- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

COAL RUN, Ky. (AP) — Sidney Coal Co. President Charlie Bearse’s call to relax an English-only policy in the mines so he can bring in Hispanic workers and his questioning of the work ethic of locals are fighting words in Hatfield-McCoy country.

“They bring Mexicans in here; they’ll get ‘em killed,” miner Homer Black said over the rumble at the company’s massive coal preparation plant. “These people ain’t going to put up with it.”

Shannon Gibson, who recently took the state test for the “green card” that would allow him to work underground, added, “They’re just looking for more workers who’ll work cheaper and work longer.”

Mr. Bearse, in a letter to the state mining board requesting the policy change, said bad attitudes and drug abuse were affecting attendance “and, ultimately, productivity.”

“It is common knowledge that the work ethic of the Eastern Kentucky worker has declined from where it once was,” Mr. Bearse wrote.

U.S. companies routinely complain that they need migrant workers to do the low-paying, menial tasks Americans won’t do. But at $18 an hour and up, plus benefits, these are some of Appalachia’s best jobs.

Mr. Bearse has acknowledged that his choice of words could have been better. And his timing couldn’t have been worse.

Less than two weeks after Mr. Bearse made his request in late December, an explosion at the Sago Mine in neighboring West Virginia killed 12 men. By the time his proposal became public earlier this month, another five coal miners had died, and the public was clamoring for safety reform.

Mr. Bearse’s comments also have forced people in this rugged, often-neglected region to face some hard economic and social realities.

A generation of layoffs and outmigration has left a suddenly booming industry with a shortage of experienced miners. Labor officials put that deficit at more than 6,000 miners in West Virginia and Kentucky — the No. 2 and 3 coal-producing states.

But United Mine Workers union organizer Tim Miller said that’s nonsense, calling the purported miner shortage “the biggest farce out there right now.”

In the past two years, the state of Kentucky has issued nearly 13,000 “green cards” — inexperienced miner’s work permits.

Mr. Miller said there are 1,400 laid-off union miners in western Kentucky alone who could go to work today. He echoed the sentiments of many who think the industry is simply hoping to exploit Hispanics and drive down wages.

“They want people who don’t have the ability to protect themselves,” he said. “If they can flood the market with Hispanic workers, if they can get away with paying a guy $8 an hour, the next guy will be willing to work for $7.”

Mr. Bearse said more than a third of his 800 employees have been hired in the past year. Sidney, a subsidiary of No. 4 U.S. coal producer Massey Energy Co. of Richmond, has recruited miners from out West and advertised as far away as Charlotte, N.C., but still can’t fill its rosters.

So Mr. Bearse turned to Hispanic workers already on his payroll and asked if they had a dozen or so relatives or friends who might consider taking part in a “pilot program.” He emphasized they would get the same wages and benefits as the company’s other miners.

“It would be administered by qualified bilingual supervisors,” he said in a recent telephone interview with the Associated Press. “They would need to have legal worker status.”

Mr. Miller said this is an issue of safety, not immigration.

“What if that interpreter is the one who gets covered up in a rock fall?” he said. “I’m outside of the mine screaming they’ve got smoke coming their way, and they don’t have any idea what I’m trying to say. They’re just sitting ducks.”

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