Letter to the Editor: Where have all the old timers gone?
My coal mining experience is quite insignificant but the lessons I learned in four short years over 20 years ago were anything but insignificant.
When I worked underground women were just beginning to work in the mines and it was a very controversial time but we all (young men and women just starting in the industry) had people looking out for us that would risk their careers to make sure we were safe. Those people were the men we called the "old timers".
They had been in the mines for years and most worked somewhere other than the face but they visited us often and gave us constant advice whether we wanted it or not (bless their souls). Often it was advice that the operators or supervisors weren't fond of because it was how to stay safe and often entailed slowing down production to make sure no lives were risked. Yes, it was a union mine and whenever the operator or supervisors wouldn't allow miners to back up or slow down to prevent risking lives - we walked out and it was the "Old Timers" who led us and then the union who preserved our job.
Some people (mostly mine operators and supervisors but some of their peers as well) felt like the "old timers" were just trouble makers. They were accused of just trying to find a way to get out of work and using the union to disrupt the business and so on and so forth. Back then it seemed the union men and women were strong enough to stand up under that criticism but eventually that began to change.
Then Mr. Reagan became our president and all unions were looked upon with scrutiny and criticized for just trying to disrupt business and cost a lot of money. People started to change their ideas about the importance of the union. All the men who died before us and the struggle so many went through to protect us was forgotten. Mines were shutting down and jobs were harder to find. There were contract miners willing to work for lower wages and mine operators hiring young inexperienced miners rather than miners more in the "old timer" category. A lot of men with years of mining experience (the know how to keep people alive) couldn't find a job and were made to feel like they had done something very wrong.
It's been interesting to see the media interviewing people, in the past few days, and they ask to be anonymous. Does that raise any red flags for anyone besides me? You start talking and word gets around and pretty soon it's real hard for you to find a job in the mine even though you have loads of experience. To be fair, in the last 20 years mine operators had to find cheaper ways to mine coal in order to stay competitive and survive. We all know this. But the problem is the cheaper route can lead to loss of safety and loss of lives and finding the cheaper route coupled with inexperience guarantees the loss of lives.
I've watched the drama unfold on the news regarding the six miners trapped and now three rescuers killed at the mine in Huntington with a very heavy heart.
I really miss the "old timers" who would have told everyone that it was going to happen long before anyone lost their life over it. They, like me, are probably wondering what the hell a "bump"? is? We experienced a lot of "bounces" and that was always associated with open country in the pillar sections. So is this mine in Huntington surrounded by old workings with too surrounded by old workings with too much "open country?"
One thing that never changes is the fact that if you are a miner (or ever was) every miner on this earth, union or non-union, mine operator, supervisor, or an inspector from MSHA, is your brother or sister and their life is worth any amount of money, or the risk of any ones career, to see that that life is protected.
The loss of their life must not be dismissed as "a very dangerous business" and then we move on because it can and has been done safely in the past.