Deep Miner: ‘One Mistake and You’re Dead’

Kari Lydersen

Danny Avendaño, who worked for more than three decades in the mining industry, says, 'The heat, the challenge, it just gets in your blood.' (Kari Lydersen)

For three years in the ear­ly 1970s, jour­nal­ist Studs Terkel gath­ered sto­ries from a vari­ety of Amer­i­can work­ers. He then com­piled them into Work­ing, an oral-his­to­ry col­lec­tion that went on to become a clas­sic. Four decades after its pub­li­ca­tion, Work­ing is more rel­e­vant than ever. Terkel, who reg­u­lar­ly con­tributed to In These Times, once wrote, I know the good fight — the fight for democ­ra­cy, for civ­il rights, for the rights of work­ers — has a future, for these val­ues will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In hon­or of that sen­ti­ment and of Working’s 40th anniver­sary, ITT writ­ers have invit­ed a broad range of Amer­i­can work­ers to describe what they do, in their own words. More Work­ing at 40” sto­ries can be found here.

The deep min­er Terkel inter­viewed for Work­ing was employed near the Cum­ber­land Moun­tains in Appalachia for near­ly 30 years, until he con­tract­ed black lung and had to retire. Though he him­self had many rel­a­tives who were min­ers, he refused to let his son fol­low in his foot­steps, say­ing he was gonna get killed over there.” 

Dan­ny Aven­daño also comes from a min­ing fam­i­ly, but his father did not for­bid him from join­ing the indus­try. At age six, Dan­ny would ride a bur­ro up the red hills out­side his home­town of Supe­ri­or, Ari­zona to his uncle’s small sil­ver mine, where he and his sib­lings would play at min­ing. By age 15, he was work­ing as a min­er for real along­side his father, muck­ing out” waste rock with a shov­el in the San Manuel under­ground mine in near­by Ora­cle. A few years lat­er, he set his sights on the famous Mag­ma Mine in Supe­ri­or, an under­ground cop­per mine that min­ers knew to be a tick­et to employ­ment any­where in the world. The hir­ing agent told him to serve his coun­try” — then he could come back and get a job. So Aven­daño joined the Marine Corps Reserves and head­ed west for boot camp in San Diego. Six months lat­er, he was back in line out­side the hir­ing office in Supe­ri­or. The year was 1960; he was 20 years old.

I don’t think he expect­ed to see me back so soon. But he gave me a job. In those days, every­one want­ed to work in that mine. The pay was real good. You’d say, Mom, I don’t need to go to school, I can work in the mine.”

There were a lot of tramp min­ers. They would trav­el from Utah, Col­orado, Ida­ho — like tourists — they would just trav­el from one min­ing town to the next. Most were drunks. And they were sin­gle guys. No woman would put up with that tramp­ing all over the coun­try, liv­ing out of a box! The com­pa­ny would want to hire them because of their expe­ri­ence and because they would work cheaper.

There wasn’t train­ing in those days. They would just throw you in there with some old man who cussed all the time, and you’d learn or you wouldn’t. I learned a lot; I met some real good people. 

This mine was real incon­sis­tent: The ground was hard in some places and soft in some places. You would put a tim­ber up, and the next day it would be down in the ground from the pres­sure. It was dan­ger­ous. The fumes could kill you, or explo­sions. It could bury you alive. Every time you go down in that cage you bless your­self. Guys died there. But I nev­er got hurt. I believed in doing things right.

In this pro­fes­sion you can’t take short­cuts. One mis­take and you’re dead.

I was a con­tract min­er — they paid us by the cubes,” or amount we pro­duced. There are two kinds of min­ers: Those who just put in their eight hours, and those who want to make mon­ey. I was the sec­ond kind. We nev­er even stopped to eat lunch. When new guys would come on, we said, Don’t both­er pack­ing a lunch. If you want to buy a new car, impress your girl­friend, the way to do it is to work.” We’d run to our work­site in the morn­ing. We’d blast twice a day. We didn’t want to stop work­ing. Even­tu­al­ly the boss would have to come get us, say­ing, It’s time to go.”

Talk to the girls, drink cof­fee and work — that’s what I did. But I nev­er vol­un­teered on my days off. 

There was a union, the Steel­work­ers. There was a union hall in town. We need­ed a union when we start­ed there; the way they were run­ning the mine was bad. There was no ven­ti­la­tion and dust every­where. There were two strikes while I was work­ing there, one for six months. After the strike, things got bet­ter. They put in a cool­ing sys­tem: Chilled water would be pumped through cop­per pipes and those blew the cool air out. There were two of them, but it only went so far. It was still hot­ter than hell, because we were down 3,400 feet in the ground.

