There’s a 2009 documentary called Bonecrusher, which is well worth seeing for some insight into modern coal mining. It focuses on a young coal miner in Dante, Virginia, Lucas Chaffin and his relationship with his father, Luther, who is a retired miner with black lung. There’s a lot of attention given to mine safety in Bonecrusher, particularly on Luther Chaffin’s concerns for his son’s safety at work. In one scene Luther is watching a CNN report on the Sago disaster (the documentary was filmed over 2006 and 2007), and there’s definitely a sense at that moment that he is deeply worried about his son facing similar dangers as the miners at Sago. This concern turns out to be well justified; at one point Lucas tells the film-makers, ‘Two weeks after I left [a job at a mine in Cucumber, WV] up there, they had two men get killed in the pillar line. It was on the section I worked.’
What’s left unsaid in the film are the two men’s thoughts on the United Mine Workers’ relationship to safety. Luther Chaffin wears a UMWA baseball cap and a shirt with a UMWA badge embroidered on it in many of the film’s scenes, and the cancer treatment he gets in the film is largely provided by union health insurance. Luther Chaffin is actually quoted in the United Mine Workers Journal July-August 2006 issue, talking about the importance of the 1989-90 Pittston stike in securing his own health and retirement benefits. He’s clearly proud of his union membership and the effect it’s had on his life. As far as I can tell, the mine Lucas Chaffin works at is not represented by the UMW, which might suggest that Luther’s concerns are linked to his son’s lack of access to UMW safety practices and rules. The film doesn’t really make a link between the Sago disaster and the fact that the mine wasn’t organised, though. This was quite a divisive topic in 2006, and again after the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010; some of the Sago miners objected at the time to the way the UMW and the media portrayed them as exploited workers who did not have a say on their working conditions.
I think it says something about what the film-makers wanted to show of coal mining in the 2000s that they chose not to touch on this debate. The documentary is political in that it focuses on Lucas Chaffin’s experience of the work he does, rather than being political in finding a scapegoat for unsafe working conditions. I think it’s quite admirable that it doesn’t weigh in with an opinion, although I understand why someone might not feel the same way. The film deals carefully with its depiction of Lucas, who is of course a working coal miner who would not say anything on camera which might threaten his job, and I think the absence of any explicit discussion of the union reveals something about non-union coal miners’ relationship with the UMWA in the mid-2000s.
Here’s the trailer for the film. It’s a very moving, detailed look at being a coal miner today.