Thursday, January 05, 2006

Coal Mining Remains A Deadly Livelihood

Labor Day Roslyn, Washington 1922
"The labor movement is organized upon a principle that the strong shall help the weak" John L. Lewis

The year after my uncle, Clyde Fischer of Roslyn Washington, was born in 1908 there were 2642 accidental deaths attributed officially to coal mining in the United States. 1909 remains the year for the highest number of deaths recorded since modern official government record keeping started in 1900.

Since that time the death rates have declined steadily, as have the number of miners that make a living removing coal from the earth. In 1900 it was estimated that there were nearly 450,000 miners. Today the numbers are more like 108,000 miners total working to extract coal. There were officially 22 deaths in 2005 and, as we have painfully learned with the latest disaster at the Sago mine accident in West Virginia 12 miners died so far in 2006. Although mine safety has improved markedly over the years, due to pressure by organize labor and others, the latest deaths in West Virginia prove that mine safety is still an issue that needs to be addressed, and working in a coal mine is an extremely dangerous way for one to make a living.

Coal mining has always required a special breed of courageous workers. My uncle, who pasted away in 1977, was a miner who worked for nearly a quarter of a century in the coalfields of Roslyn, Washington for the Northwestern Improvement Company. A subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad that needed the mined coal to feed the railway’s coal driven locomotives of that bygone era.

The mines first opened in Roslyn 1886. Roslyn history is one of mining and a work force made up of many different diversified ethnic groups who came to Roslyn in search of work and fulfillment of their idea of an American dream. The town included Slavic, Italian, Irish, German Russian and other immigrants. Many spoke different languages other then English. There was ethnic and racial strife at times. In 1888 300 black miners arrived who where hired by the mining company to break a strike by white miners. Although this fueled racism and hatred to the boiling point it eventually led to these same black miners assimilated into community as the white miners took a live and let live attitude about the negro as time went by. In 1975 Roslyn appointed the first black city mayor in Washington State, who happened to be a direct descendant of the original black strikebreakers.

When I would travel to Eastern Washington I’d often stop to visit my uncle Clyde and his lovely wife Alice who had lived in the same house in Roslyn for many years. The house was located North of 1st street and Pennsylvania Avenue on the north hill in Roslyn. The houses of that town, which are constructed mostly with cedar and or other wood siding, always looked weathered and somewhat dreary to me against the backdrop of the hills. I thought it fit the hard times depressed feeling that the history of the town always conjured up in me. As you came into town you’d pass by the old NWI company store building where miners used to shop for all their goods, running a tab that would later be repaid by deductions from their pay.

Over shots of bourbon Clyde would spin tales of the ruff and tuff days of mining in that town. I got to know him better late in his life. He had suffered a stroke and was semi-retired at the time. He was living on social security and running a taxi business out of his house. He shuttled people between Roslyn and the small towns of Ronald and CleElum, which are located near by. Money was tight. For a time he had served as the deputy sheriff in Roslyn and even at one time been the local justice of the peace. But his health was failing now. I remember him as a powerful man during most of his life who my grandmother told me could bend a railroad spike in his bare hands when he was young.

When I would stop by his place on my way through town we often would have a drink and he’d share his experiences about Roslyn and his memories of the working life. We would talk of the boomtown atmosphere when Roslyn population was nearer to 4000 in the 1920’s with all the related wild and hard scrabble living that comprised life for most of the town’s inhabitants. I was fascinated with the history of the labor movement and  IWW and the melancholy and romantic struggles of the workers for better working conditions in this very dangerous of occupations that is coal mining.

Clyde Fisher was a member for a time of the IWW or “Wobblies”. He had no love for management or it exploitation of workers ever. Especially when it came to work safety, which he described as sometimes abysmal. Safety issues were more prevalent earlier on in his coal-mining career then at the end though. Later he became a member of the United Mine Workers of America. Because of union solidarity the workers would refuse to work in the unsafe conditions and the company would have to correct the problems before miners would be willing to return to work. Solidarity amongst miners was expected when it came to shutting down a mine that continued to allow dangerous working conditions. He told a story of once physically having to block the way of miners who wanted to return to work in a mine that the union had determined was unsafe and the union was attempting to shut down with a wildcat strike. The UMWA was well known for work stoppages when they deemed it necessary. All negotiating was done from what they perceived as the position of power drawn from their right to withhold their labor at a time of their choosing.

His stories include the tale of the Roslyn mine explosions of May 12th, 1892 when 45 minors were killed outright. The newspaper accounts of the disaster indicate “A sheet of flames shot out of the shaft 150 feet in the air for several minutes. There were two distinct explosions following close after each other like rapid gun firing.” To this day it remains one of the worst coalmine disasters in Washington state history. Another disaster followed this one in October 1909 when another explosion at the number 4 mine in Roslyn killed 11 more miners and injured many others. These men knew each day of work meant risking their life.

