, including paying workers' and cleaning up the messes they've made, as elaborated here by Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign director, Mary Anne Hitt:

Peabody has more than $2 billion in mine cleanup liabilities, nearly $1.5 billion of which are unfunded, including nearly $900 million in Wyoming alone. This puts the company in a difficult financial situation, which understandably makes us nervous that it will bail on coal communities to satisfy its executives and creditors. It doesn’t help that Peabody has a history of spinning off its responsibilities into smaller companies that seem like they are built to fail; leaving taxpayers holding the bag. Exhibit A is Patriot Coal, a subsidiary company that Peabody spun off to dump many of its Appalachian commitments—including mountaintop removal sites and worker pensions. When Patriot predictably failed, Peabody was nowhere to be found.

So, in other words, the bosses get to pass these bills onto the rest of us. What a deal!

Of course, if any coal miner were in this much debt, they'd be chained to debt slavery for life and forced to work until they dropped--though, in one of Blankenship's mines, they probably wouldn't have long to wait for that. 

More Background

The hypocrisy of these capitalists couldn't be more blatant. While they funnel money into "libertarian" think tanks whose role it is to serve as ministries of truth for the capitalist class, claiming that unions are protection rackets for "lazy, overpaid workers" and that climate change is "a liberal (or communist?) hoax", the real bums are murdering workers and frying our planet. In neither case has justice been served. The only way that will happen is when we put the real bums to work and force them to clean up the mess they've made, and that can only be done by abolishing capitalism, a system that only enables bums and scoundrels. At the very least, Climate Justice activists would do well to reach out to these coal miners and offer their solidarity. The plight of these coal workers and the plight of the climate have the same cause.

There's no better way to elaborate the problem than thusly:

The Two Bums (usually attributed to Utah Phillips, but actual source unknown)

The bum on the rods is hunted down
As the enemy of mankind;
The other is driven around to his club
Is feted, wined and dined.

And they who curse the bum on the rods
As the essence of all that is bad,
Will greet the other with a winning smile
And extend him the hand so glad.

The bum on the rods is a social flea
Who gets an occasional bite;
The bum on the plush is a social leech,
Blood-sucking day and night.

The bum on the rods is a load so light
That his weight we scarcely feel,
But it takes the labor of dozens of men
To furnish the other a meal.

As long as you sanction the bum on the plush,
The other will always be there,
But rid yourself of the bum on the plush
And the other will disappear.

Then make an intelligent, organized kick,
Get rid of the weights that crush;
Don’t worry about the bum on the rods,
Get rid of the bum on the plush!

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.