The Twelve Miners Who Died in Sago Have Become Briefly Famous, But Who, Really, Knew They Had Ever Lived?

                     “Miner’s Housing”

Martin Toler & grandson                                                       Company Housing, Sago, West Virginia 1930s

West Virginia is seven thousand miles from Iraq, but when I saw the pasty, anguished faces of the relatives of those Sago miners, the words “Abu Ghraib” kept coming to mind. 

This is Lynndie England country.   It is a world of stunted lives and impoverished emotions, a place where bad life decisions and limited opportunities combine to make this hell-hole a fertile ground for the recruiters of capitalism’s dirty work, whether that be torturing prisoners or digging coal.   In such communities generations work long, hard and cheap, with nary a word of protest other than the sullen acquiescence with which they greet each experience.   To them, history simply happens.  

Come to think of it, though, workers everywhere in America live in their own Abu Ghraib.   For them it is the unedifying sequel to post-industrial America; anaesthetized by drugs, alchohol & pornography, uninformed by any consciousness other than that needed at the moment to briefly escape one’s brutish surroundings, demeaned and humiliated, the best of them struggle to escape.  Or at least help their children to.  But what of those people in Sago?   Some seem, perversely,  to almost relish their predicament, as if in some post-nuclear nightmare with which they at last have made their peace.  The real tragedy is above-ground; they have pathetically made themselves easy prey for the Wilbur Rosses of the world.

Which is just fine with the coal companies .   Here and throughout coal-mining country.   Such wretches are almost custom-made, in fact.   Not only does this tragedy take the Iraq fiasco off of the front page (how many disasters many times the gravity of this one get this kind of 24 hour coverage?), it has all the features of “Bush capitalism”.  Docile and devout (non-union) labor.  An almost child-like faith in god, government and “the company” (there were so many violations at this mine that the owners may as well have blown it up themselves).   And a willingness — verging on slavering stupidity — to believe everything that they are told.


After some initial sympathy, is it difficult not to feel contempt and even anger for people who seem to be so easily resigned to being abused by their “betters” that even the negligent deaths of loved ones cannot shake them out of their stupor?   Do these people really care about one another?   Do they know right from wrong?   Would they fight for their own children if it meant going up against the rich and powerful, or doing something more than acting out in front of tv cameras?  

I have my doubts.  If one needed a graphic illustration of the moral corruption of some of America’s most abused workers, this West Virginia coal town, sadly, seems made to order.


  1. Roger Vautour

    January 7, 2006 @ 9:24 am


    I thoughtit strange that all the news reports said the trapped men “died in their sleep” or died “quietly”. This guy that survived though is in a drug induced coma so that he doesn’t feel the pain from the damage to his lung. Why is he in pain and not the others who just wesnt to sleep?

  2. Raina

    January 7, 2006 @ 7:30 pm


    This would seem the ideal spot for UMWA. Have they tried to organize the Sago mine?

  3. David Wharton

    January 7, 2006 @ 7:44 pm


    Hell no! UMWA has cut its organizing budget by half since 1997, in real terms! All the buy-outs and foreign steel have destroyed the unoln here in kentucky. They’ve got EIGHT organizers in eastern KY. How you going to organize with this kind of budget?

  4. Heather

    January 7, 2006 @ 11:59 pm


    I agree that oppressed and exploited people often adopt behaviors that intensify their oppression, but what is the role of the Marxist who seeks to ameliorate these conditions? It seems there is something Pollyannish at best and insensitive and cruel at worst in your indictment of the Sago population. Successful organizing means starting where people are now, not where we’d like them to be. And you are generalizing from a rather distorted picture of life there, I am sure.

  5. Louis Godena

    January 8, 2006 @ 9:58 am


    First of all, Heather, I’m not “indicting” the whole population of Sago, West Virginia; rather, I’m lamenting the demoralization of the working class there and elsewhere under capitalism. To give bromides or words of comfort or rhetorical soup kitchens to afflicted workers is not Marxism, it is rotten liberalism of the worst sort. Marxism teaches us to take reality and stare it in the face. Much of what capitalism does to the working class is exacerbated and made worse by what workers do to themselves. What is needed is not more tearful messages of “solidarity” to distressed workers, but, rather, an *orderly, disciplined and self-abnegating movement* determined to instill a sense of self-respect and personal empowerment to workers. The problems of drug and alcohol abuse, thriftlessness and personal dissolution are not going to be effectively addressed by appeals to the charitable instincts of others. We live in a culture of anodynes. In this sense, the labor movement is as guilty as others of destroying the culture of working-class Americans. But salvation is not going to arise within the working class itself – it is too far gone for that – it will have to be imposed by the circumstances of history.

  6. Jocelyn Wyler

    January 27, 2006 @ 2:05 pm


    I thought of your weblog as I watched the funerals on tv last week. The scenes reminded me of Susan Coe’s work; a totally demoralized and beaten down population, totally at the beck and call of its tormenters, unable even to raise a whimper of protest when its their loved ones being murdered. What a far cry from the days of Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood!

  7. Beth Wellington

    February 1, 2006 @ 11:49 pm


    Is this an example of Marxist support for working people? The contempt and condescension you show is no better than that of the capitalists you despise. “Poor life choices” sounds just like something the elite of the right would say.

    I am college-educated at a fine old institution (William and Mary) but I hope I lack your arrogance.

    And Jocelyn, you’ve never been to West Virginia if you think people there are unable to raise “a whimper of a protest.”

    You’re being fooled by the media you peruse and thinking that they portray what’s happening.