In the course of talking with Clyde during one of my visits between 1973 and 1974 I ask him what kind of pension he had to show for his 24 years of working as a miner. Thinking he must of gotten some compensation for the many years of putting his life on the line. He simply stated that he had applied to the United Mine Workers Union and that he received a letter back informing him that he was “not eligible”. I nearly fell off my chair at the time. It was hard for me to believe that someone could work that long under such difficult working conditions and not qualify somehow for a pension or medical benefits. But as I learned more, this is exactly what was happening. By today’s standards I guess it not such a big thing. But in 1974 it was still a unthinkable outcome.

Seems that the leadership of the UMWA and the union’s pension trustees had instituted a rule made up more to disqualified miners then guarantee them a pension. It required that they apply for the pension during a specific “window period” after they retired from working in the mine. The rule was known as the “twenty out of thirty rule”. Because many men in Roslyn had not reach retirement age before the mines closed in 1963, or had started other careers when coal mining there was in obvious decline. Many failed to apply, being simple men, most failed to realize they were required to apply for pensions within a precise time frame. This caused many to find they were not eligible when they finally did apply. It was a callous demonstration by the leaders of the UMWA, especially “Tough” Tony Boyle, the union president at the time, that they were more interested in lining their own pockets then helping miners they had a duty to represent.

Boyle was subsequently convicted, and sent to prison for life, where he died in 1985, for conspiring to murder UMWA union reformer Jock Yablonski and his family after Yablonksi challenged him for the presidency of the union in 1969. Boyle ended up wining the election, but Yablonski then asked the federal courts to review the election for fraud. He was murder shortly after that. Yablonski a long time union reformer at odds with Boyle was also making substantial headway into uncovering widespread union corruption at that time. The corruption eventually turned out to include large misappropriations of union pension funds for the personal use by Boyle and his cronies.

When my uncle told me about the denial of his mineworker pension in 1974 I was infuriated. I commenced to write letters, directly to the union demanding a full explanation, and to just about every politician whom I felt may help correct this injustice. In the course of this I also contacted Chip Yablonski, the son of the slain union reformer in an off chance he may be of help. An activist lawyer for the United Farm Workers Union had recommended I contact Yablonski when I ask him for advise on how I should proceed. Chip Yablonski was a young lawyer at the time in Washington. D.C. As you would imagine he was deeply involved in continuing the work started by his murdered father to reform the UMWA. He needed little motivation, having lost his father, mother and a sister at the hands of Boyle’s hired killers.

Yablonski told me to send him everything I could about my uncle’s work situation. He indicated that my uncle's pension problem was not a isolated case. I had, by this time, accumulated a large file of letters and documents on my uncle’s work history and his efforts to become eligible for a union pension and medical benefits. Yablonski indicated that he intended to file a class action suit on the issue in Federal Court and that my uncle’s claims would become part of the action with those of other miners.

A year or more passed. During this time my uncle came to Seattle to sign up for Black Lung benefits which he also was eligible to receive. Seems that a letter I had written to Senator Magnusson had prompted the Social Security Administration to call my uncle directly to arrange a special appointment to determine his eligibility for black lung benefits. All these actions fighting for my uncle’s rights helped boost his spirits and his dignity and the feeling that a plain old workingman could stand up and fight for what had been unjustly denied him.

I was an organizer for the Office and Professional Employees International Union at the time all this was happening. One day I was sitting in my office in the Labor Temple in downtown Seattle when the phone rang. It was Clyde Fischer, who was shouting that he had heard from the union that he had been awarded his pension. He wanted me to drive to Roslyn that day to celebrate. Seems that the court had decided that the rule that denied him his pension was unreasonable. The action meant that approximately 20,000 miners would begin to receive their pensions and medical benefits previously denied them. This translated to an agreed on $2000 settlement for each miner for retro pension owed, and a $200 per month payment for life plus medical coverage. I, along with my Uncle and Annt Alice, were elated.

I drove over the pass that day and when I reached Roslyn we celebrated our victory by drinking whiskey and shooting off a few rounds into the summer night air from pistols we’d pulled from one of the kitchen cabinet draws, which happened to all contain some type of firearm. It seemed at that time like a victory for Clyde, the iconiclastic workingman and miner, and remains one of my fondest memories of a justice realized.


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  2. Gene "Red" Woods2:13 PM

    A great story...I lived in Roslyn and I didn't know some of the facts you relate.
    I graduated from Easton Hikgh in 1951 and remember Clyde as an un appriated one who tried his best to keep a wild kid on the stright and narrow.
    Red Woods.

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  5. Anonymous12:31 PM

    This is a fantastic story that so many people need to hear. Unions are an important topic in my life because my husband works as a commercial diver in the Gulf of Mexico and has virtually no job stability, unlike the divers who work in Alaska. But the reason I found your blog is because I'm writing a novel on Roslyn set during the Depression and ran across your uncle's name in the book Coal Towns in the Cascades. Thanks for sharing.