In the wake of last week's disaster at Massey Energy Company's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, it's become increasingly clear that CEO Don Blankenship has gamed the loophole-laden mine safety enforcement system. Despite a supposedly tougher federal law that passed in 2006 after the Sago, W. Va. mine explosion killed a dozen miners, Massey and other companies have been able to use the law as a shield to avoid tougher enforcement measures by appealing safety citations -- and overwhelming the weak Mine Safety and Health Administration with a backlog of appeals.
Even though Massey has faced proposed fines nearing $2 million since 2005 and been cited over 1,300 times, it's paid only a fraction -- one-sixth -- of the proposed fines. All told, according to the United Mine Workers of America, nearly 50 people have been killed at Massey mines in the last 10 years. In March alone, it was cited over 50 times for violations, many directly related to ventilation violations that allowed the build-up of explosive methane gas that played a major role in the killing of the 29 miners. As the Washington Post observed, "'It's a profession that's not without risks and danger, and the workers and their families know that,' Mr. Obama said of the coal industry Friday. 'But their government and their employers know that they owe it to these families to do everything possible to ensure their safety when they go to work each day.' A good place to start would be to ensure that the regulations on the books are vigorously enforced."
Yet despite such expected calls for stronger regulation and enforcement from leading editorial pages and news organizations, including the New York Times, most mainstream media outlets have essentially downplayed or ignored the role of Massey-led union-busting.
And, in a perverse way, political leaders and media outlets that morbidly romanticize the courage of rural mine workers for working in an industry known for its risks are also in some ways promoting the view that mine disasters are as unavoidable as natural disasters. As USA Today proclaimed in a recent headline: "In mine country, risks a 'way of life.'" The feature article concluded by quoting former miner Randy Cox, who had observed that deep in a coal mine, "bad things can happen fast, without warning." The article noted "that it will take a long time for this area to mourn and heal, Cox said. "'It's all in God's hands now.'"
But the explosion that tore through the Upper Branch Mine, leaving rail lines twisted and bodies scattered, was, like all mine explosions, "preventable," says Mine Safety and Health Administration official Kevin Stricklin -- not divinely pre-ordained.
Yet union-busting's role in enabling such disasters to continue just isn't part of the official discourse in Washington now. No matter that Massey's anti-union campaign in the 1980s helped lead to the weakening of the United Mine Workers, which once was one of the nation's strongest, most effective unions, representing nearly 90% of the nation's 400,000 mine workers in the 1960s, but now represents less than a third of the remaining 43,000 or so underground coal miners.
With the union weakened by closed mines and the rise of untrammeled union-busting, unsafe, deadly conditions were allowed to continue unchallenged at the growing percentage of non-union mines that put profits above safety.
In contrast, "what unions, particularly in dangerous profession like mining, mean is that they give workers protection and the leverage of a working group with management to vocalize and bring forward concerns about safety without fear of retribution," says Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of American Rights at Work, a champion of the now-stalled Employee Free Choice Act . She adds, "In the absence of a union, in hard economic times, workers feel more vulnerable about losing their jobs and less confident about expressing their concerns about safety."
In fact, according to United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, whose union represents hard rock miners rather than coal miners (via Firedoglake), "I can absolutely say that if these miners were members of a union, they would have been able to refuse unsafe work... and would not have been subjected to that kind of atrocious conditions," said Gerard. "In some places like in Australia and Canada, this kind of negligence would result in criminal negligence [charges] being brought against the management and the CEO."
Indeed, "While three out of ten [coal] miners is a [UMW] union miner, about one of every ten fatalities involves a union miner," says United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) communications director Philip Smith. (Only about 20 percent of all miners are in any union.) And he notes that the fatalities involving union miners generally involve individual accidents, not mine-wide disasters like fires and explosions that periodically shock the country and, it seems, are soon forgotten by the federal government's generally lackluster regulators.
It's unquestionably true that union mines have better safety records, especially when it comes to fatalities. But the exact scope of what might be called the "safety gap" between union and non-union mines varies based on what statistics are used. The UMW, as noted by Daily Kos and others, has pointed out that in 2007-2009, there were 45 underground coal-mining fatalities; six of these were in union mines. David Moberg of In These Times also found that between 2006 and 2009, "unionized miners appear to have been one-fourth to one-half as likely to be killed in mine incidents as their non-union peers," given that unions represented about 20 percent of miners.
In the mid-1980s, Blankenship, then a division manager for Massey, helped run a successful, aggressive campaign -- aided, critics say, by company "goons" and a pro-Massey state police force -- to destroy the union's role in the company's mines in Appalachia. That industry victory is chronicled in a short documentary called "The Mine War on Blackberry Creek." As The Wonk Room noted, Don Blankenship was blunt about the profit motive driving the company's goal to drive out the union: "What that means is that non-union competitors have a tremendous advantage and therefore they sell coal cheaper and drive union coal operations out of business." He added, "Unions and communities are going to have to learn that from a business viewpoint, capitalism is survival of the most productive."
Blankenship was also willing to adopt a soft-sell approach to winning workers over. As ABC News reported, quoting Michael Shnayerson, author of Coal River, a look at Massey's destructive mountaintop mining :
When Blankenship first took control of the mine, he spent more than a year trying to woo the miners to abandon their allegiance to the labor union that had represented them.
"Don made it his own personal campaign. He began flying in every week in his helicopter. He gave pep talks. He took a whole bunch of them on trips to Dollywood, where they went to concerts. He went with them and bonded with them. New cars started turning up in their driveways," Shnayerson said.
But as soon as the union was gone, Shnayerson said Blankenship shifted gears. Work hours increased from eight hours to 12 hours. Bonuses were cut. If they got injured, their jobs were at risk.
