A Psalm for Mine Worker Justice
Yesterday, I read through psalm after psalm searching for the "right" one to read at the opening of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) protest near the Massey Energy shareholders meeting. The search took a while because there were too many choices -- too many psalms that spoke directly to the anger, frustration, and betrayal felt by mine workers who've watched 52 fellow miners killed in Massey Energy coal mines over the last 10 years, 29 of them in the April 5 disaster at Upper Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia.
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The one I finally chose was Psalm 20, verses 1-8. It reads:
May the Lord answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary and grant you support from Zion.
May he remember all your sacrifices and accept your burnt offerings.
May he give you the desires of your heart and make all your plans succeed.
We will shout for joy when you are victorious and will lift up our banners in the name of our God.
May the Lord grant all your requests.
Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed; he answers him from his holy heaven with the saving power of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm.
Mine workers are in distress. How could they not be? More than 100,000 miners have lost their lives digging coal from the ground. Another 100,000 have died from lung diseases caused by working in the mines. When companies like Massey, with more than 500 health and safety citations and orders in the last year, are allowed to continue operating, workers are distressed. Workers cry out to God to see them in their distress.
The desires of the hearts of the men and women who converged on the Massey shareholders' meeting this morning were clear: fire Massey's CEO, Don Blankenship. Blankenship, who earned $19.7 million in 2008 for his outrageous health and safety record, was clear on his priorities. When confronted with health and safety problems that needed to be addressed, he told the supervisors to "run coal." Forget the workers safety, run coal. And run coal he did, resulting in 29 miners' deaths.
The miners today wanted action. They wanted Blankenship fired. To do this, they organized votes opposing the three board members up for re-election. In the meeting, the company refused to report the actual vote count, but it appears that the vote is one of the largest votes against current board members held at a shareholders meeting this year. Blankenship may not have been fired -- yet. But the shareholders have sent a strong message of discontent.
The psalm says that "some trust in chariots, and some in horses." Some trust in BMWs and mega-mansions. CEO Blankenship clearly cared more for bottom-line short-term profits than he did for workers' safety.
The mine workers clearly see themselves as the ones who trust in God. They hope Blankenship will be brought to his knees and that they, the miners of this nation, will rise up and stand firm.
Throughout the morning, as we waited outside the shareholders meeting, alternating between chanting UMWA slogans and chit-chatting with one another, miners came up to me and shared their favorite scriptures of how God is with the little guy and will bring down the rich and powerful, like Blankenship.
When UMWA President Cecil Roberts spoke to the crowd this morning, he likened United Mine Workers of America members to the Israelites confronting Pharaoh, clearly personified in Blankenship. The Biblical imagery is fitting for this struggle. The righteousness of the miners' cause is evident even if you only know a little about Massey's history. The Book of Psalms is jam-packed with prayers or songs offering clear themes of oppressed people, calling out for God's help, and claiming victory of the downtrodden over the rich and haughty.
If you want to help workers, connect with the local Interfaith Worker Justice affiliate in your community (consult the national directory). The scriptures are clear in their support for the downtrodden and offer clear warnings to the wealthy and powerful. Psalm 20 speaks to the issues at Massey, but hundreds of others psalms and passages would have worked as well. No wonder the choice was hard.
Kim Bobo is the Executive Director Interfaith Worker Justice, a national network of people of faith mobilized to improve wages, benefits, and conditions for workers in the low-wage economy. She is co-author of Organizing for Social Change, the best-selling organizing manual in the country, and the author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid - And What We Can Do About It. Utne Reader named her one of "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World" in 2009.