Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter…

The Union Forever

I never knew my grandfather, Elmer Pond, my mother’s father. In1928, he died in a coal mine cave-in. He was a volunteer organizer for the UMW [United Mine Workers, not United Methodist Women], advocating for greater mine safety, and was often harassed by “goon squads” hired by the mine owners. Many people thought that the cave-in that killed him was not an accident. I grew up hearing, “Whatever you do, don’t go down in the mines.”

My grandfather belonged to two unions, the UMW and The Methodist Episcopal Church. He advocated for better working conditions in both. He wanted people to be safe in both, to know the love of God wherever they were.

One of the agonies of old age is the realization that you can work your whole life to help people have better lives, but at the end of the day, there are those who will try to undermine that work, to take away all the gains that have been made on behalf of people over profits.

March 25, 1911, the year after my mother was born, 146 women, including two fourteen-year-old girls, lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. They could not escape the fire because managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. One result of the fire was the formation of the LGWU, the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, combining the voices of all the garment workers to insist on better working conditions.

The same year, 2719 coal miners died in mine accidents. [1] The United Mine Workers union was formed in 1890, but was ineffective. Thousands of coal miners were killed every year. The Triangle Fire and the unnecessary deaths of so many women brought new impetus to the union impulse and the necessity of bargaining about working conditions.

Coal mine safety is still an issue. 29 miners were killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in WV. Massey Energy, owner of the mine, had often been cited and fined for safety violations prior to the deaths of those 29 miners. Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, said in a radio interview following the disaster, “Violations are...a normal part of the mining process… There are violations at every coal mine in America.” [2]

BP’s Deep Water Horizon oil rig accident in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers because management insisted on unsafe procedures.

Last year Governor Scott Walker and the WI legislature passed legislation that prohibits public union workers from negotiating about working conditions.

One of my early colleagues was a very conservative minister who had grown up in Ft. Branch, IN, the home of Emge Meating Packing. “Old Oscar Emge was so hurt when his workers voted to unionize,” he said, “because he always took such good care of them. He just didn’t understand that people need not just to be cared for but to have a voice in what happens to them.”

I never knew my grandfather, but I belong to one of the same unions he did. It’s called the church. There we advocate for better working conditions. The best working condition is to be surrounded by the love of God, the God who loves us all, and values humans above profits. “You cannot serve both God and money.” Who said that, anyway? Oh, yes, our union leader.

John Robert McFarland

1] The deadliest year in coal mining history was 1907, with 3242 deaths.


The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer!

John Robert McFarland

I tweet, occasionally, as yooper1721.


  1. I don't think I've ever read a piece comparing the church to a union. I like it. I've followed you for some time now, but this is the first time commenting. Really nice piece, John.