Saturday, September 29, 2007

Unions, Riots, Cemeteries, and Job Fairs

It's been a rough couple of weeks here in V-Town. First, not too long ago, Freeman-United sold the mines that employ several hundred people in this little town, and the new buyers closed the Crown II. Coal mining has a long history in Virden; when I was in college, my Socialist history professor was very excited to learn that I was from this area. (She really was a Socialist, which she used to say she thought was pretty mild compared to her British history-professor husband, whom she identified as a Communist.) In 1898, when Virden was still a company town and the mine head was right in the center of town, the miners struck.

The company responded by locking them out and advertising nationwide for hundreds of "good colored miners" (no kidding--apparently they didn't want to send white guys to get shot?) and putting them on a train to nearly-beautiful downtown Virden. The trains were full of company "security" men and "detectives." When the train entered Virden, the miners opened fire and the company men fired back. Miners were killed, "detectives" were killed, and by some miracle, not many of the "good colored miners" were killed, which is pretty impressive considering that the were between the two factions AND they were the only ones unarmed. The miners even killed the company storekeeper before they were done.

The company was so incensed that it wouldn't allow the dead strikers to be buried on company land--which, at the time, meant anywhere in Virden or the surrounding township. That's why there's a large Miner's Cemetery in Mount Olive, IL, to this day. The miners' union bought the land and built their own burial ground.

Ever hear of Mother Jones magazine? The lefty rag? Well, the real Mother Jones--who would probably spit on her granola-sandal-wearing "heirs of the movement" if she encountered one today--is buried beneath a small monument in that little graveyard on the edge of Mount Olive, Illinois. She said she wanted to be buried with the miners of Virden. Ironically, that meant she couldn't be buried in Virden.

It wasn't so many years after that that the mine unions split into factions and were close to open bloodshed among themselves. In fact, last year a local scholar found a few old miners who recounted the story of almost shooting one of their own in that same aforementioned cemetery in Mount Olive. You see, Mother Jones' monument was almost finished and had been covered with a tarp. It seems that a miner was headed home after a late shift and cut through the cemetery. He walked up to the monument and stood looking at it for a minute or two, then headed on his way. He never realized, apparently, that several miners from one union were lying in wait for members of a different union in the cemetery that night. They had been warned of a plot by the opposing union to dynamite the Mother Jones monument and had set up an ambush with shotguns. Each had a shotgun pointed at the lucky late-shift miner when he approached the monument, and the surviving member told a local reporter that if the man had lifted the cloth off the monument, that would have been the end of him with pellets tearing into him from all directions. But he didn't, and so he lived to see the next day--and as far as anyone knows, he never knew how close he came to dying over union politics.

Now, Freeman United has sold their two mines, Crown II and Crown III, to a new local company. One is still operating; the other is closing. I question whether it will stay closed. It may be that the new owners want the miners to get a feel for what sort of career opportunities are out there for retrained coal miners, then renegotiate the labor contract based on that knowledge. After putting in applications at Hardee's and Wal-Mart, a pay cut and a mine shaft might start to look good. Either way, it was clear that the F-U company wasn't doing well with these mines. Their biggest customer was the independent power generator for Springfield, City Water Light and Power. CWLP tries to adjust the price of F-U's high-sulfur (thus high-pollution) coal downward every time the contract comes up, but F-U has always managed to get them to continue paying higher than market value. I suspect a lot of lobbying of Springfield officials was done and it was probably theorized that CWLP was helping stimulate the Springfield economy by helping float the Virden economy, since we all shop there. In any case, that sort of thing is at best a temporary deal. Your long-term business plan can't be based on the forlorn hope that market forces will be suppressed forever.

Were I a young guy in those mines, I'd do whatever I could think of to avoid going back no matter who the manager is. The mines are doomed until the high-sulfur coal is economically viable. The only way I see that happening is if this "coal gasification" thing gets off the ground. The problem with the high-sulfur coal is that it gives off sulfur oxides when burned, and those create sulfuric acid which falls in our rain--acid rain. Remember when acid rain was going to be the end of the world? I do.

Anyway, coal-gasification involves somehow converting coal into a gas that burns efficiently, but also pumping the exhaust underground to seal it away from the atmosphere. This is being proposed now in order to sequester Carbon Dioxide away from the atmosphere and thus avoid killing cute baby polar bears with greenhouse gases, but it would (I think) also mean that sulfur emissions wouldn't matter much.

Now, is there a downside to pumping all that exhaust gas underground? Other than dead mole-people and lavatorr-creatures? Probably, but I don't know what it is.


Less said...

I did a lot of research on some of
the chemistry that would make
gasification a viable process in a
previous life (before I left
Chemistry for the glory of IT!).

Neat thing indeed! Now all we need
is feed capital to build a few
plants and for Springfield and
Kentucky to stop stalling on those

BTW, wiki actually has a decent
article on the process:

What isn't covered is the sulfur
remediation process. Generally,
if you burned the products then,
you could just use the typical
"scrubber" of limestone to remove
a lot of the sulfur. I recal there
being other ways to sequester
sulfur and create solid products
that wouldn't poison the poor

BobG said...

Years ago Kennecott Copper here in Utah had to cut down on sulfur emissions; they used it to make sulfuric acid, and then sold it to Stauffer Chemical for a profit.