The union tried three times to organize the Upper Big Branch mine, but even with getting nearly 70% of workers to sign cards saying they wanted to vote for a union, Blankenship personally met with workers to threaten them with closing down the mine and losing their jobs if they voted for a union.
So for Massey, supplemented by intimidation of workers, the "productivity" that Blankenship extolled has, critics say, long come ahead of the safety and survival of its workers. As recapped by Think Progress:
In 2008, Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. agreed to "plead guilty to 10 criminal charges, including one felony, and pay $2.5 million in criminal fines" after two workers died in a 2006 fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Melville, West Virginia. Massey also paid $1.7 million in civil fines. The mine "had 25 violations of mandatory health and safety laws" before the fire on January 19, 2006, but Blankenship passed off the events that caused the deaths as "statistically insignificant." Days before fire broke out in the Aracoma mine, a federal mine inspector tried to close down that section of the mine, but "was told by his superior to back off and let them run coal, that there was too much demand for coal." Massey failed to notify authorities of the fire until two hours after the disaster. Three months before the Aracoma mine fire, Blankenship sent managers a memo saying, "If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal...you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills." A week later, however, Blankenship sent a follow-up memo, saying that safety is the first responsibility.
To mine workers and safety experts, at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine -- as with its other operations -- the company is willing to skirt rules and avoid fixing serious, life-threatening violations, emboldened by its power as a non-union mine. As Reuters reported:
Jimmy Platt, 54, a former miner who worked briefly for Massey during his 17-year career, said that the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine on Monday, which killed 25 workers and left four missing [later found dead], was "an accident waiting to happen."
Platt said he and other miners were sometimes required to put in 18 to 20-hour days and were told to work what he said was "unminable coal," which opened wide cracks in the mine ceiling, making a roof collapse more likely.
Platt, who is now a chef, said the main difference between working for the non-unionized Massey and other mining companies that have union representation was "the right to say no."
Union bargaining clout is the key factor that can make such a major difference in on-the-ground safety, says labor journalist Philip M. Dine, author of State of the Unions. He told Truthout., "A strong union can make sure that the company isn't saving money by gambling with with miners' lives." The vehicle for that protection is the safety committee, or what Freeman Brown dubbed a "working group," written into each contract to give real-world protection, regardless of ineffective regulation coming from Washington. As Dine says, "In theory, in a non-union mine, a workers doesn't have to go down into an unsafe area. But that's not what happens in practice: in a non-union mine, if he goes to the foreman [to stay out of a dangerous section], he's told: 'Go down that shaft or you're going home.'
With mine safety handled by a separate agency within the Department of Labor, Dine adds, "only the mine union is watching out for miners," as opposed to the pressure that the broader labor movement can bring on OSHA. But all labor safety enforcement was gutted during the Bush era, and rebuilding weakened enforcement agencies once headed and too often staffed by pro-industry hacks has taken time under the progressive leadership of Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. As The Nation's Esther Kaplan observed, focusing in part of on Solis's appointment of the pro-union Joe Main to fix the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), she's the "new sheriff," but the mine safety agency is still facing training and oversight failings.
Don Blankenship, Massey's anti-union CEO, could ironically revive and strengthen the efforts to crack down on unsafe mines -- and even, despite long odds, revive political interest in some form of the Employee Free Choice Act that aims to level the playing field for union organizing rights. Philip Dine points out that effectively communicating the value of unions to the broader economy and working people is still a challenge that faces the labor movement: "People don't know that labor is relevant. People haven't connected the dots about what is happening to normal people and the economy, that corporations are getting stronger, and the decline of labor."
Don Blankenship and Massey, described by the Washington Post's Dylan Matthews as "cartoonishly villainous in the way they approach everything from the environment to union rights to media scrutiny" could become the new face of corporate evil for a dispirited American labor movement. Blankenship, if unions and progressives can somehow capitalize on his horrifically poor PR, could become, like Sheriff "Bull" Connor did for the civil rights movement, the perfect villain to tar the anti-union forces of the GOP and corporate America that now dominate the messaging about labor. For right now, though, as one labor lobbyist told Truthout, the labor movement doesn't want to appear to "exploit" the mining tragedy for political purposes.
But others on the left, including MSNBC's Ed Schulz, seem ready to seize on Massey's abuses to drive home the connection between unfettered corporate power, the death of workers and union rights. In the same week that he interviewed Steelworkers President Gerard, Schultz angrily proclaimed:
But here's the point. Unions not only -- this is just -- I can't believe we're having this discussion in this country as if we have to vilify collective bargaining, where a family can be protected from dangers in the workplace and there won't be the man on the neck of that worker, the neck of that family and those kids who are now missing a loved one.
Criminal negligence, homicide, you name it. The Congress has to get into this once and for all. President Obama, you need to get involved in this.
This is what the Employee Free Choice Act is all about. Where there's not going to be intimidation, where there's not going to be retribution against employees who just think about organizing in the workplace because they'd like to go down into a workplace where they're not going to lose their lives. Where it will just increase the safety in their area. Is that asking too much? Is it all for the dollar bill in America? This is morally wrong. There is absolutely no difference between what these guys did in the front office at this Massey Energy Company than what these guys did down the street on Wall Street to folks who were ripped off. This is a matter of life and death. That's what this is.
See for yourself what he and his pro-union guests had to say:
But it doesn't seem likely now that the rest of the mainstream media -- or the Democratic leadership -- will take up this call for a renewed drive to obtain union rights, even if it's portrayed as essential to protecting workers' lives.
This article originally appeared on Truthout.org.