Every once in a while on the campaign trail, Ann Romney mentions her Welsh coal miner grandfather, and during the Romney’s Olympic trip, Mrs. Romney has scheduled a side trip this weekend to Porthcawl, a seaside resort in southern Wales, about 12 miles south of Nantyffyllon, the village Mrs. Romney’s grandfather, David Davies, came from, and 13 miles south of Caerau, where her father Edward was born.
Edward Roderick Davies is a classic American immigrant success story, brought to this country at the age of 14, earned a degree in engineering, became a famous inventor and industrialist. But this isn’t about Edward or his success. This is about David, the coal miner.
When David Davies came to America from Wales in 1929, he had black lung disease and had been seriously injured in a mining accident. He went to work for the Ford Motor Company on their assembly line in Michigan and saved up enough money to send for his wife and son. David Davies suffered from a debilitating, slowly-killing disease that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of coal miners, choking their lungs with the fine, powdery dust of the mines.
The United Mine Workers union fought for most of the 20th century for tight regulations which would save miners’ lives, regulations governing the air they breathed, the respirators they wore, the hours they spent underground. The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 was passed because of a 23-day mine workers strike in West Virginia where 40,000 miners walked out to demand the law, the protection, their lives. In just one year, the rate of black lung diagnoses dropped by 90%.
The Republican Party hates unions. They have passed laws stripping public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights. Conservatives talk about “union thugs” as though kindergarten teachers were cudgel-carrying no-necks sent to beat up the “scabs” who went into factories and mines to replace striking workers. But David Davies suffered from the disease that killed so many miners and which the United Mine Workers union fought to eradicate in our time.
Rick Santorum was Mitt Romney’s last viable rival for the Republican nomination. Not only was he also the grandchild of a coal miner, but Mr. Santorum’s grandfather belonged to that union, struck with that union, walked the picket line with that union.
One wonders what Grandfather Santorum and Grandfather Davies would think of a political party that opposes the very thing that forced America to create laws and regulations that save lives. Though David Davis left the coal mines when he came to America, he went to work for the Ford Motor Company. Ford sometimes violently opposed the unionization of their factories from the founding of the United Auto Workers Union in 1935 until 1941. David Davies reached retirement age in 1947, and if he worked at Ford until standard retirement age of 65, he belonged to the UAW.
Black lung is resurging, due in part to a breakdown in the inspection and oversight system, and in part because of a loophole in the regulation. The parts-per-million rate for coal dust assumed a balance between the black dust of coal and the crystalline dust of silica. But new mining techniques are slewing the balance and more silica is present in the dust. With only the coal dust regulated, the new “black lung” is being caused by silica. There is no way that a Republican dominated Congress will act to correct the situation. Republican Congresses, under George W. Bush defunded many of our inspection systems, which has led to increases in food-borne disease and industrial accidents, including the 2010 explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine. Of the 29 victims of that explosion, 24 had sufficient lung tissue for analysis during autopsy, and 17 of them had black lung nodules and lesions.
Black lung diagnoses has quadrupled in the past ten years. A disease that was 90% wiped out in the early 1970s has re-emerged to kill our coal miners, at the same time that the Republican Party is pushing for fewer regulations on coal mining and the use of coal for energy creation.
Ann Romney and Rick Santorum cannot possibly be the only Republicans with grandfathers or fathers who worked in industries impacted by unions, cannot be the only ones who had grandfathers or fathers who belonged to unions. Forty percent of private sector workers in the 1950s belonged to unions. But the Republican Party is based in the Deep South now, and the Deep South resisted unionization, and when they couldn’t fight the unions, the created “right to work” laws that bypassed the unions. Do you know what is missing in the textile factories in Norma Rae and An Officer and A Gentlemen? Respirators, face masks, the protection that the textile workers unions fought for in New England to prevent “white lung,” the disease caused by the lint generated by textile machines.
Unions didn’t destroy American manufacturing. I’m the first person to agree that the unions in some industries took advantage of the boom times and refused to adjust to the lean ones. But the unions did so much good, forced so much in the way of safety and health provisions, that to hear Ann Romney or Rick Santorum try to polish their common-man credentials but ignore the unions that go along with those credentials is disappointing and disturbing. It diminishes what their grandfathers were and did.
One last thing about Ann Romney’s “humble beginnings” stump speech. She said the following during an event in Michigan in February: “My grandfather never saw the sun for six days a week, and it was on Sunday when they spent a lot of time in church that he saw the sun.” Her grandparents were Welsh Congregationalists. She jumps over the fact that her grandfather left the mines at the age of 47 and lived to be 73. She brings up the “time in church” while ignoring the fact that the Congregational Churches are considered the birthplace of American religious and social liberalism. And, naturally, she does not dwell on the fact that her father was an atheist, who was baptized as a Mormon after his death.
Author’s note: It has been suggested by some on the right that no on should under any circumstances criticize anything about Ann Romney because she was diagnosed 14 years ago with multiple schlerosis. Mrs. Romney has been incredibly fortunate in her experiences with MS. At 14 years, those persons I have known or known of with MS have been confined to wheelchairs. The worst have 24/7 nursing care. But, even if she were Stephen Hawkings, if she was saying something on the campaign trail that deserves examination, I would do so. This is not an attack on a sick woman, but a complaint about the statements made by the woman who has said it is “our turn” to occupy the White House.