I would drill, blast, all of that. There were three shifts: the day shift, swing shift and grave­yard. Day shift was too crowd­ed; you were always bump­ing into peo­ple under­ground. I liked grave­yard the best. Except I couldn’t sleep in the day, I had to get drunk. There was a bar on every cor­ner in those days. You’d come out of that hole so dry, you’d come out and soak up that booze.

In 1970, Aven­daño took a job in West Papua, Indone­sia at the Gras­berg mine run by Freeport-McMoRan. The mine would lat­er become the sub­ject of a high-pro­file envi­ron­men­tal and human rights law­suit.

We lived in a lit­tle com­pound, like a club, with lots of beer. At night you would hear the Indone­sian army shoot­ing. It was a dif­fer­ent world. We would take pic­tures of the Papuan locals, naked, still using bows and arrows. Unbe­liev­able. We’d fly to Aus­tralia once a month for R‑and‑R.” It was beau­ti­ful, it looked just like here. I met a lot of Aus­tralian min­ers. They would wear shorts under­ground, and no shirts.

Aven­daño worked at a few oth­er mines around the coun­try, includ­ing the Sil­ver Bell sil­ver mine in Ari­zona and the gold mines of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Even­tu­al­ly, he returned to Supe­ri­or and worked in the Mag­ma Mine again. In 1982, a rapid series of cave-ins killed four men; lat­er that year, the mine closed as cop­per prices plum­met­ed.

They would call me a trou­ble­mak­er. I knew my job and I did it well. But at that point my boss­es were kids. They were just yes-men for the company.

One day, I was on the after­noon shift, and they told me to turn in my stuff. The mine was closed. Just like that. They didn’t give us any warn­ing. Some guys had just bought new cars or new hous­es; they were in debt.

Aven­daño stayed in Supe­ri­or to work in con­struc­tion and ranch­ing. When the mine reopened with a small­er work­force in 1989, he went back underground. 

I did my job the best I could. You think if you do that, some­one would appre­ci­ate it. You’d be wrong!

My feet start­ed hurt­ing around 1992. All those years wear­ing rub­ber boots, with your feet always wet— it got to the point where I could bare­ly walk. I was always the last one out of the chang­ing room. They’d say, Come on, old man!”

I had surgery and was out of work for a year. When I tried to come back, they said, Your min­ing career is over.” I was fired with no pen­sion; that was that. The guy laughed at me as he gave me the slip. I said, Can’t you give me something?”

Take us to court!” he said.

So I did. I got a lawyer. Even­tu­al­ly, I got a $12,000 set­tle­ment. After all those years, nev­er even tak­ing lunch. No pen­sion. I couldn’t get a job any­where else, I couldn’t pass the phys­i­cal. They screwed me.

My father went through that too. He worked there for 46 years. When a man’s get­ting old, they put him in the tool shed or the guard shack, search­ing lunch box­es to make sure peo­ple don’t steal some­thing. And they watch him like a hawk. You make one mis­take and you’re fired with no pen­sion. My father was doing that, then one day they told him to go back to his old work under­ground. He was too old, so he refused. And they fired him. You’d think they’d have a lit­tle com­pas­sion. But they don’t give a damn.

He got a lawyer and had to fight for his pen­sion, and he got it in the end.

The mine closed again soon after Aven­daño was fired. Now, two decades lat­er in the same area, the multi­na­tion­al com­pa­ny Rio Tin­to is try­ing to open a new cop­per mine, which would use a con­tro­ver­sial method called block cave min­ing to tap deposits 7,000 feet below the sur­face. Aven­daño still lives in Supe­ri­or, and he is among many retired min­ers who oppose the new Rio Tin­to mine plans. 

The old days are all gone. Mus­cles don’t mean any­thing now. Now if you can work a com­put­er, you’ve got a job. But this new way there won’t be real jobs. There’ll be some in con­struc­tion, but not after that. It’s all about robot­ics. They’re mak­ing peo­ple promis­es, but promis­es don’t mean any­thing. This whole town is dying. It’s sad.

Now Avendaño’s son lives in the Supe­ri­or house where Aven­daño grew up. Aven­daño him­self lives just out­side of town in a one-room home where he still cooks on a wood stove and tends hors­es and chick­ens. He has a lit­tle side busi­ness mak­ing cus­tom spurs and bridles. 

The cow­boys love them. Every cow­boy in Globe, a near­by min­ing town, has a pair of my spurs. It’s get­ting to the point it’s too much work. But I’ll nev­er retire. Then I would go in the hole and die. I need to do some­thing. My wife, Glo­ria, died in 2004. We were mar­ried almost 40 years. She was mean, oh boy. I’m not going to say it was bliss, but we had fun. We had two sons. They nev­er worked in a mine. I’m glad they didn’t. You’ve got to love it. I did. The heat, the chal­lenge, it just gets in your blood. 

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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