Coal Miners Forced to Attend Romney Event Without Pay

(Howdy folks, Ryan Cooper here, just stepping in for a quick moment while Ed gets ready for the convention speeches.)

So the Romney campaign visited a coal mine on August 14th, for a speech with a bunch of suitably dirty miners standing behind him, with his podium bearing a placard that read “Coal Country Stands with Mitt.” But apparently it should have said “or else” at the end:

The Pepper Pike company that owns the Century Mine told workers that attending the Aug. 14 Romney event would be both mandatory and unpaid, a top company official said Monday morning in a West Virginia radio interview.

A group of employees who feared they’d be fired if they didn’t attend the campaign rally in Beallsville, Ohio, complained about it to WWVA radio station talk show host David Blomquist. Blomquist discussed their beefs on the air Monday with Murray Energy Chief Financial Officer Rob Moore.

Moore told Blomquist that managers “communicated to our workforce that the attendance at the Romney event was mandatory, but no one was forced to attend.” He said the company did not penalize no-shows.

Because the company’s mine had to be shut down for “safety and security” reasons during Romney’s visit, Moore confirmed workers were not paid that day.

Apparently they’re even keeping lists of people who are politically active:

“Yes, we were in fact told that the Romney event was mandatory and would be without pay, that the hours spent there would need to be made up my non-salaried employees outside of regular working hours, with the only other option being to take a pay cut for the equivalent time,” the employees told Blomquist. “Yes, letters have gone around with lists of names of employees who have not attended or donated to political events.”

Just as an aside, it is a particularly sick joke to see a bunch of grimy coal miners, who work hard and dangerous for little pay, being used as props by a man who made an emperor’s ransom largely through financial parasitism. But I digress.

Some time ago the Crooked Timber folks were arguing with Matt Yglesias about worker intimidation and labor market regulation. It was, I thought, a pretty good discussion, but unless I missed something this particular case didn’t come up.

Briefly, on the one hand economists argue that labor market regulations are generally a bad thing which impair economic efficiency, and that the best way to promote the interests of labor is to work toward full employment. On the other hand sociology types argue that the power differential between bosses and their employees necessarily means some abuse, sometimes even cruelty for its own sake, which should be restrained by laws.

But this situation with Romney and the miners ties this all together with a neat bow. Right now we’re suffering through a persistent moderate depression, with a very slack labor market, meaning the fear of unemployment, especially for blue-collar men, is very high. The mine bosses are then using that power to intimidate their employees into supporting, and being used as props for, the candidate who promises a return to hard money, thereby prolonging depression conditions for several years at least. It’s a perfect validation of the thesis set for in this amazing 1943 essay from Michal Kalecki.

I’m not sure offhand what that means regulations-wise, but it is a great example of how far bosses are willing to push their workers in times of a slack labor market, and a reminder that for the owner/manager class, there’s a lot to like about persistent mass unemployment. At the least it should be a call for class solidarity among everyone at the bottom of the labor pool—very much a hang together or hang separately situation.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is Washington correspondent for The Week.