For those of us who are privileged to work in what is sometimes called “The Knowledge Industry,” what’s the worst thing that can happen on most days? Email goes down, students come to class late, traffic is awful, the photocopiers are broken, somebody without a tag is parking in the faculty lot….again! Yes, sometimes something truly awful can happen — someone goes berserk or an experiment blows up or the levees break. But in general, life in academe and the other “white collar” professions is relatively safe; the personal dangers are unusual.
But imagine accepting personal danger as part of the daily work routine. Imagine having little choice about working a job that is hard, dirty, dangerous, notorious for shortening life spans and turning young men old before their time. Imagine being a coal miner, plunging a mile or more below the surface of the earth each day, down to tight spaces with precarious air and potential catastrophe every minute.
The coal mines of West Virginia are not so far from the marble corridors and academic groves of Washington — but they could be on Pluto for all that most of us know of the lives of coal miners and their families. As we have watched the news of the second tragedy in two weeks emerge from those dark, dangerous shafts, we try to imagine what it must be like to choose such work. Then we turn back to something we think we understand only slightly more, the confirmation of Judge Alito.
Coal miners are mostly men who go deep into the earth so that we can have light and heat at the surface. They often are men whose fathers and grandfathers did the same thing; the work is generational, the families close-knit. The pay these days is relatively good; but as the two recent disasters reveal, the safety is still marginal, the danger never relents.
Coal is still king in America’s insatiable energy consumption. Coal fuels much of the electrical capacity of the nation, and its other industrial uses are essential to modern life. In short, without the skill and guts of the coal miners, we would not have many of the comforts of contemporary civilization.
It’s a sad fact that we only think of coal miners and other people who work in dangerous jobs that contribute to our advanced lives when something goes horribly wrong. We offer prayers of condolence for those who died in the West Virginia mines, and for their families. But let’s also offer prayers of thanksgiving for those who are still willing to get on those elevators and rail cars each day to go back to the mines. Without them, we’d be living in the dark.
Let’s also put our work in The Knowledge Industry to good use on their behalf. Stronger safety laws for miners surely must come out of these tragedies. We need the coal and the workers who produce it; surely this nation can make their work safer and healthier out of simple justice and respect for their lives.
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