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The Simple (Tragic) Case for Unions: Montcoal, West Virginia

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"The operator of the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia [Massey Energy Company] where an explosion killed 29 people failed to clear away combustible materials and put its employees at risk by forcing them to work in as much as four feet of water. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration deemed the incident "significant and substantial," a term that the agency defines to mean "reasonably likely to result in a reasonably serious injury or illness." Don Blankenship, the company's chief executive, cautioned against reading too much into the Upper Big Branch mine's history of violations, "Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process." (Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2010)

"The United Mine Workers tried to organize the workers at the Upper Big Branch Mine, the site of the recent fatal explosion, about three years ago. The first vote was a tie, the union lost the second election by 14 votes, and it withdrew its petition before a third vote was taken. "When we first began, we had over 70 percent of the people who signed cards," indicating interest in a union, he said. "Then Don Blankenship himself went into the mines and personally talked to the miners," Mr. Smith, a Union spokesman, said. "He was his own personal union-buster. It was very vicious, the first time in 60 years that a mine operator brought in strikebreakers, brought in armed guards." (Bloomberg News, April 9, 2010)

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What would have happened this April if two or three years ago, the UMW, with its unparalleled commitment to safe working conditions, had been freely able to organize the Upper Big Branch Mine?

What would have happened if Don Blankenship, arguably the most oppressive/aggressive/union-busting major company CEO in America today, didn't hold over the heads of his workers his 'view' that major life-threatening safety "violations" are simply "a normal part of the mining process"?

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When I was Chief Executive Officer of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) and its affiliated companies, before their merger into AT&T, we had very good relationships with our unions, the CWA and the Teamsters. Our large company was very successful, our union- and non-union employees shared fairly in the company's success, and, while I was in charge, we never fought to keep our employees unrepresented.

Anyone who says that unions are bad for business is using this contention as an excuse to cover up for poor management. And any CEO who is described as "his own personal union-buster" is simply saying that he doesn't believe that constructive partnership with his employees should ever be an objective.

Unions believe that the strength of America is its fundamental sense of fairness and that it is the workers of America and their middle-class families who define this nation, both economically and ethically. I know this firsthand because while my business career is now 39 years long, it was preceded by more than a decade of my own membership in four unions working alongside brothers and sisters like those who just perished in Montcoal.

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Not long ago, a columnist in the Financial Times wrote that "the Union agenda in the United States is anti-competitive and stridently protectionist, and consequently anti-growth." And of course if this line doesn't alone bring your breakfast back up for a re-look, then there are always the actions and statements of Don Blankenship.

The FT columnist is simply wrong, both intellectually and practically, and as the Montcoal tragedy just showed us, actual union-busting, of the sort practiced by Massey, can be fatally wrong -- and it is always morally reprehensible.

When unions strive to protect American workers and jobs and eliminate unfair trade practices, that is not being anti-growth and it is certainly not protectionism. It's just the opposite.

American workers are still the most productive in the world, and when they are able to compete on level playing fields, they and the companies they work with thrive -- and the nation prospers. And this is what our economy largely did, from the end of the Second World War until the early '80s, as a generally even balance existed among and between corporate America's responsibilities to its shareholders, employees, customers, communities and the nation.

But then the three plagues of 'trickle down economics,' excessive compensation, and unbridled and unfair globalization came together, and for thirty years 90 percent of workers in America have largely been standing still earnings-wise and millions of jobs have been shipped overseas. Average household income hasn't changed a bit for 10 years, and for the bottom 60 percent of wage earners it hasn't changed for more than 20 years.

American workers are now competing across the board against illegal foreign subsidies, currency manipulation, and shameful environmental practices that swamp the theory of comparative advantage. And here at home, every significant corporate action and related political decision now seems to be about protecting the interests of large corporations, both multinational and domestic, and of their senior managers, while there is ever-increasing in-attention to the interests of America's workers.

No worker should live without organizing protections any time. But when the percentage of unionized workers in the private sector is lower than at any point in the 20th century, we must declare that expanding union membership is one of our biggest signposts on the road to:

• re-growing our middle class from the bottom up,
• lessening income inequality, and
• making globalization the genuine opportunity it should be for all American workers.

When Franklin Roosevelt first took office in March of 1933, he immediately responded to the nation's fears -- and problems -- by enacting the National Industrial Recovery Act. The NIRA was comprised of a wide array of programs, but each program had two very simple objectives: reemploying the millions of jobless Americans, and protecting workers' rights. Two years later, the largely Republican-nominated Supreme Court struck down the NIRA, but rather than take it on the chin and abandon his core principles, FDR supported, and Congress passed, the National Labor Relations Act, known as the Wagner Act, which even more forcefully guaranteed workers the right to freely organize their own unions and to strike, boycott and picket their employers, all the while banning "unfair labor practices" of the sort which Don Blankenship seemingly eats for his own breakfast each morning.

In an important speech in July 2008 to the United Steelworkers that colored the remainder of his election efforts, Candidate Obama told America's workers, in the same way FDR did in 1932, that "he was running for President because he didn't want to wake up one day many years from now and see that we're still standing idly by while even more plants are shut down, and even more jobs are shipped abroad, and even more workers are denied the good benefits and decent wages they deserve."

Last week, President Obama demanded that the "owners responsible for conditions in the Upper Big Branch mine...be held accountable for decisions they made and preventive measures they failed to take, that Congress "strengthen enforcement of existing laws and close loopholes that permit companies to shirk their responsibilities," and that mine companies like Massey Energy "no longer use a strategy of endless litigation to evade their responsibilities."

However, the tragedy of Montcoal, West Virginia, which literally involved the lives and the livelihoods of American workers everywhere, has stunned our nation beyond any need for rhetoric.

We saw how President Obama won on health care -- it might not have been pretty and he fought for every last vote -- and in the process how America won.

Now, with the reprehensible conduct of Don Blankenship slapping us in the face each time a brave coal miner is laid to rest while paid-gun "corporate economists" from other major companies around the country practice their own cruel forms of 'union-busting,' President Obama must fight just as hard for the rights of America's workers. This means: (1) putting in place employee safety regulations and oversight that will truly protect courageous workers everywhere, starting at Massey; (2) systemically attacking real unemployment in the country, which is now nearly 20 percent; (3) following through with the promise he made in 2008 to "finally make the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land"; and (4), as he just indicated he will, moving completely away from the laissez faire approach toward regulation of all sorts that characterized the George W. Bush Administration.

And when he's done these things, we will have rejected, once and for all, the hollowing out of the core of American society by self-interested multinational corporations and by the extremely wealthy.

Frankly, I thought we had strongly sent this message in November 2008, but if we have to do so again, so be it -- those men who passed away in Montcoal demand it, as must we in their memory.

Leo Hindery, Jr. is Chairman of the U.S. Economy/Smart Globalization Initiative at the New America Foundation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Currently an investor in media companies, he is the former CEO of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), Liberty Media and their successor AT&T Broadband. He also serves on the Board of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.