    I suggest you read coverage by reporters in the coal fields rather than the sanitized versions that run in the national media. For instance:

    “The hundreds of people who had packed into the tiny white church erupted in anguish and anger. Roby grabbed her children and tried to push her way outside as the crowd lunged toward Hatfield, many cursing and screaming, “You liar,” she said.

    On her way out, Roby passed a person who was on the floor being restrained by several state troopers after trying to get to either the governor or Hatfield.

    “I’d say (Hatfield) was the target,” Roby said.


    And West Virginia native Jack Spadaro, demoted by MSHA for refusing to sign off on Bush appointee Lauriski’s whitewash the earlier Martin County coal sludge spill, saying flat-out that the mine should have been closed. Davitt McAteerm another West Virginian, calling the National Mining Association on its b.s. that the safety risks were just “paperwork errors”. And by the way, who was it that stopped mountaintop removal before the Ivy educated John Roberts told the NMA how to sue to overturn the decision. Well I could go on and on, but first I’ll wait for an invitation.

  8. Louis Godena

    February 3, 2006 @ 5:47 pm


    Beth, I believe that the best way to ameliorate conditions is not to make the worker comfortable in the circumstances of his misery, but to drive him out of it, altogether. Workers are, by the conditions in which they live, a melancholy and superstitious race; they have the power to effect great improvement in their daily lives, but lack the skills to exercise it. The boss knows that the worker has nothing to stir him up to be serviceable but his wants, which it is prudence to relieve but folly to cure. The worker, for his part, does not look beyond the immediate relief of his needs, or the needs of those immediately close to him. This leads to a habit of life which is suffused with melancholia, superstition, and an abiding dis-belief in himself and his fellows. This is the rarefied atmosphere which enables the exploiting class to go from strength to strength and which propagates the misuse and misery of those who toil. God, christ, liberals, or the media are not going to “save” the worker. It has to done by himself. Given a start, he will shake off the dross of his predicament in time. That is how the conditions of his emancipation will develop. I hate the exploiter, but I must also hate those habits exhibited by those who suffer most at his hands. That’s all I was saying.

  9. jim braden

    February 3, 2006 @ 11:15 pm


    Speaking of working people that just don’t give a damn, here in CT SEIU 1099 is trying to get labor behind a “health bill” that is really bad for workers, and completely does away with the idea of a single-payer plan. The union tops are even proposing that it include GUARANTEED PROFITS for the drug companies!! If union “leaders” who are supposed to be so advanced can try and shove this crap down their members’ throats, how the hell can you expect relatively backward hill people to know the score. Hell, Abu Grahaib was probably nicer than most of their trailers and shanties back home!! No shit!!

  10. Louis Godena

    February 4, 2006 @ 12:56 pm


    Jim, Marx said that being determines consciousness; “hill people” probably have a better idea of how they are being screwed than relatively “sophisticated” office-bound union tops. My question is: if there is the consciousness of oppression, why is there such a decided lack of resistance in worker communities? Yes, I know there are varieties of resistance that include everything from failing to pay taxes through refusing to vote. But, if one has the original knowledge that one is being abused, shouldn’t one then logically take steps to change the situation, beyond merely symbolic action? Or, is the culture of oppression simply omnipotent? If workers have been irremdiably beaten down, are they still a revolutionary class?

  11. research papersguru

    July 10, 2006 @ 9:57 am


    These people have no idea how to oppose their superiors. From generation to generation they have been living their lives like this and no one ever told them it could be otherwise. I doubt if the situation will change in the nearest future.

  12. Term Paper Writer

    July 18, 2006 @ 1:44 am


    Simply unbelievable. That really pushes the limits of human tolerance.

  13. erica

    May 4, 2007 @ 5:51 pm


    “Hell, Abu Grahaib was probably nicer than most of their trailers and shanties back home!! No shit!!”
    “These people have no idea how to oppose their superiors.”

    All of this rhetoric in reference to “these people” from the hills who are “easily resigned to being abused” in implicitly insulting not only to workers, but especially to Appalachians. There cannot be a discussion of Appalachian workers’ attempts to organize or otherwise fight the circumstances in coal-mining communities without paying attention to the history of coal operators and violence within those communities. Not only do coal companies have money and resources (no pun intended) at their fingertips to sway government officials, both local and national, but companies in WV have a history of incredible violence aimed at union organizers and those who complain. Please educate yourself about the history of coal mining areas, about West Virginia history, before referring to “these people” or how “From generation to generation they have been living their lives like this and no one ever told them it could be otherwise.”

  14. Louis Godena

    May 4, 2007 @ 7:09 pm


    Erica, workers around the world have successfully organized in the face of far more frightful repression that that suffered by coal miners in Appalachia. Out of those struggles, in fact, have grown armies of workers and peasants who, having turned definitively on their tormenters, instituted their own regime of terror directed against the oppressing classes. One thinks of Shining Path in Peru and the Khmer Rouge. People who just sit there and take it day in and day out without even wimpering deserve, as Lenin said, to be slaves. There is among workers a tendency to accept the policies of those whose greater wealth or education or more highly-placed connections enable them to assume airs of infallible authority which quickly assumes the patina of received wisdom. I see this everyday (I am an industrial millwright). My point here is that this type of thinking has so permeated the mentalities of Appalachian working life that it constitutes a ready-made reservoir of reaction that serves only the bosses. And it is spread throughout the rest of the class by a media beholden to the capital which pays its salary. Liberals, by themselves, will never successfully resist this culture, nor offer anything other than “moral” platitudes as a solution to the workers’ plight.

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