Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Lest We Forget - Labor History

Image courtesy of  Skewed News
A moving article by Mark Hand on the Counterpunch website is about the deliberate flouting of health and safety to save a few bucks from the Union Carbide the company that brought you the Bhopal tragedy.

764 men — most of them black — died as a result of their work at Hawks Nest in 1930 and 1931. However, others believe as many as half of the 2,400 men who worked inside the mountain died from acute silicosis. Sixty percent of the African American migrant workers worked less than two months on the project. However, this was long enough to pay a deadly price.

Union Carbide wanted to build a 3.8-mile tunnel through Hawks Nest in the Gauley Mountain in West Virginia to bring water to power its turbines. To build the tunnel, workers moved forward through the mountain at a rate of about 300 feet per week. But here’s the problem: Workers were forced to break through 99.4% pure silica. At the time, experts knew that miners who inhaled silica dust would contract silicosis, an often deadly lung ailment. Inhalation of silica dust had been identified 15 years earlier as the cause of silicosis. Aware of the dangers, workers were still ordered to use a dry drilling technique that would create more dust. Dry drilling is faster than wet drilling, in which dust raised by drilling is washed out of the air by spraying water at the drill tip. In addition, Rinehart & Dennis provided inadequate ventilation, failed to issue protective respirators, and imposed poor living conditions upon the workers. Masks were supplied only to inspectors and company managers inside the tunnel. Workers began dying two months after they first entered the tunnel. A large number of the dead were reportedly buried in unmarked graves to cover up the immensity of the tragedy. “They were taking the dead bodies out in wheel barrows and dumping them in mass graves. That’s not supposed to happen in America,” West Virginia historian Chuck Keeney said in an interview.

Officials have done a superb job covering up the truth. West Virginia’s newspapers took little notice of the dying workers and the construction project itself. When workers started getting sick, newspapers published blatantly racist articles, attributing the lung problems to poor habits of nutrition and an unusual susceptibility among African Americans to pneumonia. The disaster is not taught in U.S. history classes. Remembrances of the people who died are extremely rare. The companies offered death benefits of $1,000 to wives of white workers and $800 for sons who died. The families of the African American workers were offered $400 for a son and $600 for a husband.

West Virginia historian Chuck Keeney asks “Nobody gets punished for Hawk’s Nest. Nobody goes to jail. And nobody even knows about. How many other things have happened in other places of America that get covered up?”

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